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God’s Word for You

Jonah 3:6-7 what use is fasting?

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, November 24, 2018

6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat down in ashes.  7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let no one, not even beast, herd or flock, taste anything. Do not let them graze. Do not let them drink water.

Did the fast that the king imposed on the city accomplish anything toward changing God’s attitude toward them? If anyone is inclined to think this was possible, then they need to answer: Did the fast imposed on the animals of the city accomplish anything? Does making a dog go hungry make the Lord happier with the dog’s master? Does deciding not to feed a goldfish make the Lord think that the goldfish’s master is pious?

Fasting does not do anything to improve our merit before God. There is no fast required in the New Testament. Christians are free to fast as a choice, but no one may impose a fast or require a fast as if it is a sin not to fast. The custom of fasting before the Lord’s Supper that was sometimes observed in the past is not a requirement that comes from Christ or from the Christian Church.

Our Lutheran confessions deplore these things when they are insisted upon or invented. “There are immense books, yea, whole libraries, containing not a syllable concerning Christ, concerning faith in Christ, concerning the good works of one’s own calling, but which only collect the traditions and interpretations by which they are sometimes rendered quite rigorous and sometimes relaxed. They write of such precepts as of fasting for forty days, the four canonical hours for prayer, etc.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XIII,27-28, see also XXI:37).

So what benefit is there in fasting? Only in this: When fasting shows the grief of the Christian conscience over sin and helps the Christian to focus his attention on that grief without it becoming a show, then perhaps it serves a spiritual purpose. But fasting by itself is nothing. It’s just an outward act, a form and nothing more. It’s as if someone were to say, “True worship can only be carried out in the form of a polka.” And someone else—a polka purist, perhaps—would say, “No; not just a polka, but a true polka written by Josef Lanner, the Strauss family, or an ‘ABC’ (Austrian, Bohemian, or Czech) between 1830 and 1930.” Do you see how foolish it would be to insist on forms? In the polka illustration, it would be leading people to believe that no one born before the 18th century could be in heaven, and no one alive today who didn’t care for polkas could possibly be a Christian. So it is with fasting. Someone who understands the fast and who does it without insisting that everyone join in could use the fast for some spiritual help. Yet neither the fast nor the polka nor any other form of worship merits anything toward our salvation. The only thing that benefits us at all is the cross of Christ. True repentance turns away from sin and turns to the promises of God through Christ. The people of Nineveh didn’t stop with fasting and sackcloth. We will see the true depth of their grief over their sin with verses 8 and 9.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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