May 22, 2018

Does the title of this article surprise you? We are accustomed to thinking of “bioethics” as “new,” stemming from ethical questions surrounding the medical technology of the 20th and 21st centuries. Luther’s Small Catechism dates back to 1530. How could Luther’s summary of Scripture possibly be relevant to today’s medical breakthroughs?

Simple. Luther latched onto timeless truths from God’s Word. Whether or not he personally anticipated that his catechism could be applied to bioethics is beside the point. God’s Word is always relevant.

Consider the First Commandment, unpacked by Luther into these words: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Intrauterine devices, contraceptive drugs, fertility treatments, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, gender transformation surgery—the list keeps growing, but the issue remains the same. First, consider motive: does your choice in these matters arise from faith in God—from fear, love, and trust in Him above all? Or do you fear pregnancy (or else infertility) more than you fear God? Do you love your scientific research ambitions more than you love Him? Do you trust in your own sense of “gender identity” rather than God’s design for male and female?

Consider the Fifth Commandment, unpacked by Luther into these words: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Now talk with your physician about in vitro fertilization: fertilizing multiple eggs in the lab, selecting several of them to be implanted in the uterus, storing or else discarding the rest, knowing that most of the ones that get implanted will not survive, hoping that one will, worried that three might—triplets can be difficult, right? Now ask yourself whether this procedure defends and supports the life of each child, yes, from the moment of conception onward.

Or what about the Fourth Commandment in relation to Holy Baptism? In the Large Catechism, Luther identifies the reason that children ought to honor and obey their parents: God has given them parents in order to bless them through the spiritual and physical care that God expects parents to provide to their children. Bringing one’s children to Holy Baptism is an essential component of Christian parenthood. Now ask yourself how this applies to children who have been intentionally conceived and then discarded, or frozen in storage indefinitely, as part of the process of bringing a selected sibling of those children into the world. Is it right to baptize the selected one but cut Christian parenthood short with respect to the others?

Consider the Sixth Commandment and the numerous study questions and Bible passages provided in the synodical exposition to Luther’s Catechism. Read Genesis 1:28, Psalms 127 and 128, and Malachi 2:15. Now ask yourself whether God desires that husband and wife should remain open to His blessing of children, or whether God regards children as choices to be welcomed only when the situation is convenient by human standards. You know that the world has spoken loudly and clearly as to its position on this issue. Can you also hear that still, quiet voice of God? When you fear, do you turn to the world’s strategy for consolation, or do you remember the First Article and the Fourth Petition? God richly and daily provides, and He invites you to receive your daily bread with thanksgiving.

Consider Confession, unpacked by Luther into these words: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of.” Perhaps in contemplating the questions provided above, you still do not know right from wrong. Perhaps your conscience is unsettled about prior decisions or confused about forthcoming decisions. Frankly, the remedy is not for you to get your bioethics checklist just right; checklists are for Pharisees, who think they can figure out the right standard and then follow it perfectly. You are too broken for that, and God knows it.

When all else fails (and all else will fail!), consider Absolution. The point of absolution is that God forgives those sins which we confess specifically and also those sins which we aren’t even sure we need to confess. Lean not on your ability to confess but on His promise to forgive. Come to Jesus with the sincerity of your doubt: “Lord, I’ve sinned against You in ways that I know and in ways that I don’t know. O Christ, I rely on nothing other than Your promise to forgive.”

Now ask yourself one more question: Do you still think it odd to speak of “Bioethics in Luther’s Small Catechism”? Or, do you realize now that Luther’s summary of Holy Scripture provides a framework for addressing all kinds of challenging topics? Luther, like John the Baptist before him, simply pointed to Christ. That’s the value of the catechism, for all of life.

Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D., a member of the LFL Speakers Bureau, teaches at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. He also is the founding president of the Hausvater Project ( and the author of The Culture of Life: Ten Essential Principles for Christian Bioethics.