What are the basic facts that every Christian should know? As early as the second century the Greek term katecho identified pre-baptismal instruction for new converts. Augustine Latinized the term to catechismus. By the Middle Ages this basic Christian instruction had reached a consensus based on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Shortly after being sentenced to death, Martin Luther preached on the core of the catechism—the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—in 1522. Four years later Luther asked his fellow pastors to write instruction booklets on these fundamentals and encouraged them to use those sermons from 1522. One catechism had already appeared in 1525, but Luther was not satisfied with that booklet or other ventures over the next three years. Thus, in 1529 he published his own Small Catechism.
Luther’s Small Catechism over the following months evolved into the following format:
• the Ten Commandments with explanations (the Law)
• the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer with similar explanations (the Gospel)
• explanations of the sacraments
• brief orders for household prayers
• two appendices: German language services for marriage and baptism.
Each portion of The Small Catechism was initially published as a separate booklet and except for the marriage and baptismal service booklets, each one began with this home-centered introduction: “The head of a house is to present them [or ‘it’] to the household.” Luther looked to each Christian family for priestly leadership. Therefore Luther made the Small Catechism user-friendly for parent and pastor with application questions such as: What is this? What does this mean? and How does this happen?
An example from the Small Catechism is Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
“What does this mean?
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”