Songs that Preach — A Mighty Fortress is Our God
My favorite genre of music isn’t a genre at all. My favorite genre is music that can be sung in such a way that it connects mind and emotions. Music where the message of the lyrics isn’t trite or trivial. Music that can preach about God in such a way that it brings about awe, fear, love, recognition, repentance, mercy, and grace — music that shepherds the flock of sheep who would wonder aimlessly without the intercession of God’s truth in their lives.
One such song is A Mighty Fortress is Our God by none other than 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, who is best known for nailing a list of “theses” to a church door in Wittenberg, demanding reformation and calling the existing church practices blasphemous.
79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
Let’s look at the song and what it sings of God. What it preaches.
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
There are times throughout history where God has ordained his people to engage in earthly warfare. Augustine pontificated in The City of God of a “just war” and he argues that it is sinful to claim pacifism in the face of egregious, mortal sin that can only be stopped through force.
More than just wars of mortal peril, however, Christians regularly find themselves engaged in wars of the mind — wars of our sinful nature battling against the revealed will of God. These wars are fought not in fox holes, or deserts, or from the remote cockpit of a drone that’s circling a village, poised to strike against men, women, and children of a different religion.
So when Luther writes about God as a fortress, as a protector and defender, he writes not just of a God who protects from mortal war, but of a God who is ever-present and ready to protect his elect as they fight a war of the will against sin.
Our helper He,
God is not just our helper, but a helper in the sense of the psalmist who wrote: “God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life” (Pslam 54). In other words, God who is with us, provides for our very lives. We eat food to for sustain our body; but it is God who sustains life itself. Without God giving humanity our unique blessing of life as beings created in his image, we would be no different from the worms who eat food, crawl about some, and deposit their leftovers in the soil.
amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
It’s not all prosperity gospel. God helps and provides, and he proves true to his promises, but he allows for difficulties to persist and even prevail. How great is our God? Luther will answer this question. But first, in order to comprehend such greatness, we must first understand and recognize the depravity of ourselves, and of the sinful world we currently abide in. As once was written:
Stars shine clearest in the darksome night,
Even so sweet mercy (issuing from on high),
When it vouchsafes to light, on such as I,
Doth then show clearest, rarest, and most worth,
And most of all, doth set thy glory forth.
— Thomas Collins
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.
Contrary to popular depictions and annual “Judgment House” plays, the author of sin — the deceiver who convinced mankind to disobey God, is not a king of Hell. God is king of Hell, where he will one day pour out his unmitigated justice for all eternity. It is God’s patience that causes him to, with one hand, hold back the wrath of his judgment, while with the other hand, he offers salvation and safety to all who will believe in him.
So, if not king of Hell, where is Satan? Just as God’s patience with humanity spares us from his wrath, our sovereign God permits sinful Satan temporary dominion over Earth, free to act out his evil will and continue his rebellion that was started in the heavenly realm. Satan is fighting a war against God, and as he’s always done, he tries to recruit humanity into his army through a false claim of divine right.
Indeed, for the person who has not been reborn of God; for the person who lives a life surrendered to sin; Satan acts as their earthly vice-roy — a “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
One difference to note — although it is God’s patience that temporarily spares Satan and sinners from wrath and judgment, the offer of forgiveness and atonement is only extended to sinners, created in the image of God. As the song will soon say, Satan’s fate is sealed by God (just as a very different fate is sealed by Spirit, for those who have placed their trust in Christ).
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:
There is no hope of salvation within our selves. If justice means being fair, then how does one measure the just punishment for rebellion against an almighty King who is infinitely good? You can’t. The only fully just punishment is one of infinite magnitude. The only just punishment for evil sin is an eternity of torment, separated from all that is good.
In other words, no man can ever fully atone for their sin. It is impossible; it would be losing. Thank God we have an alternative.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Luther reveals our only hope of winning. Instead of trusting in ourselves and losing the war, our hope is found by running to the chosen one — the God who saves, the King of ages, who died so that his people might live.
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
Lord Sabaoth — that is to say, the Lord of hosts, the King of armies. Indeed, our commander-in-chief, Christ Jesus, leads the charge into battle. Why? Because he knows we are outmatched and cannot win a single fight on our own.
As Luther has already made clear, if left up to us, the battle would be lost and God’s people would be left to suffer. And while such a fate would be just, it is not God’s will. (Let’s say that one more time, for emphasis.)
If left up to us, the battle would be lost and God’s people would be left to suffer. And while such a fate would be just, it is not God’s will.
God’s will for humanity is to create for himself a people who come to know a blessing that even the angels cannot fathom — forgiveness. Indeed, God is not only good and just, he is merciful too.
So who must win the battle? Christ Jesus. Consider this: if mankind could somehow win the battle against Satan and sin, then he would take credit for this achievement, rather than giving God all the glorious credit he is due as Creator. In other words, in taking credit for overcoming sin, man would sin in his self-righteousness. It is an impossible task.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2)
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;
Luther laments that enjoying and glorying in Christ’s full victory is one for our eternal souls. While on this earth, we must still endure the attacks of our enemy and those who, in their sin, are in his service.
Nonetheless, we have no reason or right to fear, as through us God will demonstrate his power over these earthly attacks. No matter the attack or the attacker, we shall not fear, because they cannot kill the soul (Matthew 10).
His rage we can endure,
What relief there is for the Christian who trusts in God and recognizes that all suffering and struggles will see themselves to a happy end. In God’s will and earthly providence, those trials will often come to an end here on Earth — a temporary trial that is sovereignly allowed. The fire of suffering and struggle burns away the impure elements of our sinful lives, refining us into priceless gold, which reminds us of how God treasures us.
You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1)
for lo, his doom is sure,
God is the beginning and the end; he created time itself. When God promises something will be accomplished, it already has been. Sure, to us who live our lives going down the one-way street of time, the end of the road may seem impossibly distant and the conditions there unknown. But for God, his omnipotence was, is, and forevermore ensures he is able to keep his promises.
And what is God’s promise to his people?
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10)
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers,
The understatement of the 16th century, which Luther immediately clarifies. That “little” word isn’t so little. It is the word of God, and God’s words have the power to create the universe (He spoke it into existence.) and, when that word is brought to life as God-incarnate, they can even perform a greater act — the redemption of mankind and the conquering of sin.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1)
no thanks to them, abideth;
As reformer, Luther reminds us all that we cannot earn access to God. God owes nothing to us. It is his pleasure and sovereign right to create for himself a people. Without this grace, we would have remained on the side of the enemy, under his rule, as an army of sinners. If it were not for God, through the Holy Spirit, calling us and convicting us of our sin, then we would continue on sinning and rebelling, just as Satan does, and share in his fate. God chose us, when we couldn’t possibly choose him.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” — Jesus (John 15)
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
In the war of eternal significance, God not only provides our supreme warrior, who will ultimately end the war, but he also provides for our everyday battles in the form of the Holy Spirit, who provides us with the power of God to overcome the minefield of sin that threatens us in our daily walk.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8)
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
And here, the war motif ends with a solemn reminder — our eternal war is fought with earthly implications. As with earthly wars, those implications are devastating and deadly.
In this fallen state, there is suffering. God’s provisions for us may be taken away by the result of sin, just as Adam and Eve lost out on an earthly paradise. Our beloved family may be taken from us through death, or worse, through betrayal. Even our own mortal lives will be one day ended by the power of death.
God’s truth abideth still,
None the less, if and when Satan’s sinful power of death happens to best us, God’s promise of ultimate victory is still assured.
His kingdom is forever.
His kingdom, where we will join him, and worship him, forever. Amen.