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“A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still”


In 1530, Martin Luther lived in Coburg Castle for five and half months under the protection of Elector John the Steadfast. It was during this time that Philip Melanchthon represented Luther at the Diet of Augsburg, which Luther could not attend as an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire. 


“A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still”

[A] “And then all hell broke loose”, many people are fond of saying in everyday English. “And then all hell broke loose.” We can use the expression frivolously to speak of something ultimately insignificant, as some do when the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team is leading by three goals only to lose the game by giving up four goals in ten minutes.

Or we can use the expression profoundly, as war compels us to do when we describe the air-raids on London or Coventry in World War II, or when we speak of the ‘Final Solution’, the Shoah, that Nazi perpetrators unleashed on hapless victims.

When we use the expression profoundly we mean that horror has been unleashed. In the wake of unprecedented horror, our language fails, abysmally fails, to describe what is unfolding.

When Luther said, in so many words, “All hell has broken loose”, he was speaking most profoundly of all. For Luther was aware that cosmic assault was operative. The evil one himself, with all the powers the evil one can co-opt and concentrate; this one has turned upon Luther in person, as well as upon all that Luther upholds concerning Jesus Christ, his kingdom, his truth, and his people, not to mention Luther’s family and friends. In the aftermath of this assault Luther will speak for the rest of his life of Anfechtung as he is overtaken, time after time but never permanently, by an appalling sense of God’s absence together with an inability to find in his heart any awareness of God’s love and mercy, any evidence that God still loves him, holds him, and honours him.

I find today that Christians, especially younger Christians, have a shallow sense of evil. Not Luther: he found evil to be monstrous, hideous. He found evil to be subtle, sneaky, disguised, like a spy-informed commando raid. He also found evil to be a frontal assault without dissimulation, nothing less than death-dealing brutality.

Whether subtle or frontal, Luther insisted, “The ancient prince of hell hath risen with purpose fell…on earth is not his fellow.” Evil, finally, is a power greater than anything humankind can bring against it.

[B] Then who or what can defeat such a power, secure the victory achieved, and render God’s people beneficiaries of it? Only the “proper Man”, Christ Jesus, can.

Jesus Christ is the “proper” man in that this man isn’t man only; this man is God incarnate. Because this man is God incarnate, he can gain that victory which humankind otherwise has no hope of seeing. And because this man is God incarnate, this man is our elder brother who ensures our adoption as sons and daughters of the Father.

Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, is the “safe stronghold” or “mighty fortress” within which God’s people are protected from lethal assault and in which they are secure in the company and arms of their elder brother.

‘Stronghold’: the word occurs repeatedly in the Palms. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9) “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Ps. 18:2)

Luther’s first published writings were his expositions of the Psalms (1513-1515). While many Christians today find the Psalms puzzling at best and off-putting at worst (except, of course, for a few favourites like Ps. 23), Luther found the gospel, no less, everywhere in the Psalms.

Let’s linger over Psalm 18:2. The Lord is my rock. Rock is solid ground. It suggests a refuge from floods that otherwise sweep away everything. (Flood or turbulent water, everywhere in Scripture, is a metaphor for the chaos that laps at us at all times and threatens to engulf us.) The Lord is my fortress. A fortress is that to which marauders cannot gain entry, that which whose walls render would-be invaders futile and frustrated. The Lord is my deliverer. It’s wonderful to be secure on solid rock; it’s wonderful to stand within the fort and see attackers repelled. But so far all we are doing is standing within the fort, passive. We need to be moved beyond passivity; we need to be delivered from our enemies so that we can join the God-man in his active campaign against all that mocks him and mobilizes against him.

And even if Christ our captain conscripts us into his army; even if we are equipped to fight alongside him in his campaign against all forms and forces of wickedness, we shall never last if we are panic-stricken. We must finally be delivered from the fear that otherwise drains us and dispirits us. For this reason the Psalmist once more cries, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1)

[C] Did Luther have anything to fear? Did Luther have anyone of whom he had reason to be afraid? We must remember that Luther wrote his best-known hymn between 1527 and 1529. He wrote it to reassure his people that they could rely on, trust in life and in death, the One who remains victorious in the face of evil’s most concentrated assault. What were the features (at least some of them) of the assault?

One was Luther’s medical problems, such as the onset of kidney stones, an agony no sixteenth-century treatment could relieve. Another was his heart problems. Another was his grief over the death of Elisabeth, his eight-month old daughter who succumbed to pneumonia. Another was the outbreak of the plague in August 1527. (One hundred and fifty years before Luther’s era, we should remember, the Black Death or Bubonic Plague had carried off 40% to 50% of Europe.) Luther’s political ruler, Elector John Frederick, evacuated Wittenberg University and reconvened it in Jena until spring 1528. Luther, however, refused to protect himself self-servingly but rather, like the diligent pastor he was, remained behind in Wittenberg to attend the sick and the dying. The Turks (the sixteenth-century’s version of Islamic threat) had been moving westward relentlessly, and by 1529 had laid siege to the city of Vienna. In addition, the Second Diet of Speyer (1529) had overturned the first (1527), with the result that Evangelicals were no longer tolerated (and, we should note, for the first time in history were known as ‘Protestants’). In 1529 Luther published his Large Catechism. In his exposition of the sixth petition of the Lord’s prayer he reflected on the danger surrounding his people: “This is what ‘lead us not into temptation’ means: ‘We cannot help but suffer attacks and even be mired in them, but we pray here that we may not fall into them and then drown.’”

And then there were the threats Luther had lived with for years. The pope had pronounced him a heretic in 1520, and then had excommunicated him. The emperor had condemned him an outlaw. Anyone assisting the outlaw would be deemed treasonous; anyone caught assisting Luther would be executed.

Luther had much to fear. Still, what rang in his heart was the Psalmist’s gospel-insistence, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” “Christ Jesus is his name, the Lord Sabaoth’s son; he, and no other one, shall conquer in the battle.”

[D] Jesus Christ has indeed conquered; he has gained a victory apart from us, extra nos. This victory, achieved without our help, extra nos, has been won on our behalf, for us, pro nobis. Essential as this is (it is, after all, the ground of our salvation), we shan’t benefit from it unless what has been achieved extra nos, pro nobis, is finally applied in us, in nobis. Luther, like all the Reformers, carefully balances pro nobis and in nobis, the work of God for us wrought in Christ and the work of God in us, owned in faith. Christology must always be balanced with pneumatology. All that Christ has gained for us benefits us only as we ‘put on’ Christ in faith. As much as Luther’s heart sings whenever he speaks of Christ, his heart sings no less whenever he upholds that faith which is God’s gift, to be sure, yet always a gift that we must own and exercise.

Like all the Reformers, Luther understood faith as notitia, assensus and fiducia; understanding, assent and trust. When we confess “I believe”, something must be understood or else faith is indistinguishable from idolatry. Something of the gospel must be understood or else faith is no different from superstition. Something of the gospel must be understood or else saying “I believe” is substantively no different from saying “I don’t believe”.

In the second place, what the mind understands of the gospel, however elementary, the will affirms; and what mind and will uphold the heart trusts (fiducia). To say that trust is the crucial element in faith is to say that we cannot save ourselves or inform ourselves or protect ourselves; we can only trust, entrust ourselves to, the “proper Man” who includes us in his victory.

While trust is the determining element in faith, Luther insists that the One whom we trust is also the One whom we are to love. It is unthinkable that we might trust someone we found repulsive. For this reason, Luther, in several places, discusses faith in terms of marriage, Scripture’s favourite metaphor for God’s covenant faithfulness with his people and theirs with him. In this regard Luther likens faith to that event wherein the bridegroom, Jesus Christ, embraces the bride and says, “I am yours”, while the bride, the believer, embraces the bridegroom, saying, “And I am yours”.

[E] With his close reading of Scripture, Luther is aware that Paul speaks in Ephesians 6 of the ‘armour’ that Christians are to put on as they contend with principalities and powers. One aspect of such armour is the ‘shield of faith’. Consider again the first two lines of Luther’s hymn: “A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon”. While God is named the shield, everywhere in his writings the Reformer insists that faith renders the life-saving shield effective. In the same vein, Luther is aware that when the apostle Paul maintains we are justified by faith, ‘justified by faith’ is shorthand for ‘justified by God’s grace through our faith on account of Jesus Christ’. Looking at the matter from a different angle, Luther is aware that while we are justified by grace, we are never justified apart from faith, since grace forges within us that faith by which grace becomes effectual. To say, then, that God is our shield is to say that faith is our shield.

Luther, like all the Magisterial thinkers, came to the Reformation only after years of intense immersion in humanism. Having studied at Erfurt University, the major north-German centre of Renaissance humanism, Luther maintained that his humanist studies were a major ingredient in his theological development . “I am convinced”, wrote Luther as early 1523, “that without humanist studies, untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proved true…. There has never been a great revolution of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning.”

For this reason, as soon as Luther read in Paul’s Ephesian letter that the shield of faith is able to nullify “all the flaming arrows of the evil one” he would have recalled a major incident in Roman military history.

In 53 B.C.E, the Parthians, under General Surenas (a military genius), fired flaming arrows in a high trajectory upon their Roman foes. The Roman soldiers held their shields above their heads while the projectiles rained down on them — at which point the Parthians fired a second salvo straight ahead, chest high. While Roman soldiers were still reacting to the second salvo, a third, in a high trajectory, fell down on them once again. Their shields couldn’t protect them against attack from two directions simultaneously. Moreover, because all these arrows had been dipped in pitch and then ignited, as soon as a flaming arrow stuck in a wooden shield it set the shield on fire. Attack from above, attack from in front, the soldiers’ protection aflame: they were helpless, and their situation hopeless. Demoralization soon effected one of the worst military defeats Rome would ever know. With this item of recent history in mind the apostle repeats yet again, “Faith in Jesus Christ is sufficient in the face of all life’s flaming arrows.”

When the apostle spoke of the shield of faith he was drawing on yet another aspect of military lore. As a Roman army advanced, each soldier’s shield, carried on the left arm, protected two-thirds of his own body and one-third of the body of the man on his left. Every soldier counted on the man on his right to protect the right-most one-third of his body that would otherwise be fatally exposed. The shield of faith protects the Christian as well as her fellow-Christian.

Luther’s Renaissance education integrated ancient military history concerning flaming arrows and the apostolic word concerning the efficacy of the shield of faith.

[F] “And though they take our life, goods, honour, children, wife.” We have already discussed the manner in which Luther’s life was threatened. His goods? Enemies accused him of profiting from the colossal sales of his books. In truth, Luther refused all royalties, and died dirt-poor, poorer than Erasmus. His children? Elisabeth’s death, we have noted, broke his heart. His heart was broken again when 13-year old Magdalena, afflicted with tuberculosis, died in his arms. His wife? Luther’s enemies smeared him with accusations of lust and lechery on account of his having married at all, and having married an ex-nun. No matter. He cherished Katharina as a singular gift of God.

At the end of it all he was found singing what he sang in the 1520s, “The city of God remaineth”. Luther knew that while creation begins in a garden, it ends in a city, the city of God – which city has to be “let down” since humans are incapable of building it. How was Luther to get to the eternal city? By faith, of course.

Let’s think once more, therefore, of the shield of faith. There is one additional matter we need to know about the shield of faith. When the mothers of Sparta sent their sons off to battle, their last word was, “Come home with your shield, or come home on it; but don’t come home without it.” If their soldier-son came home without his shield then plainly he had surrendered: disgrace! If, however, he came home with his shield, then he had triumphed gloriously. And if he came home on it, then he had fallen nobly in battle and was now borne home with honour. The same shield that equipped the soldier in life brought him home, with honour, in death.

Faith is the shield on which Christ’s soldier, Martin Luther, has been carried home, with honour, to that city of God which is nothing less than a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

2017 Sept. 16


Lyrics to A Safe Stronghold Our God is Still

1 A safe stronghold our God is still,
a trusty shield and weapon;
he’ll keep us clear from all the ill
that hath us now o’ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
hath risen with purpose fell;
strong mail of craft and power
he weareth in this hour;
on earth is not his fellow.

2 With force of arms we nothing can,
full soon were we down-ridden;
but for us fights the proper Man
whom God himself hath bidden.
Ask ye who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his name,
the Lord Sabaoth’s Son;
he, and no other one,
shall conquer in the battle.

3 And were this world all devils o’er,
and watching to devour us,
we lay it not to heart so sore;
they cannot overpower us.
And let the prince of ill
look grim as e’er he will,
he harms us not a whit;
for why? his doom is writ;
a word shall quickly slay him.

4 God’s word, for all their craft and force,
one moment will not linger,
but, spite of hell, shall have its course;
’tis written by his finger.
And though they take our life,
goods, honour, children, wife,
yet is their profit small;
these things shall vanish all:
the city of God remaineth.

Source: Church Hymnary (4th ed.) #454