Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
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.
Consider our connection with dust:
What do we learn from this reference and reminder to dust?
Consider our connection with repentance and what we learn from this:
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)
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.