The Small Catechism: The Christian’s Book for Life


What comes to mind when you hear the word “catechism?” You might think of a book of question and answers, a textbook for learning the Christian faith.  The word might make you think of a classroom setting and being quizzed over memorization.

Yet Luther’s Small Catechism is much more than that.  “The Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as they are included in Luther’s works [are] the Bible of the laity, wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Rule and Norm 5).

As “the laymen’s Bible,” the Small Catechism is the Christian’s book throughout life. Catechetical instruction does not begin with confirmation class, nor does it begin in the church.  Each of the six chief parts of the Small Catechism begins with the heading “as the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household.” Many resources are now available which take the text of Luther’s Small Catechism and apply them to the various stages and contexts of the Christian life, from infancy to adulthood.

One does not have to wait until their child knows how to read.  For infants and toddlers, a great place to start is the board books by Julie Stiegemeyer: “Things I See in Church,” “Things I Hear in Church,” “Colors I See in Church,” etc.  These books especially introduce the concepts of Word and Sacrament, Confession and Absolution, Baptism and Communion in a visually appealing way.  For preschoolers, the “Follow and Do” series contains the text of each part of the Small Catechism along with illustration and examples that bring the catechism into daily life situations.

The Small Catechism also provides an excellent outline for learning Bible stories in Sunday School or at home.  Ambassador Publications has arranged each level of their Sunday School series around one of the first three parts of the Catechism: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  For upper elementary students, the old Growing in Christ book by Concordia contained each of the six chief parts, questions from the explanation to the catechism, and a Bible story that illustrates each individual commandment, petition, etc.  This helps reinforce that the parts of the catechism do not exist in a vacuum and do not appear only in their proof texts but also are connected with Biblical narratives where Bible figures lived out the catechism. In recent years, this has been republished as Living in Christ. For junior high through adult students, Peter Bender’s Catechesis also uses Bible stories to teach each section of the Catechism.

Luther’s Small Catechism is an excellent devotional tool.  It has been called “the only catechism that can be prayed.”  Luther taught his barber, Peter, “A Simple Way to Pray,” using the catechism.  To assist with praying the Catechism, the ELS has produced I Pray the Catechism, a prayer book formulated from the six chief parts, prayed in the first person singular.  As Luther Taught the Word of Truth by Richard Lauersdorf  contains devotions based on the Small Catechism.  The Lord Will Answer is a daily prayer catechism, which has a question from the LCMS explanation of the catechism for each day, Bible verses for meditation, and a prayer based on the catechism portion.

Not only may the catechism be studied, memorized, and prayed, it may also be sung.  Luther himself led the way in composing a hymn based on each part of the catechism:

  1. The Ten Commandments: “That Man a Godly Life Might Live”
  2. The Creed: “We All Believe in One True God”
  3. The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, Thou in Heaven Above”
  4. Holy Baptism: “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord”
  5. The Office of the Keys and Confession :”From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee”
  6. The Sacrament of the Altar : “O Lord, We Praise Thee”

The brevity and simplicity of the Small Catechism translates into various media.  The catechism was originally printed as large posters featuring each of the six chief parts.  Concordia Theological Seminary- Fort Wayne and Ambassador Publications have revived this genre. For audio learners, the catechism is available in both read and chanted form.  CPH has produced a comic book version for visual learners. This week the ELS released its explanation of the Small Catechism in electronic format for iPad, Nook, Kindle, and other e-readers.  In this way the Small Catechism has truly become interactive and searchable at the push of a button.

The Small Catechism is the Christian’s book for life.  It is not something we outgrow or graduate from.  As Luther himself wrote, “But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher, yea, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and ever morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain” (Large Catechism, Preface 7-8).


Lord, help us ever to retain
The catechism’s doctrine plain
As Luther taught the word of truth
In simple style to tender youth.
(Ludwig Helmbold, 1594; tr. Matthias Loy, 1880, alt.)

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