The 1st Commandment
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Luther placed the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the Small Catechism even as the Law precedes the Gospel. In the First Commandment, God asserts Himself: “You shall have no other gods” (). The reformer begins not with the prologue from —“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”—but with the bare fact of God’s lordship. Thus in his 1525 treatise How Christians Should Regard Moses, Luther writes: This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews. The sectarian spirits want to saddle us with Moses and all the commandments. We will just skip that. We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law.1 Luther understands the Ten Commandments as reflecting the Law written into creation. As such it demands that man recognize himself as dependent upon and accountable to the Creator. God is the one who is to be feared, loved, and trusted above all things. “Nature also has these laws. Nature provides that we should call upon God. The Gentiles attest to this fact. For there never was a Gentile who did not call upon his idols, even though these were not the true God.”2 A person will call upon whomever or whatever he has as his god. Ultimately there are no atheists, for those without faith in the true God are not without a “fabricating heart”3 with which they will craft a god to meet their need for deity, most often in their own image and likeness. Prayer is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon; it is found, in one way or another, in all religions. Human beings cannot escape the pressure to pray just as they cannot be without a god. The question that arises with prayer is to which god is it addressed? Is prayer simply an instinctual religious reaction to a sense of the numinous, the awe-inspiring or terror-filled mystery of the cosmos, or is it the voice of faith that speaks to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit? Luther sees the Ten Commandments as forming the Christian’s prayer list even as the Lord’s Prayer reflects the form of the Christian’s life in the world.4 As we observed in the previous chapter, when Luther instructed his friend, Peter the barber, in the art of Christian praying, he directed him to pray the Commandments one by one. The Wittenberg barber is taught a fourfold template for praying the Ten Commandments: I take one part after another and free myself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession, and fourth, a prayer.5 Luther provides model prayers based on the Commandments. Then Luther continues: “These are the Ten Commandments in their fourfold aspect, namely, as a school text, song book, penitential book, and prayer book. They are intended to help the heart come to itself and grow zealous in prayer.”6 The Ten Commandments are concrete; they are the demarcation of the triune God’s lordship over the totality of human life. As such they delineate the spaces that are occupied by prayer day in and day out. Such prayer follows from the First Commandment. The First Commandment You shall have no other gods What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Lord God, You require us to fear, love, and trust in You above all things. Grant unto us undivided hearts to fear Your wrath and so avoid the evil that You abhor. Instead, help us to love what You command and trust in Your promises; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Pless, John T. Praying Luther’s Small Catechism . Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.