Over at Stand Firm, David Ould has posted an excellent piece entitled, "Mardi Gras is not the Gospel," in which he reminds us that the idea of Mardi Gras as "a blow-out before you get serious about sin" is not the Gospel. He could not be more right. The "binge-purge" approach to Mardi Gras/Lent is even more dangerous to our souls than physical binging and purging are to the body of a bulimic.
I will add the thesis—controversial to some, I am sure—that Lent (at least as some people understand it) is not the Gospel either. Repentance, as David Ould points out, is both instantaneous (“today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts”) and lifelong—as in the quotation from Martin Luther: "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." We do not have the luxury of choosing the timing of our repentance. We do it when God calls us and convicts us or else we don't do it at all.
So, strictly speaking, Lent is not about repentance, because we cannot hasten or defer our repentance or choose a season in which to repent; it is about acts of penance, which is a different matter. As I observe the acts of penance in which some engage in Lent, it seems that some are attempting to make a personal atonement for sins, when the only atonement that will ever take care of our sins has already been made, once for all, by Jesus Christ.
All this is not to say that there is no value in Lent—far from it! A time, whether it be a weekend retreat or a 40-day period, in which we spend time in devotions that draw us closer to God, is of enormous value. Such times are penitential, in that they will undoubtedly include self-examination and confession of any known sins. In these times we can grow spiritually and find new direction for our lives and ministries. And, sometimes, acts of self denial such as fasting help us to focus our resolve during this time and demonstrate to God and ourselves the seriousness of our undertaking.
The problem comes when we think we are doing something virtuous when we manage to give up things for 40 days that, in actuality, we ought to give up 365 days a year. Or when we reduce our right standing before God to a game of addition and subtraction—as though our salvation depended on the good we have done outweighing the bad. Or when we think that God delights in sacrifice more than mercy, or that petty acts of contrition can bridge a chasm that could only be bridged by the death of God's only-begotten Son.
We would do well to remember the purposes for which Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the wilderness. He had no sins for which he needed to atone. We have no sins for which we are capable of atoning. If we could, what He did for us—what He had to do for us—would not have been necessary.
In a holy Lent, we need to spend time being reminded of our need to trust in the providence of God (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”), the supremacy of God (“Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only”), and the sufficiency of His Word (“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”).
So Lent is really much more about what God adds to our lives as we spend intentional, focused time with Him rather than what we give up, because the Gospel is always about what God has done for us, not about what we do for Him.