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.

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