500 years after the reformation
By Marion Van Driel
Every year when October 31st comes around and we reflect on the Protestant Reformation, I am transported back to the memory of a few thousand voices exuberantly singing Martin Luther’s well-known hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. On the Sunday evening closest to the date, our local churches gathered for the annual Reformation Day worship service at Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium, singing, praying, listening to scripture and being reminded of our identity in Christ. The experience was formative for my own young faith and theology. It also gave me an appreciation of the unity of believers, gathered together around the truth of scriptures, by faith in Christ.
The five ‘solas’
The main thrust of the Reformation was to make scripture accessible to the common people and to strip away man-made practices that obscured the way to authentic Christianity. Luther came to understand that people couldn’t earn their salvation by indulgences or works; it was only possible by grace (solo gratia), through faith (sola fide) in Christ (solo Christo). It was through the scriptures (sola scriptura) that people came to believe and to live for God’s glory (solo Deo Gloria).
A difficult truth
Over time, the truths we confess can become blurred. Our own logic kicks in, and we forget how counter-intuitive God’s actions often are to our human understanding. Is it even possible to wrap our heads around the gift of salvation – completely free, unaided by our own efforts? We are programmed to do something to earn what we get. Surely my part on the worship team or the fact that I am involved in a Bible study, and sponsor a child in South America, contributes toward God’s perception of me? Nope. Surely what I contribute to benefit His kingdom places me on the spiritual ladder of success? Nada. It’s all grace. My worth is solely based on Christ’s suffering and death in my place.
Why engage in works, if not to earn God’s favour? If we consider the immeasurable gift we’ve been given, whatever we do becomes a grateful response to that gracious gift. Our response also immerses us into a life far richer than anything this world has to offer. My Spiritual Disciplines don’t earn a millionth of a decimal point towards my salvation; yet they are a valuable tool for drawing me closer to the Father, Son and Spirit. God uses them as He has for centuries, to grow His church.
Value in looking back
And what of the church, His bride? For some, the Reformation barely registers a blip on the radar screen. The point of history, however, is to learn the lessons it has to offer. Luther was living in perilous times – battles within the church, poverty, disease, and death were everywhere, swirling about his ears. Even then – especially then – he considered truth and God’s glory paramount.
I wonder what Luther would think of the church today. No doubt our world is in as much chaos as was Luther’s, and more. Perhaps he would be pleased that we sing his old hymn, at least occasionally. Perhaps he’d be disappointed we don’t sing it more. Perhaps he would pray that we, too, would be able to stand up under the pressures of sickness, evil, persecution and temptation – in part, through these words.
Encouraging the faint
Luther scribed the lyrics and melody of this hymn between 1527 and 1529 –a time of great upheaval and suffering, and ten years after he had begun the Reformation movement. Depression and physiological illness haunted Luther, yet when the bubonic plague broke out and many scattered, he and his pregnant wife remained in Wittenberg to offer their home as a hospital to minister to the sick and dying. Luther saw many friends succumb to the disease. It’s not surprising that he fought demons, at times feeling abandoned by God altogether.
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.
Although he sits (not unlike Job on his ash heap) amid the (prevailing) flood of mortal ills, he holds on – tight and white-knuckled – to the words of Psalm 46, acknowledging that in spite of a hateful, evil power – the likes of which there is no equal on earth, God is the one fortress that won’t crumble. It was a time when death and darkness were everywhere. Luther and his cohorts saw the work of satan clearly manifested in the world around them.
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.
Believers fought –not in their own competence, recognizing that the only One with the requisite power is Christ (solo Christo), who must win the battle. Rather than a brave kind of wishful thinking, this statement was based on a complete faith (sola fide) in Christ’s victory on the cross and at His return, as revealed in scripture (God cannot lie). It’s no wonder that the hymn has been called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”. The very words and tune evoke a defiant stance – founded on God’s unfailing victory.
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.
The last line of this verse is often shown as ‘One little Word shall fell him’. It’s almost as if Luther raises his fist at satan: “Bring it on . . . you’re going down! We stand on the Word!” The tiny Child – the Word made flesh, whom we celebrate at Christmas – is the ultimate undoing of satan and his lackeys.
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.
In this final verse, Luther acknowledges the sovereignty of Christ over all, and lays claim to the benefits of a life in Christ. We are reminded that holding on tightly to anything other than Christ – stuff, family, our very lives – is an exercise in futility. Ultimately whatever may happen to us or around us, God’s truth stands firm and His kingdom will last throughout eternity.
To remember the Reformation is to be reminded that no matter how dire circumstances seem to be, God’s church will prevail; God will always use His people to speak truth and grace into this world, until Christ returns.
Marion Van Driel is a regular contributor to The Light Magazine. She attends Ladner Christian Reformed Church. Follow her series on Spiritual Discplines at lightmagazine.ca.