“Inculcating the Reformation through Catechesis” (Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36)

“Inculcating the Reformation through Catechesis” (Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36)

First, let me tell you my title for this message. It’s “Inculcating the Reformation through Catechesis.” Now the next thing I want to tell you is this: Don’t let that title scare you off! Don’t worry, I’ll explain each of those terms: “Inculcating the Reformation through Catechesis.” So here we go.

The first one I’ll explain is “the Reformation.” What is the Reformation? This term refers to the much-needed reforming of the church–straightening it out where it had gone wrong–the reforming movement undertaken by Martin Luther and his associates in the 1500s. That movement started by Luther was so monumentally important in the history of the church that now, every year on the last Sunday in October, we celebrate Reformation Day. And we Lutherans are the direct beneficiaries of what Luther began.

Why the last Sunday in October? Because it was on October 31, 1517, that a young theology professor named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. What Luther wrote there was just the start. Over the next several years, in papers and pamphlets, in debates and discussions, Dr. Luther taught and proclaimed the truth of the gospel over against the errors that had crept into the Roman Catholic Church. Called to appear before the emperor in 1521, and pressed to retract what he had written, Luther boldly declared: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

What was the error that Luther exposed, and what was the truth that he proclaimed? The error was the medieval church’s notion that our works enter into our being justified before God. And the truth is the central gospel teaching that we are justified–that is, put right with God–not by anything that we do, but rather by what God has done for us in Christ. One of the passages that most led Luther to discover this truth was the portion of Romans 3 we heard earlier–in fact, you see it on the front of your bulletin. Romans 3:23-24: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

You see, your works, your goodness, your keeping of God’s law, will never be good enough to plead your case before God on Judgment Day. No, you and I fall far short. For you and I have sinned. We have broken God’s commandments, repeatedly. And the judgment for that is death and eternal damnation. Your works won’t save you.

But God has had mercy on us and sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the load for us. Jesus did keep the law of God, perfectly. He always did the right thing, and did it as our representative, the one man who got it right, all the time, on behalf of all humanity. And even more amazingly, Jesus took the punishment that our sins deserve, bearing our sins into death, on the cross. Jesus shed his holy precious blood as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Thus God is being a just judge when he declares us sinners righteous for Christ’s sake. You are forgiven, you are free, you are redeemed from death, and righteous before God, by faith in Jesus Christ. Relying on your works won’t cut it. Relying on Christ and his works is the only thing that will.

This is the gospel truth that revolutionized Luther’s thinking. It is the truth that set him free. And once he discovered it, he wanted everyone else to know, too. That’s what set him on the road of Reformation. And by the early 1520s, it had become pretty clear in his mind. Luther could see what reforms in doctrine and practice were needed in the church. And Luther’s writings and teaching were very influential across northern Europe. Many territories and their churches, many pastors and theologians, were aligned with this Reformation movement.

But by the mid-1520s here’s what Luther was wondering: How are these gospel truths getting down to the local level? Sure, Luther and Melanchthon and their colleagues understood what ought to be done and taught to get God’s Word out straight and clear. But how was that filtering down to the average church member and average parish pastor? So in the mid-1520s, Luther and the other reformers undertook a visitation of the parishes in their territory. This way they could see how the truth of God was penetrating where error had prevailed for so long.

And what did Luther discover? Well, it was not good. The people didn’t know any Christian doctrine, and they were living like pigs, as though the gospel didn’t make any difference in their lives. And so that’s where the catechism comes in. Luther saw that what was needed was a simple, accessible, handbook of the basics of the Christian faith, to impress the truths of the gospel on people’s hearts and minds.

In the preface to the Small Catechism, Luther reflects on what he observed in the visitations and how that impelled him to publish the 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.”

This was an unacceptable situation. The catechism was designed to remedy this sorry state. Luther appeals to the pastors to help with this task: “Therefore dear brothers, for God’s sake I beg all of you who are pastors and preachers to devote yourselves sincerely to the duties of your office, that you feel compassion for the people entrusted to your care, and that you help us accordingly to inculcate this catechism in the people, especially the young.”

“To inculcate this catechism”: Ah, there’s that word, “inculcate.” It’s probably a word you haven’t used all that often. But it’s an excellent word to describe what the catechism does. It inculcates the faith. If you look up the word “inculcate” in the dictionary, you’ll find it defined something like this: “to instill an attitude, idea, or habit by persistent instruction,” or “to teach and impress by frequent repetitions.” And that’s what the catechism does. By use of brief, easily remembered questions and answers, the catechism brings home the basics of the Christian faith and impresses them in your heart and mind, ready at hand, for you to put them into practice in your life.

Now you may have been catechized and confirmed years ago. But you will never outgrow the catechism. There’s nobody in this room who knows the Bible and the Christian faith as well as Dr. Luther. Yet listen to what he says: “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.”

The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, the Lord’s Supper–these are the chief parts of Christian teaching. There are Daily Prayers, the Table of Duties, and a little exercise to help you prepare for the Sacrament. And while the words never change, you will change. You will hopefully be maturing in the faith and discovering new truths in these biblical teachings. And you will be encountering new situations in your life to which these teachings will speak. So you will never outgrow the catechism. It will serve as a roadmap for understanding the Scriptures and your handbook for daily Christian living.

So I encourage you to take advantage of the catechesis class that will be starting this week. This Tuesday, to be exact. I’ll be offering this class two times on Tuesdays: one, at 3:30 at St. Matthew-Bonne Terre, and the other, at 6:30 at Grace-De Soto. If you can’t make one on a given week, maybe you can make the other. And the classes will be recorded, if you can’t make either time. Talk to me if you’re interested, and I can give you more details. I’ve taught the catechism many, many times, to youth and to adults, and it never fails: Even lifelong church members will tell me they have discovered new insights as they have gone through the catechism once again.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel reading today: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And this is what catechesis does. It is a way for you to abide in Jesus’ word, to continue in his precious gospel. As you abide in his word, you will grow as Jesus’ disciple, as his follower. And through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth, to know deep down the reality of what life is all about. It is about life with God, new life now and eternal life forever, through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the truth that sets you free. It sets you free from sin, death, and the power of the devil. This word of Christ is liberating, life-giving truth. So let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

The catechism will help you with that. The catechism is designed to inculcate the wonderful gospel truths in your heart, in your mind, and in your daily living. It is a joyful thing. And this is why we are giving thanks to God for this great teaching tool today on Reformation Day, and kicking off our catechism class this week.

Lord, help us ever to retain
The Catechism’s doctrine plain
As Luther taught the Word of truth
In simple style to tender youth.

Published in: on October 24, 2020 at 9:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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