A Mighty Fortress is Our God
In addition to being Halloween, October 31 is also known as Reformation Day, and Christians often use this day to reflect upon the legacy and work of Martin Luther because on October 31, 1517, Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the church doors in the German town of Wittenberg. The posting of these theses sparked discussion and debate over the church’s practice of selling indulgences and other issues and led to the Protestant Reformation (for more on this event and its importance, see this previous post). While this action may be his most famous, and thus his “95 Theses” are likely his most important writing, I suspect more Christians are familiar with the contents of another one of his writings.
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is one of the 30+ hymns written by Martin Luther. It was written in German (the German title is “Ein Feste Burge ist unser Gott”) but has been translated into English since the 1530’s (and approximately 200 other languages as well). The version often sung in churches today is the 1853 translation of a Frederick H. Hedge. While not necessarily a word-for-word translation of Luther’s hymn (which is tough to do in musical form), this version captures the thought of the hymn as well as reflecting the tune and thus has been well received.
I have been reflecting on this hymn this week, and in the process, have seen how it speaks about spiritual warfare. Psalm 46 is the inspiration of this song and its opening (the image of God as fortress) is focused on God as our fortress in the midst of our battles. I’ll walk through the verses of the hymn and highlight some of the truths that have jumped out to me in relation to this topic.
The Reality and Attacks of the Evil One
After declaring that God is our mighty fortress and our shelter, the hymn notes that we need this because there are “mortal ills prevailing.”What are these mortal ills that we need a shelter from? The reason is given: “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow’r are great, And armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.” The hymn teaches us that Satan is real and is opposing the work of God and trying to hurt us. Not only that, but Satan is stronger than we are, as there is no equal on earth. That means you and I are not up to the challenge of battling him.
Christ As the Hope In the Battle
The hymn goes on to tell us that our hope is not found in our strength but in Christ’s. You see this truth in the words: “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He.” Christ has the power and the victory, as “He must win the battle.” We need to view God not just as being a fortress as a place of defense, but God as going on the offensive in Christ to defeat Satan and his attacks on us and the glory of God.
His Victory Gives Us Confidence, No Matter What
The hymn next reminds us that we still live in this reality of the attacks of the evil one, and that even things were worse than they are, we can have confidence. Notice that it says, “And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us.” The “tho’’ means “even if”, telling us that even if there were many devils in this world -- not just the one enemy -- we can have confidence because of Christ, as we then sing, “We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.” We sing in the song that earth has no equal to the devil, but we do not need to be afraid of him and his works, as we also sing, “The prince of darkness grim - We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”
Let’s Live For Christ Forever
The hymn ends by helping us reflect on the fact that because we have Christ, we can go through all difficulties and not cling to things of this world. It says, “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill.” These words are easy to say, but if we have sung them we need to ask if we really mean them. Does our confidence in Christ and his victory in the battle allow us to hold all things in life -- possessions, family, and even life itself -- with an open hand? The song gives content in terms of who Satan is and who Christ is, but it also calls for us to act and respond in a way of complete surrender because we know the victory we have in Christ and the gifts that he has bestowed upon us now and forever.
Remember: We Are Living In the Midst of The Battle
One of the most important biographies of Luther in the 20th century was a work entitled Luther: Between God and the Devil. The title of the book is a reminder that Luther did not view his life as one engaged merely in academic discussions and debates, but saw himself in the midst of a spiritual battle between God and the devil. As a professor, you might say that Luther was surprisingly aware and in tune with the reality of spiritual warfare and evil forces. This sort of battle is not just true for people on the front lines of change in the world but for every Christian. We are also between God and Satan, but “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” reminds us that we have the victory and trust in light of Christ.
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