Open your catechism: Part 2

Do we still need the Ten Commandments? Some suggest we don’t and remove them from public places, but the lessons they teach are timeless.

John A. Braun

The Ten Commandments are first in the Small Catechism. No mystery shrouds those Commandments or where they came from. Deuteronomy 4:13 clearly tells us, “He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.”

The Commandments themselves are recorded in two places: Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. While these passages give us the Ten Commandments, they do not number them. Christian churches today number them differently. Most Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches adopt the way the ancient church numbered them, including two commandments on coveting. Most Reformed churches adopt a different numbering, including the commandment on images as a separate command and then only one commandment on coveting. But there are ten in both approaches

The benefits of the Commandments

For centuries, all agreed that the commandments provided important benefits. They are the basis for a peaceful life on earth, and they help us live with one another. Whether one is a Christian or not, the commandments teach us about parental and government authority (Fourth Commandment), protecting human life (Fifth Commandment), the importance of marriage (Sixth Commandment), and proper respect for the property (Seventh Commandment) and good name (Eighth Commandment) of our neighbors. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments remind us about our attitude toward what belongs to others. Neighbors, of course, are all people.

The first three commandments direct our attitudes, words, and actions toward God. Luther makes the First Commandment the most important commandment. First, he reminds us that anyone who sets his heart on anything other than the true God creates an idol or false god: “I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god” (LC I 3). And the benefits? “We are to trust in God alone and look to Him and expect from Him nothing but good, as from one who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessaries of both temporal and eternal things. He also preserves us from misfortune. And if any evil befall us, He delivers and rescues us. So it is God alone . . . from whom we receive all good and by whom we are delivered from all evil” (LC I 24).

This First Commandment is of chief importance because if we observe it correctly all the other commandments follow. If we fear and love God, as Luther reminds us, then we will want to obey the other commandments. Remember the meaning of all the commandments you learned? They all begin, “We should fear and love God that we . . .”

So often we think of the commandments as a list of things we should not do. We should not murder, commit adultery, steal, and so forth, but Luther reminds us that God directs us to do positive things. For example, we should love and honor those in authority, help and befriend our neighbors, lead chaste and decent lives, defend our neighbors, and speak well of them.

We don’t need to look beyond God’s commandments for more to do. If we focus on these commandments we have more than enough to do. “So apart from the Ten Commandments no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, no matter how great or precious it is in the world’s eyes” (LC I 311). Obedience to the Ten Commandments is still pleasing to God.

For all generations

Obedience will continue to be pleasing to God, even for the next generation. Luther was concerned about the future generations too. In the Large Catechism he wrote, “For if we wish to have excellent and able persons both for civil and Church leadership, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, so that they may serve God and the world” (LC I 172).

To make the point clear, Luther begins each of the chief parts of his catechism with these words, “As the head of the family should teach them in the simplest way to those in his household.” Each Christian household was responsible for teaching obedience and love for others as outlined in the commandments. The head of the household had a special responsibility to teach not only the commandments but also all the other parts of the catechism.

Guide, curb, mirror

Luther’s treatment of the law is different from many others. Some view the commandments as a standard of behavior (a guide) and nothing more. But if we only think of the commandments as a guide for our lives, we become Pharisees, proud of our obedience while looking down on whom we think are the disobedient. Others think the commandments are given to check the worst sins (a curb) in society in order to protect people from violence, disrespect, disorder, and chaos. The commandments then become important only for others. But the commandments are more than just a guide and curb.

The list of do’s and don’ts is intimidating. As we think of the benefits of obedience and consider all that God tells us to do, we should examine ourselves. The Ten Commandments are God’s law. God means what he says. He threatens punishment for “all who transgress.” When we are honest with ourselves, we will conclude with Luther, “No person can go far enough to keep one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept” (LC I 316). If there is any doubt in any heart, God gave two commandments forbidding us to covet. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments are directed against envy and greed, internal attitudes that plague every human. All of us stand before God guilty of disobedience.

So Luther put the Ten Commandments first in his catechism. Other churches do too. They are first because God intended them to accomplish so much for the benefit of people—believers and unbelievers. But for Luther and Lutherans today, they are first for a more important reason. They reveal our sin (a mirror). They drive out self-righteous moral contentment. We cannot do as God demands. We fail, and the law shows us we are “sinful creatures lost and condemned,” unable to save ourselves by any effort because none of our efforts are good enough.

One of the most memorable sermons I heard was based on the Fourth Commandment. My pastor at the time spent a great deal of time explaining all the commandment meant. He convicted me and everyone there that Sunday morning. I was squirming. But he did not leave me in my discomfort and agony. He had prepared me to hear the best news any sinner can ever hear: “Jesus has removed your sin.” The gospel was comforting and refreshing.

We need both the law and the gospel. I needed it that Sunday long ago, and I still need them both every day. I still need the commandments because without them I grow proud of my efforts and don’t see the depth of my need for Jesus. Then I need the gospel because I long for the comfort of forgiveness in Jesus.

Assignment: Read the Ten Commandments and think about how they apply to you.

John Braun, chairman of the Reformation 500 committee, is the executive editor of Forward in Christ.

This is the second article in a six-part series on Luther’s Small Catechism. John Braun is leading an interactive Bible study on this topic each Wednesday Sept. 21 through Oct. 26 at 6 and 8 p.m. CDT. Learn more at


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

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