When Dr. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses or, what we would call today, “talking points,” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, he embarked upon a public debate with the Church of Rome that developed into a widespread movement which became known as the Lutheran Reformation. This was not a secession from Rome, nor was it a rebellion against Rome, nor did Luther intend to establish “another church bearing his name,” as some historians have erroneously claimed, but the Reformation was intended to “reform” external Christendom by bringing it back to its Scriptural “roots” in doctrine and in practice.
As we well know from our study of church history and particularly from our study of Luther’s life and work, his unwavering stand on “Scripture alone” (Sola Scriptura) hardly made Luther universally popular, respected and admired — especially at first when it was sometimes “Luther alone” who stood up to be counted against the adversaries of the truth. Indeed, from 1521, when he stood before Emperor Charles V in Worms and refused to disavow and take back his writings and to cease his agitations against Rome, until his death in 1546, Luther was under the ban of the empire, technically a marked and wanted man, subject to arrest at any time and even to attack on the part of bounty-hunters; and yet, despite incessant threats, he was never arrested, or imprisoned, or exiled, or burned as a “heretic;” but he died a natural death in the city of his birth at the age of sixty-three years.
The hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which later became known as “The Battle-hymn of the Reformation” and was called by Frederick the Great of Prussia “God Almighty’s Grenadier March,” was originally entitled simply “The Forty-sixth Psalm, God is our Refuge and Strength” (“Der XXXXVI Psalm, Deus noster refugium et virtus”). It was written in 1529 when the German princes stood before the emperor at the Diet of Speyer to protest infringement upon their religious liberty and the persecution of their theologians. As a poetic paraphrase of Psalm 46, it proclaimed in song the confidence of the reformers in the Lord’s protection and in the vindication of His Gospel. It first appeared in print under its original title in Klug’s Gesangbuch (Hymnbook) published in Wittenberg in 1529; and the rousing melody, also the fruit of Luther’s pen, appeared with the stanzas in Klug’s Geistliche Lieder (Spiritual Songs) the same year. Luther and his co-workers often sang what they called “the 46th Psalm” together, especially in times of persecution, adversity and trial; and their spirits were renewed, confirmed and buoyed up by the assurance of their Lord’s precious Word.
The translation of this hymn that we find in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) as Hymn 262 is a composite that closely parallels the original and even has a remarkable line-by-line correspondence with the German text. Those who know German quickly recognize this and favor this translation over those by such poets as Thomas Carlyle and F. H. Hedge.
It is our particular purpose in this article briefly to “walk through” the stanzas of Luther’s masterpiece of hymnody and to examine its Scriptural content, the application of those Scriptures to and in the lives of our cherished Lutheran fathers, and their comfort also to us in these latter days of sore distress. It is also our earnest recommendation that our readers commit this hymn to memory for their ready access when “the old evil foe” strikes his fearsome blow in their own lives.
“A mighty Fortress is our God,
a trusty Shield and Weapon.
He helps us free from every need
that hath us now o’ertaken.”
Psalm 46:1 — “God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” The troubles of which the psalmist speaks here are chiefly temporal calamities in nature, although their intensity and magnitude are described in such a way as to make them inescapable by mortal men. Only our almighty God, the Creator of all things and He who governs and controls all things in His kingdom of power, is able to provide us refuge as our “Fortress,” to help us as our “Deliverer,” and to protect us as our “Shield” (II Samuel 22:2–3).
“The old evil foe
now means deadly woe!
Deep guile and great might
are his dread arms in fight!
On earth is not his equal!”
Here Luther points out that our worst trouble consists of the spiritual trials and temptations brought upon us by the devil, whom he calls “the foe.” While this word is not used in Scripture regarding the avowed enemy of God and man, there are plenty of passages in which synonyms for “foe” are applied to the devil. Take for example I Peter 5:8–9 where he is called “your adversary.” He is also called the “enemy” (Matthew 13:39; Luke 10:19) or by its equivalent in Hebrew, “Satan” (I Chronicles 21:1; Job 1:6–12; Psalm 109:6; Zechariah 3:1–2; Matthew 4:10; 12:26;16:23; Mark 4:15; Luke 10:18; 13:16; 22:3, 31; Acts 5:3; etc.). Note also that he is “evil,” that is, persistently sinning in wanton rebellion against God and doing that which promotes sin in the world in order to captivate man, God’s foremost visible creature, in sin and unbelief (Ephesians 6:12; I John 3:8). His “dread arms” or fearsome weapons are “deep guile” — deceit (Revelation 20:8), trickery (Genesis 3:13; II Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 6:11), lies (John 8:44 — “devil” meaning “liar;” Acts 5:3), and “great might” (Ephesians 6:12; I Peter 5:8 — “as a roaring lion”), whereby he seeks to devour the believers (I Peter 5:8). While wickedness abounds in the world and “evil men and seducers wax worse and worse” (II Timothy 3:13) as the Last Day draws near, there is none that compares to the devil as to his evil power and influence. “On earth is not his equal!”
“With might of ours can naught be done;
soon were our loss effected!”
Left to ourselves, we are powerless to defeat this “adversary.” Even Adam and Eve, in their pristine state of integrity, fell prey to his cunning approach, his daring attack, his unexpected ambush, though at that time they could have repulsed his onslaught and said “No!” to his temptation, exercising their free will for good. But they willingly yielded to his wicked manipulation, entertained his challenge to question God’s Word, listened to his suggestion that God had a hidden, selfish agenda for forbidding them to eat of the fruit, and permitted him to appeal to their physical eyesight (instead of to their spiritual eyesight) in assessing the desirability of the forbidden fruit; and they wantonly disobeyed God’s command. Apart from the strength and steadfastness that God’s Word affords our faith, we cannot “resist him” (I Peter 5:9); and without the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11), we cannot defend ourselves against him nor strike a blow to defeat him. Instead we would quickly be victimized by him and lose our faith entirely!
“But for us fights the Valiant One
whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, ‘Who is this?’
Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord!
And there’s none other God!
He holds the field forever.”
“The only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) was “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:20), “whom God Himself elected” (Cf. I Peter 2:6), that is, chose and anointed (Acts 10:38, et al.), to be our Champion, our Redeemer, our “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21), “the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26), to do battle with Satan “for us,” writes Luther, paying “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23) in our place, “that through death He might destroy him that hath the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them [namely us and all mankind] who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). “Who is this?” Luther asks; “Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord.” He doesn’t translate that Hebrew word, even in his German original (“der Herr Zebaoth”); and our translators left it in Hebrew in our English version as well. Sabaoth [s| • bah • Çth], a three-syllable word not to be confused with the “Sabbath,” is the transliteration of a Hebrew expression meaning “of hosts.” Thus, “He is the Lord of Hosts! And there’s none other God!” “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:7). “He holds the field forever!” (Cf. Luke 1:33; Revelation 11:15b).
“Though devils all the world should fill,
all eager to devour us…”
Again Luther refers to I Peter 5:8, where Satan is pictured “as a roaring lion [walking] about, seeking whom he may devour.” Luther himself experienced this threat firsthand when he was summoned to Worms in Germany to appear before the emperor, Charles V, to answer for his writings and to recant, that is, take them back. He was warned by his friends not to go because the city would be full of “devils” lying in wait for him. But Luther is said to have replied in confidence of the Lord’s protection (cf. Psalm 91:11): “I shall go to defend what I have confessed, though there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the rooftops.”
“We tremble not, we fear no ill;
they shall not overpower us.”
“Therefore will not we fear…” (Psalm 46:2). “The Lord is my Light and My Salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident” (Psalm 27:1-2).
“This world’s prince may still
scowl fierce as he will;
he can harm us none!
He’s judged; the deed is done!
One little word can fell him!”
“The prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2) “may scowl fierce as he will; he can harm us none” (Cf. I Samuel 2:10; Psalm 71:13; Nahum 1:2; Philippians 1:28; I Peter 3:12-16). “This world’s prince…is judged; the deed is done!” (Cf. John 16:11). “One little word can fell him!” In the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1ff.), the weapon that vanquished each and every temptation was “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b), as Jesus cited Scripture. “It is written,” He said time and time again. Interestingly (and significantly), that expression in the Greek of the New Testament is “one little word,” namely, (X(D”BJ”4 [gegg • grahp • tai], which means, “It was written, has been written, and even now stands written” [German: Es steht geschrieben] with continuing effect even to the present — a most power-packed “little word” that shows the continuing and continuous authority of Holy Scripture, “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16).
So now, what about that “little word” in the Church of Rome in Luther’s day when he penned the lines of this hymn? What about that “little word” in the almost 500 years following the Reformation? And what about that “little word” still today, as it continues to shout out from the pages of Holy Writ the doctrine that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice? Luther takes up that question in the fourth stanza and answers it in less-than-optimistic terms, singing:
“The Word they still shall let remain
and not a thank* have for it!”
The asterisk (*) calls to the reader’s attention that this older translation, found in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-book (Missouri Synod) of 1924, is true to Luther’s original German [„…und kein’n Dank dafür haben”] and expresses the sad fact that the Word of God in its truth and purity is not only maligned and denigrated, set aside and ignored, even by the world of so-called “theologians” in their teaching and practice, but that one hears virtually no gratitude expressed “for it”! Even among professing so-called “confessionals” in the “conservative” element of the Missouri Synod today, we hear of appreciation for Luther, for Chemnitz, for Walther, and certainly for the Lutheran Confessions (which they hail as their indispensable source of doctrine, and which some have the audacity to represent as the norm of Holy Scripture itself); but where is the gratitude for “the Word” without which the Lutheran Confessions would be only so much hot air?? And where is the willingness, motivated by the Gospel, gratefully to follow the Word by rejecting and avoiding the heterodox (Titus 3:10; Romans 16:17-18) instead of staying within their ranks as mere talkers in a bogus “state of confession” or “protesting membership” that involves no separation when admonition is not heeded??
“He’s by our side upon the plain
with His good gifts and Spirit!”
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to “run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (12:1-3). We have nothing to complain about concerning the burdens we are called upon to bear, the battles we are enlisted to fight, the threats and intimidations we have to face, and the deprivation we are privileged to suffer — in comparison to what our Savior bore to save us as “the Author and Finisher of our faith.” Concerning the Lord’s Church, gladdened by that precious Gospel, the Psalmist writes: “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. God shall help her, and that right early” (46:5).
“And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife,
let these all be gone; they yet have nothing won!”
Here Luther summarizes in a brief series the plagues visited upon Job of old in Satan’s wicked effort to subvert his fear, love and trust in God, to get him to “curse [God] to His face” (1:11), to “charge God foolishly” (v. 22), to renounce his faith and die in his sins (2:9). What did Satan accomplish? What did he gain? What did he win? Nothing! Jesus assures us that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His Church]” (Matthew 16:18). And the Psalmist writes by inspiration of God: “The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted!” (46:6). “He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariot in the fire!” (v. 9).
“The Kingdom ours remaineth!”
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen; I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge!” (vv. 10-11). Peter writes in his first epistle: “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye; and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear, having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that they falsely accused your good conversation in Christ” (3:14-16).
We indeed are engaged in a fierce battle against the devil, the world, and our flesh every day of our lives. And we also have specific spiritual foes among “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). There are “grievous wolves” (Acts 20:29) “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), belly-serving theologians who “with good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18). And we have had our share of “perils among false brethren” (II Corinthians 11:26b) arising out of our own ranks, “speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). But by God’s grace, “they have harmed us none” because Christ, our Champion, has fought for us with the sword of His Word and “holds the field forever.” Yet, we still have our work cut out for us. The battle is far from over, as St. Paul writes to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses” in humble imitation of our Savior’s “good confession” before Pontius Pilate (I Timothy 6:12-13) and of Luther’s bold profession before the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521: “Unless convinced by Scripture or logical deductions therefrom…, I am overcome by the Scriptures quoted and my conscience is bound in God’s Word…. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.” (As quoted in Concordia Cyclopedia, 1927.) “God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble! Therefore will not we fear!” God help US! Amen!
—D. T. M.