Ash Wednesday is the day which begins the season of Lent (more on that in a later answer) and is observed by those who follow the liturgical church calendar. Typically the church calendar is followed by Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Episcopalians, though in recent years more and more Protestant groups have also begun to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Ash Wednesday is described as a day of penitence set aside in remembrance of one’s own sin and mortality. Ash Wednesday begins the observer’s preparation for the Holy Week and Easter. On Ash Wednesday the observer usually attends a special church service during which the minister marks each person’s forehead with ashes while quoting Genesis 3:19, “For dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” The imposition of ashes is a reminder of the individual’s guilt before God and the consequences of that guilt, death. Many also keep Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. Ash Wednesday begins Lent with the reminder of sin and leads the observer to an extended time of penitence and contrition.
Ash Wednesday is a tradition taken from the practices of some churches beginning in the 400’s AD. Ash Wednesday nor it’s equivalent is found anywhere in the pages of the Bible. Biblical examples of people tearing their clothes and covering themselves with ashes can be found, but these were not part of a ritual observance. The ashes found in the Bible are ashes of deep sorrow, often at times of extreme loss. While observing Ash Wednesday is not forbidden in the Bible, it does carry with it some troubling theological assumptions.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are closely associated with penitence for sin. Penitence is usually something greater than sorrow for sin and is different from repentance. Penitence is closelu associated with penance and typically communicates some activity being done by the sinner to show his sorrow or to make amends for the wrong done. The performance of some religious act as an expression of sorrow is not in line with the Biblical gospel nor is it the response to sin called for by the gospel. The Bible commands repentance for sin, turning to God for salvation, without any effort or works on the part of the sinner. Instead, the Bible teaches that a gospel which requires some personal act of obedience for salvation is in fact a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9).
Is it a sin to participate in Ash Wednesday? Just as the Bible does not prescribe its observance, so the Bible does not forbid its observance. If one feels compelled to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, he needs to carefully examine his own mind and practice to ensure the observation does not include theological assumptions and practices contrary to the simple message of the gospel. Jesus is God the Son who died on the cross to pay the punishment for sin in place of men. Jesus has been restored to life and is now reigning in heaven, just as the Bible foretold, and completely pardons those those who will believe Him. Those who trust Him and none else for salvation, will be saved. Liturgical observances may be helpful reminders of Biblical truth, but they do not replace or supplement the work of Jesus on the cross.