Book Review: Praying Luther’s Small Catechism

Praying Luther’s Small Catechism. By John T. Pless. Concordia Publishing House, 2016. 182 pages. Paperback. $8.99

In a day and age where there is a great famine of God’s Word and a culture beset on removing all voices of a distinctly Christian worldview, Pless’s Praying Luther’s Small Catechism must find a space on your bookshelf. In the preface, Pless sets the tone that there is always more to learn and receive in this exemplary reformational and catechetical text. “Readers will be drawn into a deeper and lasting appreciation of this handbook for doctrine, vocation, and prayer. It is especially desired that your own praying of the catechism will be enlivened and enlarged” (ix).

Chapter 1 begins by emphasizing that Luther’s Catechism is more than an adolescent text used for a short period of instruction. It is a book to be prayed and digested for a lifetime, confessed before the world, and uttered incessantly against the devil. These simple words, Pless says, “are not too difficult for the young pupil yet they contain abyssal mysteries into which the mature Christian sinks” (2).

Chapter 2 is devoted to the Ten Commandments. The Law is inscribed upon creation. The voice of prayer lies in every throat. The question however, as Pless aptly points out, is to what god are your prayers addressed? Is it a voice searching and hoping that a divine ear will hear? Or is it the voice of faith that our heavenly Father always listens to with joy and thanksgiving? Drawing on Luther’s “Simple Way to Pray,” Pless shows the reader how to pray through the formula of instruction, thanksgiving, Confession, and prayer. This formula helps the reader to see that Luther’s Small Catechism is not just one book, but a “school text, song book, penitential book, and prayer book” (16).

Chapter 3 turns to the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed instructs the Christian over what kind of God he has, what He has done, and what He will do, for God has bound Himself graciously to His own promise and gift of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the sinful creature. Drawing upon Oswald Bayer, Pless concretely expresses the reality of the relationship of faith, giver, gift, and response, showing the reader how he should rightly confess, pray, and give thanks to God for such marvelous gifts. Pless helps the reader to see how Luther understood everything which is contained in the Creed is pure gift, “without any merit or worthiness in me.” “Luther’s whole exposition of the Creed proceeds in terms of divine giving” (50). 

Pless then turns his attention to the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that governs all Christian prayer. Not only is it our Father’s words, but they are words placed into the mouth of the Christian that he might pray aright, according to the will and desire of his heavenly Father. Pless shows how the first three chief parts of the Small Catechism come together in command, promise, and petition. Not to be missed in this chapter is how Pless cuts through every false theology of prayer, demonstrating that all prayer is prayed under the crucible of the cross: “The Lord’s Prayer is a cry wrung from the crucible, an exposition of the shape of life lived under the sign of the cross in the hope of the resurrection” (53).

After the Lord’s Prayer, Pless moves to consider Baptism. In order to pray in God’s Name, one must first be given His Name, and that is precisely what God gives in baptism. The instituting words are the gift and the gift is embedded in the words. In baptism God is not out to make religious people, but rather He creates new creations by water and Word. Pless seeks to reclaim the understanding of the present tense reality of baptism. Baptism is not an empty religious ritual, an invisible force field that protects the sinful man by the mere performance of the rite. Rather the Christian hears in the word spoken a new reality being declared. “Baptism works for the forgiveness of sins, and as such it brings about a change of lords. Sin is no longer lord. Jesus is” (83). The sinful creature is now a new born creature, water and Word, promise and gift, all at work by the Triune God, giving sinful creatures new born names by which they petition and plea for grace and mercy to the open ears of their Father.

In chapter 6 Pless moves to Confession, Absolution, and the Office of the Keys. Confession is not merely good for the soul, it is the soul’s mercy and life. While giving the historical background of the insertion of this chief part into the Small Catechism, Pless argues that “Luther certainly didn’t want to jettison the practice of individual confession, but filter it through evangelical sieve of justification by faith alone, so that purified from its Roman abuses it might be restored as a means of consolation for those terrified by their sin” (96). Far from a father confessor’s tool to extract tidbits of information, confession is retained for the sake of the absolution, for those well worn by their sins and in need of rescue and respite from the old wicked foe. Burdened consciences need a place where they are not turned inward, but outward to an external Word that pronounces Christ’s forgiveness apart from the internal struggles that haunt them. That outward Word, “Your sins are forgiven,” is the “word which opens the heart and unlocks the lips for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving” (107).

From Confession and Absolution Pless turns to the Sacrament of the Altar. Pless underscores that with the Sacrament of the Altarthe gift must not be confused with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving does not result in gift, but gift always results in thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not removed from the life of the Christian, but simply relocated, as in the post-communion collect that orders faith and love in their proper spheres. Pless observes that Luther sought to ensure that “Christians know what the Sacrament is, its benefits, and how it is to be used in faith” (110). Pless reminds readers that at time of the Reformation Luther was fighting a battle on two fronts. First against the Roman Catholics who turned the Sacrament into a work of merit; second, against the Sacramentarians who divested Christ’s body of its corporeal presence. Pless demonstrates how Luther was able to confess both the sole divine gift of this Sacrament alongside the true presence of Christ’s body and blood that gave enfleshed comfort to weak and dying sinners. For Pless, as for Luther, Christ’s words are key for “Christ’s words bestow what they promise” (113).

Chapter 8 is devoted to daily Christian prayer. From morning to night, from abundance to scarcity the Christianis a beggar that pray for daily and eternal bread. It is from one’s creatureliness that he pray. “The heavenly Father is to be praised and thanked precisely at those junctures in daily life where it is most clear that we are creatures: when we wake from sleep and again when we take our rest, as well as at mealtimes, when we receive nourishment for our bodies” (120). We always pray as creatures, always dependent upon our heavenly Father’s hand to satisfy the desires of our bodies and souls. In the home, the table of meat and drink become a table of gifts, a little altar where we creatures give thanks that our heavenly Father has given such sustenance out of His pure and divinely gifted hand. Here the Divine Service is “transported into the everyday space of the family dining room” (125).

Pless concludes by considering the Catechism’s Table of Duties. Here Pless instructs the reader in the three estates that God instituted, congregation, civil government, and the family. The Table of Duties are informed by these estates that the Christians inhabits in faith. They are the orders that restrain sin, that allow for life to increase, and provide peace and safety so that the gospel may be preached for the joy and edification of God’s holy people, and that the church be enlarged through this proclamation. Pless notes that Luther spoke often of these three estates, especially in his magisterial work, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper.” Here Luther shows that faith is not bound to any one estate but is found in all three. Pless does warn that none of these estates “are paths to righteousness before God . . . they are concrete locations where faith is active in love for the well-being of the neighbor” (128). The various vocations of the Christian lead him to see and act in love for those who are entrusted into his care. He is a slave of love to his neighbor, and yet because of Christ and His gifts, he is lord of all, subject to none, a citizen of heaven. 

Pless’s text is a gem in the church’s work of catechesis. Against the failures of generations fixated upon themselves, and a disintegration of culture, Praying Luther’s Small Catechism will aid all children of God, no matter their station in life, to receive and teach the language of Christ’s church and to confess her Lord’s will that all come to Him, the sole author of grace and mercy, forgiveness and eternal life. In these difficult and perilous days this book that will aid the Christian mightily, not only teaching him how to pray, but how to live in the world according to the heavenly Father’s good pleasure. Most assuredly, this book will teach the Christian how to receive the Father’s gifts through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Every Lutheran should have a copy of this book. And its pages should be well worn. 


Christopher L. Raffa

Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church

West Bend, WI