“Discipline yourself, train yourself for the purpose of godliness,” Paul writes to Timothy. In the message on Sunday, we talked about a wrong understanding of penitence and fasting, but none of that should be taken to mean that discipline, self-denial, and even fasting are not essential to the Christian life. It’s just that they aren’t required before you can be forgiven by God and receive Christ’s righteousness by faith. Missing that point is to miss the gospel. But if we think that Jesus paid for everything so that we can live at peace with the sin that remains in our life, then we’ve missed the gospel on the other end. We are supposed to use spiritual disciplines not to pay for sin, but to fight against sin.
John Calvin was a wise teacher of the Church who has taught me a great deal on these matters, and I thought I’d share a word of his with you. In book IV, chapter 12 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, “Let us, therefore, say something about fasting, since very many, while they do not understand how useful it is, regard it as not very necessary; others also, considering it superfluous, completely reject it. And since its use is not well understood, it can easily lapse into superstition.” He went on to give three purposes for what he called “holy and lawful fasting,” which I’ve restated in my own words: 1) to put sinful desires to death; 2) to prepare us for special seasons of prayer and meditation; and 3) to humble ourselves before God when confessing sin.
The first use should only be applied to individuals, Calvin said, and not to the whole church, because the whole church doesn’t struggling with your particular sins that you are trying to put to death. Just because there might be one glutton in the congregation doesn’t mean that everyone should fast. Similarly, if you are struggling to feel close to God, a thirty minute morning quiet time might be a wonderful commitment for you to make, but someone else’s pattern and habits of meeting with God might look very different.
The second and third uses of fasting apply to both individuals as well as congregations. Here we can call on a number of biblical examples of holy fasting: when calling elders (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23); when facing a national calamity (Neh. 1:1-4; Esther 4:1-3); or a sin that affects the whole Church in a public way (Ezra 10:1-6). We might add things like preparing for marriage, moving a family, or other major life decisions to the list of wise occasions to fast.
Calvin concludes with wise words that tie our heart and actions together: “The matter [fasting] lies primarily in the motive of the heart. But when the heart is affected as it ought to be, it can hardly help breaking into outward testimony. And this especially happens if it tends to common edification, so that all together, by confessing their sin openly, render praise to the God of righteousness, and urge one another, each by his example.”
Amen! May all of our spiritual discipline, including fasting, bring praise to God.