The Small Catechism is a brief summary of the most important Christian teachings. In a few pages it sets out all we need to know and believe in order to live as Christians.
It was written by Martin Luther in 1529, but it is not merely a “Lutheran” document: rather, it is a timeless distillation of Christian truth, one from whose insights all Christians can gain a great deal. And for those exploring what the Christian faith is about, this is an excellent place to start.
There are two main sections to the Catechism. The first sets out the fundamental Christian teachings about who God is and what he has done for us:
- The Ten Commandments set out the requirements of God’s Law: how God expects us to live our lives, a standard all of us fail to meet, so showing our need for forgiveness from God.
- The Creed summarises the Bible’s teachings about God, and particularly about his Son, Jesus Christ, who was born as a human being, suffered and died for our sins, and was raised to life again at the first Easter, all so that we could receive the forgiveness that the Ten Commandments show we need.
- The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. However, by teaching us what we should ask God for, the Lord’s Prayer also teaches us a great deal about what God is like and his priorities for his creation and our own lives.
These teachings about God and his love for us – and particularly about the forgiveness, life and salvation that Jesus earned for us – would be of little use unless we had some way of receiving the benefit of these gifts.The second half of the Catechism applies the teachings from the first half to our lives, by showing how we receive God’s blessings in our own lives:
- Holy Baptism: Baptism is the start of the Christian life, in which we receive forgiveness, are rescued from death and the devil, and are given eternal salvation. It is also the basis for our life as Christians, which Luther portrays as a daily return to the waters of Baptism to receive its blessings afresh.
- Confession and The Office of the Keys: The Christian faith is not just about reading words on a page, but about hearing God’s message of forgiveness with our own ears. The essence of confession is not our confession, but the words of absolution we hear from our pastor – words which are spoken, and which we are invited to believe, as if Christ himself were saying them to us.
- The Sacrament of the Altar: better known today as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, this Sacrament lies at the heart of the Christian church’s weekly worship. The Lord’s Supper is not merely a symbolic meal, nor is it something that we offer back to God: it is, as Luther puts it, “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine”, in which “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us”.
- Daily Prayers: If the Lord’s Supper is at the heart of our weekly worship together, the heart of our daily lives as Christians is prayer. Ever practical, Luther sets out four short forms of prayer for use at key times of the day – on waking, before sleep, and before and after meals.