This past Saturday marked the day that Martin Luther died 471 years ago—in the year 1546. His last words were, “We are all beggars. This is true.” Luther isn’t remembered as much for his final words as he is for his preaching.
After nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517, Martin Luther’s life would never be the same. Although he never intended to spark the Protestant Reformation, what would happen over the remaining chapters of his life was never planned in the beginning—at least Luther himself didn’t plan it. What emerged out of the Reformation was a true recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a commitment to biblical preaching, and a great reform in how Christians would sing the gospel.
Luther may be known for his bold preaching and his tenacious faith in Jesus Christ, but he also took time occasionally to write hymns. The bold reformer penned 36 hymns. Perhaps his most famous has taken the title, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Background to the Hymn
Although much of the background to the hymn can’t be precisely determined, what we do know is that it was penned during the Reformation era. While Luther faced the evils of his day, the mounting threats of the Roman Catholic Church, and the pressures of standing firm upon the pure gospel—he penned this hymn that has become titled, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Two popular English translations exist. One was written by Thomas Carlyle titled, “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still” and the other one, the most prominent, was translated by Frederic Henry Hedge titled, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther’s faith was growing by his reading and teaching through the Psalms. Luther said, “The gospel in miniature” in describing the Psalms. It was Psalm 46 that gripped Luther and eventually became the backdrop of this now famous song.
Although many theories exist surrounding the backdrop of this hymn, one popular theory is that Luther penned the hymn as the plague spread among the people. While this is possible, it is known that Luther had already been in hiding in the Wartburg Castle after his bold stand at Worms in 1521. Luther understood what a mighty fortress was from first hand experience and He knew God was bigger and stronger than any castle men could construct.
As Luther faced devils in his day while standing for Christ, He turned to God. In Luther’s hymn, he called God a “bulwark never failing.” A bulwark is a defensive wall used to defend against enemies. For Luther living in the days of the sixteenth century, he understood what a bulwark was. All around Europe, castles lined the top of hillsides. They were often built on high places to provide good lookouts and provide for more productive defensive strategies against threatening armies.
Bigger and stronger than any defensive wall made by the hands of man was Luther’s God. He turned to God in the midst of good and bad days. As Luther understood that our “ancient foe” does seek to “work us woe” and was far more powerful than the enemies of the flesh, he turned to a bigger defense. He turned to God.
As we pass through this world with devils filled who threaten to undo us, we must learn to face such evils without fear. Luther understood that the gospel was worthy of death and that no matter what, God’s Kingdom is forever.
This world is filled with kingdoms and powers that rise and fall. However, the King of kings and the Lord of lords rules and reigns from Heaven’s throne and it will never fail. God’s Kingdom is forever. Luther’s bulwark must be ours too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My children are in a Classical Conversations homeschool co-op. When we first started CC, I remember the little jingles that my children were using to memorize facts about the Boston Tea Party and the Constitution of the United States. Some of the jingles were quite humorous, but the fact remains – music is powerful and songs deliver messages. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning American history or singing hymns in the church, songs have a way of delivering their message in a memorable way.
The theologians who are having the greatest impact upon the church in our present day don’t stand in pulpits to deliver their message. In fact, they don’t write books to articulate their ideas. Today’s church culture is being shaped by a group of theologians with guitars in their hands. They deliver their message through the speakers of our cars and electronic devices. We could call them the “Podcast Preachers” – but the fact remains – contemporary Christian musicians, singers, and singer-songwriters are shaping the church.
Contemporary Christian music has swept through the church from the 1960s to our present era. The numbers are staggering. The sales for the CCM industry total more than a half a billion dollars annually. With more than 1,400 radio stations and 80 million listeners, they are highly successful marketers and their message is being heard loud and clear.
What percentage of the average evangelical church will read one substantial theological book in this calendar year? Although I don’t have hard numbers before me, I would imagine the percentage is fairly low. Consider the percentage of the average evangelical church that’s wired into the latest contemporary Christian radio station. What about the average Christian’s podcast – what would you find if you examined their playlist? Would it be audio books or sermons? Most likely it would be contemporary Christian music, Christian hip hop, and perhaps other music genres that are outside of the mainstream Christian community.
As you evaluate these questions regarding the average church, consider the younger generation. They are much more likely to be listening to Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, or TobyMac than Calvin, Luther, or C.S. Lewis. Listeners to CCM age 12 and up spend an average of 9 hours per week connected to some form of CCM network or program.
As we had our minivan strapped down with kayaks and the sound of children laughing (and fighting) as we were driving to our Gammy’s home for Memorial Day festivities, a song about the Holy Spirit came on the radio. I was listening to the lyrics and talking to my wife about the importance of this evaluation. With just a tweak of such lyrics, you could be hearing modalism coming through the speakers rather than an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity. This matters greatly because our children are learning theology as they ride down the highway in the minivan.
Consider the words of Dr. Albert Mohler regarding Hillsong. He said:
“It’s a prosperity movement for the millennials, in which the polyester and middle-class associations of Oral Roberts have given way to ripped jeans and sophisticated rock music…What has made Hillsong distinctive is a minimization of the actual content of the Gospel, and a far more diffuse presentation of spirituality.”
We must not ignore the power and influence of music upon the church – especially the younger generation. Today’s church is getting their theology from the songs they hear on the radio in a much more heavy dose than the sermons they hear once or twice per week from the pulpit. Throughout church history, theologians and preachers once spent time writing hymns that would teach theology and be used to sing praise to the Lord. Today, there seems to be an invisible boundary. Preachers preach, theologians write, and professional musicians take care of the songs.
In Exodus 35-36, Moses identified two men (Bezalel and Oholiab) before the nation of Israel as being filled with skill and intelligence regarding craftsmanship. They were given the lead role in constructing the tabernacle and the furniture used for worshipping God. Sometimes the church refuses to see a need for the arts in the life of the church, and those with such giftedness become neglected. Recognizing gifts and allowing them to be developed for God’s glory is a healthy thing. It would be wise for song writing to remain under the leadership and guidance of elders in the church. Musicians need to be immersed in the discipleship of the local church. It’s the job of the church, not the professional music industry, to produce songs of praise to God. If we expect songs to display the glory of Christ through sound biblical theology, they must not be disconnected from the local church.