If you are a Lutheran adult, you probably fall into one of three categories:
- You know the text of the Small Catechism by heart.
- You knew the text of the Small Catechism when you were in confirmation, but you don’t remember it now.
- You were never expected to know the text of the Small Catechism, and you don’t know it.
If you fall into one of the latter two categories (I was a 2), you may ask yourself, “Why is it important to learn (or relearn) the text of the catechism?” Let’s take a look at some thoughts.
Some guy named Luther
Luther did not shy away from his opinion on the matter. Here is the beginning of his short preface to the Large Catechism:
This sermon is designed and undertaken to be an instruction for children and the simple folk. Therefore, in ancient times it was called in Greek catechism (i.e., instruction for children). It teaches what every Christian must know. So a person who does not know this catechism could not be counted as a Christian or be admitted to any Sacrament, just as a mechanic who does not understand the rules and customs of his trade is expelled and considered incapable. Therefore, we must have the young learn well and fluently the parts of the catechism or instruction for children, diligently exercise themselves in them, and keep them busy with these parts.
Therefore, it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and see what they know or are learning from the catechism. And if they do not know the catechism, he should keep them learning it faithfully. For I well remember the time—indeed, even now it happens daily—that one finds rude, old persons who knew nothing and still know nothing about these things. Yet they go to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and use everything belonging to Christians, even though people who come to the Lord’s Supper ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and new scholars. However, for the common people we are satisfied if they know the three “parts.” These have remained in Christendom from of old, though little of them has been taught and used correctly until both young and old (who are called Christians and wish to be so) are well trained in them and familiar with them. These parts are the following.
Luther goes on to list out the text of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. He then states:
These are the most necessary parts of Christian teaching that one should first learn to repeat word for word. And our children should be used to reciting them daily when they rise in the morning, when they sit down to their meals, and when they go to bed at night.
Needless to say, it’s clear that Luther put a high expectation on knowing the text of the Small Catechism. In it we find the basis of our doctrine. (On top of all of that, he put the book together, so we should probably expect him to have a high regard for it.)
Some guy named Chemnitz
The “second Martin,” Martin Chemnitz, was a wonderful pastor and confessor of the faith. It has been said that without the “second Martin,” Luther’s works would not be known today. We remember Chemnitz every year on November 9.
In the book Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion, Chemnitz lays out an examination for pastors who do not have the highest level of training. In the questions and answers, we find this question:
Which are the Chief Parts into Which the Whole Doctrine of the Divine Word or Sacred Scriptures Can Be Divided and Summarized?
He goes on to describe where Christ has laid out our doctrine in the sum of Scripture and shows different texts that point toward what we believe. He closes the question with this statement:
The sum of Christian doctrine, finally is also contained in very simple form in the chief parts of the Catechism and consists in the doctrine of the Law, or Decalog, and the doctrine of the Gospel.
To paraphrase, the sum of Christian doctrine can be found in simple form in the catechism. That seems like a good reason to learn the text of the Small Catechism.
Some guy named Joe
Because of the Reformers, we know how important understanding our doctrine is. It truly is important. For the sake of not falling into a universalist world where we affirm everything someone says in the name of Christianity, we should desire to confess the truth.
You know, let’s add to that last thought—desire to confess the truth. It’s not that it isn’t true on its own. We should desire to confess the truth. But there is another way to look at it. The Law has three uses:
- The curb: helps stop the open outbreak of sin
- The mirror: points the Law at us and shows us our sin
- The guide: shows us how God desires us to live our lives
There is joy in the third use! We GET to confess the truth. We have the joy in knowing that we are baptized into Christ’s death. We have already died! Christ has raised us through His death and paid for all of our sins! What a different view this is. We get to do the things that God has laid out in front of us in the Ten Commandments: We get to worship the God of Creation, the eternal trinity. We get to speak about Him in truth. We get to go worship Him and have Him deliver the Means of Grace to us. We get to confess who God is in the words of the Creed. We get to ask our Father the things that Jesus taught us to ask Him. We get to do all of those things! What a joy!
Since we get to confess the truth, let’s go back to that original statement I made, that we should desire to confess the truth. Because we get to confess the truth and want to know what the truth is, the words of Luther’s Small Catechism are the simplest and easiest-to-understand words that we can put on our hearts, our minds, and our lips.
The original question
“Why is it important to learn (or relearn) the text of the catechism?” It’s important because it points to the truth. These simple words point to Christ. They teach us the truth. In them, we find God’s true love for us in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Now that we have talked about the why, next week we will talk about practical ideas to help you memorize the text found in Luther’s Small Catechism.
Quotations from the Lutheran Confessions are from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, copyright © 2005, 2006 by Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Quotations from Martin Chemnitz are from Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion, copyright © 1981 by Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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