Luther’s Small Catechism on the Ten Commandments: Introduction

In times past, many Christians used to educate their children and new converts in the basics of the Christian faith by way of catechisms.

Some still do.

The rest of us might want to give the idea some serious thought, for our times are not so very different from those in which Luther found himself:

The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the holy Sacraments. Yet they cannot recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.
— from Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism

Luther continues, delivering an acerbic rebuke to those church leaders who have allowed this situation to occur:

O you bishops! What will you ever answer to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office? May all misfortune flee you! [I do not wish at this place to invoke evil on your heads.] You command the Sacrament in one form and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care in the least whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God. Woe, woe, unto you forever!

Does Luther’s admonishment not have a striking relevance for much of the church today?

He proceeds, with practical measures to remedy the situation:

Therefore I entreat you all for God’s sake, my dear sirs and brethren, who are pastors or preachers, to devote yourselves heartily to your office, to have pity on the people who are entrusted to you, and to help us inculcate the Catechism upon the people, and especially upon the young. And let those of you who cannot do better take these tables and forms and impress them, word for word, on the people, as follows:

In the first place, let the preacher above all be careful to avoid many kinds of or various texts and forms of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc., but choose one form to which he adheres, and which he inculcates all the time, year after year. For young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher today teaches them thus, and in a year some other way, as if he wished to make improvements, and thus all effort and labour is lost.

Also our blessed fathers understood this well; for they all used the same form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Therefore we, too, should teach the young and simple people these parts in such a way as not to change a syllable, or set them forth and repeat them one year differently than in another.

Hence, choose whatever form you please, and adhere to it forever. But when you preach in the presence of learned and intelligent men, you may exhibit your skill, and may present these parts in as varied and intricate ways and give them as masterly turns as you are able. But with the young people stick to one fixed, permanent form and manner, and teach them, first of all, these parts, namely, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., according to the text, word for word, so that they, too, can repeat it in the same manner after you and commit it to memory.

I especially love what Luther says in his Small Catechism concerning the Ten Commandments. He explains each one, ‘As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.’ So, over the next few days, I’m going to post what Luther says about each commandment.

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