A Mighty Fortress is Our God
… by Martin Luther, c. 1529.
The great Reformer Martin Luther didn’t write these lyrics as a theoretical exercise. For Luther had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1521. The typical punishment for this offense was to be burned at the stake. Luther thus lived under the most practical threat of death, which was only prevented by the protection of local rulers.
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 power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
The “flood of mortal ills” rolls on and on. Yes, in some places and times it appears to ebb, but it always returns with terrible force. We are never free from the ills of this mortal life, be they physical, emotional, social or cultural. Sin infests everything that we think, and do.
Yet, Luther sees that there is an evil power that exacerbates our fallen state. It sees in our weaknesses an opportunity to achieve ends far worse than we could attain on our own. This is also what the Apostle Paul saw when he spoke of “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12b).
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;
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
No man can stand against this spiritual force of evil. In our fallen state we are unable to recognize evil and unwilling to oppose it. It is only because of Jesus Christ’s intervention on our behalf that the truth of our need can be seen. And, it is only by the saving act of Christ that we can be redeemed and renewed so as to cooperate in the battle against the evil that lives within us and in the world around us. Yes, we cooperate because we are “in Christ.” But it is Christ and Christ alone who “must win the battle.”
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
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.
If Christ is on our side then we need not fear anyone or anything. For, it is not our own will but the will of God Himself that truth will triumph through us.
The people who see only worldly power are skilled and relentless about obtaining it. They thus appear to hold all the levers of worldly power, and have no qualms about using them with “cruel hate.” But they have utterly failed to reckon with the one God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — Who yet reigns. Although their evil is bent to serve His purposes, yet when His justice arrives they will be utterly devastated. Their power is so insubstantial that “one little word” fells them.
That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.
That Word is The Word, Jesus Christ. Yes, the powers of evil may successfully conspire to take our families, goods and even our very lives from us. But any victory by evil is only a temporary way station on the road to God’s ultimate truth and justice. The “Spirit and the gifts” from God provide all that we need to fight on until the end of this mortal life is attained. But for the Christian that end is actually the beginning of life eternal, lived in God’s perfect truth and worshiping in His Kingdom forever.