Last week, I wrote about the central question of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: “What does this mean?” We might also ask the same question about the Small Catechism itself. Aside from providing nightmares to thousands of Lutheran teenagers required to memorize its contents, what does the Small Catechism do? What is its value? Why bother?
First, the Small Catechism really is small. There were other catechisms at the time of Martin Luther with hundreds of questions about all sorts of things. Martin Luther thought that was not only unnecessary but unhelpful.
Instead, when he created the Small Catechism, Luther chose the most central pieces of Christian faith: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, the Lord’s Supper, and blessings for morning, evening, and mealtimes. In fact, he even put it in that order on purpose as a teaching tool.
Beginning with the Ten Commandments shows us the law, or, to put it another way, shows us God’s expectations of us. We do not and cannot live up to those expectations. Rather than leaving us in fear or despair, the Small Catechism continues with the Creed in order to show us who God is and what God has done for us. Luther expounds on the Creed, writing, “I believe God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul…[Jesus] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil…the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel… the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sin.”
In only two short sections, the Small Catechism manages to offer law and gospel, guilt and grace. We fail God’s expectations; God provides for, redeems, and forgives us anyway. Well, then, we might ask: what’s the rest of it for?
In a word, the rest of it is for us. Knowing what we have failed to do and what God has done for us in spite of our failure rightly drives us to want to change how we live. But what can we do? Here we might expect a new set of rules. Instead, the Small Catechism directs us to God. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we might both do God’s will and receive and share forgiveness. In Baptism, Confession, and the Lord’s Supper, we see that God instructs us to receive grace and mercy over and over. In the blessings for morning, meals, and night, we see that God is with us at every time of day.
The Small Catechism simply and straightforwardly shows us our relationship with God: we fail. God forgives. We respond. Repeat.
God, I thank you for showing me how much I need you and graciously giving yourself to me. Teach me to respond to your goodness in obedience and love. Amen.
If you want to get deeper into the Small Catechism, you can download a free app for your phone: https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22879/Luther-Small-Catechism-App