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The Small Catechism

I know nothing about sports. But since many of my church members are sports fanatics, I have had to learn a few analogies. One such is the phrase “back to basics.” It means a return to fundamental exercises. The best way to prepare for the overwhelming stress of a tough challenge is to practice the elementary moves of the game over and over.

The phrase “back to basics” has also come up in Bible study, elders’ meetings, and personal counseling. In this context, the “basics” referred to are those found in Luther’s Small Catechism. We’re reminded that the answer to our most trying spiritual challenges can often be found in the plain doctrine first learned in youth. And that’s exactly why Luther wrote it.

Under the papacy, Christians had been taught very little biblical doctrine. Like “sheep having no shepherd,” they were easily swayed by superstition and overwhelmed when it came to God and His Word. Martin Luther rightly identified the need to go back to the basics of scriptural truth.

Over several years, Luther preached on what he considered the six chief parts of Christian doctrine. He exercised these basics himself from the pulpit out loud to refine the words into a “small, plain, simple form” until, in 1529, his Small Catechism was complete.

It begins with the Commandments and the Creed, making clear—in his explanation of each—the stark contrast between Law and Gospel. He considered this fundamental distinction “the highest art in Christendom,” but one which every Christian should be able “to recognize, know, and possess.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, Luther describes our life in God’s kingdom, and how His Word equips us for the spiritual struggles we face.

And in Baptism, the Ministry of the Keys, and the Sacrament of the Altar, he provides a playbook for the heat of the game, directing the Christian to his source of life, the forgiveness of sins in Word and Sacrament.

The end result of Luther’s efforts was a thorough but succinct game plan. By repeating it over and over and learning it by heart, the Christian would be well-equipped to fight the good fight of faith.

The Small Catechism wisely finds a central place in our Lutheran confessions. Other portions of the Book of Concord might venture into more theological depth, but the complex issues handled elsewhere often reference the plain answers of these six chief parts.

It amazes me how often, for preaching and teaching, I return to the Catechism as a reliable outline to the whole counsel of God. When preparing to unpack a difficult passage for Bible study, I frequently find the best explanation in those already familiar words. And many sermon topics come to mind while teaching the Catechism to our youth.

The Lutheran church has been well-served by a “back to basics” approach. For centuries, sermons and liturgies based on a Catechism review were a regular part of our church year. This practice seems to have gone out of vogue only within the early 20th century, when the church transitioned to English.
Sadly, though, there has been a recent trend to de-emphasize the Catechism even for the instruction of children. Memory work is deemed too difficult, its question-answer format not engaging enough. But the churches which decide to “get with the times” and depart from such basics suffer the consequences of their choice.

Our Savior prepared His own disciples for their fiercest challenge by speaking plainly (John 16:29). Our next generation deserves no less. The Catechism does so in the spirit of God’s command that His Word be written “on the tablet of your heart.” (Prov. 7:3).

Its subtle brilliance is that it lets the truths of Scripture speak for themselves, giving it a timeless content, for in those simple words is found the Spirit of God.

Do you remember your Catechism . . . as well as you should? None of us do. “Back to basics!” You won’t be disappointed with the results.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.