Intro to the Small Catechism

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Have you ever read Martin Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism? It’s found in the 1986 version of the Catechism at the back of the book, pg. 243 if you want to look it up. It’s very good reading and will give you a peek into the writing style of Martin Luther, and the reason for Luther to write the Catechism. It was written after Luther and several others went throughout Saxony to visit parishes and the state of the reformation in each of them. What they found was deplorable.

The people were largely ignorant of Christian doctrine, and even pastors were unable to teach and largely incompetent. Luther uses the preface to the Small Catechism to encourage bishops to educate and train the pastors under their care. Luther also encouraged fathers to teach the Catechism to their children, and servants, even going as far as stating that if any of the servants, or children didn’t want to learn it, they should not receive their dinner until they do.

Sounds cruel, but Luther’s point was that receiving instruction in the Christian faith is of the utmost importance. Priorities matter, and while food is important, it is not as important as learning about the God who saved our eternal soul from sin and death. This isn’t to say that Luther wants us to force the faith on others, but this is for those who are already Christian, yet refuse to learn the doctrine of the church.

Luther’s goal in writing the Catechism was to bring Christian doctrine and bring it into the home in a very easy to understand form. He broke the Christian faith down into five parts, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Later in his life, a part on the Office of the Keys and Confession and Absolution was added to the Catechism. Luther never objected to the addition and it has remained in our Catechism even today. The Catechism was meant to be a “layman’s Bible” providing the correct summary of the Bible and how humanity has fallen short of God’s design, and God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ. Because of that fact, Luther prepared his catechism in a poster form so that it could be posted on the walls of homes and fathers could point to the poster and teach his children in each of the chief parts.

Luther structured his catechism very purposely, making it a move from the law to the gospel. The Catechism starts with the Ten Commandments, which display the law in its full force and shows us how we have fallen short of the design that God has for us. Then comes the Apostles’ Creed, which outlines the work of God in creating us, saving us, and sanctifying us. Having been granted faith and saved from our sins, Luther moves to how we relate to the God who saved us in the Lord’s Prayer. Luther then addresses the Christian life as he goes into the sacraments, and how God has worked to save us, and how He continues to enlighten us with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Whereas most catechisms of the late medieval era focused on confession and penance and works of satisfaction, Luther designed his catechism to focus on man’s failure to live according to the Law and God’s salvation of man through Jesus Christ delivered through Word and sacraments.

I would like to walk us together through the chief parts of the Small Catechism over the next six months. Next month we’ll begin our trek through God’s plan of salvation as we look at the Ten Commandments.

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Tim Schneider

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