To commemorate St. Martin on this website devoted to “forming Lutherans,” let us consider his lessons and encouragement for pastors and teachers in Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism. Luther begins by setting forth his purpose for writing this catechism, a purpose just as relevant today: “The ordinary person … knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith …” He then gives step-by-step instructions for instructing “your people who are entrusted to you.” First, Luther says, stick with one version of the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, teaching these “word for word.” Second, “once the people have learned the text well, then teach them to understand it, too, so that they know what it means.” And thirdly, he advises further teaching to “impart to them a richer and fuller understanding.”
Rote memorization, denigrated by some, is but the first step to internalizing the faith of the church. Through steps two and three, the Spirit transforms a rote recitation into “knowing it by heart,” so that the faith of the church becomes personal, applicable to one’s life, and an anchor in times of doubt and temptation.
Luther closes the preface with a warning about the seriousness of catechizing and its rewards, also very apropos for today’s context:
“Therefore, pastors and teachers, take note! Our office … has now become serious and salutary. Thus it now involves much toil and work, many dangers and attacks [Anfechtung], and in addition little reward or gratitude in the world. But Christ himself will be our reward, so long as we labor faithfully. May the Father of all grace grant it, to whom be praise and thanks in eternity through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
A Prayer of Martin Luther
Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you. In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have. I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor. I am a sinner; you are upright. With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give. Amen.
Quotations from the Preface of the Small Catechism: The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, editors.
Prayer of Martin Luther: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 87.