This hymn, #261 in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), is a prayer to the Triune God: Stanza 1 – to the heavenly Father; Stanza 2 – to the Son of God; Stanza 3 – to the Holy Ghost. The writer of this hymn-prayer was Dr. Martin Luther around the year 1541. However, the hymn was not published until two years later in Joseph Klug’s Gesangbuch [Hymnbook] with this title: “A Children’s Hymn, to be Sung against the Two Arch-enemies of Christ and His Holy Church, the Pope and the Turk.” These two enemies are identified in the first verse of the original translation of this hymn, as it appeared in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook (1924-40) as Hymn #274:
Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work;
restrain the murderous Pope and Turk,
who fain would tear from off Thy throne
Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.
Though this pointed identification was removed from the translation in favor of the more general wording which we have today, it is undeniable that the efforts of both “Pope and Turk,” namely, of the Papacy and of Islam, to undermine the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and its wonderful result in God’s justification of the world for His sake, are as much a threat to true Christianity today as they were in 1541.
Christian, God-pleasing prayer, such as we have in this hymn before us, is an on-going fruit of saving faith in Christ Jesus and in His vicarious, substitutionary obedience, suffering, and death for “the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2b). To satisfy God’s demand that all human beings be “holy” (Leviticus 19:2b) and “perfect” (Matthew 5:48a) as He is holy and perfect, “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5a). This Son of God, Christ Jesus, kept and obeyed the Law of God perfectly, not for Himself, but for us and for all other guilty sinners. His perfect obedience, including also His sinless suffering and death as the “one Mediator between God and men” (I Timothy 2:5), paid the full price to God, satisfying His holiness and justice, moving Him to declare all sinners “righteous” (Romans 5:19b) before Him, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19a). This righteousness and forgiveness of sins for all are priceless gifts from God through the sinless and perfect work of Christ! All genuine believers receive this righteousness of Christ by faith as St. Paul declared in Romans 10: “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (v. 4). For the Christian, Christ Jesus is “the Lord our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6b). Because of this imputed righteousness from our dear Savior, believers are identified again and again in the Scriptures as “righteous” (Genesis 18:23; Psalm 1:5-6; Matthew 25:37 and 46; James 5:16; etc., etc.). By the priceless grace of God in Christ, received by faith, the children of God can and do confess: “We have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). It is most certainly true that Christian, God-pleasing prayer, such as we have in Hymn 261, is an on-going fruit of saving faith in Christ Jesus and in His vicarious, substitutionary obedience, suffering, and death for “the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). On the other hand, the prayers of unbelievers, no matter how sincere they might be, are an “abomination” to God, as we are told in Proverbs 28: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the Law, even his prayer shall be abomination” (v. 9).
The opening stanza of Hymn 261 gives us this intercession to the heavenly Father:
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain [eagerly] by craft and sword
would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son
and set at naught all He hath done.
This prayer is as timely today as it was 473 years ago. We also, every day of our earthly lives, need the Lord’s “help” (Psalm 121:2a) in remaining “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10), faithful to His Word and “all things” (Matthew 28:20a) which He has taught us and continues to teach us from His Word of truth and grace. “Lord God, heavenly Father, help us never to waver in confessing to Thee by our words and by our actions the declaration of the psalmist: ‘Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counselors. …Through Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path’” (Psalm 119:24, 104-105).
Our dear heavenly Father, through the Apostle Paul, keeps on conveying this important instruction to His followers: “Be careful for nothing [Don’t worry about anything], but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). No matter what opposition we experience because “we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (II Corinthians 13:8) of God’s Word, and no matter what threats (verbal and/or physical) come our way because we will not go along with “a little leaven” (Galatians 5:9) of false “doctrine” (Matthew 16:12b) and practice which does not agree with the teaching of God’s Word, let us not be filled with worry and anxiety, but let us, by God’s “grace” alone (I Corinthians 15:10), bring our prayers and requests to Him who “sitteth in the heavens [and] shall laugh” (Psalm 2:4) at those who oppose Him, those who oppose His Son, the Savior for the world, those who oppose His faithful followers, and those who oppose the saving Gospel of Christ, which alone can save souls from the everlasting consequences of sin. How true and how comforting for God’s children are the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57), the victory not only over sin, death, and the grave, but also the victory over the devil, over hell, and over all enemies of the teachings of His Word.
Stanza two of this Reformation hymn is a petition to the Son of God:
Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known,
for Thou art Lord of lords alone;
defend Thy Christendom that we
may evermore sing praise to Thee.
The Savior for the world testified in Revelation 1: “I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the Ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8). St. Paul, in Ephesians 5, identified the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Head of the Church” (v. 23b), the almighty Head over the Communion of Saints, over all the righteous in heaven and all the righteous here on earth. He is most certainly worthy of the name “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16b). The Apostle Paul affirmed, in the closing verses of Ephesians 1, that the heavenly Father resurrected Christ “from the dead and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and hath put all things under His feet and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (vv. 20b-23).
This Jesus is our almighty Helper. He has declared to all of His disciples: “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). St. Paul teaches us that in Christ Jesus “dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9), that is, according to His human nature He has been given all the divine attributes (which most certainly includes His omnipotence, His almighty power) from His divine nature as the everlasting Son of God. Together with the heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost, our Lord Jesus Christ 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 Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge” (Psalm 46:1-3 and 7). This is why we, His “branches” (John 15:5a), His “friends” (John 15:15), can with Godly “confidence …ask” (I John 5:14a) Him to keep on being our daily “Defense” (Psalm 7:10a) against our no-good “flesh” (Romans 7:18a), against “our adversary, the devil, [who] as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8b), and against the temporary, wicked “world,” which is devoted to “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). Our dear Lord Jesus Christ, with His heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, assures us of His gift of spiritual equipment for successfully fighting against our spiritual enemies when, through the Apostle Paul, He gives us this perfect counsel: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked, and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17). Here is the sure and certain defense for Christians, whether they lived in 1541 (when Hymn 261 was written) or whether they live, as we do, in 2014.
Having the Lord Jesus Christ as our Defender, our “Advocate” (I John 2:1b), our “good Shepherd, the good Shepherd [who] giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11), and our only “Way” (John 14:6a) to heaven, we have many, many, many reasons to sing “praises” (Acts 16:25b) to Him, to “give thanks” (Psalm 118:1a) to Him, to “worship” (Matthew 4:10b) Him, and to “glorify” (I Corinthians 6:20b) Him because He “hath loved us and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor” (Ephesians 5:2b), and furthermore, because He “hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).
Regardless of how we are treated as the servants of Christ, let us remember the encouragement of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice” (v. 4), even as we are taught in II Timothy 3 that “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13). Whether it was in the 16th Century or whether it is in the 21st Century, God’s “people” (I Peter 2:10b) cannot help but rejoice because of the divine messages in Romans 8: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. …Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us’” (vv. 28 and 35-37).
Now on to the third and final verse of Hymn 261, which is a supplication to God, the Holy Ghost:
O Comforter of priceless worth,
send peace and unity on earth;
support us in our final strife
and lead us out of death to life.
The Holy Ghost is given the endearing name of “Comforter.” Jesus, in John 14, not only uses this name to identify the Holy Ghost, but He also shows us, His disciples of all time, why this Comforter, the Holy Ghost, is of “priceless worth,” when He says: “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (v. 26).
In this third hymn verse, we are praying and singing to the Holy Ghost, our divine Comforter, asking Him to send and keep sending true, God-pleasing peace and true God-pleasing unity on earth. — What is true, God-pleasing peace? It is that peace from God proclaimed objectively in the Gospel to the world of sinners (cf. Luke 2:10-14, esp. v. 14) on account of the vicarious atonement by “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6b), Christ Jesus, that peace received personally by faith, as the Apostle Paul, in Romans 5, declared: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). We ask the Holy Ghost, through “the Gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15b), to bring the peace of God in Christ to broken and contrite hearts here on earth. — What is true, God-pleasing unity? It that unity which the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4, spoke of when he urged his fellow believers to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). This is not unity “at-any-cost;” this is not unity in false doctrine and practice; this is not unity which is contrary to the Word of God (Romans 16:17-18; I Timothy 6:3-5; etc.). But this is God-pleasing unity as defined by the Holy Ghost in I Corinthians 1: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (v. 10) as those who are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20), “continue in [Christ’s] Word” (John 8:31) and “speak as [His] oracles” (I Peter 4:11). It is this unity which we implore the Holy Ghost to bring about and preserve, through His Word, more and more here in this world (cf. John 17:20-21).
“O Comforter of priceless worth, support us with Thy precious Gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus; ‘strengthen and preserve us steadfast in His Word and faith unto our end’ (Luther: Third Petition); and, when we come to the end of our earthly lives, stand by us (Psalm 23:4), leading us by Thy Word of truth and grace out of and through temporal, bodily death to heaven, where we will ‘be with Christ, which is far better’ (Philippians 1:23b) than anything here on earth; ‘for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21).”
“Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God, our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power both now and ever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).
—R. J. L.