A question posed by a parishoner recently: “Luther makes mention of fasting in the small catechism. I know this will not justify me [i.e., earn me any merit or favor before God], but is fasting something that Lutherans practice? Is it something that Lutherans once practiced but has fallen out of favor?”
Luther references fasting in His explanation of the Lord’s Supper. In answer to the question, “Who receives this sacrament worthily,” Luther said, “While fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Others can comment much more competently than I about the historical use of fasting in the Lutheran church. I’m generally not one to do things simply because “that’s what we’ve always done.” Granting that there are times to hold on to tradition for the sake of good order, visible unity in our invisible faith, and so that we do not needlessly offend others or call into question the faith or practices of those who have gone before us, I much prefer to know and understand the development and the reasoning behind something before choosing in Christian freedom to abide by a given practice.
As for fasting, when used properly it is a discipline that can certainly be profitably used in Christian freedom. It is best used as a means to focus on the fact of our sinfulness. Not only is it good discipline, useful in asserting conscious control over our bodies rather than letting our passions govern our actions, but it also serves to focus our attention on our need for what Christ has accomplished in saving us from our out-of-control desires.
The real question boils down to, how is fasting used? Are you skipping a meal or giving up something in order to redirect the time or money to some other effort? For example, are you giving up a meal and using that time to engage in prayer or the reading of scripture or some other activity intended to “fix your eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” and thereby receive true spiritual nourishment? Or are you giving up your morning Starbucks coffee and using that money to help the poor or needy in some way? Or is fasting used a means to attain some measure of righteousness in the sight of man or God (see what a good Christian I am? I fast during Lent!). The first two could be encouraged (if it didn’t pose any sort of health risk), the latter, not so much.
In any case, there is no “law” that binds our conscience in this matter except the law of faith and love. Faith toward God who gives us all things and allows us, in Christian Freedom the ability to choose to eat or not eat, and love toward our neighbor who needs both our works and our help in every way possible. If we are self-righteously attempting to prove something to someone, it is a detestable practice worthy of eternal condemnation. But if we are skipping a meal or giving something up in order to help others or to use the time in order to increase our faith through the means of Word and Sacrament, then fasting can bring great blessing to ourselves and others.
Additional answers to this question can be found at the Worldview Everlasting website: http://www.worldvieweverlasting.com/?s=fasting.