It might be said, without too much exaggeration, Luther’s Small Catechism was born in the pulpit. Years before its publication in 1529, Luther was preaching on the Catechism, that is, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments. We have an example of the Reformer’s catechetical preaching in the ten sermons he preached in Wittenberg between November 30 and December 18, 1528 (see AE 51:133-193) just weeks before he finished his first draft of the Small Catechism. Luther’s catechetical preaching was at once didactic and kerygmatic as he sought to teach the basics of faith while at the same time strengthening believers to live by God’s promises in Christ. Luther envisioned the Catechism as a hermeneutic for both preachers and hearers.
Preaching asserts the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” This commandment calls for faith, so the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is feared, loved, and trusted above all things. This is to say the God who created all that exists-and there is no other God-makes a particular claim on His creatures. In His holy jealousy, He will not share them with counterfeit deities that promise heaven but deliver hell. Running through each of the remaining nine commandments is the First Commandment. God’s commandments guard and protect the lives of His creatures in this fallen world. When and where they are broken there is accusation, carrying with it God’s own wrath against sin. Catechetical preaching on the Decalogue is anchored in the First Commandment and tied to the threat and promise of the Conclusion:
“God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore, we should also love and trust in Him and gladly do what He commands.”
Luther’s explanations of the individual commandments are not only prohibitive but also prescriptive. God identifies the evil works which we are to avoid even as He shows us the works which He delights in. Our failure to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things is demonstrated in our loving what God hates and our abhorring what God desires. So, God’s Law is always and forever damning everything which is not in Christ. To be sure, God’s Commandments are the path of life and blessing but the only thing they can do with sin and the sinner is condemn. The Law is to be preached for repentance, not self-empowered renovation.
The First Commandment overlaps with the First Article of the Creed. To paraphrase Luther, the First Commandment forbids all false gods. The First Article shows us who the true God is. He is not a distant “supreme being” or an unnamed deity. He is the Father, the almighty maker of Heaven and Earth. In confessing the Creator as Father we are not speaking by analogy or metaphor. The Creator is Father because He has an eternally begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The First Article is preached through the lens of the Second Article. Hence Luther would have us realize all God does for us in creation and how it is done exclusively, “out of fatherly, divine goodness, without any merit and worthiness in me.” Even in the First Article, Luther is confessing justification by faith alone.
The beating heart of the Small Catechism is the Reformer’s priceless confession of the Second Article. In concise poetic prose, Luther tells us who Jesus is and what He has done to become our Lord. He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary. With clarity and utter simplicity Luther summarizes the Chalcedonian confession of the two natures in Christ, rendering it preachable!
What has this Christ done? He has purchased and won me, lost and condemned person, from all sins, death, and the power of the Devil, not with gold or silver but His holy blood and innocent suffering and death. Luther is not bound to one picture of the atonement but brings together the Biblical motifs of ransom (purchased) and victory (won). He is demonstrating how the work of Christ is to be preached not as a theoretical transaction framed by the Law, but as an evangelical necessity of the Christ who actually reconciles humanity to God and God to humanity by dying under the condemnation of the Law on a Roman cross. The outcome of this work is that the crucified and risen Jesus is, “my Lord.” He has redeemed me from the curse of the Law and snatched me from the grip of Satan and the jaws of death. Jesus’ lordship means I am now in His possession, located in His kingdom to serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
The redemption accomplished in the Second Article is delivered in the Third Article as the Holy Spirit calls lost and condemned persons-dead in trespasses and sins-to faith in Christ through the Gospel. The Third Article teaches preachers how this Gospel can never be left in the rear-view mirror. It is always and ever proclaimed anew, just as sin, death, and despair are never absent on this side of the Resurrection. For this reason, Luther asserts, “In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Luther says elsewhere the Christian preacher cannot open his mouth without speaking an absolution. Conversely, a sermon which does not absolve is not a Christian sermon!
Conversely, a sermon which does not absolve is not a Christian sermon!
Christian preaching echoes Luther’s, “This is most certainly true.” The conclusion of each article of the Creed is the foundation for addressing God as, “Our Father,” with all boldness and confidence as dear children speak to a dear father. Preaching evokes such prayer as it equips believers to call not upon an unknown and hidden deity, but on God whose fatherly heart is revealed in Christ. The Lord’s Prayer is the template of the Christian’s life of beggarly neediness even as it is an exposition of the Father’s merciful provision for His children. Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer demonstrates the necessity of the simul et peccator in preaching. Through the Law, God is putting the old Adam to death, “breaking and hindering every evil plan and purpose of the Devil, the world, and our sinful nature which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His Kingdom come.” But it is through the Gospel that God, “strengthens and keeps us firm in this faith until we die.” The outcome of preaching, like the Lord’s Prayer itself, is that we may say, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”
The Small Catechism keeps Baptism present tense in our preaching. It is not merely that I was baptized, but I am baptized. The name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit sticks. Baptism delivers the gifts of the Second Article, working forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the Devil by the Holy Spirit’s Word in and with the water. Faith lays hold of what the Spirit gives, dying daily to sin and daily rising by the promise of the Gospel to the newness of life.
Baptismal death and resurrection are enacted in Confession and Absolution. Here preaching brings the hearer to examine his or her life in light of the Ten Commandments and his/her station in life where sin is anything but generic. Confession of sin is not an end in and of itself. The goal is the Absolution, that is, the forgiveness of sins. Christ’s words placed on the lips of the pastor are not merely descriptive of a forgiveness of sins located elsewhere. They are words which do what they say. They give the forgiveness of sins here on earth.
Christ’s words placed on the lips of the pastor are not merely descriptive of a forgiveness of sins located elsewhere. They are words which do what they say.
The Catechism also teaches us how to preach the Lord’s Supper. On the basis of Jesus’ words, Luther confesses this Sacrament is, “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under bread and wine instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and drink.” The Lord’s Supper is not an extension of Golgotha into the present, nor is it the Christian’s “time travel” back to Calvary. Rather, the body and blood of the One who suffered for our sins is now given us to eat and drink under bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. In preaching and in the Sacrament, the “for you” is indispensable. The Gospel is not merely a recollection of past history. Preaching is not simply the retelling of a historical narrative, but the announcement of what the Lord did when He suffered and died under Pontus Pilate and how it was, “for you.” The forgiveness of sins was achieved in an unrepeatable event of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, but it was not delivered there. Forgiveness of sins is not achieved or accomplished in the Lord’s Supper, but it is delivered in this Sacrament with Christ’s word of promise: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” The Catechism’s exposition of the Lord’s Supper serves to guard and keep preaching evangelical, so the benefits of Christ’s atoning death are predicated to the hearer. His death is for you. The Sacrament makes the promise of preaching explicit.
Luther appended to the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, the daily prayers and table of duties. These take us back to the conclusion of his explanation of the First Article of the Creed: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” God is to be, “thanked and praised,” in the rhythms of daily life as He, “richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life”; morning and evening, rising up from sleep and going to bed at night, and at mealtimes. We acknowledge the Father as the One who opens His hand to donate daily bread to sustain our creaturely lives. Catechetical preaching confronts hearers with the Apostle’s rhetorical question in I Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive?”
God is served and obeyed not by leaving the world behind, but rather in the midst of the world where we now live in the places of life the Creator has so arranged: in the congregation, in the civic community, and in the household. Christians are not drawn out of the mundane but called instead to live in Creation according to God’s command to love and serve the neighbor. Declared righteous by the Word of Christ we now live righteously in the world, daily dying to sin and living in the newness of life as we give of ourselves to the benefit and well-being of those people God has placed in our lives.
Christians are not drawn out of the mundane but called instead to live in Creation according to God’s command to love and serve the neighbor.
Paying attention to the connection of the Table of Duties to the First Article will clarify the preaching of Sanctification. For Luther, the location of Sanctification (as the response of the believer) is not in the Third Article but in the First Article. God carries the action of all the verbs in Luther’s Explanation of the Third Article. The Third Articles takes us to the Second Article where we are made the possession of our Lord Jesus by His suffering and death and given to live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. It is from the Second Article we go to the First Article confessing God as Father through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Sanctification, then, is getting used to the status we have as sons of God through faith in Christ who now recognize and joyfully engage the duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him, not under the compulsion of the Law, but from a “free and merry spirit,” created by the Gospel.
As we said at the beginning of this essay, the Catechism was born in the pulpit. We might also say it this way: the Catechism is at home in the evangelical pulpit, guiding and shaping what the preacher says so faith might be created and love given direction.