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Grace, Merit, Justice, and Penitence // Dust No. 11

George Hunsinger

A discussion of Reformation suspicions of Lent

Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
March 17, 2014

In considering the diversity of perspectives and traditions that surround liturgical practices like Lent, we’ll also be publishing a few posts in this series that remind us of the perils of legalism in Lent. Princeton Theologian George Hunsinger notes the common Reformation suspicion (if not outright rejection) of Lent, that it can all too easily distract us from the depth of divine grace meted out by the Holy Spirit, the agent of change in us, to bring us into the likeness of Christ. At the same time, Hunsinger reflects an intellectually virtuous ecumenical voice, pointing out the great opportunities we have during Lent to turn inward in repentance and (very importantly), outward in love and justice and peace with others.

“There is more grace in God than sin in us.”

The Table: From the perspective of Reformation theology, what is the meaning of Lent?

Hunsinger: Lent was not a part of my experience growing up in the church. Calvin called it a “superstitious observance” and a “gross delusion.” Luther denounced it as a “meritorious work” designed to atone for our sins and obtain grace. Neither Reformer had much sense that Lent was intended to prepare us for Easter.

The Table: That said, how might the penitence encouraged by the season change us?

Hunsinger: Perhaps Lent might be thought of as a communal practice designed to make us more aware of our personal need for forgiveness each day. Insofar as it points us towards Easter, it can help us to see that there is more grace in God than sin in us.

“Lent could be a season in which we tried to become more aware of concrete social needs. For example, according to the United Nations, 35 percent of the world’s women will experience sexual or physical violence.”

The Table: How do the spiritual disciplines that some Christians practice during Lent conduce to psychological and spiritual well-being?

Hunsinger: Perhaps Lent could also serve to increase our awareness of the needs of others. We could do more to institute practices of repentance not only as individuals but also as communities and institutions. Lent could be a season in which we tried to become more aware of concrete social needs. For example, according to the United Nations, 35 percent of the world’s women will experience sexual or physical violence. This is an alarming statistic. What could Christians do to make such barbarisms more widely known and to develop strategies for addressing them?

The Table: As a Presbyterian, are there traditions or liturgies or practices that are especially significant to you?

Hunsinger: Luther and Calvin believed that the Word of God is the treasure by which we are sanctified. Lent is a season when we do well, all the more, to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The Litany of Penitence in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is meaningful for me. [See below for the full text..—Ed.] (Although I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, I am also a closet Episcopalian.)

The Table: What have you been reading during Lent? Anything particularly uplifting?

Hunsinger: I have been reading in Douglas Moo’s wonderful new commentary on Galatians. I am glad to see that he interprets pistous Christou to mean “faith in Christ,” not the “faith of Christ.” He also agrees with Luther and Calvin that Galatians 3:13 means that Christ bore the curse for us in our place. He upholds a robust understanding of justification by faith alone.

The Table: What do you find historically, philosophically, ecclesiologically, or theologically fascinating about Lent?

Hunsinger: For the sake of overcoming historic church divisions, I think Protestants need to find ways in accord with their core convictions to enter into practical convergence with Catholics and others around Lent. In my own tradition, I think that the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, under the leadership of John D. Witvliet, is doing a good job here.


Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

Old Testament     Joel 2:1-2, 12-17,     or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm     103,     or 103:8-14
Epistle     2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Gospel     Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

After the Sermon, all stand, and the Celebrant or Minister appointed
invites the people to the observance of a holy Lent, saying

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a
season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Silence is then kept for a time, all kneeling.

If ashes are to be imposed, the Celebrant says the following prayer

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

The ashes are imposed with the following words

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The following Psalm is then sung or said

Psalm 51    Miserere mei, Deus

  1     Have mercy on me, O God, according to your
loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

  2     Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.

  3     For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.

  4     Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.

  5     And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment

  6     Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.

  7     For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

  8     Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

  9     Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10     Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.

11     Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

12     Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13     Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

14     I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *
and sinners shall return to you.

15     Deliver me from death, O God, *
and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness,
O God of my salvation.

16     Open my lips, O Lord, *
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

17     Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice; *
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.

18     The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Litany of Penitence

The Celebrant and People together, all kneeling

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

The Celebrant continues

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and
strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We
have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved
your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation
of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those
more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and
our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to
commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,

Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

The Bishop, if present, or the Priest, stands and, facing the people, says

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn
from their wickedness and live, has given power and
commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to
his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of
their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly
repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.

Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his
Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on
this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure
and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A deacon or lay reader leading the service remains kneeling and
substitutes the prayer for forgiveness appointed at Morning Prayer.

The Peace is then exchanged.




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