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Open your Catechism: Part: 6

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

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Open your Catechism: Part 5

Forgiveness is a daily need for all Christians, and God provides that necessary gift freely.

John A. Braun

In the morning, we prepare for the day ahead. We usually have a regular routine that might include taking a shower, brushing our teeth, and putting on clean clothes for the day’s activities. The routine is different for everyone, but we all understand the process, and we have trained ourselves to do what we need to do each morning. We know that we get dirty every day. Some days are worse than others. So we clean up and go on.

Our spiritual life each day follows a similar pattern. Oh, yes, we do some things that our Savior might commend with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But we also know the failures and sins that drive us to hide from the face of God like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.

Those sins and failures soil us. Sometimes they burden us, but, as children of God, we do not cringe and hide. We know God’s love. He has made us his children and washed away our sins—cleansed us in the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). So we come to him penitently asking, “Lord, have mercy!” He responds, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). Our hearts and souls are washed, and we go on. It’s a pattern we know. It’s like cleaning up and getting ready for the next day—only spiritually.

God cleanses us

God knows we need the cleansing of his forgiveness, and he richly provides it. By faith in Jesus we are living stones in his church. And we are not alone. We all have the same need every day: the cleansing of forgiveness. Luther captured that idea in his Large Catechism: “Everything, therefore, in the Christian church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here” (LC 2:55).

How does God do that? He continues to give forgiveness

to us through the means of grace: the gospel in Word and sacrament. Washed by that forgiveness, we are ready to live as children of God. Luther again observed, “So, until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit abides with the holy congregation or Christendom. Through this congregation He brings us to Christ and He teaches and preaches to us the Word. By the Word He works and promotes sanctification, causing this congregation daily to grow and to become strong in the faith and its fruit, which He produces” (LC 2:53).

Baptism

You learned about the means of grace—perhaps long ago—so let’s review the lesson. For most of us, the gospel came first in Baptism.

Baptism is not simple water only. It is water connected with God’s Word. Once that combination occurs, Baptism gives forgiveness, life, and salvation. That’s God’s promise (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). “In Baptism there is freely brought to everyone’s door such a treasure and medicine that it utterly destroys death and preserves all people alive” (LC 4:43). Baptism does not depend on us. We are not baptized because we believe and decide to love Jesus. God forgives first and works to give us faith by our baptism.

While apparently simple—water and God’s Word—Baptism is a profound means of grace. The wonder is that God does not withdraw the forgiveness he so freely offers. Each of us was baptized with the words, “I baptize you (your name: John, Jenny, Joe, or Kathy), in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Once you are baptized, God’s forgiveness is there with your name on it. He does not withdraw it even if you wander as a prodigal and abandon his forgiveness. It’s always there for you to take in faith—to return to if you fall away.

You can use your baptism daily to receive the forgiveness God has placed at your door. When troubled by sin, you can return to your baptism—repenting of your sins; asking God, “Have mercy on me;” and then remembering that God has washed your sins away. He has not abandoned you but gives you forgiveness. “So a truly Christian life is nothing other than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever to be continued” (LC 4:65).

The Keys and Confession

We are part of Christ’s church and come together regularly for cleansing so we can go on to live for Christ. When we come together for worship, God assures us of forgiveness. We come together as believers soiled by our sins. Together we confess our sins. We stand before God seeking his forgiveness, and he freely gives it to us when the pastor turns and says, “As a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins.”

The pastor also shares the gospel of forgiveness in other ways in our worship. We call him to do that in the Absolution, in the liturgy, and in his sermon. Through the gospel, the pastor announces that God places forgiveness before us, within reach of the faith he has created in our hearts. Sometimes our sins still make us feel dirty even after we hear the words of absolution. Then we have the option to come privately to the pastor or another Christian for forgiveness of those sins that trouble us.

In our daily life we have the same treasure of forgiveness to give to others. To our children when they sin and are troubled by disobedience. To our spouses we sometimes hurt and who also hurt us. To others who have sinned against us. Forgiveness announced in these situations is forgiveness from God.

The Sacrament of the Altar

The Lord’s Supper is a special treasure. We receive Christ’s body in, with, and under the bread and Christ’s blood in, with, and under the wine. We remember what his body and blood accomplished: our forgiveness. We receive what was “given” and “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

Luther makes a comment similar to his words about Baptism, “The treasure, indeed, is open and placed at everyone’s door, yes, upon his table. But it is necessary that you also claim it and confidently view it as the words tell you. This is the entire Christian preparation for receiving this Sacrament worthily” (LC 5:35,36).

In many ways, God abundantly gives us what we need the most: forgiveness, and with it life and salvation. He has set up, instituted, and founded the ways the gospel brings us the blessings of his grace. In the Sacrament of the Altar our faith reaches out and grasps what washes away sin and removes its guilt so that we can go on and live as forgiven children of God—washed and ready for each day’s challenges.

Assignment: Read through Luther’s exposition of Baptism, the Ministry of the Keys and Confession, and Holy Communion. When you attend worship, note how many times you are assured of God’s love and forgiveness for you.

 

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

This is the fifth article in a six-part series on Luther’s Small Catechism.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Open your Catechism: Part 4

The Lord’s Prayer comes from the lips of Jesus as he teaches his disciples how to pray. His prayer still carries our deepest needs to our heavenly Father.

John A. Braun

The Ten Commandments convict us of sin every time we read them. Perhaps that’s why we don’t like to read them. And when we do, we sometimes try to escape their accusing finger just like children squirming to avoid responsibility for disobedience. We ignore the accusation. We make excuses. We compare our behavior with others who appear to be worse than we are. Avoidance has a thousand coats.

Yet, God has changed us. He shares the gospel with us, and through the gospel the Holy Spirit has made us new creatures. We still are not perfect as God demands, but we are forgiven believers who value the treasure of God’s love in Jesus. Luther said we are “only half pure and holy” while we live here. The good we want to do sometimes doesn’t get done, and the evil we do not want to do tumbles out of our mouths and pops up in our actions and behavior.

The change does, however, leave us with a different outlook. We are forgiven, and we see the world and our lives differently. We know there is a heavenly Father who loves us, but we also see that the world is opposed to our loving God. We are different from the world as well.

We pray!

Living in an imperfect world and faced with our own failings, Jesus invites us to turn to our heavenly Father in prayer. Even though he was perfect, he often prayed to his heavenly Father. The disciples were well aware of his prayer life as Jesus often went off alone to pray. So they asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). His answer to their request was the prayer we say so often that it sometimes becomes just a stream of words. But the Lord’s Prayer carries the real needs of Christians living in an imperfect world to God.

First, a note about prayer. That note is tied to the first words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven.” Luther captures the attitude we should have as we pray “boldly and confidently as dear children ask their dear father.” I’ll admit that in our world today not everyone has a “dear father.” But God is that dear Father some do not have in this imperfect world. So we pray because he promises to listen when we do.

Our requests

We come to him asking, “Hallowed be your name.” In this imperfect world we see so many occasions when God’s name is dishonored. We see people living without any thought to morality and decency. Even Christians tarnish God’s name by what they teach and by what they do. So we ask God to keep us from falling into these patterns and to help us bring honor and glory to his name.

“Your kingdom come” is another request that flows from what we see going on around us. Again and again we see believers in Christ belittled, ridiculed, and even persecuted. We note the terrorists trying to kill those who confess Jesus. We are told by the world that the church is for fools and the superstitious. This all frustrates and concerns us. Yet God continues to add believers to his church through the gospel. His kingdom does come in spite of the opposition. We pray it will continue.

“Your will be done.” When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane he concluded his heartfelt prayer with the words, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). So as we live in this imperfect world, we must trust that all will happen according to his will. That’s the way it happens in heaven. Here we often wonder how he is doing things, but we are asked to trust God as he guards and protects us and defends us as he decides. Even when we don’t understand, we trust that it is all in his hands. He promises that all will work out for the good of his people even if we must suffer.

Daily bread? In the middle of the prayer, Jesus adds a request for our daily needs. It’s a reminder that “the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time” (Psalm 145:15). As long as God leaves us in this imperfect world, we require all the necessities of life to continue to live as his children. So we boldly ask our heavenly Father for what we need to live so we might let our light shine in this troubled world.

Of course, we need more than food to be God’s children. We need regular doses of forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer asks God for the vital spiritual food we need to keep faith alive—forgiveness in Jesus. We are then prepared to live as lights in this world. Once we are forgiven, we can find the strength to forgive others. Often that is a difficult task, even for Christians. But our example is Jesus. He was spit upon and ridiculed, but he forgave those who hurt him. He forgave us, unworthy though we are. Forgive us, Lord, and help us forgive others.

“Lead us not into temptation.” We are surrounded by ideas and attitudes that are different from what God expects. At times we might feel like the psalmist: “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong” (Psalm 73:3,4). We can so easily be tempted to abandon our faith in Jesus and simply join the other side. It’s appropriate to ask God to keep us faithful in the midst of all the temptations we face.

Finally, we ask God to “deliver us from evil.” Our goal as Christians is to finish our race and receive the crown of righteousness. The road may be difficult at times, but we know what awaits us at the end of our journey. How often we have sung “Heaven is My Home” or remembered God’s promise, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10 ESV). So we pray that along life’s journey God would give us the strength, protection, endurance, and patience to arrive in his glorious presence.

So we pray the short little prayer Jesus taught us. He’s listening. He promised he would. He always answers, so “his will be done” here for us and for other believers. Amen. Amen!

The Lord’s Prayer carries the real needs of Christians living in an imperfect world to God.

Assignment: Read through Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. Use each petition to create a prayer list and then pray for the things on your list.

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

This is the fourth article in a six-part series on Luther’s Small Catechism.

 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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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 wels.net/interactivefaith.


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

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Open your catechism

Luther’s Small Catechism still is important to us in today’s world.

John A. Braun

Where is yours? Your catechism? Mine is on the shelf, still sporting the tape I used to keep it together so many years ago. I guess you could say my old catechism is a memento of my confirmation. I haven’t looked at it in years, although, as you might expect, I have used different editions of the catechism over the years.

For many, the catechism might be little more than a memento still on the shelf or in a box somewhere. It might have been discarded or given to a younger brother or sister. Maybe the last time you thought about the catechism was when your kids were learning what you learned years ago.

Luther’s Small Catechism is the most widely known work of Martin Luther. Aside from some of Luther’s hymns, it’s also the most widely used, and it has been translated into almost as many languages as the Bible.

So why am I asking if you know where your catechism is? Luther suggests, “Many see the catechism as a poor, common teaching, which they can read through once and immediately understand. They can throw the book into a corner and be ashamed to read it again. . . . But for myself I say this . . . I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. . . . I must still read and study [it] daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish.”

He went on to encourage us all: “Catechism study is the most effective help against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts. It helps to be occupied with God’s Word, to speak it, and meditate on it, just as the first Psalm declares people blessed who meditate on God’s Law day and night” (Longer Preface to the Large Catechism).

So find your catechism. It’s a good place to start as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year.

The need for written works

When Luther began preaching in Wittenberg already in 1516, his sermons often addressed the topics of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed. Priests and monks had been using those topics long before Luther began his work in Wittenberg. But the clergy had taught people what they needed to do to gain heaven. At first Luther struggled with this approach, never knowing whether he had done enough.

Luther soon learned that no one, not even he, can do enough to get a pass into heaven. But his study of the Scriptures assured him that Jesus had done enough—not just for him but for all sinners. That brought him comfort and a stronger faith in Jesus.

After that, Luther had a deep passion to help laypeople understand the gospel he learned. Some of his sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer were among the works he published. In 1522 he also wrote a little book called Personal Prayer Book to help the “lowly Christian” understand the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer correctly. The little book, along with his other publications, helped spread the ideas of the Reformation.

Steps to printing the catechism

But a series of events caused Luther to take another step. In 1527, five years after first publishing Personal Prayer Book, the reformers in Saxony wanted to assess what people knew about their new faith. They visited the parishes in the territory and discovered a “deplorable, miserable condition.” Many had “no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. . . . Many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach” and most “cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs” (Preface of the Small Catechism).

What should be done? Luther continued to preach each year on the three topics and added sermons on Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. His colleagues worked on catechisms and instructional material, but finally Luther was convinced that he had to write a brief handbook of Christian doctrine. From the sermons he had preached he drew material for The Large Catechism, which was published in March 1529. In May 1529, he finished The Small Catechism for Ordinary Pastors and Preachers. Both books were written to help pastors of congregations teach the chief Christian doctrines to their laypeople. The Small Catechism was an immediate best seller.

Luther had large posters printed of the chief parts of the catechism for congregations to hang on the walls in their churches, schools, and homes so the people could recite them together. Remember that the catechism Luther wrote was small and was the chief parts we memorized and learned in confirmation class. Our catechisms today also contain an “Exposition of Luther’s Catechism,” a much longer section with explanations and Bible passages.

The catechism remains important

We still use Luther’s little book almost five hundred years after its first printing. Today when congregations call pastors, they require the pastor “to instruct our catechumens in the Word of God, as it is taught in the Small Catechism of Doctor Martin Luther” (Pastor Call Form). Luther’s Small Catechism has stood the test of time, and most of us can still recite some portions of it.

Why is it important? Luther described his goal in the foreword of his Personal Prayer Book. What he wrote also applies to the Small Catechism:

It is just like a sick person who first has to determine the nature of his sickness, then find out what to do or to leave undone. After that he has to know where to get the medicine which will help him do or leave undone what is right for a healthy person. Third, he has to desire to search for this medicine and to obtain it or have it brought to him. Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, p. 13

What does that mean to us? We are sick whether we realize it or not. Sin still infects all humans, including us, and makes us sick to death. We have a naturally sinful tendency to minimize our sins or to go about our daily lives thinking we can make ourselves spiritually healthy. The Ten Commandments force us to confront our failures and faults. They help us remember the nature of our sickness—sin. But they offer no real hope or healing. The only place to find the medicine to heal our hearts and lives is the gospel. The Creed reminds us what God has done and continues to do for us by grace. That’s the gospel and God’s powerful balm for sin. Once we find the gospel’s healing, we turn to the Lord in prayer—his prayer—seeking his grace for all our needs.

But this is not a single event in our lives. Again and again, yes, daily, we discover the infection of sin is not yet gone. So we review and repeat the process: Confess our sin, trust in the forgiveness, and humbly pray for God’s mercy and grace. That’s why we should review the catechism regularly.

Assignment: Find your catechism.

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

This is the first 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 wels.net/interactivefaith.

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

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