Luther’s Small Catechism has fortified Christians throughout the centuries. As a short summary of Christian truth, it remains a lifelong companion.
John A. Braun
I learned a lesson many years ago from one of the older members of my congregation. I was visiting shut-ins for the first time after I was installed. One was a cheerful white-haired woman in an assisted living facility. When I found her room and walked in, I realized that I was interrupting her. She was reading her catechism. It was a regular practice for her.
The lesson that day was simple: The catechism is not only for grade-school children.
A book for all ages
If you need further encouragement to use the catechism regularly, consider Luther himself. He wrote, “I am also a doctor and preacher. . . . Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning—and whenever I have time—I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms and such. I must still read and study them daily. . . . I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so” (LC Introduction:7,8).
So much of Christian life gives us reason to use the catechism, but we face so many temptations to leave the little book on the shelf. We think we can do without it because we have learned it so well—the memory work, the regular classes, confirmation itself. “We’re done,” we say.
Then comes life. High school, college, marriage, children, work, mortgage payments, and other bills keep us busy. New York Life lists five major changes that add stress to our lives: marriage, the birth of a child, starting a new job, the death of a spouse or parent, and retirement. We all could add to the list. And we have learned to survive those events and others, perhaps without consulting our catechism once.
But we may have lost something in the forward movement of life without Luther’s Small Catechism. It is a wonderful short summary of what we believe. That’s why we learned it when we were much younger, before all the distractions of life. Because it is such a short summary, we can easily use it when our lives are filled with so many other responsibilities. It’s short; it’s simple; it’s easy to use. We haven’t outgrown the truths it presents.
A book for life’s journey
Consider the challenges we face in life. We are faced with decisions at every turn. When we wonder what to do, God reminds us that he loves us. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us of God’s great love, the Ten Commandments guide our steps along his path, and the Lord’s Prayer directs our concerns, worries, and fears to our heavenly Father. One can find specific parts of Luther’s catechism that apply to each of New York Life’s list of stressors.
When our faith is challenged, the catechism can also help. The student faced with ideas contrary to God’s will might consult the catechism for help and direction. I’ve heard of more than one university student using the catechism to find answers to questions and challenges posed by professors, friends, and detractors of their Christian faith.
But others also face questions and challenges. The catechism is the quick reference tool for Christian faith. Consider the distortions we all face in our world today about marriage, abortion, human life issues, gender confusion, disrespect for authority, creation, and all Christian truth. What shall we do when we are sometimes confused by all the religious jargon and opinions? Will it help to go back to the catechism to reinforce what God placed into our hearts from our instruction? It’s a great place to start; it will give us direction for digging deeper into the Scriptures and the passages we learned. The catechism is our first line of defense as well as a good start for our personal study.
Perhaps one might wonder why Luther read and studied his catechism “daily,” as he said. But we should not wonder for too long. The life of a Christian is a struggle between the sin that still lives within us even after Baptism and the new spiritual life we have because of Baptism. The apostle Paul is clear about that struggle. He wrote, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).
At times we minimize our sins, and at other times we fret over our guilt. When we compare our behavior with the Ten Commandments, we are convicted of our sins. Then it’s hard to dismiss them. But when we look at the creed and the sacraments we are assured of God’s steadfast love for us as sinners. Our guilt is swallowed by Christ’s sacrifice for our sins
Luther wrote, “I lament my sin and desire comfort and refreshment for my soul” (LC Confession 15). The refreshment comes from the gospel, which is God’s means to bring grace to sinners. The gospel also strengthens our faith so that we can resist the inclination to do evil and live better Christian lives. We are used to calling it the means of grace. The catechism delivers both law and gospel.
A book for outreach
Often we consider the Small Catechism a Lutheran book, and it certainly is—written by Luther and used in Lutheran churches for almost five hundred years. But the content of the little book is a summary of Christian and scriptural doctrine. Think of the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer. These are not only Lutheran truths; they belong to the entire assembly of believers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have a distinctively Lutheran and biblical foundation that is different from other Christian churches, but they are clearly Christian and not exclusively Lutheran.
Don’t be afraid to use Luther’s Small Catechism as a tool for outreach. Don’t be afraid to point to the truths you learned in your pastor’s confirmation class when talking to others. The brief summary Luther gave us might be a valuable first step to bring the unchurched or mischurched to understand God’s law and gospel.
The Small Catechism is based on Scripture, but it will never take the place of Scripture in our church. Nor should it take the place of reading the Bible in your own spiritual life. Yet it can be a valuable resource. The woman I met reading her catechism used it regularly. When I came to give her private communion in the following months, it was on the table next to her chair. I think she used it to prepare herself for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Another lesson for us all.
Assignment: Read through a section of your catechism every day. Simply read Luther’s words or read the longer explanation of the catechism. When you are finished reading the entire book, go on with something else, but then start reading the catechism again on your next birthday or on the anniversary of your confirmation.
John Braun, chairman of the Reformation 500 Committee, is the executive editor of Forward in Christ.
This is the final article in a six-part series on Luther’s Small Catechism.
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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017
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