Hymn Guide: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

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“A Mighty Fortress” is a defiant hymn of faith in Christ in spite of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. First published in 1529, with lyrics and music by Martin Luther, the hymn quickly became the anthem of the Reformation, reflecting the evangelical appeal to the gospel of Christ even above the church’s authority. But as a paraphrase of Psalm 46, and with its universal themes, “A Mighty Fortress” has become a beloved hymn of all Christian traditions over the centuries. It is even sung today in Roman Catholic churches!

In Church Use

First translated into English by Myles Coverdale in 1539, the most common version today is an 1853 translation by American Transcendentalist Frederic Hedge. The hymn is often sung in October, leading up to the commemoration of the Reformation on October 31st. Because of its extensive discussion of Satan, it is also a suitable hymn in Lent. Also, as a battle hymn for the church militant, it is especially fitting for Confirmation and Ordination.

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Verse by Verse

Verse 1

The hymn opens as a loose paraphrase of Psalm 46, drawing upon the idea of God as a “mighty fortress,” a source of strength amid the tumult of the world:

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.

Luther expands on Psalm 46, however, by identifying the world’s tumult with “our ancient foe,” which is to say, Satan. Like a good movie, Luther introduces the antagonist early on, setting up a tension that will drive the coming story.

Verse 2

The second verse situates us in this story, stuck between God and Satan, but with Jesus “on our side”:

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.

The failure of human “striving” corresponds with Luther’s doctrine of grace; we cannot be saved of “our own strength.” Instead, we depend on Christ, the one chosen from before the foundation of the world, to “win the battle” for us.

Verse 3

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.

In Christ, “we will not fear” the many devils of this world, for even the “prince of darkness” is doomed on account of the incarnate Word of God. You see, Satan could not believe that a mere human being, a “little word,” would triumph over him. Yet this “little word” was the perfect Son of God, who “fell” Satan when he was “raised” on the cross.

Verse 4

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.

The hymn concludes with a defiant proclamation of the eternal reign of Christ. We who believe, therefore, have constant access to the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the spirit, which enable us to persevere even through suffering or persecution. Thus, in service to the truth, we may freely give up “goods” or “kindred” or even “this mortal life.” For we know that, in Christ and “his Kingdom,” we will receive all these back again many times over.

On Video

The first video, of organ and congregation, is not only a high-quality rendition of the hymn but also comes from a powerful Lutheran youth ministry called Higher Things, which gathers youth for retreats and conferences to share the gospel and sing the glory of God. The second video, by the musical group GLAD, sets the hymn in a beautiful A Capella rendition. Notice how the third verse is given a militant setting, and the fourth verse feels triumphant. The third video sets the hymn in the mode of contemporary Christian music, using guitar and band in a creative modern version of this classic hymn.


Photo of Wittenberg, Castle and Tower of All Saints Church by Wayra for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

October 27, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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