One of the striking elements of our Ash Wednesday service is the recitation of the curses of the covenant found in Deuteronomy 27. This was included in Thomas Cranmer’s original Ash Wednesday service, and Martin Bucer – John Calvin’s mentor – said it was a “particularly wholesome ceremony” and went so far as to recommend that the service be done quarterly, though he suggested that the curses might be re-aligned with the Ten Commandments.
Bucer went on to urge Cranmer and the English Church to give thought to how “the whole discipline of penance and correction of sinners” needed to be restored in the churches. And what Bucer means is the whole gamut of what we call Church Discipline: beginning with routine private admonitions and accountability, reaching to public censures and rebukes to suspensions from the Lord’s Table and excommunication. These “very ready cures for our sins, for the fatal diseases of the faithful,” Bucer explains, “have been prescribed by the chief physician of our souls, the Son of God, and commanded by the weighty words of scripture.” He says that if we fail to carry out this discipline our hearts will condemn us for betraying the glory of Christ and the salvation of souls, which he bought for himself with his own blood. This must be done “not in writing, not in words, not in empty show of ceremonies, but in its reality and its effective ministration. The Lord Christ came to make sinners whole, but on condition that they are truly penitent: but for those who do not do the will of the Father, whatever they hear or say, whatever ceremonies they parade before themselves, such men he never knew or counted among his own (Matt. 7).”
What Bucer is saying is nothing less than what Scripture insists upon from beginning to end, which is sincerity before God, honesty before God. What God hates, what He loathes is pretense, hypocrisy, lies. Isaiah puts it this way: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:13-15). God had commanded Israel to celebrate the Sabbaths and offer incense and lift their hands in prayer, but what He commanded was that they draw near to Him in honesty, not in pretense, not pretending, not treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot, a genie in a bottle, as though they could hide their lies and sins behind their backs and He wouldn’t know or see.
And Jesus came with this same message: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward… And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:5, 16-18).
This is why we here at Trinity do not walk out of this building with ashes on our foreheads. There are extra tissue boxes scattered around the narthex so that you may wash your face and go out in public and not cancel out the prayers you have offered in here. The millions of Christians that go out in public with ashes on their foreheads are doing something that God hates and they are asking God not to listen to their prayers. Many of them do it ignorantly, having been deceived by their pastors who do not actually teach them the Word of God or how to actually be free of their sins but rather perform superstitious ceremonies to falsely comfort them as they meander their way to Hell. The same thing goes for announcing your fast on social media. Jesus says, do not be like the hypocrites.
So what is this service for? Why is this a particularly wholesome ceremony? This service is a wholesome ceremony because it is a call to repentance. And if it results in actual, honest, sincere repentance before God, then it serves as an enormous battering ram against the gates of Hell. When sinners see their sin for what it is, when they see that they have willfully rebelled against the love of their Creator God, that they have spit in His face, and that their sin clings to them like horrible tattoos that can never be removed, like white maggots squirming around inside their hearts – when they see their sin for the curse that it is, for the disgusting disease that it is, when their hearts break for the harm they have done, and when they fall on their knees crying out for mercy – the gates of Hell tremble, the powers of darkness cower, the demons scream.
And this is why we recite the curses of the covenant. But this can be easily misunderstood. In the first instance, we are not promising not to do those evil things. Of course we should not want to do them, but the central point is not that we are promising to be good so that we don’t come under the curses. Neither are we pointing outside this building, outside this assembly at the world that does these things and stands under the terrible curse of God, though that is certainly true. No, in the first instance, we are owning these curses. When you say ‘Amen’ after each curse – in the first instance you are saying, “this is me” – “I am guilty.” Do you not know what the cross is? The cross is God’s ancient curse on the sin of man: “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God” (Dt. 21:22-23). And there is no wiggle room. Paul quotes the final curse we will own together this evening in Galatians saying, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them” (Gal. 3:10, cf. Dt. 27:26). Apart from perfect obedience to the entire law of God, we all fall under the curse of the law.
But we are not just barely under the curse, we are fully under the curse. We have prized idols over the one true God. We have worshipped money, jobs, sex, wine, and status over the Lord Jesus Christ. We have dishonored our mothers and fathers. We have talked back to them, and cursed them in our hearts. We have not cared what they think. We have stolen from our neighbors and lied to them. We have taken advantage of the weak and the helpless. We have perverted justice by turning a blind eye to lies and false accusations. We have falsified. We have overlooked. We have not loved the truth. We have committed sexual abominations. We have lusted for things in our hearts that are sick and disgusting and shameful. If you think that you are sitting next to people who would never be tempted by child pornography, bestiality, incest, adultery, or homosexuality, you are living in a Pollyanna make-believe world, and you are deeply deceived about the wickedness of your own heart. You have been tempted by things. We have imagined making love with other men’s wives and other women’s husbands, with mother-in-laws, sisters, brothers. We have hated our brothers in secret, imagining the curses we would love to utter to their faces, we’ve cut them down and murdered them in our bitterness a million times, and there is blood all over our hands. We have been bribed and bought by peer pressure and the fear of man not to bring up sketchy looking situations, not to question the way things were handled, not to confront our brother for the way he talks to his wife or children or a sister for the way she disrespects her husband.
If we are honest, the final curse is almost laughable: cursed be anyone who does not confirm all the words of this law and do them. We are covered in curses. We are bound by the curses. We are deformed and defaced and disfigured by the curses.
One version of a false gospel that masquerades all around us is the gospel of forgiveness without repentance. If the preacher only ever says, you’re forgiven, he’s failed to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. You see, the gospel of the New Testament was the gospel of repentance, the power of Christ entering into you to cause you to change, to stop sinning and walk in obedience. Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). And at the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples that the Old Testament was all about the fact that the Christ would die and rise again “and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk. 24:47). Paul summarizes his ministry to the Ephesians saying that he testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). And this is what Peter says we wait in hope for, that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). The gospel is the promise that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).
So we are gathered here this evening to hear the voice of our Lord call us to repentance. Yes, this is a call to receive His forgiveness, but with God’s forgiveness is always the promise of the Spirit, the promise of Christ in us, the promise of the power to change. One of the great lies of the devil is that charge that you cannot change. He says that you were born that way. He says it goes deep in your family. He says you’re damaged goods, broken. He says that you’re different from other people, and you just can’t. The devil holds many who name the name of Christ in the strangle hold of these lies. But he has no right to hold you in that bondage. He has no right. He has no right because Christ suffered that you might go free. Christ suffered and bled for all of it. Not merely that you might be forgiven, but that you might be set free to walk in holiness and obedience.
In just a minute, we will take a few moments to ponder these things silently. And my charge to all of us is to take these words to heart. What sins have you made peace with? What sins have you tried to bury in the recesses of your memory? What sins are you most terrified to deal with, afraid of what will happen if anyone finds out? Some of you need to repent of your harshness with your wife or children – losing your temper, raising your voice, or maybe just giving them the cold shoulder. Some of you need to repent of failing to lead your wife and children – you aren’t taking responsibility for the state of your home before the Lord Jesus before whom you will give an account. Some of you need to repent of being unsubmissive and disrespectful of your husbands – wearing them down with your words, manipulating them in order to get them to do what you want. Some of you need to repent of harboring bitterness towards your father, your mother, teachers, or pastors – do you regularly remember how they have let you down, hurt you? That’s called bitterness, and it is eating your soul. Some of you need to repent of your critical and complaining words and heart – God let a generation of Israel die in the wilderness for the bad attitudes and Paul says that’s an example for Christians to beware of. Some of you need to repent of your arrogant and rebellious heart – you think this sermon doesn’t really apply to you or you aren’t really inclined to do anything just on principle – because it wasn’t your idea. I’ll wear my ashes out of this building if I want to, Pastor. You are in grave danger, my friend, humble yourself before it’s too late.
Do not say “Amen” to the curses, do not allow the sign of the curse to be placed on your forehead unless you are ready to come clean, unless you are ready to be honest before God, sincerely broken, truly penitent. And let me add this as well. God knows all of us, that we are weak and frail people. We make resolutions and then almost immediately begin to explain to ourselves why we were rash to make such resolutions and we begin justifying our sin. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t continue to carry your sins around alone. God puts us in the church not because we are good but because we are not. Your elders and pastors are not perfect or sinless men, we are men who know the insidiousness of sin in our own hearts and lives and by the grace of God we know what it is to be set free. And I want you to be set free. I want you to experience the power of Christ to grant you repentance, to really and truly change. And I want you to know that we stand ready and willing to assist you in any way we can. If you know you need to change but don’t know where to start or how to begin, please come talk to one of us after the service. If you just need prayer that you would have the courage to do what’s right, please come talk to one of us after the service and let us pray with you and for you. Send one of us an email, set up an appointment, give us a call. Don’t let Satan get a foothold in your heart or in our church. Defy the devil and repent of your sins.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.