Series Introduction: This year, the Lutheran Sentinel will feature articles that highlight the six chief parts of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. In his “Preface” to the Large Catechism, Luther encourages Christians to study their catechisms. “Many regard the Catechism as a simple, silly teaching which they can absorb and master at one reading.” “As for myself, …I too, am a doctor and a preacher…. Yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism.” “I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish….” (Book of Concord, Tappert, pages 358-239). The Bible remains the source of God’s revelations to mankind; the Lutheran Confessions express in clear words what God teaches in the Bible.
In our culture, philosophy and lifestyles have given God’s moral law a severe beating. His laws regarding life and marriage (Commandments five and six) are regarded as “un-modern” and “un-enlightened.” Commandments four and seven have been ignored by those who disrespect authority and private property. With the long prosperity our nation has experienced, many people think that greed and displaying wealth are good virtues. Foul language becomes “power words.” Fewer people are attending worship services and polls indicate that there is a growing, though still small, percentage of people in the world who claim to be atheists.
If modern society has turned away from God’s Law, what use is it to us? What purpose do His Commandments serve? The Explanation teaches the purposes, or uses, of the Law: a curb, a mirror, and a guide. Whenever God’s Law is proclaimed, it serves all three uses. However, each use has a different intended hearer.
God’s Law works as a curb to all people in the world. Along with our conscience, it declares to all people what words, actions, and thoughts are pure and true and which are wicked in God’s sight. The curb highlights the second table of the Law by forbidding murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and greed—and also requires protecting life, marriage, property, a good name, and the house and business of others.
The most important use of the Law is that of the mirror, where people see themselves as God does. The Law exposes sin, as St. Paul wrote: “I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7). This use of the Law kills man’s pride and enlightens him to the impossibility of keeping it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the mirror to show sin, stating, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus then taught that not only our actions are condemned by the Law, but also our thoughts—hatred is murder, lustful thoughts are adultery, and taking false oaths is forbidden, as is vengeance. Jesus then declares God’s requirement of the Law: “You shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The third use of the Law is addressed to believers, giving them a guide as to how they are to live as forgiven children of Christ. This use is for only those who have repented of their sins and received God’s forgiveness in absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. St. Paul writes to believers, “Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, and offering and a sacrifice to God…for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Ephesians 5:2, 9). Walking in the light of truth means avoiding what is evil and serving our neighbor in Christian love. These are not self-chosen works, but those God has given us in His Law.
St. Paul identified a fourth use or purpose of God’s Law: “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). God’s Law declares that everything we do is tainted by sin so that “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Since the Law cannot save us, but produces only death, God sent Jesus to keep His Law perfectly and to sacrifice His life in our place to pay sin’s punishment.
Each day we should thank God for His Law—the conscience that protects us from evil, the condemnations that show us our sins, and the commandments that guide us to how we can thank God for His mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.