The hymn “A Mighty Fortress” (TLH 262), is Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, and one of the most well-known of all Christian hymns. I was reminded of this recently when I heard a character refer to it in an episode from an old TV series. Not many hymn titles make it into popular culture.
“A Mighty Fortress” has long had a place in nearly every Protestant hymnal, and more recently even in some Roman Catholic hymnals. It has been translated into more languages than any other hymn, and there are more than seventy English translations of it.
To say that it is widely known and sung is not to say that it is widely understood or truly appreciated for its message. No doubt many who like it for its majestic tune may not pay much attention to what it says beyond its opening line.
But when we sing the entire hymn—as most of us will be doing in Reformation observances this month—we appreciate it for the powerful and profoundly Christian hymn it is.
In The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, W. Gustave Polack says of “A Mighty Fortress,” “This hymn is truly written out of the fullness of Luther’s heart.” It was most likely written in 1529 for the Diet of Spires, where the German princes made a formal protest against the withdrawal of their freedom to follow the teachings of the Reformation in their territories. The hymn expresses Luther’s trust that the cause of the Gospel would not be lost even in the face of opposition from church and empire. The cause was God’s own; He was able to make it prevail.
The inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress” was Psalm 46, though it is not a paraphrase of the psalm, but a new composition. The idea of God as a strong fortress in which His children find protection comes from the opening words of the psalm, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
The God that Luther sees in Psalm 46 is not some powerful but vague deity. It is the one true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Luther understands that “the Lord of hosts” in the Psalm’s refrain is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son. The title “Lord of hosts” glorifies God as the one who is Lord over the hosts of heavenly angels (see article on page 8). The New Testament identifies Jesus Christ as the One whom angels worship and obey (Hebrews 1:6; Matthew 25:31).
Christ is the “Valiant One whom God Himself elected.” He is the One who fights for us. The cause of the Reformation was Christ’s because it was His Gospel that was the message of the Reformation. Luther’s doctrine was that we are saved by the work of Christ alone. His atoning sacrifice alone has cleansed us from our sins. His righteousness, which is ours by faith, alone justifies us before God. Luther believed that even the devil himself could not stop the cause of the Gospel, because Christ had defeated him and robbed him of his power. “This world’s prince . . . can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done.”
“The old evil foe” still means deadly woe and is still scowling fiercely in our day. He is still opposing the Gospel of Jesus Christ on many fronts. The forces that Luther contended with are still active. The false teaching of righteousness by works is still widely taught and believed. The ungodly world grows ever bolder in its hostility toward the truth and those who believe it.
But let’s not be discouraged. It is said of Luther that when he was down, he would say to his friend and coworker Melanchthon, “Come, Philip, let us sing the 46th Psalm.” Then together the two friends would sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” At our Reformation services this month let us follow their example and sing this great hymn with joy and confidence.
John Klatt is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Loveland, Colorado.
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