Law and Gospel: Luther’s Small Catechism on the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed

Martin Luther’s Small Catechism demonstrates his pastor’s heart. The sections on the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed are introduced with the exhortation, ‘As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.’

Taking each commandment in turn (according to the Lutheran numbering scheme), Luther explains not only what is forbidden, but also the corresponding positive obligations that are implied (and taught elsewhere in Scripture). In this way, Luther gives a simple explanation of the Moral Law – God’s pattern for how we should order our lives.

By showing us how we ought to live, the Ten Commandments inevitably accuse us, demonstrating as they do how far short we fall of God’s standards. And, as James wrote, ‘whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all’ (James 2:10). The Law thus shows us our sinful, fallen state before a just and holy God. It demonstrates that we are deserving of His eternal condemnation.

Our sin having been revealed by the Law, we realize that we are unable in any way by our actions to earn or merit God’s favour. Apart from Christ, we are ‘by nature children of [God’s] wrath’ (Eph. 2:3). We begin to understand that we need Someone who will take away our sins, Someone whose perfect obedience will be counted as ours, so that we can stand without fear of condemnation before Almighty God. The sternness of the Law, then, makes us ready to hear the Good News of the Saviour whom God Himself has in His love, grace and mercy provided for us – even Jesus, His only begotten Son.

It is therefore no accident that Luther in his Small Catechism places the Apostles’ Creed immediately after the Ten Commandments. The second article of the Creed presents to us the answer to the Law’s demands: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for us.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience to the Moral Law that we could not (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified, bearing in our place the punishment for our sinful failure to keep the commands of our Creator God. Jesus died and was buried. On the third day, He rose from the dead, that those who are trusting in Him and His righteousness alone might be declared righteous before God. Jesus ascended into Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there, He shall return to judge the living and the dead.

Here then, are the first two sections of Luther’s Small Catechism.

The Ten Commandments

As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

The First Commandment

Thou shalt have no other gods.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

The Second Commandment

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

The Third Commandment

Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.

The Fourth Commandment

Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother [that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long upon the earth].

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.

The Fifth Commandment

Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].

The Sixth Commandment

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.

The Seventh Commandment

Thou shalt not steal.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].

The Eighth Commandment

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

The Ninth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.

The Tenth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor’s wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty.

What Does God Say of All These Commandments?

Answer:

He says thus (Ex. 20:5–6): I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments.

What does this mean?

Answer: God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.

The Apostles’ Creed

As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.

The First Article: Of Creation

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean?

Answer: I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

The Second Article: Of Redemption

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

What does this mean?

Answer: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

The Third Article: Of Sanctification

I believe in the Holy Ghost; one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?

Answer: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

Photo credit: Sun rise on Mt. Sinai 2, Endlisnis.

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Doulos

δοῦλος Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ. Simul iustus et peccator.

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