“Almighty and gracious Lord, pour out Your Holy Spirit on Your faithful people. Keep us steadfast in Your grace and truth, protect and deliver us in times of temptation, defend us against all enemies, and grant to Your Church Your saving peace.” (Collect for Reformation)
Dear Heirs of the Reformation:
The month of October brings with it our congregation’s yearly commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther’s 1517 posting of his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door. As has become customary in the recent past, our parish will keep this commemoration on the Sunday prior to October 31. Reformation Day is the one church holiday we celebrate in the life of this congregation that is uniquely Lutheran.
Besides the commemoration of the posting of Dr. Luther’s 95 Theses, Reformation Day also always includes the singing of Dr. Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), which is his paraphrase of Psalm 46.
But a much-forgotten hymn of Dr. Luther’s based on Psalm 124 carries the theme of the Reformation as well as “A Mighty Fortress” does. That theme is: the salvation of sinners who have no power or worthiness in them accomplished solely by Christ alone. That other hymn is “Wer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeyt” (often translated as “If God Had Not Been on Our Side”). Itparaphrases Psalm 124, a psalm that speaks about divine deliverance given to the LORD’s people.
Those who were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Temple—especially for the Passover Festival—sang this psalm of King David. This “Song of Ascents” begins as a remembrance of what the LORD had done for Israel, especially their liberation from Egypt: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul; then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul” (Ps. 124:2-5).
Those who remember the Exodus story see it recalled in the words of Psalm 124. As the LORD’s faithful people remembered their deliverance—whether from Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, or any of their ancient enemies—the significance of having Him on their side would never be forgotten. The same can be said of Dr. Luther and the Reformers. Their work and effort would have been for naught, had God not been on their side. As the wrath of the Church (as it was at the time) and the Empire rose against them, the German theologians and princes awaited the torrents of persecution. But even as they came, the Reformer’s confession of faith remained and the LORD’s people were delivered.
This coincides with the second portion of Psalm 124: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped” (Ps. 124:6-7). These words reflect the exultant cries of the Israelites having arrived in safety on the opposite side of the Red Sea. The Reformers, even in spite of earthly losses, could have uttered the same words.
However, Psalm 124 and even the necessary work of the Reformation are not ultimately concerned with any sort of earthly success. The true deliverance that the LORD gives is from enemies greater than any Egyptian Pharaoh or even the Holy Roman Empire that the Reformers faced. That with which the Reformers were concerned was salvation: deliverance from sin, death, and the power of Satan. “If it had not been the LORD who was on [their] side,” such deliverance is impossible. This deliverance is given to us in the baptismal word and water as the LORD brings His people out of their slavery to sin into salvation through that saving water. Satan’s hordes ride out to recapture us, to keep us from reaching the promise of everlasting life. But as the LORD is on our side—present among us with His free gift of forgiveness—we remain free, redeemed, and secure!
That is the same truth to which we cling today as our enemies rise up against us. Each time we go in pilgrimage to the LORD’s sanctuary, we remember this deliverance that He has accomplished for us. And as we gather to commemorate Reformation Day this month, we also remember that Dr. Luther and the Reformers have a special place for the sole reason that they faithfully believed, taught, and confessed that truth about divine deliverance for helpless sinners. We reaffirm that they have handed down that saving truth to us.
The focus of our Christian lives is on “the LORD who was [and is] on our side.” That is the truth we confess. It is the truth that King David made clear for all divinely-delivered people in the last verse of Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth”(Ps. 124:8). The burden of our salvation is not placed on us, but is carried by Him who sustains all creation and bore the sins of the world.
Thanks be Jesus, who is still on our side! His Word remains forever!
Pastor Steven Anderson