The Catechism — Learning God’s Word by Heart
Training in God’s Word begins at home. With this in mind, Luther wrote this heading before each part of the Catechism, “In the plain form in which the head of the family shall teach them to his household” (ELS Catechism 2001 Explanation, p. 13). Teaching and learning the words of the catechism is to take place at home. In confirmation class and Sunday school, the pastor and teachers are assisting the parents with the task God has given to them.
God has entrusted parents with the task of teaching their children God’s Word. “You shall teach them diligently to your children” (Dt 6: 7). This command to parents to teach their children God’s Word is repeated in the New Testament, “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
God desires that His words be in our heart (Dt 6:7). They are to become part of us, as we cling to them as the foundation of our faith. These are the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68), pointing us to Jesus as our only Savior from sin.
How are we to learn God’s Word and the Catechism by heart? Deuteronomy 6 tells us how:
1. By repetition: The words in Hebrew for “teach diligently” (v. 7) are the same as for sharpening of a knife and imply repeating the words over and over again. This is done at home as the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed are prayed together and as parents review the parts of the Catechism with their children. This repetition is aided greatly by frequent church attendance, as the Lord’s Prayer and Creed are prayed together in the service, the Ten Commandments are applied to our lives, we hear the main passages concerning baptism in the baptismal rite, and the Words of Institution are used and explained in the Communion liturgy.
2. Talk about them (v. 7): The word “talk” here is not making a speech or giving a formal presentation, but talking about them as you would a football game or the weather or how your day went. This means God’s Word is to be so much a part of our daily lives that we talk about it around the dinner table, while doing chores, or during commercials.
3. “Talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (v. 7). Learning the Catechism by heart is not done by “cramming” it into your head at the last minute in the bus or car on the way to class. Take a few moments to repeat portions of the catechism when you’re sitting around, going about your daily routine. It is especially easy to find a quiet moment when you get up and are eating breakfast or are waiting for your turn in the shower. When you lie down, right before bed, when you’re saying your bedtime prayers is another time to take a couple minutes each day to go over your memory work.
4. “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (v. 8). The children of Israel would carry little boxes with portions of God’s Word inside them on their foreheads and hands. We too can carry a small, portable catechism around with us each day in a folder or backpack, so that we can take it out and review it during the day when we have a few extra minutes.
5. “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (v. 9). By writing out passages from God’s Word and the Catechism, they go up your arm and into your brain. They may be written in a notebook or on index cards, which can serve as flashcards.
6. Notice in this passage how many senses are being used here to learn God’s Word by heart- hearing, touch, and sight. Learning God’s Word by heart will not be done by just reading a passage over and over, but by speaking it aloud, hearing it over and over again, keeping it before your eyes, and writing it.
Why learn God’s Word by heart? Learning God’s Word by heart equips us to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). We are strengthened and comforted in times of sorrow and affliction. Learning God’s Word by heart provides us with offensive and defensive weapons for fighting against the temptations of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.
What is our motivation for learning God’s Word by heart? The above words from Deuteronomy 6 are preceded by a confession of faith. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Dt 6:6) God is our gracious Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. He has given us all our needs of body and soul by His grace and mercy. We respond in faith and love to Him (Dt 6:5). Learning God’s Word by heart is a joyful response of faith in the one true God.