On “Hallowed Eve” in the year 1517, the evening before All Saints Day, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (sentences or propositions for debate) onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
According to God’s eternal plan, that event set in motion what we today know as the Reformation. God accomplished mighty things through His servant Martin Luther.
As heirs of the heritage of the Reformation principles of by Scripture alone, by grace alone, and by faith alone, we use special services and celebrations to observe the restoration of the gospel. Reformation Day is a day of triumph.
However, for Luther and his followers the Reformation was not all bravery and triumph. The forces of the Roman Catholic Church and the rulers of Germany combined in an attempt to stop this monk and his followers.
In 1521 it appeared that the Reformation would come to the same end as previous attempts at reforming the excesses of the Catholic Church—martyrdom. Luther and his followers were summoned to a “diet” or congress at the German city of Worms. The morning before the diet opened, Luther expressed his needs and fears in a prayer: “My God, stand by me, against all the world’s wisdom and reason….Not mine but yours is the cause….I would prefer to have peaceful days, and to be out of turmoil. But yours, Lord, is this cause; it is righteous and eternal. Stand by me, you Eternal God! In no man do I trust… Stand by me, O God, in the name of your dear Son Jesus Christ, who shall be my Defense and Shelter, yes, my Mighty Fortress, through the might and strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Luther was excommunicated from the Roman church in 1521 and declared to be an outlaw with a price on his head.
In the years following, Luther was buffeted by physical illness and troubled with depression. In the so-called Peasant Rebellion, he saw his followers use their new freedom not to serve Christ but to do their own thing. He was appalled.
When he took a stand against this rebellion—which defied God’s authority of government—many of Luther’s own followers rejected him. False teachers arose from within his inner circle of friends and colleagues. He also was troubled with what today would be diagnosed as depression. In the mid 1527’s Luther wrote, “Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.”
Against this background, Luther drew on his earlier study of the Psalms—studies which he had prepared for his early lectures at the University of Wittenberg. The Psalms expressed his faith-life and were always precious to him. He used the Psalms in his music.
Music was also precious to Luther. He wrote thirty-seven hymns; these perhaps did more to spread the Reformation than did his sermons. One writer said that “Luther translated the Bible into German so God could speak directly to the people; and provided the hymns so that people could answer God in their songs.”
The most recognizable and precious hymn of Luther is
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
A mighty fortress is our God,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He helps us free from ev’ry need
That has us now o’ertaken.
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.
This hymn, based on Psalm 46, is dated about 1527-29. At the time Luther and his followers were going through a rough patch of opposition from Emperor Charles V, who was determined to suppress this Lutheran religious and political movement. Luther went back to the comfort of the Psalms with the bold declaration, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”
This hymn became popular immediately with the common people of Germany. It was sung in the churches and on the streets; it was chanted by martyrs as they awaited their fate. The music was most likely composed by Luther too. A hundred years later J.S. Bach used this tune as the setting for one of his chorales.
This same musical setting of the 46th psalm touches our hearts and counteracts our fears and depression today. This battle hymn of the Reformation turns our eyes and hearts away from the sufferings of this present age, from the opposition of Satanic hosts, and from our weaknesses. The hymn fixes our eyes on the power of our Savior-God and on the person of our Lord Jesus Christ who “holds the field forever.”
With might of ours can naught be done;
Soon were our loss effected.
But for us fights the valiant One
Whom God Himself elected.
You ask, “Who is this?” Jesus Christ it is,
The almighty Lord. And there’s no other God;
He holds the field forever. (WS2000, #774:1-2)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Psalm 46:1-3, ESV).