Ash Wednesday: Dignity, Depravity and Destiny

Providing biblical and historical context on the season of Lent

For all of us, the calendar year begins with January 1. For Christians, there are other vital calendar markers in their lives, one of the most significant is Sunday, the day we remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every week. This is the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10).

This is still noted by most in that we refer to this year as 2020 AD, anno domini, which is an abbreviation for anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi, meaning “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is also reflective of those Christians who follow the Christian year, with a focus on Jesus Christ, his birth, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Of these various aspects of Jesus’ life, the central event is his resurrection, which we celebrate as Easter. (You can read other posts in which we have addressed the Christian year: "Church Year: Lent and Easter" and "Evangelicals and Lent" and "Evangelicals, Ash Wednesday, Lent and Liturgy.")

For those who follow the Christian year, today is Ash Wednesday. For some history, Ash Wednesday traditionally marks the beginning of the period known as Lent, six and one-half weeks prior to Easter. It gets its name from the custom of placing ashes on the head on individuals as a sign of mourning and penitence. It is also a reminder that we were created from dust, and to dust we shall return. Some churches also consider this an opportunity to enter into the Lord’s discipline of 40 days in the wilderness as preparation for ministry, so they engage in some form of fast.

Dust and repentance

Consider our connection with dust:

  • Creation: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7).
  • Fall: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
  • Resurrection: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isa 26:19).

What do we learn from this reference and reminder to dust?

  • We learn there is a distinction between the Creator and his creation. God is “Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect.” We are created, contingent and dependent beings.
  • We learn that even though we are created beings, we have been created in the “image of God” which means we have dignity. At the conclusion of God’s creation, he proclaimed all he created as “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
  • We learn that with our dignity, we also experience depravity through the fall (Gen. 3; Rom. 5). This reminds us of our mortality.
  • We learn that though we return to the dust, as Christians we do not remain in the dust. We will “awake and sing for joy,” in Christ, and through the resurrection, we will experience through him. This is the end of the Easter story that we celebrate. But during this season, we also remember all the other truths leading up to Jesus’ resurrection. One cannot extricate one of these truths from any of the other. But often by focusing on one aspect of truth, it fosters a deeper understanding and thankfulness of the whole, thus enhancing our worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Consider our connection with repentance and what we learn from this:

  • When Jesus began his public ministry, He began with a call to repent and believe the gospel: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).
  • When the Scriptures and their absolute authority and the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ were rediscovered by Martin Luther and the Reformers, Luther began the first of his 95 Theses by focusing on repentance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
  • Repentance is not only the mark of receiving the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to experience the new birth, but it is also the ongoing mark of the gospel in one’s life. It truly evidences God’s kindness (Rom 2:4).

As we seek to live a life of repentance, being especially mindful during this season, C.S. Lewis’ thoughtful observations are fitting:

“Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one's own. It is the reverse of morbid. It is not even, in the long run, gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and really to know one's own sins is in the long run a lightening and believing process.” ("Miserable Offenders," in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics)

Ash Wednesday and the EFCA

What is the relationship of the EFCA with Ash Wednesday?

Even though we in the EFCA celebrate Christmas and Good Friday and Easter, we do not follow the rest of the Christian year. We are considered low-church and do not follow a lectionary. Furthermore, because of our congregational polity, churches are autonomous. This means outside our Statement of Faith, there is no formal hierarchical or ecclesiastical church order mandate by which churches must abide.

Because the Bible is our foundation, we take our cue for what we do as a church from the Bible, and if something does not have a direct and explicit mandate, it will not be followed or required of others. We abide by Romans 15:5-9:

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

This certainly would not mean remembering a day is wrong. Not at all. But it would mean that one needs to be careful to mandate it when it is not mandated from Scripture. Over time, these days and events were not only mandated of God’s people, they were also considered meritorious. That is, engaging in these activities earned merit before God. They were actually used as a means of undermining truth faith. This is why the Reformers were cautious about how and why they referred to these celebrations in the church.

Churches that follow a liturgy and/or lectionary, those considered high-church, would be more likely to celebrate Ash Wednesday (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican church, and mainline Protestant churches) than would most evangelical churches. The Free Church certainly promotes and encourages confession of and mourning for sin, of remembering our mortality, and living a life of repentance, and of gratitude for forgiveness of sin through Christ. But we do not prescribe a time or form in which that is mandated or done. This is appropriate to do any and all days, a reflection of living in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27)!

Having said this, however, there are a few EFCA churches that may do something for Ash Wednesday, and an increasing number who will do something between Ash Wednesday and Easter, like a devotional reading. This is especially descriptive of younger Evangelicals, those who are eager to connect with the longer and larger church and church history. During the week preceding the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, most EFCA churches will celebrate the Triumphal Entry the Sunday of the passion week of Christ, Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday, culminating in the worship of the resurrected Jesus Christ on Easter.

Personally, each year I use these days to focus my reading on additional works of the meaning and significance of Jesus' death, the cross, the atonement, the resurrection, etc. Every year, I read a book or a few books on one or a few of these truths so that I can continue to broaden and deepen my understanding and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, I am reading a couple of devotionals this year, one of them with Karen, my wife: Sinclair Ferguson’s To Seek and to Save: Daily Reflections on the Road to the Cross (The Good Book Company, 2020) and Chris Wright with John Stott, The Radical Reconciler: Lent in All the Scriptures (InterVarsity Press, 2019). After it is posted on our Theology Podcast, I also encourage you to listen to “The Doctrine of Salvation: Penal Substitution – The Heart of the Atonement,” Steve Wellum’s message from the Theology Conference.

What is one book focusing on the truth and implications of Jesus death, atonement and resurrection you will read this year? (By the way, I also do this during the season when we remember the birth of Christ, i.e., His incarnation (what is known as Advent and Christmas). There are also a few other single days that are good annual mile-markers to remember and deepen our understanding of the Scripture’s teaching on Jesus’ ascension, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Trinity and others.)

So on this day, what many remember as Ash Wednesday, we recommit ourselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ as we remember and live out the truth of his life, burial, resurrection, ascension and session at the Father’s right hand, and we also remember our dignity, depravity and destiny because of our union, by faith, with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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