Every Lutheran, from confirmation age on up, if they don’t remember the exact words to every part of the Catechism, at least remembers these words: “What does this mean?” It’s a phrase that carries more weight than we often give it credit for. Our Catechism doesn’t ask “What does this mean to you?” as if to say the chief articles of the faith only have meaning when contextualized in your own personal experience.
Instead, “What does this mean?” puts the chief parts of our faith into their proper context. It wraps them around words and phrases from Scripture that explain them and create a safeguard so that the basic teachings of our faith aren’t ripped out of context and distorted. Christ is at the center of all our teachings. Distorting the basic teachings of the faith shifts Christ away from the center.
The first chief part of the Catechism is the Ten Commandments. Given by God in Exodus 20, they inform us about our relationship with God and people around us. They form the basis of God’s moral law, the law which God inscribed on the hearts of all people even before He inscribed the Ten Commandments in stone. The Commandments reveal to us the laws we already know by nature, such as that killing is evil, stealing is wrong, and that we owe something to God.
But they also reveal what we wouldn’t otherwise know: That we are unable to keep the Commands and that we are unable to do what God’s moral law demands. God’s Ten Commandments drive us to despair of ourselves and to look elsewhere for help and salvation. That’s where God’s work of creation, justification, and sanctification revealed in the Creed come in (more on that next issue).
The order of the Commandments is also important. The First Commandment is the chief commandment, the fountain and source from which all the others flow. It explains what it means to have a god and what our relationship with the true God should be. Luther summed up the meaning to this commandment in his Large Catechism: “[It as if God were saying:] whatever you lack of good things, expect it from Me. Look to Me for it. And whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl and cling to Me… Only do not let your heart cleave to or rest on any other.” If we would follow this commandment completely, then we would follow every other commandment perfectly as well. In trusting God completely, we wouldn’t have reason to steal, to lust, to covet, or any other sin. But of course the Commandments, like a mirror, also show us that we can never have such great trust.
The Fourth Commandment is the first and greatest of the second table of the commands. It explains what our relationship with our neighbor is supposed to be: that we love them. And more than that, the Fourth Commandment explains what our relationship with those in a position of authority over us is supposed to be: that we honor them. Honoring authorities means trusting them for the blessings that God has promised to provide through them. Keeping this commandment also means keeping the last six commandments.
OUT OF CONTEXT
Luther, in his preface to the Large Catechism, warned against the danger of imagining that once we have read the Catechism, we think we know it all and have no reason to keep learning or reading. Once we think like this, we use our experience to judge the Catechism rather than letting the Catechism judge our experience.
Experience tells us that feelings are our moral Supreme Court, that the standard by which we know something is right or wrong is the reaction either we or someone else has to a certain action. The last thing we want to do is make someone feel bad, so we judge our actions based on how we make someone else feel. Ironically, “Thou shall not judge” has become the fountain and source from which all other actions are judged according to the world and our own sinful flesh. Whether or not unborn babies deserve to live is judged according to the standard of how a mother feels about it. Whether or not we should speak poorly of someone is based on whether or not that person first did something that caused another person or group to be offended. Not only is this letting experience judge the Catechism, this is mixing up the order of the Commandments.
Rather than letting the First Commandment inform all the others, we’d rather let a distorted version of the Fifth or Eighth Commandment inform all of our actions: “How someone feels is more important than what God desires.”
IN OUR CONTEXT
Luther may have written the Small Catechism 488 years ago (published in May 1529), but sin and grace haven’t changed. People seem to be finding new ways to sin, but no sin is not covered by the Ten Commandments. There is also no sin that Jesus’ blood does not cover. The Commandments should drive us to repentance and to trust in Jesus’ keeping of them on our behalf. The Ten Commandments and all the rest of the chief parts of the Catechism point us to what God has done for all people.
Luther wrote, “It must be true that whoever knows the Ten Commandments perfectly must know all the Scriptures [Matthew 7:12]… And what, indeed, is the entire Book of Psalms but thoughts and exercises upon the First Commandment?” To understand Scripture is to understand the Catechism, and to understand the Catechism is to understand what Scripture means.
What the chief articles of the faith mean to you is important. In fact, that’s the point of confirmation. As you are reviewed, you are asked to confess what you believe. “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). We do this because Christ is coming again soon, and we hold fast to the faith we have so that no one may rip heaven away from us (Revelation 3:11).
Luther intended the Catechism to be a book used not only at church, but one that would be regularly used at home. We’re blessed in the ELS to have the entire Small Catechism contained in our hymnal, the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, another necessary item for every household. So why not use the Catechism in your context at home? Ask, “What does God mean in it?” And then, “What does this mean for me?”
Reverend Jeff Hendrix
Calvary Lutheran Church, Ulen, MN
Grace Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN