Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Ash,a symbol of repentance in the ancient world, is applied by the priest to forehead of the penitential participant heralding the start of the Lenten season. Lent is a forty (40) day period (immediately before Easter) devoted to fasting and mourning over ones sins. The forty day period is in imitation of Christ’s forty day wilderness temptation and suffering. Pinpointing a date for when Lent was first recognized is debated. Sometime around the 4th century seems to be the general consensus. So what could be so bad about a period of repentance and sorrowing over sin? What harm is there in participating in these ancient rituals?
To understand the danger one has to understand the teaching of the Roman Catholic church about penance. The idea of penance began with the Latin Vulgate (late 4th century latin translation) which wrongly translated the greek term “metanoia” as “penance” instead of the more appropriate term repentance. So instead of John the Baptist saying “repent” in Matt 3:2, he is quoted (translated) as saying “do penance” which is understood by a Roman Catholic to mean to do something good in order to make for something bad. The sacrament of penance requires that a Roman catholic confess his sin to a priest, who then grants pardon, which is conditioned upon the confessor doing something, some act to counteract the sin and procure God’s forgiveness. Biblical repentance however is not about “good deeds” or human effort, but a change of heart and a trusting in the cross work of Christ alone as sufficient payment for sin - the sole basis of God’s forgiveness. It was this very doctrine that got Martin Luther thinking and writing. The first three of his famous ninety five thesis deals with this very topic:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Yet its meaning is not restricted to repentance in one's heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.
Luther clearly understood that no amount of good deeds (penance) will ever make up for sins committed. Genuine biblical repentance is about a genuine change of heart and a new, living, personal saving faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ that results in a changed life.
The fatal and damning theology behind such rituals as Lent is penance...do something good to make up for something done wrong. That is the essence of Roman Catholic theology - God gives grace, man cooperates with that grace by works and through those efforts secures God’s grace. The underlying message of Lent is that man can earn forgiveness and righteousness through pious, self-sacrificing efforts. And that message is opposite of the true biblical gospel which insists that faith alone saves apart from all and human merit.