In a general sense, is the act of refraining from something which we have a propensity to or find pleasure in. It is more particularly used for fasting or forbearing of necessary food. Among the Jews, various kinds of abstinence were ordained by their law. Among the primitive Christians, some denied themselves the use of such meats as were prohibited by that law; others looked upon this abstinence with contempt; as to which Paul gives his opinion, Rom_14:1; Rom_14:3. The council of Jerusalem, which was held by the apostles, enjoined the Christian converts to abstain from meats strangled, from blood, from fornication, and from idolatry, Act_15:1-41 : Upon this passage, Dr. Doddridge observes, "that though neither things sacrificed to idols, nor the flesh of strangled animals, nor blood, have or can have any moral evil in them, which should make the eating of them absolutely and universally unlawful; yet they were forbidden to the Gentile converts, because the Jews had such an aversion to them, that they could not converse freely with any who used them. This is plainly the reason which James assigns in the very next words, the 21st verse, and it is abundantly sufficient. This reason is now ceased, and the obligation to abstain from eating these things ceases with it. But were we in like circumstances again, Christian charity would surely require us to lay ourselves under the same restraint."
The spiritual monarchy of the western world introduced another sort of abstinence, which may be called ritual, and consists in abstaining from particular meats at certain times and seasons, the rules of which are called rogations. If I mistake not, the impropriety of this kind of abstinence is clearly pointed out in 1Ti_4:3.
In England, abstinence from flesh has been enjoined by statute, even since the reformation; particularly on Fridays and Saturdays, on vigils and on all days commonly called fish days. The like injunctions were renewed under queen Elizabeth; but at the same time it was declared that this was done not out of motives of religion, as if there were any difference in meats, but in favor of the consumption of fish, and to mariners, as well as to spare the stock of sheep.