Luther’s Small Catechism and Lent

luthercatechismDr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism has been associated with the season of Lent since the time Luther first published in chart in time for Lent in 1529.

In his sermon of March 25, 1529, he says: “This exhortation ought not only to move us older ones, but also the young and the children. Therefore you parents ought to instruct and educate them in the doctrine of the Lord: the Decalog, the Creed, the Prayer, and the Sacraments. Such children ought also to be admitted to the Table that they may be partakers” [of the Lord’s Supper]. (W. 30, 1, 233.)
(Bente, Historical Introductions, IX sec. 104 )

Our parish is one of many that has a long standing practice of reviewing one chief part each week during the Lenten season. In our practice the Catechism is read responsively in the mid-week services: with the Pastor reading the headings and questions, the congregation responding with the text of the Catechism. This is coordinated with hymns thematic to that part of the Small Catechism as well as a homily on the Scripture from which that part of the Small Catechism is drawn. In his Short Preface to the Large Catechism, Luther wrote:

For you must not rely upon it that the young people will learn and retain these things from the sermon alone. 25] When these parts have been well learned, you may, as a supplement and to fortify them, lay before them also some psalms or hymns, which have been composed on these parts, and thus lead the young into the Scriptures, and make daily progress therein. (Short Preface, 24-25)

Our general outline for this yearly practice is as follows:

  • Ash Wednesday: The Ten Commandments-The Law Of God
  • Lent 1 Wednesday: The Creed-The Gospel of God
  • Lent 2 Wednesday: The Lord’s Prayer-The Response of Faith
  • Lent 3 Wednesday: The Sacrament of Baptism
  • Lent 4 Wednesday: The Office of the Keys and Confession
  • Lent 5 Wednesday: The Sacrament of the Altar
  • Maundy Thursday: Christian Questions and Answers

This schedule misses two parts: Daily Prayers, and The Table of Duties. These are covered elsewhere in the Church Year (Daily Prayers on Easter 6: Rogate, Table of Duties on Trinity 23).

The Structure of the Catechism and Teaching

While teaching the parts of the Catechism it is important to keep the whole in mind to understand how the parts relate to each other and why they are there.

How the Parts Work Together

The division of the Small Catechism into six chief parts plus the three extra parts gives us a convenient mnemonic device.

That mnemonic device is, The Trinity and the Number 3.

One can remember that there are three sections of the Small Catechism with Three Parts each.

  • The first section focusing on the What of the Christian Faith.
  • The second section focusing on the How and Where of the Christian Faith.
  • The third section focusing on the Application of the Christian Faith.

The First Section: The “What” of the Christian Faith

The first section holds the first three chief parts, which consist of

  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Creed (Three Article)
  • The Lord’s Prayer (Seven Petitions)

These parts all are quotations from Scripture.

The Commandments are from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; the Creed is a narrative chaining of quotations from many different passages through Scripture; and the Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11.

In this first section we do not ask the question “Where is this written?” So when the Three Chief Parts of this section are taught, we should point to the chapters and verses where these teachings are written down. Pastors should be able to do this from memory. There are many different places where lists of passages for each of the phrases of the Creed are given. (See, for example Norm Fisher’s The Nicene Creed According To Scripture which applies to the Apostles’ Creed as well)

This first section gathers the teaching of Scripture on the substance of the Christian Faith: The What. So we ask “What does this mean?”

In three consecutive sections we are confronted with the Law, The Gospel, and the Response of Faith.

The Ten commandments teach us about the problem we have with God and our neighbor. This is the Law.

The Creed teaches us about the solution God provides through the Father’s creation, providence, preservation and the specific saving work of the Son of God Incarnate for us; and the work of the Holy Spirit in calling us into this faith and preserving us in this faith until the resurrection.

The Lord’s Prayer is where Christ teaches us how faith in Him responds to God’s Grace. Because we have been made alive and declared innocent through faith in Christ, we are now His brothers and sisters by this divine adoption. We may now call Christ’s Father “Our” Father. An unbeliever may use the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but an unbeliever never can pray to the Heavenly Father. For prayer is a response of faith in Christ alone.

Error creeps in when one or more of these three parts is replaced with something else–as when God’s work of eternal redemption is reduced to a formula for some benefit in this world, or when the Law is taught as a means of salvation, or when some Commandment is ignored or a statement of the Creed is denied.

Error also creeps in when the proper relationship and balance between these three parts is changed–as when the Law and Gospel are confused or not properly distinguished, or when prayer is made into something other than simply the Christian’s response of faith.

Luther wrote of the three parts of this first section in the Preface to the Large Catechism:

15] These are the most necessary parts which one should first learn to repeat word for word, 16] and which our children should be accustomed to recite daily when they arise in the morning, when they sit down to their meals, and when they retire at night; and until they repeat them, they should be given neither food nor drink. 17] Likewise every head of a household is obliged to do the same with respect to his domestics, man-servants and maid-servants, and not to keep them in his house if they do not know these things and are unwilling to learn them. 18] For a person who is so rude and unruly as to be unwilling to learn these things is not to be tolerated; for in these three parts everything that we have in the Scriptures is comprehended in short, plain, and simple terms. 19] For the holy Fathers or apostles (whoever they were) have thus embraced in a summary the doctrine, life, wisdom, and art of Christians, of which they speak and treat, and with which they are occupied.

The Second Section: The “How” and “Where” of the Christian Faith

The second section consists of the next trio: the teachings on

  • Baptism,
  • The Office of the Keys and Confession, and
  • The Lord’s Super.

These are the Gifts given by Christ that we call the Means of Grace. That is, these are the ways Christ said is “How” He gives us faith, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. These gifts of Christ show us “Where” we may find God’s grace. So we ask “Where is this written?”

In this second section we are directed to the very words Christ spoke when He gave His promise of grace and forgiveness through these Means of Grace. Attached to these words in Scripture is His promise that these gifts are what He says they are, and that He actually gives and does what He promises through these gifts.

Each of these three parts brings us to focus on the Scripture that shows that these Means of Grace are not works that we do to participate in or earn our salvation. The Scripture cited shows that these Means: Baptism, the Keys, and the Supper are God’s works for us and among us.

Christian faith is built only by God. God promises He will create and sustain faith through these visible Means. He gives us these gifts in His written Word. And these gifts are His visible/audible application of that same Gospel.

Error creeps in when an individual does not believe the promise Christ gave and recorded for us in Scripture about these Gifts. When we doubt God’s Word about how He gives grace, forgiveness, and eternal life through these gifts of Word and Sacrament, then we are despising God’s grace. This happens when people view the Means of Grace as merely symbols of God’s love rather than as the actual Means where God says He gives His grace.

Error creeps in when Baptism, Absolution, and the Supper are twisted into works of human righteousness rather than God’s works for sinful humans. That is, what the Bible says about the work and grace of God in these gifts is denied when we think of the Sacraments as things we do to show God that we are sincere, dedicated, or obedient people.

These gifts, the Means of Grace, are the heart and center of the assembling of believers for the Divine Service. Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession, and the Lord’s Supper are, in fact, the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These gifts are the only God’ given Means through which God says He gives us His grace. And His Word and Sacrament are the only place we can go to grow in faith in God, and in knowledge of His will and promise.

Do you wish to know how to find God? Where can we seek His grace and kindness?

Here is where God says His grace may be sought. Here is where He promised to be found. This is how He builds you up, creates faith, forgives, and causes you to inherit eternal life.

The Third Section: The Application to Our Lives

The third section contains the final set of three:

  • Daily Prayer
  • The Table of Duties
  • Christian Questions and Answers

This section focuses on the application of Law and Gospel and of the Means of Grace upon our every day life as Christians living in the fallen world and waiting for the Resurrection.

As an application, these three parts are essentially describing how a the faith of a Christian responds to God’s grace under the Cross of Christ. The threefold presentation of this response of faith is arranged in a way that shows how the application of our faith in life directs us to focus back again to the Means of Grace as the place where God comes to us to give us life, forgiveness, and redemption.

First, we are directed to develop the Christian habit of prayer every day combined with learning from God’s Word and reflecting on the Law and the Gospel.

Second, in the Table of Duties we are directed to Scripture so we can understand our every day calling and duties as citizens in of the three main kinds of authority God has established: Church, State, and Household. Here we learn from Scripture the nature and limits of these kinds of authority, and our obligations as we live in each of these separate estates.

And third, The Christian Questions and Answers bring us to recognize our need for God’s grace to us, to encourage us and prepare us for a Scriptural trust and regular reliance upon that Grace given to us in the Lord’s Supper.

This section highlights life under the Cross of Christ and the source for our life. It directs us to live lives of thanksgiving for God’s grace to us both in His providence and in His saving Grace through Christ.

In this part we are directed not to hope that this life is all there is, but that through Christ and His Means of Grace God does secure us for the resurrection to eternal life.

Lent and the Small Catechism

In our parish, as Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with a call to repentance, the First Chief Part-The Ten Commandments, are read responsively. The call to repentance is based in the actual declaration of the Law of God and not upon any contrived law or regulation of sinful man.

As the season progresses so also the whole counsel of God is presented leading to the focus in the last week upon the Lord’s Supper. On Maundy Thursday the Christian Questions and Answers are read responsively as part of the Exhortation for the Lord’s Supper.

All of this is preparation for four things: first is to help us properly focus on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, the benefits of which we receive through the Means of Grace. Second is to help us to appreciate the great salvation the Eternal God won for us by His incarnation, humiliation, and conquest of Satan, sin and death. Third, is the help prepare us for this life or repentance and dependence upon God alone under the cross-in the case that Christ does not call us home. And last, to help prepare us for our death and resurrection, that we may be dressed in the bridal gown of our Baptisms in Christ’s righteousness and not our own as we are called before the throne to be with Him in eternity.

The teaching of Scripture summarized in the Small Catechism is vital, essential. Luther wrote of the importance of continued study and learning of the Catechism in this way:

But those who are unwilling to learn it should be told that they deny Christ and are no Christians, neither should they be admitted to the Sacrament, accepted as sponsors at baptism, nor exercise any part of Christian liberty, but should simply be turned back to the Pope and his officials, yea, to the devil himself. Moreover, their parents and employers should refuse them food and drink, and [they would also do well if they were to] notify them that the prince will drive such rude people from the country, etc.
For although we cannot and should not force any one to believe, yet we should insist and urge the people that they know what is right and wrong with those among whom they dwell and wish to make their living. For whoever desires to reside in a town must know and observe the town laws, the protection of which he wishes to enjoy, no matter whether he is a believer or at heart and in private a rogue or knave.
(Preface to the Small Catechism)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.