During these Wednesdays in Lent, we’re going back to the basics of Christian faith with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as our guide.
Luther wrote this catechism after he and his Reformation colleagues had visited the by then-Lutheran evangelical churches in Saxony soon after they were let go by the Roman Church. Luther and the other Reformation leaders wanted to see if the Gospel was being rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--were being rightly administered.
Luther was horrified by what they saw! He writes in the preface to the catechism, published in 1529: “[Most Christians, he said]...live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come [through the Reformation], they have nicely learned to abuse all [the] freedom [of the Gospel] like experts.”
You can’t be a Christian if you don’t know something of what the Bible teaches, what Christians believe. Apart from that, one’s Christianity may be habit or superstition, but it isn’t saving faith in Jesus Christ.
To cast the light of God’s truth and the Gospel of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Jesus, Luther wrote his catechism. It was composed of six chief parts, plus a table of duties for everyday tasks and living. Today, in our instruction, we tend to focus on only five of the chief parts:
- The Ten Commandments
- The Apostles’ Creed
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Holy Baptism
- Holy Communion
So, tonight, a quick overview of the Ten Commandments. (I urge you to read it for yourself this week.)
The commandments were, of course, given by God to the people of Israel through Moses. In the Hebrew language in which the Old Testament was written, the Ten Commandments are Torah, or instruction or the way. These commandments are the ultimate expression of what theologians call God’s moral law. God gives moral laws elsewhere in the Old Testament; for example in the holiness code of Leviticus. But the Ten Commandments are the ultimate summation of God’s moral law, as valid today as when God first gave them to Moses.
There are other kinds of law in the Old Testament. Two other kinds, in fact.
One is the ritual/sacrificial law. These are the laws and regulations surrounding the offering of sacrifices to God that include mandates on things like diet and feast days. But, of course, the need for sacrifices ended at the moment Jesus died on the cross. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, after referencing the constant sacrifices offered by priests at the Jerusalem temple that could never completely cover human sins, “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Hebrews 10:10-12) While reading about Old Testament ritual / sacrificial law helps us understand Jesus, unlike the moral law, it’s no longer necessary or valid.
The third kind of law in the Old Testament is civil law. Ancient Israel functioned as a theocracy. The civil law God lays down in the Old Testament is like the laws we have today that are administered by courts and law enforcement. Obviously, no nation on earth is a theocracy. (Even the ones that claim to be.) So, those laws, while helping us understand God’s heart, aren’t valid any longer either.
But the moral law, as we see in the Ten Commandments, is forever valid. They express God’s unchanged and unchanging will for the human race. Jesus was referring to this moral law when He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.:” (Matthew 5:17)
Wait, you might be thinking. We’re saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. Why do we need the moral law? Isn’t salvation a get-out-of-hell-free card? While it is true that God’s Law can’t save us from sin or death because none of us are capable of perfectly obeying it--only Christ does that, God has given us this law for three major reasons.
First, God gives us the law as a hedge to prevent all people, Christian or otherwise, from violating God or others. The Bible says that God’s law is “written on our hearts.” Every human being, though sinful by nature, knows the difference between right and wrong. And even the evilest person, when caught in some sin will try to justify it on the basis of the moral law that we all know.
Second, God gives us the law as a mirror to show us that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness God makes available only in Jesus Christ. When I read the Ten Commandments and know, as Jesus tells us in the New Testament, that I violate them even when I think about doing them, I realize I need Jesus as my Savior. (See here and here.) The Law as a mirror of my soul drives me to repentance and new life through submission to Jesus.
Third, God gives us the law as a guide for Christians. In them, God instructs us on how a Christian who wants to live out their gratitude for being saved by grace through faith in Jesus, can do so. When you realize that God has saved you from eternal separation from Him, you’re ready to hear God’s will for you. In the Ten Commandments, God says, “It’s within these gracious boundaries that the blessings of life with Me are experienced.”
In The Small Catechism, Luther penetrates to the underlying meaning of the commandments God gives to the human race He loves.
For example, when explaining the Eighth Commandment, ”You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Luther explains that this isn’t just about refraining from outright lies about others. “We should fear and love God,” he says, “so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.”
He does the same thing with the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Luther shows that with Christ’s death and resurrection, every day is holy, every day is a time to honor God and receive God’s Word. “We should fear and love God,” he says, “so that we do not despise His Word and the preaching of it, but acknowledge it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it.”
Someone has pointed out that what God has given to the world is the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions. But Luther shows that every one of the commandments was given to us by God to point us to Jesus, the One Who has obeyed the Law perfectly and won salvation and new life for the rest of us who don’t keep it perfectly.
In them, God invites us to hold a mirror to our lives and, seeing the ways in which we don’t reflect Jesus living in us, to confess our sins in Jesus’ name and be reconciled again to God.
Over the next week, I’d like to ask you to spend a few moments each day looking at each of the eleven sections of the catechism’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and their conclusion. That means that several days, you’ll look at two sections. That’s OK; they’re really short.
If you don’t have a copy of the catechism, let me know; I’ll order one for you.
You can also find several versions online.
As you look at each command and its explanation, you might want to ask God, “What do you want me to confess, Lord? What new habit do you want me to incorporate into my life today?”
Then, thank God for the gift of Jesus Who brings forgiveness of sin to all who confess their sin and believe in Him for both forgiveness and new and everlasting life with God.
And, no longer a dumb brute or an irrational hog, be at peace with God and yourself. More on The Small Catechism next week.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]