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Luther’s Catechism Series: The Ten Commandments Part 1

The First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” is one of the most important to the Christian faith. Read Albrecht Peters’ Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms, Ten Commandments below. 

As in the Small Catechism, the reformer primarily puts the negative formulation of the prohibition of idolatry in the positive sense: “You should have Me alone as your God.” The actual scope of the interpretation is unfolded in a threefold movement of thought. Existential analysis and existential preaching are interwoven in a peculiar way; insights into the structure of our being as humans, as well as observations regarding human history, are surrounded by faith’s hinting at the all-encompassing wrestling between God and anti-god. After all, it is only the bright light of faith’s witness to God’s holy zeal for His sovereign right among men that unlocks our external fate as well as our internal essence.

Explaining the First Commandment

The first as well as the second explanation unfold the positive meaning of the commandment by employing negative counterimages, “everyday examples of opposition,” which are to demonstrate: “Upon what you now … hang your heart and rely, this is actually your god.” In a first circle of ideas, this is demonstrated regarding dependence on money and goods; on Mammon as the most common idol on earth; on one’s own and somebody else’s personal power; on taking refuge with the saints, as well as with dark antidivine powers. Luther tirelessly emphasizes everywhere the characteristic of the personal relationship of trust: “To have a god means to have something on which the heart totally relies.” From these counterexamples, the First Commandment again turns our attention to the Creator God in His zealous holiness: whatever we have previously looked for among those creaturely idols, we are to seek from Him who alone is living.

The second set of ideas corroborates the insight by means of two more counterexamples, that is, the crass pagan recourse to vain idols and the subtle self-reliance on works of the erring church. The latter goes beyond what the growing youth can understand and comprehend.

While the reader hereby was twice brought back, as it were, from looking to and building on what is vain to the one true and life-giving God, in a third set of thoughts, Luther positively unfolds the essence of this God. He is the “eternal fountain” of all natural and supernatural goods. In all the things we receive from creatures, therefore, we should look to His creative commanding and His commanding giving. The concluding application implants in the heart of each person the question for confession: whether he in his concrete daily life fears, loves, and trusts in God alone. 

The Decalogue and the First Commandment

The appendix to the First Commandment and, respectively, to the Decalogue as a whole unfolds twice the word of threat and promise (Exodus 20:5f), which Luther applies to the whole Decalogue. The first exposition follows consciously the order of pedagogical steps. First, the word of Scripture is offered, albeit not yet in the version worked through for memorization. Then the understanding of the same is explicated both in relation to the threat of curse and in relation to the promise of blessing, where the reformer points to God’s zeal for man’s obedience, which is powerfully at work in Scripture, human history, and daily experience. Then the “This applies to you!” follows. In it, what has been recognized by faith is now practiced existentially against superficial appearances. By this, Luther disengages the view of the Christian from this world and turns it upward to God’s future kingdom.

The conclusion of the interpretation of the Decalogue returns against to the First Commandment. In itself, it is not structured as clearly. First, Luther harshly contrasts the Ten Commandments as “summary of divine doctrine” with all self-chosen piety of man and reminds the reader that the Decalogue is fulfilled by faith alone, that is to say, by the triune God working in faith. Those words of threat and promise merely underline the First Commandment; they do not want anything but our heart for God alone. Where this happens to us, there our entire outward life is right before God. There the walking in the First Commandment permeates the obedience to all the remaining commandments. Both strands of thought drive toward the perpetual remembrance and the daily practice for which Luther reminds the readers of the commandment in Deuteronomy 6:8f and 11:20 to have God’s Law always before their eyes. Thus at the end of the Decalogue interpretation, we find included the text prepared for memorization in a twofold unfolding that, for its part, moves toward application and practice.


To read more commentary on Luther’s Catechism and the Commandments, order Commentary on Luther’s Catechism, Ten Commandments below. 

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