Lesson 6: The Lord’s Prayer in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

Lord's PrayerI am going to examine the primary thoughts that appear throughout Luther’s explanation. You can study his treatment of particular petitions here.

Perhaps the first thing that jumps out is Luther’s use of justification by grace through faith alone. His treatment of every petition assumes Jesus’ declaration that God knows our needs before we ask and responds to them with unconditional love. In the fifth petition, Luther says it plainly, “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that [God] would give them all to us by grace.” Luther maintains we have the courage to approach God in this fashion, because “God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”

If we accept this assumption, we might well ask why we should even bother to pray. Luther explains it this way when treating “Thy kingdom come.” “The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.” He says the same thing about “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” when he writes, “The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.”

He goes a little further in the fourth petition when he says, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”

Luther’s understanding of daily bread echoes his explanation of the first article of the creed. “Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

In similar fashion, Luther’s explanations of the prayer echo his thoughts on the Third Article of the Creed. The second petition reads, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” Luther’s explanation for third petition goes, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.”

I like the consistency Luther maintains in the catechisms. He does not always do that in his other writings. However, this brief work is based solidly on his belief that God operates in steadfast love and mercy at all times. For instance, in the sixth petition of the prayer he claims God tempts no one. All temptations come from the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. And those temptations are based on lies that mislead us into doubting God’s unfailing love.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kerry Walters says:

    I’ve been following this series with interest and eagerness. Thanks so much for it.

    I suppose that if there’s a single thing that marks me more of an Erasmian than a Lutheran, it’s my discomfort with sentiments like this: “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them…” My presumption is that this is really a central, nonnegotiable principle for Luther. I don’t for a moment wanting to deny the nature of sin nor the radical dependence of all created things upon the Creator. At the same time, it seems to me that this way of thinking can so easily slip into a spiritually unhealthy denigration of creatures made in the image of God. Are we really unworthy of what we pray for? It may be that who we are and what we have are grace-gifts which we haven’t earned, but that’s quite different from bleakly assessing humans as so utterly fallen as to be unworthy of that to which we aspire. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God, said Augustine. Are we unworthy of that restlessness? We pray for our hearts of stone to be removed. Unworthy of that? We pray that we may put on the mind of Christ. Unworthy? Again, I’m not saying that we can do any of this on our own steam. But that doesn’t mean we’re unworthy.

    In the Catholic liturgy, as the priest mixes water and wine, s/he says: “By the mystery of this water and this wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The fact that this petition (and thanksgiving) can be uttered suggests that God considers us worthy, even though we lack the resources on our own to share the divinity of Christ.

    Anyway, thanks for this series, Fritz. It’s really making me think.

  2. Fritz Foltz says:

    I am a little behind and only read Kerry’s comment yesterday. I then picked up “Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life” by Volker Leppin, the biography that was just released last week. My friends tell me this is the first translated work by the Luther scholar recognized by many as the best in Germany right now.

    He offers the following quote from a 1520 tract to show the influence of Augustine and mystical theology on Luther. It fairly echoes the preist’s words at the mass.

    “Faith . . . unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage . . . it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. . . . Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his.”

    My Lutheran friends also feel Kerry’s discomfort with the picture of humanity as lousy, good-for-nothing. However most of them would then remind us to read them in the context of the late medieval conflict the Augustinians and mystics were fighting with the Scholastics. The real sadness was the church made what could have been a creative academic discussion into a power struggle, excommunicating them.

    The hope is that so many Lutheran Churches are commemorating ( not celebrating) the Reformation this fall with Catholic speakers. At Good Shepherd Lutheran in Gaithersburg, Maryland the audience asked Father John O’Malley a version of Kerry’s question. Refusing to be dragged into a 16th century fight, he responded he had no trouble with Luther’s understanding of justification by grace through faith alone, because he heard it as an attempt to express the unconditional love of God. It looked to me that all of us Lutherans were shaking our heads “yes”.

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