For many Christians, October 31st brings with it each year something much more profound than trick-or-treat outings. We recognize the date first as Reformation Day, not Halloween, and it reminds us of the reformers, and all the gains made through the recovery of the gospel and the Word of God.
For me, the date also prompts grateful reflection on Martin Luther, and one of the most celebrated hymns of the Christian faith A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Drawing upon Psalm 46, Luther’s hymn buoys the spirit by reflecting on God’s unfailing providence, even in the midst of catastrophe and adversity. Luther’s hymn also serves as a reminder of the ongoing spiritual struggle between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of Christ.
A Mighty Fortress is Our God is something of a cultural and ecclesiastical mainstay. It has been sung at both royal coronations and state funerals; enjoyed as a celebratory hymn in weddings and featured at services of remembrance, such as at the National Cathedral in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet, the real meaning of A Mighty Fortress is Our God is reserved for followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The history of the Christian church is largely a history of hardship among God’s people. Whether it be the Apostle Paul’s incarcerations, the early church’s sufferings under Nero, Luther’s flight from papal imprisonment, Baptists laboring for religious liberty, or Jim Elliott’s death at the end of a native’s spear, to follow Christ indeed is the call to take up one’s cross. For Jesus’ sake, God’s people have known ostracism, ridicule, persecution, and even martyrdom.
However, one need not look to history to find signs of gospel challenge; one simply needs to look around. Oppressive regimes abroad and secular thought at home situate the 21st century church in the midst of daunting gospel adversity. The modern era has not alleviated gospel hardship, but in many ways has intensified it.
Full-throated secularism—as witnessed through the rejection of objective truth, sexual libertinism, the disintegration of the nuclear family, declining church attendance, and threatened religious liberty—appears to be gaining ground. The church will have to contend with it.
Yet, where one finds the persecution of Christians, one also finds ministerial courage and gospel faithfulness. This present generation of gospel ministers labors in increasingly antagonistic environments, often preaching to hardened hearts and in hostile settings.
In light of these realities, Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God is all the more heartening. Far from self-affirmation or mere positive thinking, Luther’s hymn rightly points believers to strength in Christ and the hope he furnishes.
As A Mighty Fortress is Our God’s second stanza confesses, “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 Sabbaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”
Our hope awaits an eternal consummation, but we minister with buoyancy and confidence even now. After all, Christ declared “He will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail.” So we press on in this age, “until the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”
Luther’s hymn rings true. Christ arms his servants with spiritual armor, the power of the gospel to save, the authority of the Word of God, and his unflagging promise to build his church. His servants join the battle, but Christ secures the victory.
May we find hope not in a hymn, but in Christ’s strength, to which A Mighty Fortress is Our God points. And may we say “yes” and “amen” to Luther’s concluding appeal in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
*A version of this article was previously posted on March 1, 2014