The Christian Duty of Fasting: 1. What is Fasting?

What is Fasting

Dr. George Downame
The Christian’s Sanctuary, pp. 8-18

What is Fasting?

The religious fast is a solemn exercise of religion, wherein we being humble suitors unto the Lord upon some special or extraordinary occasion, do abstain not only from food and some other commodities and delights of this life, but also from bodily labours and worldly business during the time of the fast, which is a Sabbath of humiliation: that by this outward abstinence our humiliation may be furthered, and our repentance testified, to the increase of our fervency and confirmation of our faith in prayer, for the obtaining of our request at the hands of God.

For further explication whereof we are to consider, that where I call it an exercise of religion, that is presupposed that this religious fast is an ordinance of God: for nothing may be offered unto the Lord by way of religion or worship, which is not appointed and ordained of the Lord: for whatsoever is obtruded unto him for worship, being not ordained by him, is will-worship and superstition.

The Christian’s duty proven from the Old Testament

Now, that the Lord hath appointed and ordained that we should humble ourselves before him by fasting and prayer, for the obtaining of some special blessing from him, it may appear: first, by evident testimonies of scripture in the Old Testament. Whereunto if it shall be objected, that the places of the Old Testament which require fasting, may seem to enjoin it among other ceremonies of the Jewish religion, unto which Christians are not bound: I answer, that in the Jewish fasts some things were ceremonial, and so peculiar to them; other things were moral, and so common to us. The things which were peculiar to them, were first, the circumstance of the time in their set and ordinary fasts; whether that which was appointed by the Lord on the tenth day of the seventh month; or those which the Jews voluntarily undertook during the time of the seventy years captivity, in the fourth month, in the fifth, in the seventh, and in the tenth. And secondly, there were certain habits and gestures used among them when they mourned and fasted, which were part of the pedagogy of the Old Testament, which as they are abrogated by Christ in the New Testament: so were they not greatly required in the Old. Such were their putting on of sackcloth, renting their garments, sitting in the ashes, putting earth or ashes on their head, not washing or anointing, but deforming their faces, looking sorrowfully, hanging down their heads, going softly, and such like outward signs and tokens of humiliation, which were observed both of the godly and of the hypocrites among them: but with this difference, that the hypocrites rested in these outward shews, without any true humiliation of their souls: whereas in the godly these signs proceeded from the sorrow of the heart, as unfeigned testimonies thereof.

But although that circumstance of the time was proper to that people, and those ceremonies peculiar to those times: yet the substance of the fast, which is the humbling of our souls by abstinence, is a moral duty belonging commonly to all nations, in all ages: for as the moral or chaste fast is enjoined in the seventh commandment, as a means of chastity, to those that need that help; so the religious fast is enjoined in the second commandment, and in the fourth. In the second, as it is a means to further us in the worship of God, and in the duty of prayer upon extraordinary occasion. In the fourth, as the time of the fast is a Sabbath of humiliation, wherein we are to profess our humiliation, and testify our repentance before God: for when the Lord commandeth us to sanctify the Sabbath, he meaneth all Sabbaths, not only the ordinary and weekly Sabbath, but also the extraordinary, whether they be Sabbaths of joy and festivity, wherein by feasting and thanksgiving we signify our joy and thankfulness for some great blessing received, such as was that feast, Nehem. 8, and the feast of Purim. Esth. 9: or whether they be Sabbaths of humiliation; wherein by fasting and prayer we signify the sorrow and desire of our souls, in respect either of some blessing wanting, or of some evil either feared or felt, present or imminent: such as was the fast proclaimed by Josaphat II Chron. 20, or by Ezra 6. &c. For such a fast by the commandment of God is to be sanctified and observed holy as a Sabbath, even in such manner as the ordinary Sabbath of humiliation was to be sanctified. Neither is it to be omitted, that Isa 58, the day of the fast seemeth to be called an acceptable day to the Lord, yea his Sabbath, and his holy day, which even as the ordinary Sabbath is to be consecrated as glorious to the Lord.

The Christian’s duty proven from the New Testament

But if to these places of the Old Testament, we shall add some testimonies out of the New, we shall make it more than evident, that the duty of fasting belongeth unto us. Where first consider the doctrine of our Saviour Christ, concerning a fast, Matt. 6, for when he prescribeth the manner how we are to fast, he presupposeth the duty that we are to fast. Neither doth he alone require this duty at our hands, but also maketh a gracious promise of happy reward to those that shall fast aright. And in the same Gospel Chapter 9, as also Luke 5, and Mark 2, when as the disciples of John and the Pharisees took exception against our Saviour Christ, because they fasted, but his disciples did eat and drink: he maketh answer, that although during his abode with them, which was a time of joy and not of mourning, his disciples which were the children of the marriage chamber, were not to fast and mourn, whilst himself, who was the bridegroom was among them: yet the time should come when the bridegroom being taken from them, as they should have occasion of mourning, so also they should fast in those days. Again, Matt. 17, our Saviour Christ seemeth to ascribe great efficacy to the prayer of the faithful holpen by fasting; affirming that that kind of unclean spirit, which by no other means can be cast out, goeth forth by prayer and fasting. In the second of Luke the Holy Ghost giveth this testimony of Anna the Prophetess, that she being in the Temple night and day worshipped God with fastings and prayers. Not that fasting in it self is a worship of God, as prayer is, but only is a means and help to further us in the worship of God, and to make our prayers more fervent and effectual: to which purpose Anna joined fasting with her prayers. And hereunto let us add the practice of the primitive Church in the time of the Apostles: In the 13th Chapter of the Acts, the Prophets and teachers which were in the Church of Antioch, before they sent forth Barnabas and Paul to the work of the ministry, whereunto the Holy Ghost had called them; they fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them. And in the 14th Chapter it is said, that Paul and Barnabas when they had ordained to the faithful, elders by election in every Church; having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed. And to conclude, the Apostle Paul testifieth of himself, 2. Cor. 11, That as he was oft in hunger and thirst by a forced obedience, so he was often also in fastings; whereby this voluntary abstinence is meant. Hereby therefore it appeareth that the Christian exercise of fasting, is not a will-worship, nor an action which is merely arbitrary, or left to our free choice, whether we will use it or not: but a duty enjoined and imposed upon us by the Lord. Wherefore in the definition I doubted not to call the religious fast, An exercise of religion.

Dealing With Objections

But here it will be objected, that if fasting be an exercise of religion; a moral duty, not only commanded in the moral law of God, which bindeth all men, but also commended unto us in the Gospel both by the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, and also by the practise of the faithful in the primitive Church; then it may seem, that so oft as we do not fast, we sin, &c.

I answer, that affirmative commandments, though they bind us always, yet do they not bind us to perform them always and at all times, but as just occasion is offered, together with a concurrency of all needful circumstances: as for example, we are always bound to pray, namely as we have just occasion to beg any thing at the hands of God, and may do it in some measure as it ought to be done; but we are not bound to pray always and to do nothing else. And although we are always in this life bound to fast; yet are we not bound to fast either always, or so oft as we are bound to pray: for we are to pray ordinarily every day, and also extraordinarily as occasion is offered: but we are not to fast ordinarily and every day, but upon special and extraordinary occasion. And that we are not bound to join fasting with the ordinary exercise of prayer, it is manifest by the doctrine of the Apostle, 1. Cor, 7, where he would have the husband and the wife (who are ordinarily to pray every day) to perform mutual benevolence, and not defraud one another, unless it be by consent for a time, that they might give themselves to fasting and prayer, and again come together, that Satan tempt them not through their incontinency. And therefore we are not bound to join fasting with our ordinary and daily prayers, but when we have just and special occasion to humble our selves in prayer, after an extraordinary manner. And our Saviour Christ noteth, that those which do fast, do mourn; and that the time of fasting is the time of mourning; and that in the time of joy it is unseasonable. Now ordinarily the faithful are to be joyful: and therefore they are not bound ordinarily to fast, and in fasting to mourn, but when they have some extraordinary cause of mourning: for as a piece of new cloth put to an old garment maketh the rent worse, so fasting unseasonably imposed upon men, maketh them not better, but worse.

Again, the time of the fast hath the nature of a Sabbath, wherein we are to lay aside all worldly business, and the works of our callings, which ordinarily we are to follow. Neither is it an ordinary Sabbath, but the extraordinary Sabbath of humiliation; wherein we are after a special manner to humble our souls, and to give our selves to prayer, abstaining not only from bodily labour and worldly affairs, but also from our food and other delights of this life. And to the sanctifying of this Sabbath we are bound, when the Lord calleth us to fasting and mourning by some special causes of mourning and humbling ourselves (which afterwards I shall touch) whether they be private or publick. But especially we are then bound to observe this fast, when not only the Lord by some publick judgment or calamity, either threatened or inflicted, doth call us unto fasting and mourning; but also publick authority hath blown the trumpet, and proclaimed a fast: for to such a Sabbath of humiliation, the equity of that law concerning the yearly Sabbath of humiliation is to be extended, Levit. 23, Every person that humbleth not himself that day, shall even be cut off from his people.

And this also I signified in the definition, when I said that fasting is a solemn exercise of religion, to be undertaken of us, when we are to be humble suitors unto the Lord, upon some special and extraordinary occasion: for when I call it a solemn exercise, I do not mean that it is a common, usual or ordinary exercise, nor yet to be performed after a common or ordinary manner; but that as it is undertaken upon some special urgent occasion, so we ought to stir up our selves in the observation thereof, to an extraordinary measure of humiliation, to an extraordinary fervency in prayer, to a solemn and extraordinary testification and profession of our repentance. And when as it is said in the definition, that this exercise is to be undertaken of us when we are humble suitors to the Lord upon some special or extraordinary occasion, it is plainly signified, that this exercise is not at set and ordinary times to be performed, but when it pleaseth God to give just and necessary occasion either by our wants, or by his judgements, of a more special and extraordinary humbling of our selves in the exercise of prayer and profession of our repentance.

Occasions of Fasting

The causes therefore and occasions whereupon this exercise is to be used, are these.

Obtaining special benefits

First, when we are humble suitors unto the Lord for the obtaining of some special benefits: especially, when some matter of great importance is to be enterprised: For at such a time an extraordinary fervency in prayer is required, which may be holpen forward by fasting. Nehemiah intending to move Artasbaste for the repairing of Jerusalem: first humbleth himself before God by fasting and prayer, for good success in that weighty business. And so did Ezra in his voyage towards Jerusalem proclaim a fast: Queen Esther before she durst presume contrary to the law of the Persians, to enter into the king’s presence, being not called, to make suit unto him for the preservation of the Jews against the wicked conspiracy of Haman; she with her maids humbled themselves by fasting and prayer for three days, and required the like fast to be observed of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews, who were at Sushan. In like sort, the ministry of the word being a matter of great importance (for it is the power of God to our salvation, and though it be esteemed folly in the world, yet by the foolishness of preaching God is pleased to save those that believe) therefore the Church of God hath thought it expedient before they have ordained ministers, or sent them forth to the work of the ministry, to humble themselves before God by fasting and prayer, as we may read in the Acts of the Apostles. It is reported of John the Evangelist, that being intreated by the churches to write the Gospel of our Saviour, whereby the heresies of Ebion and Cerinthus, who denied the divinity of Christ, might be refuted; he made answer, that he would do it, if first the whole Church would in his behalf humble themselves before God in fasting and prayer.

Detesting our sins

But as fasting is sometimes to be joined with precation or prayer, for some special good: so more commonly it is joined with deprecation of evil, whether it be the evil of sin, or the evil of affliction: For when as men do apprehend the wrath of God for sin, whether it be in the act of their conversion, or otherwise finding themselves or their country guilty of some more grievous sin: it is necessary that they should humble themselves before God, after a more special manner: And for the better humbling of themselves in prayer, and testifying of their repentance, to entertain this Christian exercise of fasting. Paul in the first act of his conversion fasted and prayed three days together: when as the people of Israel returned to the Lord their God from idolatry, and lamented their former sins: they being assembled at the commandment of Samuel, do testify their humiliation and repentance by a solemn fast: wherein they drew as it were buckets of water from the fountain of their hearts, and poured the same before the Lord, saying, we have sinned against the Lord. Ezra when he understood how the people, of Israel had joined in marriage with the heathen people contrary to the law of God, he prayed and fasted, greatly mourning for the transgression of the people. And afterwards the people themselves were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth and earth upon them; and having separated themselves from the strange wives with whom they had been mingled, they confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Considering the judgments of God

But when as our sin hath not only deserved the anger of God; but also hath provoked him, either to threaten his judgements, and as it were to lift up his hand to strike us; or else as he hath threatened, to lay his judgments upon us: then doth the Lord especially call us to fasting and mourning: howbeit the chief cause of mourning must be, not so much the consideration of the judgment itself, whether present or imminent; as the detestation of our sin, whereby we have offended God, and provoked him either to threaten or to inflict that judgement upon us. Examples hereof we have in respect of judgements imminent, in the Ninivites, who when destruction was threatened against them for their sins, humbled themselves before God in fasting and prayer. In Josaphat, who hearing of an invasion attempted against him by the Moabites and Ammonites, feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. In respect of afflictions and calamities present, as famine, sword, pestilence, captivity, and such like messengers of God’s wrath, we have both commandments, as our rules; and examples, as precedents in this behalf. In the time of famine, the Lord by his prophet Joel, commandeth the Jews to turn unto him, with all their heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning: And to that end he biddeth them to proclaim and sanctify a fast. And as touching the sword: when the men of Ai had discomforted the Israelites, Joshua and the elders of Israel fasted until the even. In the time of captivity Daniel greatly desired the deliverance of the Jews out of the captivity of Babylon at the end of seventy years, according to the promise of the Lord by the prophet Jeremy, he turned his face unto the Lord God, and sought by prayer and supplication, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.

Sickness and death

And as touching sickness and mortality, we have a notable example in David, who when his child which he had begotten in adultery was sick, he besought God for it, and fasted, and went in and lay all night upon the earth: yea, when some that proved his enemies were sick, he professeth Psal. 35, that he clothed himself with sackcloth, and humbled his soul with fasting, and that he prayed for them with such compassion, that hanging down his head for grief, his prayer returned upon his bosom. And if fasting is to be used for private persons when they are sick, much more in a publick visitation, and in the time of pestilence.

Call to fasting

These allegations therefore of holy scripture may be sufficient directions for us, when we are to undertake this exercise: namely, when we have some urgent cause of a more than ordinary humbling of ourselves before God in prayer. And when such causes are offered, we may not think that it is a thing merely arbitrary, whether we will use this exercise or not: but by warrant of the former scriptures we are to be persuaded that the Lord doth call us to this exercise. The time of fasting is not every man’s will, but the necessity of those who come to God’s worship: and in a time of such necessity, to fast it is necessary. When as therefore there is publick necessity, those which are in publick authority must think, that a necessity is imposed upon them, to blow the trumpet in Sion, and to proclaim a fast. And those which are in private place, must think a necessity imposed on them, to observe and sanctify the fast. And if it happen that they which are in authority neglect this duty; then those, who according to the example of the faithful, Ezek. 9, which were marked to salvation, do mourn either for the common calamities, or for the common enormities of the time, which are forerunners of calamities: they are to use this exercise privately and secretly, which also they are to do, when their own necessities require. As for those who neither by publick calamity, nor private necessity, can be drawn to this duty, but continually take care for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof: they must know, that they are but carnal men; who, as they sow to the flesh, so of the flesh shall reap corruption.



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