Essential Christian Classics: Luther’s Large Catechism


In a dark, murky Facebook Group, the Grace for Sinners staff discussed essential Christian books. With a focus on books that are often neglected, this series will provoke Christians today to connect to their history. This does not insinuate modern books are irrelevant—just that their lasting importance is yet to be determined.

Martin Luther’s Large Catechism holds a special place in my development as a Christian. Coming from a Baptist rearing, I went through a tumultuous period becoming convinced of monergistic salvation and infant baptism. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was crucial in this conversion. Seeking doctrinal council, I also consulted Martin Luther’s Large Catechism and Michael Horton’s Introduction to Covenant Theology. Though I would ultimately side with Calvin and Horton, Luther’s Large Catechism humbled me.

In the introduction Luther states, “I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it [the catechism] as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain. And yet these delicate, fastidious fellows would with one reading promptly be doctors above all doctors, know everything and be in need of nothing.” The statement struck a younger me as frivolous and exaggerated. However, as I read through the great doctor’s analysis of the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer my egotism was crushed. In the best sense, I’ve never recovered. Every theological book I crack open I read with humility (even when I know I’ll disagree). So what makes Luther’s Catechism so special? It’s simplicity, focus on essentials, and overview of the faith.

Simplicity

I’ve just enumerated how this catechism crushed me, so please do not presume simplicity means there is nothing complicated worth learning from the little book. No. Simplicity draws attention to the manner in which Luther’s catechism speaks to the average person. The great truths provided are brought low in such a manner as to make application to the smallest of children. Luther, in discussing the fourth commandment, speaks to the great holiness that avails itself to children, “Thus there would have been no need of inventing monasticism nor spiritual orders, but every child would have abided by this commandment, and could have directed his conscience to God and said: ‘If I am to do good and holy works, I know of none better than to render all honor and obedience to my parents, because God has Himself commanded it. For what God commands must be much and far nobler than everything that we may devise ourselves.’”

Throughout Luther’s Catechism, the truths taught are brought near to the heart for building up and ordinary living. Luther elevates the casual workings of a person by supplying a valuable understanding of Christian obedience. Luther’s fundamental doctrine of vocation undergirds his entire method of application and this applies itself to the average laymen excellently. With this in mind, Luther enumerates the importance in teaching these applicable truths, “It is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it, or are learning, and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”

Essentials

Not in contrast to its simplicity, Luther’s Catechism touches on all of the essential doctrines of the Scripture. Though doctrine is sometimes pitted against ordinary living, this divide barely exists in Luther’s work. The basis of these doctrinal statements is The Apostle’s Creed which remains the great statement of faith for liturgical churches. The important doctrines of the early church are sufficiently taught in memorizing this creed but Luther’s expositions are an added benefit.

Similarly with the Ten Commandments, Luther teaches them in such a way as to make them essential in understanding the Scriptures, “For it needs must be that whoever knows the Ten Commandments perfectly must know all the Scriptures, so that, in all affairs and cases, he can advise, help, comfort, judge, and decide both spiritual and temporal matters, and is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, spirits, laws, and whatever else is in the world.” “All the Scriptures” might seem like an exaggeration but I have found none who teach the Ten Commandments with the spiritual insight of Luther. Even as I reside in the Reformed tradition, I still seek Luther’s understanding and application of these essential commandments.

Overview

Ultimately Luther’s Catechism provides a complete overview of the Christian faith. It is not, however, to be confused with a systematic study. The essential doctrines are adequately conveyed as previously mentioned. In addition, Luther’s discussion of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism (including Infant Baptism), and the Lord’s Supper leaves no piece of ecclesiastical life without discussion. Every pertinent element of living a faithful Christian life is covered in this catechism. Though non-Lutherans will disagree with him on the sacraments, Luther’s teaching edifies and is valuable as doctrinal resource.

In just a few brief pages, The Large Catechism provides an overview of the Christian faith, highlighting the essentials, and applying them with pastoral insight. It does not take long to read and reveals the theological insights of one of the Reformation’s greatest minds. It deserves to be read by every Christian in spite of ecclesiastical differences.


Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @AustinPreterism and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.