Ashes on forehead

What is the purpose of putting ashes on the forehead of Christians on Ash Wednesday? This is showy to me and very "Catholic" (where Catholics believe "good works" are essential for salvation) and can give the wrong message to unbelievers. I look at it as a distraction and unnecessary. During the time of Lent, I dearly love the focus on what Christ has done for me and all people by his death and resurrection while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8) (John 3:16-17) Thank you.

The purpose is to have a visual reminder that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and death means our bodies return to dust from which Adam was made (Genesis 3:19).  As ashes are biblical pictures of repentance (Job 42:6; Matthew 11:21), the use of ashes eventually became associated with Lent, a penitential season of the church year.

As a church custom, the imposition of ashes (as it is called) is an adiaphoron.  God has not commanded it nor forbidden it.  In Christian freedom, we may utilize the practice or forego it.  If our conscience leads us to conclude that it would be wrong for us to participate in that custom, we need to refrain from taking part in it.  At the same time, we need to withhold judgment from those who participate in the practice for good and godly reasons.  Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 address how Christians are to view adiaphora.

The custom of putting ashes on the foreheads of Christians on Ash Wednesday has been in use for centuries.  While it is a practice that many still associate only with Roman Catholicism, it has grown in popularity with Protestant churches in recent years.

Your concern for the Lenten focus on Christ is well taken.  Those Protestants, including Lutherans, who endorse the practice would point out that ashes are put in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshipers.  The visual emphasis, then, is on the cross of Christ.

Regardless of people’s views on this custom, there is no getting around the “ash” of Ash Wednesday, is there?  Whether or not we implement that custom in our congregations, the terminology of the day reminds us of our natural and actual sinfulness, and the need to repent of our sins.  More than that, the season of Lent reveals clearly the love of Christ, who sacrificed himself to take away our sins.  God bless your Lenten worship.