Martin Luther (1483-1546), at the age of 43
(…continued) But one piece of Luther’s work is still read by millions– his Small Catechism. Luther would have approved of this wide and continued usage. He considered this little pamphlet his favorite and most important work.
This is because along with being a courageous leader and world-changing reformer, Luther was primarily a pastor and a teacher. He was therefore concerned about the spiritual well-being of his people; and his ‘people,’ or sphere of influence, soon included all of Germany, and then, all of Europe. When he started looking around at the church outside his life in Wittenberg, he was appalled at what he found. Out in the country the churches were in horrible shape. In his preface to the Small Catechism, he wrote that most people did not even know the simplest things, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, and they had no understanding at all of the Gospel of God’s grace and gift of salvation. The clergy were often of little help. Many of them, he found, did not know the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed either.
So Martin Luther, who was used to writing mostly long and deep and complex theological treatises, went to work on something short and simple. In the Spring of 1529 the Small Catechism was published, and this little book has been the primary text for the Christian education of Lutheran young people ever since.
The catechism has five parts, what Luther considered the five basics of the Christian faith that everyone should know something about. Part One is the Ten Commandments, outlining how God wants us to live. Part Two is the Apostle’s Creed, a summary of what we believe. Part Three is the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray, and the best example of how we should speak to God in prayer. Parts Four and Five describe the two Sacraments; the Sacrament of Baptism, by which God gives us his eternal promise, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion, in which God repeats his promise, forgives our sins, and reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice for us. In the Small Catechism, the common person was instructed in what God’s Word said about how to live a Christian life, and how to die with hope in the promises of God.
Another of Luther’s great accomplishments was the translation of the Bible into German, so that everyone could read it. We take for granted that we can read the Bible in our own language, but in Luther’s time, that was a radical, even illegal, innovation. Luther had to go into hiding in order to do this work. He was a hunted man with a price on his head. So with the protection of Duke Frederick, he grew a beard, disguised himself as a soldier, and worked in an upper room in the Wartburg castle for two years to get it done.
Everything Luther did was centered on the Bible and the message of grace that he found there. The battle cry of the Reformation was the phrase, “Word Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone.” Most of all Luther wanted to teach the message of God’s love and forgiveness and gift of salvation won for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The book of Romans became a central text for Luther, with its clear descriptions of salvation by God’s grace alone through Christ Jesus. In chapter three Paul wrote, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe, for there is no difference; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus….”, and then in verse 28, “So we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.”
These were the very words that changed Martin Luther’s whole understanding of Scripture, and then through him, God changed the church. The message of this passage led Luther back to the central message of God’s freely given grace. In his desperate search for peace with God, he found in this passage that he could take comfort in God, instead of God being the primary cause of his discomfort and fear and despair. For the rest of his life, he proclaimed that Good News in whatever way he could, and he was a man of great energy and many talents. As a Biblical scholar, he argued convincingly for the truth of this understanding of the Gospel. As a historian and theologian, he showed the Roman Catholic church that this had indeed been their own theology for many centuries, but over time had been obscured. As a linguist, he translated the Bible into the language of the people, so they could read the Good News for themselves. As a musician he wrote hymns, produced a hymnal, and introduced congregational singing to the worship service. And as a powerful preacher, he proclaimed the Law and the Gospel to everyone, from kings on down to the lowest servants.
Luther proclaimed the Gospel most clearly in his explanation to the second article of the Apostle’s Creed where he wrote: “At great cost, Jesus has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent sufferings and death. All of this he has done so that I might be his own and live with him in his Kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” Our salvation is through Christ Alone, said Luther, based on the Bible, the Word Alone. And how do we get in on this salvation? By Grace Alone and Faith Alone, he said in his explanation to the third article of the creed where he wrote: “I believe I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” And then that second part of the Small Catechism concludes with God’s eternal promise, or, as Luther describes it in these words: “On the last day, God will raise up me and all the dead, and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”