Lesson 2: The Ten Commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism

The Ten CommandmentsI do not intend to examine every part of the catechism. You can do that yourself here. Instead, I shall highlight some of the more important parts of Luther’s explanations, especially emphasizing some of his distinctive insights.

He numbered the commandments just as he was taught in the Catholic Church. The first three included those that dealt with our relationship with God and the remaining seven our relationship with other people.

Luther’s explanations Christianize these Old Testament rules. What appears in negative form as “do not…,” he transformed into positive guidelines. Like Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, he believed true obedience must arise from the heart.

Consider the magnificent way he succinctly does this. Luther explains “You shall not murder” with “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Or “You shall not commit adultery” with “We should lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife should love and honor each other.”

You realize the commandments call for more than outward compliance when Luther reads the one about stealing as calling us to help our neighbor “to improve and protect his possessions and income,” or the one about giving false testimony as a call to defend our neighbor, “speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way”, or not coveting as helping our neighbor keep his possessions.

Sure, we might be a little put off when he translates honoring parents as obeying all authorities, yet we have to appreciate his understanding of this as loving and cherishing those who have the responsibility of leadership.

Luther also turns the commands about God into creative guidelines. The prohibition against misusing God’s name goes beyond cursing and using his name in deception to calling upon the name of God in every trouble. The command becomes a call to prayer that centers on praising and thanking God.

His explanation of the Third Commandment also adopts a New Testament perspective. Early on, Christians stopped observing the actual Sabbath day. Luther’s explanation gets to the heart of the matter when he interprets keeping the Sabbath holy as “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

By this point it becomes clear Luther reads his entire theology from the perspective of God’s grace. No one can really obey the commandments unless God pours Christ’s love into her heart. This radical understanding of the relationship between God and humans is only intensified in the rest of the catechism

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