A Reformation by Catechesis

John 8:31-36 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Recently, 3000 American Christians completed a survey about their Christian faith. There were 47 questions on the original survey. I put 5 of them in place of my sermon outline in the announcements. I confined these questions only to the Bible’s teaching of the Trinity. Circle A or D in front of the statement for Agree or Disagree.

  1. There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  2. Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
  3. Jesus is truly God and has a divine nature, and Jesus is truly man and has a human nature.
  4. The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.
  5. The Holy Spirit is a divine being but is not equal with God the Father and Jesus.

The answers are: 1. Agree; 2. Disagree; 3. Agree; 4. Disagree. 5. Disagree.

I didn’t ask those questions to embarrass you. I want to see where you fit in with American Christianity. 95% of those surveyed believe in the Trinity – that God is three persons, yet one God. But then over half believe Jesus is a created being. And even more than that are all messed up on the person of the Holy Spirit.

Startling percentages of Christians in our nation embrace ancient errors that have been condemned for centuries. That is why in every worship service we are confessing scriptural truths and condemning ancient errors when we recite the Creeds.

If Americans took a theology exam, their only hope of passing would be if God graded on a curve. In knowing both the content of the Bible and the doctrinal foundations of Christianity, we Americans are at the bottom of the class.

And yet I am confident that any of our students in our sixth through eighth grade confirmation classes would do well on this survey. That’s because they are regularly receiving catechesis. Catechesis is biblical instruction in Luther’s Catechism. Luther’s Small Catechism contains the six chief teachings that every Christian should hold onto from Scripture.

Jesus proclaims, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” God’s Word is truth. This truth sets us free. Free from our slavery to sin. Free from the burden of the Law, which demands perfection. Free from the lies of Satan, who is the ancient deceiver. Free from bondage to death and the grave. Yes, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

This is the Gospel of freedom that God, by His grace, led Martin Luther to rediscover. Luther and the early reformers passed this freeing Gospel on to others. We are the heirs of this Gospel heritage.

But it wasn’t an accident that caused this Gospel teaching to take hold in the Church, reform Christianity, and become our Lutheran heritage. It wasn’t by chance. It wasn’t a coincidence. It was Reformation in Catechesis. On this, the 499th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we, too, need a Reformation in Catechesis.

In order for a Reformation in Catechesis to take place, we need to go back to Scripture. For that’s where the Reformation began – in Scripture. Jesus explains, “I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Do you sin? Then you are a slave to sin. Most American Christians view sin as merely a weakness – something that they can improve. Or they see it as an illness – something that they can overcome. But Scripture uses different language for sin. Jesus calls it slavery.

Slavery is cruel. It is harsh. It is being owned and controlled by a master. Our sinful nature is our master. It is a cruel, harsh, unrelenting master. It continually causes us to do exactly the opposite of what God wants us to do. It isn’t an illness that we can overcome. Sin kills. It isn’t a weakness that we can improve. Sin damns.

Many American slaves became slaves because they were born to parents who were slaves. Our first parents became slaves to sin and the devil back in the Garden of Eden. We inherited their slavery to sin when were conceived. And we can never free ourselves from this slavery.

Jesus came to free us from this slavery. He has defeated Satan’s lies with His precious truths. He has broken open the shackles of sin that bind us with the heavy wood of His cross. He has overcome the death that haunts us with His resurrection from death’s terrifying tomb. God used His words to create all life in the beginning. Jesus used His words to drive out demons, calm storms, and wake the dead. The Holy Spirit uses His words in absolution to forgive, His words in Baptism to save, and His words in the Lord’s Supper to strengthen.

When these words of God were lost, humanity was plunged back into the darkness and slavery of their sin. But God used Martin Luther to bring the light and freedom of God’s words back to humanity.

The more Luther studied the Bible, the more he saw this liberating truth jumping out at him. This liberating truth of forgiveness only through Jesus became his faith, his theology, his hymns, and his Catechism.

And yet, what Luther saw going on within his church disturbed him. It did not match up with what he found in Scripture. This joyous freedom in Christ was not being preached or taught or practiced. Instead, people could buy their forgiveness by purchasing an indulgence. Or they could merit their forgiveness by making a pilgrimage. Or they could gain their forgiveness by visiting a relic.

None of this agreed with the biblical teaching of forgiveness in Christ alone. Because of his newfound faith, Luther felt duty-bound to speak out against these travesties. Which is exactly what he did 499 years ago. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted Ninety-Five Theses – ninety-five theological propositions for debate with the Catholic Church – on the door of the church in Wittenberg.

That single act was the beginning of the Reformation. It led to more people digging deeper into the truths of Scripture. It was the start of catechesis.

Luther continued to write and speak out against the ancient heresies that had taken hold of the church of his time. Over the course of the next several years, the Holy Spirit was reforming whole territories of Germany and hundreds and hundreds of churches by this rediscovered freedom of the Gospel. But Luther soon found a problem. Though there were many theological leaders like Luther and Melanchthon who knew this teaching very well, the pastors and the people in the local parishes did not know this teaching or understand it very well. In knowing both the content of the Bible and the doctrinal foundations of Christianity, the Christians in Germany were at the bottom of the class.

And this is what led Luther to see the need for a reformation in catechesis. That is why, in 1529, Luther published his Small and Large Catechisms. As he writes in his preface to the Small Catechism: “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen.”

What would Luther find in our parish? Do we remember everything we were taught decades ago in confirmation class? Do we need to study again and again the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Keys and Confession, and the Holy Sacraments? Are we putting into practice these major teachings of God’s Word in our daily lives? Do we need a reformation in catechesis?

Martin Luther knew the Word of God very well. He’s the one who wrote his catechisms. Yet he wrote about himself: “I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning – and whenever I have time – I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.”

Your Catechism is not supposed to sit on a shelf and look nice. It doesn’t just get passed onto your children. It is to be used. Read and study it daily.

A while ago one of our members left me a voicemail asking for help with a Bible study on Baptism that she was asked to lead. Before I could get back to her she emailed me and said the Bible study was finished. She had opened her Catechism. Everything she needed – questions, Bible passages, answers – were right there.  

Another member recently told me that every night as she is falling asleep, she reviews the Commandments, recites the Creed, prays the Lord’s Prayer, etc. She admits that she struggles a bit with the Keys and Confession and Petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. But these members are strong in their faith. They are ready to give an answer for the hope that they have. That’s what Jesus wants for you.

Some people can’t seem to go anywhere without their cell phone. If they forget it, they will turn around and drive miles to get it. They don’t feel quite right without it. (I think my hand starts shaking if I don’t have my phone nearby.) Jesus wants His Word to be like that for us. “If you hold onto – abide – continue – in my teaching,” Jesus says. That means holding onto Christ’s teaching and never letting go. It means letting His words sink deeply into you so that it becomes part of the fabric of your being.

It means reading the Small Catechism with your children. (It is where Luther lays out the very basics of our Christian faith.)

It means reading the Large Catechism as a family. (It is where Luther explains the meaning of the Six Chief Parts and how they apply to daily living.)

It means reading devotions and Worship Helps that are emailed to you. It means reading the Bible at home and with your family. It means attending Bible studies at church and at members’ homes.

It means letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16). It means fixing these words of God on your hearts and minds (Deuteronomy 11:18). It means being set free by the Son (John 8:36).

On this 499th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, allow a Reformation by Catechesis to begin in your faith, in your home, and in your church. Not so that you can get a perfect score on some survey. Rather so you know Jesus and His precious, liberating truths more fully, more clearly, more deeply. So that you might be Jesus’ disciples through constant and continuous catechesis. Amen.

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Amen.