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 March 6th. 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.

39 comments

    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. 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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  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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  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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    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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