On October 31, 2017, we celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. These 95 theses were Luther’s attempt to condemn the actions of the Roman Catholic Church and explain that true salvation was found in God’s forgiveness and grace offered through Jesus’ sacrifice.
(I actually dressed up as the 95 Theses for Halloween this past year, forever solidifying my reputation as theological nerd in our neighborhood. But I digress…)
The whole Reformation started with a young German monk scouring the book of Romans searching for a pathway out of despair. It ended with a re-discovery of the gospel.
But Luther’s discovery seemed perverse and dangerous to the religious leaders of his day. It seemed to threaten their stranglehold of power, so they made Luther appear before the authorities. They demanded that he take back what he wrote.
One of the religious leaders, Cardinal Cajetan, threatened to deport Luther to Rome to be imprisoned—and possibly burned at the stake—for the “heresy” of saying that God accepts us not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done.
Cajetan told Luther he could walk free if he would utter just one little word: revoco (“I recant”).
Just one little word, Cajetan said, can save you.
This much I know, I would be the most accommodating and beloved person (in the Empire) if I were to say the simple word revoco. … But how can I deny the understanding through which I have been made a Christian?
He then penned the words to the famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
And though this world, with devils filled / Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has 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.
One little word.
The one Luther had in mind contained even more power than the one that would have gained
Luther the approval of the Empire:
Credo. I believe.
A small word that connects you to the power behind an empty tomb.
Luther knew something we often forget: that one little word of faith accesses the very power of God. Just saying it (from the heart), Paul claims, makes the sinner righteous (Romans 10:9–10). Believing it sets the captive free, makes the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead live. It is, Paul said, the power of God unto salvation.
It turns tragedy into triumph.
It transforms defeated sinners into unstoppable conquerors.
With the gospel, no weapon formed against God’s children will prosper and all those who rise against us will fall. Confessing our belief releases in us the power of the Spirit in such a way that not even the gates of hell can resist.
It is the fortress we can return to again and again. Luther’s great hymn—referred to as the “Battle Cry of the Reformation”—closes with these words:
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!
If we’re wise, the only thing we’ll boast in, hope in, and cling to, is the gospel. Because in that little word—and only in that little word—is the mighty fortress of God’s power.