Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust: Why Lutherans Receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday

Many non-Lutherans wonder why their Lutheran friends or family members wear ashes on their forehead at the beginning of Lent. Are they showing off? Are they trying to stand out? Is it some weird secret church ritual? What does it mean? Should I get them too?

There are three reasons why Lutherans go to church to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. First, the ashes remind people of their sinfulness. Second, the ashes remind people of their mortality. Third, the ashes remind people that they have been redeemed. Let’s unpack this a bit.

Since ancient times, God’s people have used ashes as a sign of humble repentance (e.g. Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3: Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). This tradition was carried on by the early church and remains an important tradition today. When one willingly goes up to a pastor and receives ashes on his/her forehead, they are admitting that they are sinners in desperate need of salvation. They are admitting that they have sinned not only against their neighbors, but against God Himself. The ashes demonstrate that without God, all people are spiritually dead. The ashes remind the wearer of their need to repent and confess in order to be turned back to God. The ashes demonstrate our pleading that the Lord would purify us. The ashes serve as a tangible and visible sign of our failure to love God as much as He loves us.

The receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday also remind people of their mortality, which is the direct result of God’s condemnation of our sin. God said to Adam, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Ashes serve as a solemn reminder that the price of sin is death. Man cannot escape death. Often, people today feel as if they are invincible. It’s easy to feel like we’re at the top of the world, capable of doing anything that we desire. We keep ourselves busy doing “good” things, but fail to recognize that in reality we are dead men walking. People don’t like to think about death. Our culture has seemingly sterilized death. We make every attempt to avoid death. Death is uncomfortable. And, that’s why ashes are so important. They are the physical reminder that God created man from the dust of the earth and one day all men will return to the dust of the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The ashes force us to remember that we are merely mortal and that God alone is sovereign and reigns for all eternity.

Ashes also tell us the good news of the Gospel! You see, ashes aren’t just smeared randomly or haphazardly across people’s foreheads. The ashes are given in the shape of the cross. In receiving the ashes, we remember that our Lord Jesus took on the fullness of our humanity. He who was sinless became our sin. Jesus the Christ was crucified on a cross. He was crucified for you. He descended into hell where he endured the fullness of the wrath of God on your behalf. Then Jesus conquered death through His resurrection. He was resurrected for you. In doing so, He has taken the ashes of our past and created in us new life, allowing us to live forever in the holy presence of God! He has redeemed His children, making us clean and new. Through the cross of Christ, the power of death has been destroyed. Through the cross there is life. The cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads proclaim the good news that sin and death have been conquered through the cross of Christ.

In many Lutheran Ash Wednesday services, the Lord’s Supper immediately follows the receiving of ashes. We, who were once dead in our sins, we who deserve to die, come to the Lord’s Table literally wearing the cross of Christ. Here, at the Lord’s table, those who have humbled themselves before the Lord, who have admitted their sin, who know they deserve death, are instead given the new life that is only found through the body and blood of our loving Lord Jesus. Here, at the Lord’s table, those marked with the cross of Christ are raised up, strengthened through God’s mercy, love, and grace, and sent forth into the world to proclaim the good news!

This year, Ash Wednesday is on February 26th. You are encouraged to find a local Lutheran church so that you, too, can join in this special occasion in which we humbly come before the Lord, repent of our sinful ways and receive the free gift of our Lord Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the ashes Lutherans receive are traditionally made out of the palm branches used previously on Palm Sunday, a day when people rejoiced and praised Jesus only days before they turned on him and yelled “Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21; John 19:6) This serves as a powerful reminder that people are sinful, death is real, but Resurrection Day (Easter) is coming! Come, all are welcome. All are in need of salvation. Let the Lord use the ashes of your past to create in you a clean heart and new life in Him.

70 comments

      1. Very well articulated. As a Christian from a non Lutheran denomination reading and thinking about this tradition is still a good reminder of my sinfulness, mortality and hope in Christ. Thank you and God bless you.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I don’t know if Methodists or others do this bc I don’t follow them. Be that as it may, at first blush I’d think protestant denominations wouldn’t apply ashes for the simple reason that they were, at the beginning, anti-Roman Catholic and stayed away from as much Catholic tradition as possible. Again, maybe they do now but I wouldn’t know. Thx for the reply.

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    1. “He descended into hell where he endured the fullness of the wrath of God on your behalf”. This is not why Jesus descended into hell. He did this to claim victory over Satan.

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      1. I believe that Jesus descended into hell, after he was crucified, to take our sins there and then ascended into heaven where he sat at the right hand of God

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      1. So what happened in the ‘50s and ‘60’s when we didn’t receive ashes? That’s how I was brought up. And now it’s OK. Some of us can’t do it cause it seems fake or we didn’t learn it that way. Remember something about how a child is brought up?

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    1. You may recall that Martin
      Luther was a priest of the Roman Catholic Church before he moved to
      Reform her. He retained many of the Catholic practices. Like you feel this an outstanding explanation of Ashe Wednesday. The Lord be with you sir!
      Amen. Sam Sox, Jr….. a PC….preachers child

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      1. Actually Martin Luther was a great Bible scholar and realized the Catholic Church was straying far from the Bible. Sadly his intention was not for another denomination to be formed and follow more of man and his traditions.

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      1. Not all Methodists do. I’m Catholic and worked for 2 UM Church Agencies over 6 years and I was one of the only ones at work to have Ashes & would get comments about dirt on my forehead.

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  1. While I do understand the reasonings for using ashes, I still cannot bring myself to do so — for the simple reason that for many years it has been a Roman Catholic custom. I will not say it is wrong — it is a tradition — but not one that I will promote. It would raise more questions than it would benefit, I believe. IMHO.

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    1. Why would you be afraid that it represents the Catholic Church. Martin Luther is the one that broke away from the Catholic Church. I was a Lutheran for many years and I am now a Catholic, praise the Lord the Lutherans still hold to some of the original church.

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    2. . If you do what is not true for you it will be a mistake. Ask God and let Him guide you in this matter. There are many ways to go humbly before our creator, to repent and ask forgiveness. Your relationship with God is between you and Him.
      Matthew 6:5 1 Thessalonians 5:21

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    3. Having been baptized catholic attend catholic school & church since 1937… the catholic church did place ashes on forehead on “ASH WEDNESDAY”… why back then the catholic church didn’t share the teachings of TRADITIONS…. we just followed what the church said…
      Glad to have the information… think the Lutheran church does more teaching not only preaching +++ All religion have different denominations of their religion.. The traditions are reminding of the FAITH’S foundation…
      BLESSINGS +++

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  2. Thank you for this article. Nicely done. However, in the Creed, “the descent into hell” was not part of His suffering for our salvation. It was (1st Peter 3:18-20) after His revivification and before His resurrection — His showing of Himself alive again, first to His vanquished Enemy and then rising from the grave to show Himself to His disciples. On the cross He suffered the ‘hell’ of our separation from God but, His suffering was completed there [tetelestai]. The descent into hell is the first step of His state of Exaltation.

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  3. Paul: are you forgetting that the Lutheran Church is a direct descendant of the Catholic Church? Martin Luther was a priest? Your refusal to allow for ashes because ‘it has been a “Roman Catholic tradition” is misguided at best. If ashes are a sign of humble repentance, you skipped the word humble.

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    1. Receiving the ashes is a personal decision and no one should do these things simply from pressure from other people. They are no less Christians because they don’t feel comfortable with it. Their redemption is between the individual and Christ and the rest of us have no say in it.

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    2. Having been raised in the Lutheran (LCMS)Church And school, we were taught that ashes was a CATHOLIC thing. Suddenly, it appeared in our church. I had trouble with it, but better understand now. Us OLDER Lutherans HATE change!

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  4. Catholics practice many things that the protestant church practices. Just because they baptize, take communion, sing hymns, gather on Sunday, and celebrate Easter, Christmas, Pentecost -doesn’t mean I don’t. We as Lutheran’s separate ourselves by proclaiming that we are saved by faith and grace alone. Some church traditions help our physical posture which usually reflects our spiritual posture.

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  5. Does it matter what name is on the church door? Jesus ate with prostitutes & tax collectors – the lowest level of society. I guess I fall into that category, so I need Him as much as they did. I’ll take the ashes as a symbol of His child & never be ashamed of Him.

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    1. Thank you for your interest. This blog maintains the anonymity of the majority of its authors so that the truth of the Word is the center of focus. Our authors wish for God alone to be glorified.

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  6. I never would consider the ashes on Ash Wednesday because they remind us of God’s curse upon Adam, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”, Gen 3:19. I’m free from such curses because I’m born again, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life IN CHRIST JESUS.” Rom 6:23. Also, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having been made a curse for us.”- Gal 3:13.

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  7. I have been Lutheran my whole life and never grew up doing the ashes. So why now is it being done. I’m 59 and from Minnesota and only the past few years now are seeing it in the Lutheran church.

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    1. As someone who has also been Lutheran my entire life, we have always received ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is not required, but is practiced by the majority of Lutherans. A very few Lutheran denominations prefer not to practice the distribution of ashes and that is okay too. It is not a salvation issue, but it is a wonderful and tangible reminder that we are in need of a savior and that we have, indeed, been redeemed.

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      1. I do not see a connection between your comment, Sue, and the fact that the majority of Lutherans around the world, including some of the most conservative branches, humble themselves and receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Again, while certainly not a requirement, it is perfectly acceptable for Lutheran churches across all denominations who wish to do so to receive ashes as a sign of their sin, mortality, and redemption.

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      2. I would have a very hard time being a member if your congregation. I was raised Catholic and changed Lutheran as an adult. Every church I have been active in has taught that Jesus accepts all, no matter. Jesus loves all and accepts all, I could never be part if a congregation who excludes anyone for any reason. Always felt a special blessing when receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. Being house bound, I miss that special part I’d Ash Wednesday

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      3. Wow, Sue. You really are a wonderful Christian! LOOK EVERYBODY! SUE IS A REALLY, REALLY *GREAT* CHRISTIAN! She hates the gays, just like Jesus taught! 🙄

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    2. I have been Lutheran my whole life also, with family when I was young and though I stopped attending church in the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s I went back as an adult. While I don’t remember prior to returning to the Church, Ashes were a part of the Ash Wednesday Service after that time. I am 60 and have lived all across the Continental United States and now in Alaska.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, death because of sin is deceived in Scripture as ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, but this practice of a priest making a forehead with ashes looks more Hindu than Biblical.

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  9. II have been a Lutheran all my life (80 years). This year is the first I’ve heard of Lutherans using ashes on Ash Wednesday. I have no opinion about it but I am curious.s

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  10. Many are confusing “catholic” with “Roman Catholic”. Do you say the creed? In the late 50s, I was at a Luther League Convention in Chicago. A minister explained to a group, and I para phrase, : Catholic is universal belief in God. Roman Catholic is a specific denomination.

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  11. Growing up I was taught that Lutherans do not receive the sign of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Therefore, I still stand strong on that belief!

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  12. I have always belonged to the ELCA or Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and am now 83 years old. I do not remember ever going to our Ash Wednesday Service and NOT having the sign of the cross made on my forehead from ashes.

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  13. I understand the true spiritual benefit one might receive if secretly dressed in sackcloth and covered in ashes. It would belong to my vertical relationship with God if done in secret. However, when this becomes some kind of public ritual, expect it to fall into the realm of you already receiving your reward on earth. I admit I have participated in this religious ritual, but anymore it strikes way too close to the prayer of the pharisee for my conscience to bear. I believe I have been led by the Holy Spirit away from this showy act, as I see no prescription for the ash mark of a cross on the forehead from Scripture. I will receive all benefits the Holy Spirit wishes me to receive without participation in this act.

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    1. You have made an excellent point and rebuttal to this practice. This is (unlike baptism and communion), a man-made ritual with no scriptural basis. Additionally the one Mediator between God and man is Christ Jesus, not a priest, a pastor, so the practice raises the stature of the one marking the cross, rather than the Holy Son of God. My sins are ever before me, and forever I confess them, and always I am forgiven through His grace alone. I don’t need an outward pagan practice to flaunt before “the world”.

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  14. Still can’t even begin to imagine why people believe this nonsense in now the year 2020. It Sickens me. You are your own god and what you do with your life is up to you, not a magical sky daddy.

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  15. I also have been a Lutheran my whole life (67 yrs). I’m also a pastor in the AFLC. I grew up in the Missouri Synod. Never had the ashes.
    Is this coming from the ELCA Lutherans?

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    1. The distribution of ashes runs across denominational lines within Lutheranism (and beyond) and it is usually up to the congregation (and also each member within as to whether or not they wish to receive them). Many, if not most, LCMS congregations participate. The following is from LCMS.org:

      QUESTION: Would you please explain the significance of Ash Wednesday? I’ve seen some people in the past with black ash crosses on their foreheads.

      ANSWER: Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, a commentary on Lutheran Worship, one of our Synod’s hymnals, says this about ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Other customs may be used, particularly the imposition of ashes on those who wish it. This ancient act is a gesture of repentance and a powerful reminder about the meaning of the day.

      Ashes can symbolize dust-to-dustness and remind worshipers of the need for cleansing, scrubbing and purifying. If they are applied during an act of kneeling, the very posture of defeat and submission expresses humility before God.”

      The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a more recent custom among most LCMS congregations, although some have done it for decades. The ashes are usually derived from the burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday.

      Experience will show, however, that in obtaining ashes this way, it doesn’t take many ashes to “ash” a whole congregation. Like sin, they are very dirty and go a long way. One palm leaf will produce enough ashes for several years.

      Usually the pastor takes the ashes on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshiper, saying these words: “Remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This follows most effectively prior (or as part of) the Service Corporate Confession and Absolution on pages 290-291 of the Lutheran Service Book.

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      1. Being a Christian does not mean following man’s customs or traditions. Martin Lutheran was very concerned about how the Catholics had strayed far away from what the Bible actually said. Can you point to me where in scripture Ash Wednesday is written? And we are told to take the Lord’s supper on every first day of the week so how can it be taken/offered at any other time? Please provide the scriptures.

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  16. Ashes have only been a part of the Lutheran churches I’ve attended for there last many years…never when growing up in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. I remember my catholic friends did this…but not Lutherans.

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  17. Really bad theology re:Christ’s descent into hell. In fact, not Lutheran or Scriptural. Jesus did ALL of His suffering for sin on the cross. He proclaimed victory over Satan in his abode–in hell.

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  18. It Is My Belief That Our Lord & Savior Loves All Who Believe In Him Regardless Of Your Affiliation Of Any Church. Enjoy Your Blessings And Live Peacefully.

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  19. Good article. Just because some churches offer it and others don’t is a non issue. This is a time of personal reflection and the disposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is one way to recognize one’s sinfulness that Jesus took on himself for us. Stop being devisive and critical of others.

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  20. I grew up as an LCMS Lutheran and we did not do ashes nor did we cross ourselves. When one my classmates in confirmation asked why we didn’t, pastor simply answered, “That’s something the Catholics do!” End of discussion… In the 1960s, if you had to ask, and it wasn’t in the Catechism, you didn’t need to know

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