Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

The Heart Cleansed by the Word of Forgiveness

ASH WEDNESDAY                                          February 26, 2020


JOEL 2:12-19

12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a libation For the LORD your God? 15 Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, 16 Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out of his room And the bride out of her bridal chamber. 17 Let the priests, the LORD’s ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, And let them say, “Spare Thy people, O LORD, And do not make Thine inheritance a reproach, A byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?'” 18 Then the LORD will be zealous for His land, And will have pity on His people. 19 And the LORD will answer and say to His people, “Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine, and oil, And you will be satisfied in full with them; And I will never again make you a reproach among the nations.




Confession has two parts. That’s the way the Catechism puts it.


The first part of Confession, we could call that the ashes. Joel 2:13:


[The Lord says,] “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.”


The first part of Confession is the rending of the heart. Pride is emptied out; every attempt to justify ourselves is torn in two. The first part of Confession is, simply, the admitting before God that we are sinners.


Joel mentions things that are outwardly: Fasting, weeping, mourning. These are outward actions that we do, actions that are visible.


But then that’s explained: “rend your heart and not your garments.”


Garments are outward. Don’t tear them, says the Lord, but tear your heart.


Rending the heart is not outward.


It is contrition over sin. It’s the guilt in our conscience brought in sorrow to God. The outward things of fasting and weeping and mourning, they aren’t the contrition; they’re simply the sinner using outward words and actions and tears to express the sorrow of the contrite heart.



So we come to Ash Wednesday. Any who would like are invited to step forward and have ashes placed on the forehead. Is this contrition? Is it repentance? Is it not just an outward work, accomplishing nothing actual?


The ashes are an outward work. They are one way for the sorrowful heart to express contrition. In this way, it’s much like kneeling down to receive Holy Communion. The kneeling, of course, in no way constitutes the Communion. The Communion is holy because it is the Lord’s gift of forgiving sins. The kneeling is just a small way that the Christian may go about extolling the Lord’s giving of gifts.


With the ashes, it is to express contrition. It is a sorrowful heart extolling the gift of being able to come before the Lord as nothing but sinner—and yet not be destroyed, but absolved.


Then what do the ashes give? If that is the question, then the answer is, nothing. God didn’t institute the ashes, he didn’t mandate that we do them as he did with Baptism or Holy Communion, he didn’t promise to distribute forgiveness in them.


Then what are they? They are not mandated by the Lord. Rather, the ashes must be described as a church tradition, as something Christians have done to express the contrition of a heart that is torn in two by sin and is waiting to hear the Lord’s word of absolution.


The ashes are not commanded, not required, but are simply the Lord’s people expressing sorrow over sin and extolling his gift of repentance and forgiveness.


We may remember this as we see the ashes placed on the foreheads. These are the foreheads of sinners. But sinners who have baptized into Christ Jesus, who are purified by the Gospel, and thus, sinners who rejoice in no longer having to hide sins, but in coming to the Lord to be cleansed by him in his Word of Gospel.


Then, after saying, “Rend your hearts,” the prophet Joel tells us, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”


And that’s the Gospel. The Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. The Gospel is that the blood Christ shed on the cross atones for the sin of the world, and it was that atonement which the prophet Joel was delivering to Israel, even before the cross.


So the heart torn in two by sorrow over sin, it is now the heart cleansed by the word of forgiveness. The eyes of tears, they are now eyes of joy. The Christian confessing sin is now the Christian confessing Christ Jesus and his grace.


Confession, says the Catechism, has two parts. The first part is to confess our sins. The second part is to confess Christ Jesus our Lord as we receive absolution from him.


So what becomes of that heart torn apart by sorrow over sin? It is now the heart consoled and comforted by the Gospel. The Large Catechism puts it like this:

In Confession, we sharply separate its two parts. We place slight value on our part in it. But we hold in high and great esteem God’s Word in the Absolution part of Confession. We should not proceed as if we intended to perform and offer him a splendid work, but we should simply accept and receive something from him …  What you must see to is that you lament your problem and that you let yourself be helped to acquire a cheerful heart and conscience.


That’s the gift of Confession. We confess, first, that we are sinful. Then we confess, second and foremost, that our Lord Jesus is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and he forgives all sin.


In that confession, we are given a cheerful heart and conscience.