The Lutheran Catechism: Law, Gospel, Discipleship

04 Nov


Guest Post By Jon Alan Schmidt

Contrary to common usage among Lutherans, the term “Catechism,” strictly speaking, refers to neither of the two documents (Large and Small) first published by Martin Luther in 1529 and included in the Book of Concord in 1580. By the time of the Reformation, it was well-established in the Western Church as designating the standard content for basic instruction in the faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, often in that order. Luther’s most obvious innovation was revising this sequence, and he explained his rationale for doing so as follows in his 1522 Personal Prayer Book (from Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 43, pp. 13-14):

Three things a person must know in order to be saved. First, he must know what to do and what to leave undone. Second, when he realizes that he cannot measure up to what he should do or leave undone, he needs to know where to go to find the strength he requires. Third, he must know how to seek and obtain that strength. It is just like a sick person who first has to determine the nature of his sickness, then find out what to do or to leave undone. After that he has to know where to get the medicine which will help him do or leave undone what is right for a healthy person. Third, he has to desire to search for this medicine and to obtain it or have it brought to him.

Thus the commandments teach man to recognize his sickness, enabling him to perceive what he must do or refrain from doing, consent to or refuse, and so he will recognize himself to be a sinful and wicked person. The Creed will teach and show him where to find the medicine—grace—which will help him to become devout and keep the commandments. The Creed points him to God and his mercy, given and made plain to him in Christ. Finally, the Lord’s Prayer teaches all this, namely, through the fulfilment of God’s commandments everything will be given him. In these three are the essentials of the entire Bible.

Luther then added discussions of Holy Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar, since these are the means by which the Great Physician dispenses the medicine of grace to those afflicted by the sickness of sin. These “six chief parts” together comprise The Lutheran Catechism, and its structure reflects the following:

  • The Law instructs us how to think, speak, and act, and reveals our inability to do so perfectly as God the Creator demands.
  • The Gospel offers us forgiveness through the redemption of Jesus Christ, and new life through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.
  • Discipleship is our exercise of faith in constant prayer, daily repentance as a return to Baptism, regular Confession and reception of the Lord’s Supper, and conscientious discharge of our various vocations at home and in the world.

As illustrated by the diagram below, the first six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer recapitulate key aspects of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed, while the seventh petition serves “as the sum of all” by asking God for deliverance from evil. The Sacraments are then His efficacious answer!

Although now widely perceived to be a one-time doctrinal manual to prepare youths for the rite of confirmation, Luther advocated sustained employment of his Small Catechism by people of all ages. Each part is explicitly intended, not primarily for pastors or other church workers, but “as the housefather should teach it in a simple way to his household.” In sixteenth-century Germany, that would have included not only his own immediate and extended family, but also any servants or other employees, and perhaps even their families—a genuine “house church.”

Out of a desire to facilitate such consistent usage, I have decided to create a daily devotional that pairs each item and explanation in the Small Catechism with passages from the corresponding section of the Large Catechism. I am now in the process of arranging the content accordingly, as well as preparing questions to prompt meditation—within one’s own mind, through journaling, or perhaps in conversation with others—and brief accompanying prayers, all of which I am posting each morning at Since Luther did not include Confession as a distinct topic in the Large Catechism, those readings will instead come from relevant portions of his 1537 personal confession of faith, the Smalcald Articles, which was also included in the Book of Concord in 1580.

I began the daily tweets on October 1, so it is not too late to start following them and get caught up. The material will be spread out over twenty-six weeks, such that it can be covered in its entirety twice per year; by comparison, Lutheran pastors in the sixteenth century routinely preached on the Catechism as many as four times per year. I am omitting later additions to the Small Catechism that were likewise left out of the 1580 Book of Concord; these include Andreas Osiander’s 1531 insertion regarding “The Office of the Keys,” as well as “Christian Questions with Their Answers,” which debuted in 1551, five years after Luther’s death.

Luther strongly recommended memorizing not only the basic texts themselves, but also his short explanations in the Small Catechism. I encourage taking his advice, either as an initial step or over the course of the first six months. One helpful discipline for cementing the words in the mind is to recite the six chief parts in their entirety on a weekly basis—for example, the Ten Commandments on Monday, the Apostles’ Creed on Tuesday, the Lord’s Prayer on Wednesday, Holy Baptism on Thursday, Confession on Friday, and the Sacrament of the Altar on Saturday; perhaps appending “Christian Questions with Their Answers” on Sunday, as preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper.

My hope is eventually to publish the results of this labor of love as a book. The project is dedicated to my wife, Irene, my partner in all things, but especially in training up our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6); and to those children, Timothy and Cristina, to whom I have sought to teach The Lutheran Catechism in a simple way throughout their lives. May God richly bless them and all who use this resource as they read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the truths of His holy Word, and then put them into practice as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit!


Jon Alan Schmidt is a professional engineer, amateur philosopher, and LCMS layman who lives in Olathe, Kansas and is a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church.

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Posted by on November 4, 2017 in Uncategorized


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