A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing.
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.
This majestic hymn is sung in many reformed churches all over the world on Reformation Sunday. Written by Martin Luther, the great 16th Century Reformer in 1529, “A Mighty Fortress” is often called, “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”.
Martin Luther was a German Augustinian monk and a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. As a faithful monk, Luther lived an austere ascetic life. He was so strict in keeping the rules of the monastic order that he said: “… if any man got to heaven through monasticism, I was indeed that man. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me can testify to this. I would have become a martyr through fasting, prayer, spiritual reading and other good works if I had remained a monk much longer!” (Bible Witness: September – October 2006).
Though Luther applied himself diligently to obey the church teachings and the pope, there was no peace in his heart. Preparing for his lectures one day, the troubled priest came across the truth: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1: 17). He found the precious statement again in Habakkuk 2: 4. It was faith – not works, nor indulgences, nor penance, nor the teachings of the church – that could make one righteous before God. He realised for the first time that salvation came not by works of righteousness but by grace through faith in Christ alone.
With this new divine revelation, Luther contended against the erroneous teachings and traditions of the Roman Church, especially the sale of indulgences which falsely offered the forgiveness of sins. On 31 October 1517, the converted monk drafted his ninety-five theses and nailed it to the church door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg. In his theses, Luther called for a return to God’s Word as the final authority of faith and practice.
One of the great blessings of the Reformation was the restoration of congregational singing. To Luther, “music is next to theology” (lutheranquarterly.com). Music, Luther believed, would administer God’s Word to the hearts of the people.
It was in the course of his contention with the Roman Church that Luther wrote his most famous song, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Translated from German into almost every known language and tongue, this classic hymn “became the battle cry of the people, a great source of strength and inspiration even for those who were martyred for their convictions” (101 Hymn Stories – Kenneth W Osbeck).
“Based on Psalm 46 – ‘God is our Refuge and Strength’ – all stanzas of the hymn are interdependent. Stanza 1 offers the encouragement that, when under siege, God’s children have an impregnable fortress against their ‘ancient foe’, Satan (though Luther was also regarding the ‘foe’ as the hierarchy of the Roman Church). Stanza 2 explains that human strength against the foe is doomed to failure, and that the battle needs the strong arms of the Man of God’s own choosing – even Christ Jesus our Lord. In stanza 3, the ‘prince of darkness’ continues his evil works, though his doom is as certain as is our victory in Christ. This stanza ends with the thought that ‘one little word shall fell him.’ Stanza 4 picks up on ‘that word’, assuring us that even though we may lose the things we own and love – and even our lives – His Word, eternal truth, shall prevail” (Treasury of Great Hymns - Guye Johnson).
We thank God for the faithfulness of His servant, Martin Luther. He fearlessly stood against the Roman Church and all their unbiblical practices and teachings. May Luther’s example of unwavering courage and faith encourage us to continue the work of defending “the faith that was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). May the Lord help us to remain faithful and steadfast till He returns for us. Amen.