Kolb, Robert. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Small Catechism I, “The Ten Commandments” pp. 351-354.
Large Catechism I, “The First Part: The Ten Commandments” pp. 384-431.
Luther’s small catechism deals with the ten commandments in order. He points out they are phrased “in a simple way in which the head of a house is to present them to the household” (Kolb 2000, 351). The commands are presented simply, then each one has a brief explanation. After the first commandment, the explanations all begin with, “We are to fear and love God, so that…” (Kolb 2000, 352ff). By doing this, Luther emphasizes that our obedience is rooted in reverent love for God. Except for the first commandment, which is explained entirely in positive terms, and the sixth commandment (adultery), which is explained entirely in negative terms, all have a statement of what we should avoid and what we should do. Luther’s explanation of the commands expands the commands to general principles. For instance, in addition to avoiding killing people, we identify our neighbors and “help and support them in all of life’s needs” (Kolb 2000, 352). To sum things up, at the end of his list of commandments, Luther makes a paraphrase of the statements immediately before the commandments, in Exodus 20:5-6. “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. Against those who hate me I visit the sin of the fathers on the children up to the third and fourth generation. But I do good to those who love me and keep my commandments to the thousandth generation” (Kolb 2000, 354).
In the Large Catechism, Luther provides us with much more context and explanation, as we would expect. He first lists the commandments in simple form. He then repeats the Apostles’ Creed (Kolb 2000, 384). Afterward, he recites the Lord’s Prayer. “These are the most necessary parts that we must first learn to repeat word for word. The children should be taught the habit of reciting them daily, when they arise in the morning, when they go to their meals, and when they go to bed at night” (Kolb 2000, 385). He considers this a very important matter of obedience and respect within the family. It is, after all, not difficult to master a brief recitation such as this, especially with some leadership, accountability, and coaching. After those matters, Luther says it is appropriate to learn about baptism and the Sacrament of communion, again, in brief terms. He quotes Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16 for baptism and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 for communion (Kolb 2000, 385-386). Luther also suggests that those who have learned these catechetical essentials should go on to learn “some psalms or hymns” (Kolb 2000, 386). In addition, people should be regular in attendance at sermons, actively learning, hearing, and discussing what they have heard. The picture Luther gives us is that of a household in which Christ will be honored by all, and where God’s Word will be treated as foundational for life.
Luther then goes on to walk through the commandments in order, explaining each in considerable detail. In the first commandment, “you are to have no other gods” (Kolb 2000, 386), it is important to realie that a god is whatever we depend upon. The command, then, calls people to cling to the true God. Luther lists a number of situations which illustrate people depending on something other than God (Kolb 2000, 387). There are many ways we can find ourselves trusting some circumstance or someone other than God. The command, on the other hand, calls you “to entrust yourself to him completely” (Kolb 2000, 388). Luther continues by discussing how every culture establishes some form of worship. We always seek to trust in something. This something we trust in may well be our own good works or our abilities. This is also a form of idolatry (Kolb 2000, 389). Counter to idolatry, we look to God alone and expect that he will give us all the good we need. Luther does identify the first commandment as the most important (Kolb 2000, 390). The biblical texts make it clear that God cares for those who love and obey him, but that he condemns those who do not.
The second commandment turns from the heart of faith and directs our words to use God’s name rightly (Kolb 2000, 392). God’s name is not to be used for any sort of wrong (Kolb 2000, 393). Luther points out the common practice of swearing oaths. Using God’s name rightly means that we would never lie under oath. It’s very important to keep all our promises. God’s name upon his people is to be taken very seriously. This also implies that God’s name should be used “properly, for it has been revealed and given to us precisely for our use and benefit” (Kolb 2000, 393). It is to be used for good, to call on God in times of trouble, to thank God. Luther does, then allow for the practice of taking oaths (Kolb 2000, 394). This is because we do swear for the good of our neighbor and to bring honor to God for his care. Luther urges his readers to call upon God in every need. The Christian commends himself to God every day, in defiance of the devil’s desires and claims. Luther observes that these Christian practices, such as making the cross or calling out to the Lord in our daily life are good habits. They use God’s name rightly (Kolb 2000, 395).
The third commandment, calling for a day of rest, comes next. This is a time set apart by God for the Jewish people (Kolb 2000, 396). Luther observes that the command was narrowed by the Jews. Rather than making a day of refreshment, they revised it to prohibit that which would be good and refreshing. Luther also observes that the commandment “is an entirely external matter, like the other regulations of the Old Testament associated with particular customs, persons, times, and places, from all of which we are now set free through Christ” (Kolb 2000, 396). It is good, though, because people need rest and refreshment. This also allows people to assemble for hearing and discussing God’s Word. As to the particular day, Luther observes, every day is a time for worship, but it’s good to set a day per week apart. Sunday, he contends, is held to because of ancient practice, rather than by God’s specific command (Kolb 2000, 397). As each day has a kind of holiness, the day of rest is to be kept holy by our attitudes. This is spread to the community by those who are able to lead. “Because we all do not have the time and leisure, we must set aside several hours a week for the young people, or at least a day for the whole community, when we can concentrate only on these matters” (Kolb 2000, 397). We devote ourselves particularly to Scripture and prayer. Because the focus of the command is making the day holy, not simply restful, God’s Word is the center of our observance. “God’s Word is the treasure that makes everything holy” (Kolb 2000, 398). Therefore, not merely attendance at a church service, but attention to and belief in what God says is important.
The fourth commandment turns our attention from our relationship with God to our relationship with our neighbor. honoring father and mother is the greatest of these commandments (Kolb 2000, 400). Luther points out that while we are to love our neighbors, we go a step higher by honoring our parents (Kolb 2000, 401). Regardless of the failings of our parents, we are still to honor them. This is not an injustice, but a right manifestation of inequality. Our words and actions should treat parents with respect and care. Luther repeatedly speaks of the protection we afford to elderly and weak parents. He then speaks of how children also have a holy task. The teaching of God that we are to honor our parents is, in and of itself, a good thing (Kolb 2000, 402). Luther then observes that children who honor their parents and receive wise teaching grow into wise parents themselves. This is good for society (Kolb 2000, 403). The honor and gratitude that we show for parents spreads also to a care of our society. When that is absent, we learn to despise our community. This, Luther says, is from the devil (Kolb 2000, 404). Conversely, honoring parents gives peace and long life. Failure to do so can ultimately lead us to a life shortened by criminality and execution (Kolb 2000, 405). Luther speaks here also of the extension of the command to teachers, magistrates, and other civic leaders (Kolb 2000, 406). All stand in the role of parents because of the authority they have from God to govern. Furthermore, within a household, servants owe the same honor to the masters of the household. A good master who cares for servants is of great value. Those who throw off their authorities live in danger. “So God punishes one scoundrel by means of another, so that when you defraud or despise your lord, another person comes along and treats you likewise” (Kolb 2000, 408). Luther finally extends the command to spiritual fathers, “those who govern and guide us by the Word of God” (Kolb 2000, 408). In Luther’s time, people had a tendency to despise God’s Word and the guidance of Christian leaders. He views this as indicative of a lack of honor for parents. The difference is that the Christian “fathers” provide their children with what they need for eternal life (Kolb 2000, 409). Although the Ten Commandments don’t really speak about the responsibility of parents to their children, Luther does point out that it is important elsewhere in Scripture that parents and other authorities behave in a way which is worthy of honor and respect (Kolb 2000, 409).
The fifth commandment speaks against killing. Luther notes the logical flow of the commands once again. In the fourth commandment we learn of parental authority, which happens within the household. The fifth commandment draws us outside of the household and among our neighbors. Luther is clear that this command is about individuals, not governments. “Neither God nor the government is included in this commandment, nor is their right to take human life abrogated. God has delegated his authority to punish evildoers to the civil authorities in the parents’ place; in former times, as we read in Moses, parents had to judge their children themselves and sentence them to death” (Kolb 2000, 410). As restated in Matthew 5, the command also prohibits anger which would harm others (Kolb 2000, 411). Therefore, this command is an intervention against what would harm our neighbors. Luther further says that “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so” (Kolb 2000, 412). It is important to use the means that we have at our disposal to provide care for those around us.
The sixth commandment goes on to the topic of adultery. Luther notes that this one doesn’t follow as naturally from the one before it. However, in the case of marriage, within Jewish culture marriage, especially early marriage for life, was greatly valued. It was a way of honoring your nearest neighbor and guarding that person’s life (Kolb 2000, 413). Luther reads the command to guard against all sorts of unchastity, whether in yourself or in others. It is a guard against all sorts of infidelity (Kolb 2000, 414). In Luther’s time, marriage was not necessarily honored. He affirms the importance of the relationship of one man and one woman, faithfully, for life. The teaching of celibacy, commonly found in Christianity, was not valued in the Scripture in the same way that a faithful marriage was. There may be some instances when a celibate life would be appropriate, but generally marriage is the way God guards against our lack of chastity (Kolb 2000, 415). Finally, Luther reminds his readers that it is important that the husband and wife cherish each other. Their love and honor for one another “is one of the chief ways to make chastity attractive and desirable” (Kolb 2000, 415).
The seventh commandment prohibits theft. “To steal is nothing else than to acquire someone else’s property by unjust means” (Kolb 2000, 416). This would include taking an unfair advantage over someone else, resulting in that person’s loss. While Luther admits that theft is very widespread, he does not condone it. He sees theft as including allowing damage that could be avoided within our vocation, overcharging others, not working diligently, or simply taking things (Kolb 2000, 416). He also includes those in business who, thanks to their power and authority, are able to take whatever they want (Kolb 2000, 417). Eventually there will be repayment for our theft, whether in this life or in eternity (Kolb 2000, 418). The proper response to this command of God is to engage in our business dealings with honor and respect. We trust that by doing right God will see that we are provided for (Kolb 2000, 419).
The eighth commandment speaks against false witness. This is a matter ofguarding our neighbor’s reputation and character (Kolb 2000, 420). It’s essential in the justice system, among witnesses and judges. Regardless of our personal preferences or our like or dislike for an individual, that person is to be treated fairly and honestly (Kolb 2000, 421). The command can also extend to spiritual matters. God’s Word and those who are faithful teachers and preachers should be respected, though treated fairly. We are required to evaluate them honestly and impartially. Finally, we guard the way we speak, both publicly and privately, about our neighbors (Kolb 2000, 421). If it is legitimately our position to bring condemnation of sin and to spread that condemnation to others, we would do so. However, that is very rare. It is best to bring the message to the individual involved in sin and let it go no farther. We bring charges up in public only if they can be proven and need to be proven (Kolb 2000, 422). Luther is clear, however, that the civil magistrates and other public figures do have a responsibility to see that evil is punished. “Although no one personally has the right to judge and condemn anyone, yet if they are commanded to do so and fail to do it, they sin as much as those who take the law into their own hands apart from any office” (Kolb 2000, 422-423). On an individual basis, Luther ties the matter to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. Confrontation of an individual is intended to bring that person to repentance and restoration. It is regularly done in private (Kolb 2000, 423). In cases of public sin which is commonly known, there are no prohibitions against testimony which is fair. We simply make sure we are speaking truthfully (Kolb 2000, 424).
Luther addresses the ninth and tenth commandments together. Both refer to coveting something that is not ours. Again, he points out that the commandments are specifically given to the Jews, but that they do have some application to us (Kolb 2000, 425). He notes that, while the earlier commandments speak against taking things, these speak against desiring those things. The desire could lead to covert means of causing alienation, enticing the neighbor into sending away family members or servants. The commandments protect our neighbors from our desires to gain their property and to make it appear that we are doing what we should be doing (Kolb 2000, 426). The use of legal loopholes to acquire what we want but don’t have a legitimate claim to is always wrong.
Luther concludes that the Ten Commandments summarize God’s teaching about living a life that is pleasing before God (Kolb 2000, 428). If we devote our lives to doing these commandments, we will not appear glamorous before our world. But we will be recognized as pleasing in God’s eyes. Luther is clear that we will never be able to keep God’s commandments (Kolb 2000, 429). Yet we strive to recognize God’s desires and live them out as well as we can. Luther reminds us of God’s promise, that he shows mercy to those who love him. Again, Luther points out, all the other commandments are rooted in the first one, which requires us to fear, love, and trust God alone (Kolb 2000, 430). This is why, in the Small Catechism, the explanations all have to do with fearing God, then with loving God.