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The Musical Legacy of Martin Luther

October 30, 2015

“Music,” wrote Martin Luther, “is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her are all the emotions are swayed…This precious gift has been bestowed on [humans] alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord.”[1]

Every October 31, Protestants worldwide celebrate Reformation Day to commemorate the day Martin Luther posted his list of 95 theses for debate on the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. His invitation to scholars and dignitaries to address complaints against the Roman Catholic Church ignited the Protestant Reformation. Luther championed the priesthood of all believers, which led to the elimination of penance. In a return to first-century church practices, he also advocated offering the Lord’s Supper to every congregant and encouraged congregational singing.

Roland Bainton, author of Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, honors Luther as the father of congregational song because he converted so much of the church’s liturgy into hymns. Luther also published a hymnbook in 1524 that contained twenty-three hymns he had written to help ordinary people better understand their faith.

Battling Depression through Song

No other hymn, perhaps, has swayed the emotions and fortified the faith of Christians worldwide more than “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” sometimes called the anthem of the Reformation. In it, Luther expertly combined Old and New Testament truths in a glorious symphony of praise to God.

According to Bainton, Luther composed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” after a bout of severe sickness and depression in 1527. Indeed, Luther battled depression throughout his life and often sought to overcome it through studying the psalms, praying, and singing.

The hymn is based on Psalm 46, one of Luther’s favorite psalms. In it, the psalmist celebrates a great military victory. Consider verses 8-9:

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.

For me, the most inspiring military reference is contained in the psalm’s refrain, repeated in verses 7 and 11: “The LORD Almighty is with us.” In English versions of the Bible, LORD Almighty is translated in various ways, including “LORD of hosts” and “LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” The Hebrew transliteration is Jehovah Sabaoth, which can be translated “commander of angelic armies.” Luther conveyed the invincibility associated with such a commander by writing:

Lord Sabaoth, His name,

from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

Yes, Luther was fighting a theological war with the Roman Catholic Church, but he was also waging a personal war with depression and doubt. In addition to those earthly battles, he recognized a more fierce conflict: the war in the spiritual realm. In the hymn’s first stanza, he wrote, “Amid the flood of mortal ills” is the formidable “craft and power” of “our ancient foe.” Our enemy, the devil, is “armed with cruel hate” and “on earth is not his equal.”

This battle, Luther said in other stanzas, would “threaten to undo us,” and “our striving would be losing” except for one glorious truth: “the right Man [is] on our side” — Christ Jesus. Luther could have been overwhelmed by the opposition he faced, but he remained steadfast in his convictions. He was confident that “God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”

Battling Evil with Scripture

Like Luther, we must be fully aware that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We too can arm ourselves with the following promises and truths of Scripture so “we will not fear” (Psalm 46:2).

First, God is our invincible, ever-present defender. Luther wrote, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” His lyrics echo Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Second, through Jesus we have strength to defeat our foes, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual. When Luther wrote, “and He [Christ Jesus] must win the battle,” could he have been referring to 1 John 5:4?

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.

Third, the devil will ultimately be defeated. Luther wrote, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure.” Surely, he was thinking of Revelation 20:10, which says,

The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Fourth, God’s truth is everlasting. Luther wrote, “God’s truth abideth still.” He may have been mediating on Jesus’ words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

Fifth, God has given us invincible armaments. Luther wrote, “The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.” Perhaps he was reflecting on the powerful promise of 2 Peter 1:3:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.

What threatens to undo you today? Is it pressure at work, a strained marriage, a rebellious child? Maybe you are battling a terminal illness or chronic disability. As you contemplate your circumstances, God may seem inattentive, capricious, or even cruel.

Follow Martin Luther’s example and immerse yourself in Bible study, prayer, and song. Allow the biblical truths that comforted and strengthened him to revive your soul. God is our fortress, our place of safety. But he is also an ever-present, unconquerable commander, ready to engage any enemy that threatens us.

Lord Sabaoth is with us. He will win the battle. Amen and amen.

[1] This quote and all biographical information are taken from Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland H. Bainton (Peadbody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1950.) Citation from page 354.

The Author
Denise Loock

Denise K. Loock is a freelance writer, editor, speaker, and Bible study teacher. She is the author of Open Your Hymnal: Devotions That Harmonize Scripture with Song and the founder of digdeeperdevotions.com, a website devoted to helping Christians dig deeper into the Word of God. She lives in Waynesville, NC, with her husband Mace and cat Ginger.



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