Monday, June 25, 2018

The Question of Rewards

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:17–18).

I have observed over the years that Roman Catholics are much more diligent about fasting than Protestants—or at least they used to be. The reason for this is that the Catholic Church used to require a partial fast, from meat, every Friday. There were other days of fasting in the Roman calendar as well. Protestant churches, however, have had little to say about fasting. Why is this?

The reason lies in the fact that at the time of the Reformation, fasting was connected with the sacrament of penance. In the Roman system, if a person committed a mortal sin, he lost his justification. In order to regain his justification and escape the sentence of hell, he had to make use of the sacrament of penance. Frequently the works prescribed were fasting and alms-giving.

Part of what penance was designed to do was to make it possible for the repentant sinner to earn merits with God. Since Jesus said that alms-giving and fasting brought about rewards from God, these were frequently prescribed by the priests as the works the sinner needed to do.

The Reformers rejected this entire system of merit. They argued that salvation was free and by grace alone. They not only argued against abuses of the system of penance, they rejected the system altogether. Even if good works proceed from a genuine desire to glorify God, the Reformers insisted the works still did not merit salvation.

Merit imposes an obligation, and this was what the Reformers rejected. Man cannot impose obligations on God. God requires alms-giving and fasting as part of the Christian life, and God freely chooses to reward the faithful; but, ultimately, it is all of His free grace alone.

The Reformers insisted that alms-giving and fasting were the duties of Christians, but later generations of Protestants have tended to throw out the baby with the bath water. Too often we move from rejecting meritorious works to rejecting works altogether.

When was the last time you heard a sermon on fasting? Have you ever fasted? Apparently, only a few Christians fast as part of a regular spiritual discipline. If you are unfamiliar with the biblical dimension of fasting, speak with your minister about it this week.