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Luther’s Catechism — A Treasure of the Reformation

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9 NIV).

The Apostle Paul wrote these words to Titus to give him direction for appointing elders within congregations. These are words that are applicable to all of us. Simply change the “he” to “we” where it appears above. How can we achieve this? During the period of Reformation, confessions (formal doctrinal statements) were written, defining and presenting the true doctrine of God as clearly taught by the Word of God. The theologians of that day, along with the princes who served as courageous leaders in the Reformation, published these confessions so that all might know the truth and reject error. So we have the confessions of the Lutheran Church, which are often thought of as pretty difficult stuff, written by theologians for theologians.

Martin Luther earnestly desired that not only pastors and elders be well versed in the truth of God’s Word, but that fathers be able to educate their children in the basic truths of God’s Word. To this end Luther wrote his Small and Large Catechisms. These two volumes, presenting the chief parts of Christian doctrine in a concise and simple manner, are also recognized as important parts of the confessions of the Lutheran Church.

The format of the Catechism is important for us to notice and appreciate. In Luther’s Small Catechism, the chief parts of Christian doctrine are presented in a form that is not only easily read and understood, but also concise enough to be committed to memory. This should not be an exercise reserved for our young children preparing for confirmation. We all have good reason to become reacquainted with the words of the Catechism. In our day, every bit as much as in the days of Martin Luther, we see exactly what the Apostle Paul foretold. He wrote to Timothy: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4 NIV).

Luther’s Catechism is an excellent response to this exhortation of the Apostle. Luther presents the truth of God’s Word in each of the Ten Commandments, and then asks, “What does this mean?” He leads us to appreciate the truth of the means of grace and asks, “Where is this written?” Always Luther directs us, in his precious little books, back into the Word, the source of all truth.

So often we find ourselves challenged by the world concerning our faith. Too often, in response, we cringe within ourselves as we struggle to give the right answer, the answer that has authority behind it (not “I think” or “My church teaches”). Knowing and memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism, and reading and studying Luther’s Large Catechism, present us with the answers for a wide range of topics. These answers possess the authority of the Word of God, and place the right words to speak directly onto our lips.

A continuing review of the Catechism should be a part of each of our devotional lives. If you ever wonder how it is that your pastor seems to come up with those answers to your questions in Bible Class, often it is simply because he is teaching the Catechism to your children, and Luther’s presentation of the Lord’s Word is fresh in his mind. Find Luther’s Small Catechism, then read it, and yes, even memorize it once again. Then, with the Spirit’s blessing, you will “. . . hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that you can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9 NIV).

Theodore Barthels is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Minnesota.