February 1: Note to the Preface – In his preface to the Small Catechism, Luther expresses his frustration over laypeople’s abusing the freedom of the Gospel. However, in this preface he also focuses on the clergy’s faults and failings. He chastises and rebukes lazy pastors who do as little as possible when it comes to preaching and teaching, and who are lax in their own personal prayer and meditation on God’s Word. As usual, Luther doesn’t tread lightly when expressing his concerns. He laments that people regard learning the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer as childish. He explains how he daily recites these texts and studies them. Luther takes pastors to the woodshed for neglecting to teach their congregations carefully. He provides many reasons for continued and careful reading and studying of the Bible.
February 2: Note to the Short Preface of Dr. Martin Luther – Note that Luther never intended the Small and Large Catechisms to be only “church books,” but rather “house books” –to be used in everyone’s homes. In fact, Luther suggests that those who do not know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer by heart should not receive the Lord’s Supper. He provides these texts as the most necessary parts of Christian doctrine, which should be learned until they can be repeated, word for word, by heart, from memory. Luther was always concerned that, in their preaching and teaching, pastors should speak and teach in a very clear, simple, easily understood way so that people would remember what was preached or taught.
February 3: Note to the First Commandment – Luther spends more time on the First Commandment than on any other portion of the Catechism, explaining how essential it is to know, trust, and believe in the true God and to let nothing take His place. He was convinced that where this commandment was being kept, all other commandments would follow. A right relationship with God produces right relationship with fellow human beings.
February 4: Note to the Second Commandment – The First Commandment instructs our heart toward God. This commandment guides our lips. Using God’s name to cover up lies or spread falsehood is a great evil and sin, and it happens in many ways in life. There is no greater sin against the Second Commandment than using God’s name to preach, teach, and spread false doctrine. Luther explains how to use God’s name properly and how to take an oath without sin. By faith, our hearts and our mouths honor God by confessing Him and His Word purely. Notice how Luther recommends beginning and ending each day, and each meal, by making the sign of the cross and commending ourselves to God. Making the sign of the cross is not a “Roman Catholic” practice, but has its roots in the earliest years of the Church. It is a visible way to remind ourselves who we are and how we have been redeemed by the cross of Jesus Christ.
February 5: Note to the Third Commandment – Luther begins by defining “holy day” and by explain how by Christ’s time the true understanding of the Sabbath had been corrupted. Because the Third Commandment describes Jewish practice in the Old Testament, Luther plainly states that the external form of this law does not apply to Christians. It is an error to say that Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath. Christians should regularly devote themselves to a day when they can hear and learn God’s Word, so that they do not despise it. For this reason Luther commends worship on Sunday for the sake of good order. In this sense, every day for the Christian should be a “holy day” consecrated by God’s Word. Luther presents a clever play on words when he suggests there is only one “holy thing.” The German word for “holy things” (Heiligtum) was often used to refer to relics, items believed to have belonged to the apostles and other saints. Yet Luther says the only true “holy thing” is God’s Word, which consecrates all things and apart from which nothing we do or say is holy.
February 6: Note to the Fourth Commandment – Commandments four through ten describe relationships with our fellow humans. Here Luther’s understanding of “vocation” is apparent. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.” God calls everyone to certain rolls, or stations, in life. In this commandment, Luther describes our duty before God to honor father and mother, that is, to respect authority. God instituted all forms of authority as an extension of parental authority, for our good. There are various parental authorities, or “fathers,” in our lives, including pastors, teachers, and government officials. Another insight by Luther is about the life of good works to which Christians are called. We should not regard “Church work” as more holy than the other things in life that we routinely do. Rather, all callings and stations in life serve God and are opportunities for us to obey God’s commandments and to serve our neighbors. The key observation Luther offers is this: faith is what makes a person holy. Faith alone. Good works serve God by serving other people.
February 7: Note to the Fifth Commandment – Luther distinguishes between spiritual and civil government and authority, which we commonly refer to as the doctrine of the two kingdoms. God takes care of us in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacraments, the means of grace. In our homes He cares for us through our parents. In the world, he cares for us by means of civil government. God gives to the civil government authority to punish criminals and, when necessary, to execute them. The spiritual meaning of this commandment is that we are not to “kill” our neighbor in our hearts, with our thoughts, with our words, or with our hands. No one has the right, on his or her own authority, to murder another person. Only God may take a human life, and He entrusts this authority to civil rulers. So Christians can in good conscience wage war and punish and execute criminals under rightful government authority. Luther goes on to explain that we break the Fifth Commandment not only by acting against it, but also when we fail to protect our neighbor. To explain this commandment, Luther relies on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Matthew 5:46-47.
February 8: Note to the Sixth Commandment – Luther had been married for almost four years when he wrote the Large Catechism. His former life as a monk makes his comments on the Sixth Commandment all the more interesting and powerful. Luther keenly discerns that chastity is not a matter of vowing to live a celibate life, but of honoring God and one’s spouse with one’s whole being: thoughts, words, and actions. Marriage should be cherished and honored as a divine estate. God created this institution before all others and blessed it above all the rest: and since He brings children into the world through it, He provides all other estates for its support and benefit. Luther condemns forced celibacy within the Roman Church, but recognizes that God does not exempt some from married life, either because they are unsuited to it or because they possess the supernatural gift of chastity. The Sixth Commandment releases those who have taken a vow of chastity but who have not been given this supernatural gift. For Luther, God intended marriage not only to prevent sin, but also as a means by which husband and wives love and cherish each other. Marriage is a precious good work far superior to the contrived spiritual estates of monks and nuns.
February 9: Note to the Seventh Commandment – Stealing is not only physically robbing another’s possessions, but it is also taking advantage of other people. Luther was very concerned about unjust business practices. His comments particularly challenge us today, since we live in a culture built on free-market economy and generally agree that any price charged to people is morally acceptable. On the other hand, Luther points out how working people also steal from their employers by not giving a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Though written over 475 years ago, Luther’s comments on the Seventh Commandment are amazingly relevant and timely, and they point out the biblical distinction between the two kingdoms. For example, toward the end of this discussion, Luther wisely notes that the duty of the Church is to reprove sin and teach the Word of God. It is the duty of governing authorities to restrain lawlessness. The Church, as a spiritual institution, does not order society or enact societal laws; this is solely the duty of the government.
February 10: Note to the Eighth Commandment – This commandment was given to protect one’s name and reputation. Communicating in ways that do not uphold our neighbors name and reputation break this commandment. The greatest violators are false prophets who, by their false doctrine, speak ill of God and His name. If you are aware of something negative about our neighbor, but have no authority to act, we should remain silent and not speak of it. However, when the proper authorities call upon us to speak to the matter, we will do so honestly. Also, if we are aware of something that requires the attention of public authorities, we will share it with them. Luther clearly states that civil magistrates, pastors, and parents must act upon hearing of something requiring their attention. Luther carefully distinguishes between secret sins and open, public sins. Secret sins should not be made public. However, when the error is open we have every right, even the duty, to speak publicly about it and to testify against the person involved. Speaking publicly about another person’s public error or sin is not bearing false witness, nor is it a violation of Matthew 18. Luther concludes that putting “the best construction on everything” is a fine and noble virtue.
February 11: Note to the Ninth and Tenth Commandment – Luther said that God gave these two commandments to ensure His people knew that stealing is not only the physical act of taking unjustly from another, but is also the desiring of something that is not ours, such as our neighbor’s wife, servants, or any property belonging to our neighbor. These commandments are not broken with the hand or the mouth but with the heart. They remind people who consider themselves virtuous that they too, by nature, sin. Toward the end of his explanation, Luther offers a powerful and critical theological insight. All the commandments constantly accuse us of sin and reveal to us where we stand under the Law in God’s eyes: guilty! This is the chief purpose of the Law, to show us our sin.
February 12: Note to the Conclusion of the Ten Commandments – The Ten Commandments always accuse. That is their chief use. They also serve as a rough curb against gross outbreaks of sin. But they also function as the “true fountain” from which all good works must spring. We never have to try to invent or create works to do that are pleasing to God or go beyond what He has given us. In these Ten Commandments we have the guide we need to understand what truly pleases God. Some of Luther’s most powerful remarks about the difference between God’s Ten Commandments and man-made Church rules are found here. Luther thunders against the pomposity and false teaching that certain “Church works” are better in God’s eyes than the simple, humble, lowly works of common life, such as a young girl taking care of a little child. He provides a brief summary of the commandments and again shows how the First Commandment is the fountain for all the rest. God has given us a great treasure by giving us the Ten Commandments.
February 13: Note to the Apostles’ Creed – The Ten Commandments show us what we are and are not to do, but the Creed shows us the One who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us. Luther broke with longstanding Church tradition by divining the Creed into three main portions. Prior to Luther’s time the Creed had been divided into twelve parts. This division was based on the legend that each apostle had contributed one part of the Creed. Luther does away with such foolish speculation and focuses properly on each person of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (See the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds; AC I and III; SA I; SA II; FC Ep VIII and SD VIII.)
February 14: Note to Article I – Through His Word, God calls forth the words we speak back to Him. In this way, Luther says, the entire Creed is a response to the First Commandment. Since God is the maker of heaven and earth, we realize that all we are, all we will ever become, and all we possess depends entirely on our Creator. All He does for us, all He daily provides – indeed His warding off of dangers of every description – are merely part of His many blessings. For this reason, we are duty bound to love, praise, thank, and devote to Him all the works set forth in the Ten Commandments. Luther laments how few people actually believe what the Creed teaches about our utter dependence on God. However, daily study of this article leads us to recognize God’s fatherly and loving heart. We confess His greatest treasure for us in the Second and Third Articles of the Creed.
February 15: Note to Article II – God withholds nothing from us, but gives all that we need for our life on earth. Even more, He gives us all that we need for eternal life with Him in heaven. Luther focuses on the one phrase he believes is the very essence of this article: “in Jesus Christ, . . . our Lord.” Providing a sweeping description of Creation and the fall, Luther notes that the word we includes every single person in the horrible drama of the Garden of Eden. In that sin we all fell away from God and were doomed to everlasting damnation. Yet Christ, our Lord, came and snatched us from the jaws of hell. This description of Christ’s victory over Satan would have been very familiar to the people who first read the Large Catechism. Many paintings from that era depict hell with horrifying detail, showing men and women being led into the gaping mouth of a dragon like creature. Luther uses the biblical motif of Christ as Victor to describe His work of salvation for us. Jesus offered His own precious blood as satisfaction for our sins. This article of the Creed is essential for proper understanding and confession of the Gospel.
February 16: Note to Article III – The salvation Christ won on the cross has truly come to pass (objective reality). But unless the Holly Spirit applies that salvation to us personally and individually (subjectively), it will remain hidden from us. Sanctification is often understood to refer to our good works. Here Luther uses it, as the Bible often does, to describe the entire work of the Holy Spirit brining us salvation, including justification. Luther drives home the point that “Church” is, first and foremost, the people of the Holy Spirit is gathering together through the preaching of the Gospel. It is not primarily a building or an institution. Luther suggests it is best to understand the “communion of saints” as a “community of saints” or a “holy community.” It is not holy because of their works, but because of the Holy Spirit’s work in their midst. Within the Church the Holy Spirit, through preaching and through “signs” (that is, the sacraments), forgives us and keeps us in faith. Therefore, in this sense, it is right to say that outside the Church there is no salvation. This is not because of an infallible papacy, but because of what is going on by the Spirit’s power. He works the forgiveness of sins and continues that work to the very end of time. (See AC VII/VIII; SA III XII.)
February 17: Note to the Lord’s Prayer – As Christians, prayer is a constant in our life, for we are always in need of God’s mercy. Christ gave us the Lord’s Prayer so that we will both know how to pray and for what to pray. Prayer is a habit for the Christian, but experience teaches that it is a habit easily broken. While mindless and unthinking repetition presents a problem, repeating the same prayer throughout one’s life does not. In his Small Catechism, Luther advises the use of set forms and patterns of prayer and recommends devoting times throughout each day to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Because the prayer Jesus taught us is God’s Word, we know He loves to hear it. True prayer is never offered to earn or merit God’s favor, but rather flows from a heart that is justified through faith. Luther urges the development of good prayer habits that begin in childhood. Prayer is the Christian’s weapon against the devil’s many temptations.
February 18: Note to the First Petition – We pray using the name given us in our Baptism, by which God makes us a part of Himself. God’s name is holy among us when we believe, teach, and live according to His Word. In the worst possible way God’s name is profaned among us when men preach and teach contrary to God’s Word and when people live an openly evil life. Luther’s highest concern is that God’s name be kept holy through genuine biblical teaching, in contrast to all the false teaching in the world. Luther’s hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” is a powerful application of these truths.