“Satan would gladly kill me if he could. Every moment he is pressing me, is treading on my heels. Yet what he wishes will not be done, but what God wills.” (Martin Luther)
I Peter 5:8 gives a description of Satan that is horrifying and vivid. It is too easy to read over Peter’s words without actually understanding the implications they have for us. When we hear graphic stories of the devil’s assaults they are often reduced to medieval or superstitious myths.
However, for Martin Luther, the devil was as real as Christ was. His conception of Satan was so intense, that when we notice some of his statements concerning the devil, we might think of Luther as a reformer who was steeped in superstition. Before we write Luther off for his flaws, we should be aware of the historical context at the dawn of the Reformation as well as Luther’s own view of his dreadful enemy. By doing so, we find that his struggle with the devil becomes essential for understanding the reformer, the reformation, and can even help us in our encounters with Satan.
To be sure, there was much superstition in Western Europe during the period shortly before the Reformation. We must realize, however, that some superstition was merely an overreaction to the widespread anguish and misery.
The average person was surrounded by death. Scholars estimate that the Black Plague (Black Death) eliminated nearly thirty per cent of the population in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. Famine was common, as were other natural disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, and locust swarms.
Witch, demon, gnome, mermaid, and hobgoblin myths were familiar to people of all ages and classes. Widespread were reports that the devil entered into an animal or even a person. People thought devils were everywhere: in houses, in fields, on the streets, in the water, in forests, and in fires. Recall also the words to Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: “And though this world with devils filled…”
Sadly, the church did nothing to soothe troubled consciences. Instead, it actually added to the darkness and misery by printing many woodcuts depicting the devil attempting to drag a corpse into hell. More than that, a church booklet entitled “On the Art of Dying,” contained illustrations that portrayed a dying man surrounded by devils who tempted him to commit the unpardonable sin of giving up hope in God’s mercy.
The church also taught that Christ was a judge who could be appeased by the invocation of saints along with good works. The crucifix was a tool to resist the devil. Satan would steal a man’s soul if he forsook the mass. From the beginning of his life to its end, the only secure course a person had was to lay hold of every help the church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, and the intercession of saints.
The religious atmosphere was as dark as the plague which took the lives of so many. There was very little hope found within the cathedrals and monasteries of the day. The Roman Church was the only place many could turn during such tumultuous times. Ironically, all they found there was more darkness.
Luther’s Influences and Views
Martin Luther lived in the midst of this darkness and death during the late Middle Ages and was exposed to the teachings, superstitions, and fears of the day. Martin’s father worked in dark mineshafts, which only added to his constant exposure to devilish teaching, both true and false. His mother often accused devils of stealing food from the kitchen. Clearly we can see that during his childhood the devil was not simply an abstract idea for Martin. Never during his life did Luther think that the devil and his hellish tactics were simply superstitious fables. The thought that Satan was a genuine enemy was firmly fixed in the reformer’s mind, even to his deathbed.
Satan was dreadfully real to Luther. The devil was the demonic hater of Christ and His followers, while Jesus was the Christian’s divine and mighty Savior. Rather than add to the superstitions of the day, Luther pointed out how real and vicious Satan actually was. He knew full well that Satan was an existent being, an ever-present and powerful threat to the followers of Christ. It was no joke for Luther that the devil prowled around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour—especially since the wicked one always tries to torment Christians into despair and doubt.
Luther did at times attribute too much mischief to the devil. For example, when preaching about Job’s tribulation, he said, “When mishaps occur, when one falls into a fire, another into the water, these clearly are blows and strokes of the devil who is constantly aiming and pitching at us, hoping to inflict all manner of hurt upon us … We Christians … know that it [misfortune] is the work of the devil who possesses such an arsenal of halberds and missiles, of spears and swords to hurl, thrust and mount against us, if God allows him … it is the devil who harms us in body, possessions and honor…”
Luther did understand and preach that God is completely sovereign over the devil, limiting his activity and disturbances. He preached that we can let the prince of this world, the devil, bare his teeth, growl, and threaten because he can do no more than a vicious dog on a chain. It is comforting for the Christian to know that the devil is simply an evil rogue who is a pitiful nothing compared to Christ and His gospel.
“The devil plagues me at times, too, creating such a tempest and fire over a forgivable sin that I find I do not know what to do. Those are his tactics with sin … He is a virtuoso and a champion when it comes to sin and death, reproaching a person in a very masterful manner.” Frequently Luther spoke of his bouts with the devil, vividly describing the evil wretch as a demon who physically, mentally, and spiritually assailed him. The reformer said that Satan would even kill him if God would allow it.
Luther stated that the prince of darkness often tormented him during the night, waking him and plaguing him with wicked thoughts and accusations. When the devil besieged him in the house at night he rebuked the rogue: “‘I know that God has placed me into this house to be lord here. Now if you have a call that is stronger than mine and are lord here, then stay where you are. But I well know that you are not lord here and that you belong in a different place—down in hell.’ And so I fell asleep again and let him be angry, for I well knew that he could do nothing to me.”
Martin Luther rightly knew why Satan was after him—because he believed, preached, and taught the gospel. Wisely, he understood Satan’s chief work of trying to do away with the gospel. Where the gospel is, said the reformer, the devil is as well, seeking to take away the Word. Satan hates the gospel preached and he hates it more when a person believes the good news. Luther vividly explained this fact: “When the devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”
From the outset of his work as a reformer, Luther knew well that Satan would assault him aggressively because the devil did not want the gospel to go forth. It seems as if Luther preached the gospel more boldly because the devil attacked and accused him. As Satan’s attacks against Luther increased and intensified, so did the reformer’s preaching of the gospel. As we weigh the reality of Satan’s existence and his hatred for the gospel, we must take seriously Luther’s claims of the devil’s violent attacks.
Dialogue With the Devil
The primary manner in which Luther responded to the devil’s arrows of accusation was with the Word. Since the Word proclaims the forgiveness of sins through Christ, Satan detests the Word and seeks to trouble the conscience of believers by doubt and unbelief. Luther said that we must cling to Christ’s Word and face Satan’s hatred and accusations by reminding him that the Word proclaims the forgiveness of sins.
Luther explained: “You should tell the devil, ‘Just by telling me that I am a miserable, great sinner you are placing a sword and weapon into my hand with which I can decisively overcome you; yea, with your own weapon I can kill and floor you. For if you can tell me that I am a poor sinner, I on the other hand, can tell you that Christ died for sinners, and is their Intercessor…You remind me of the boundless, great faithfulness and benefaction of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…to Him I direct you. You may accuse and condemn Him. Let me rest in peace; for on His shoulders, not on mine, lie all my sins…’”
Preaching and Satan
“For though … a Christian be tempted by the devil, he can easily oppose him and say, ‘Devil, are you listening? Do you know that a Child has been born? Yes, indeed, do you know that He was born for us, that is, for me?’ That’s when the devil has to back off.” Luther preached words like these many times. Very often in a sermon, Luther would remind his hearers how inexorably Satan torments Christians. Since the devil never takes a vacation, his accusations and torments will constantly assail Christ’s followers. Satan will frequently come to you, Luther said, and his torments will remind you how wretched you are, how little you pray, how often you transgress God’s law, and how you need to obey God more to be in His favor. After Luther reminded his congregation of Satan’s devious work, he would always preach to them of One who is greater than the devil and his threats.
Luther relentlessly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to his congregation. We need to hear this gospel over and over, he would explain, because we are so dull and dimwitted that we forget it or simply cannot believe it. To add to our lack of faith, Satan is ever shooting his poisonous arrows at us, trying to tear us away from the Word by accusing us of great sin and making us afraid of judgment and death. “If the devil approaches us and says, ‘Look here, see how great your sin is; see too, how bitter, how terrible is the death you must suffer,’” we can answer: “`Devil, don’t you know the power of my Lord Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection? In Him there is eternal righteousness and eternal life; His resurrection from the dead is mightier than my sin, death, and hell’…this is all so very true that the devil cannot deny it.”
One Little Word: Conclusion
The Lutheran version of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” displays the reformer’s confidence in the power of the gospel over Satan:
This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He’s judged; the deed is done; One little Word can fell him.
That “little Word” is the name of Christ, the beautiful message of the preached gospel. It is “little” because it is seemingly insignificant compared to the so-called power and glory of worldly splendor. But the devil knows that the power God is the preaching of a Man bleeding and dying on the cross. This Word alone can cause Satan to flee in terror; this Word alone is what we need to fight the arrows of the great deceiver. The Word was Luther’s weapon, buckler, and defense against Satan’s powerful blows.
Luther was not some superstitious son of the Middle Ages; he was a reformer who was extremely aware of the devil’s might, his own weakness, and the power of the gospel. Once we understand Luther’s place in the history of the church as a leader in the reformation, we can see that Satan no doubt aggressively attempted to prevent Luther from preaching the gospel.
And Luther was right: Satan is powerfully real and present. We too must realize that Satan is no mythological figure, and that his blows are powerful and lethal. With Luther, let us remember that we have a Savior who has crushed the Serpent’s head and is stronger than death, sin, hell, and even that damned devil. May we, too, fight Satan’s real and deadly assaults with the weapon of the Word, the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Mr. Shane Lems is a member of the Trinity United Reformed Church of Caledonia, Michigan. He is attending Westminster Seminary in California.