What is that “one little word” that will fell Satan?
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.
Somehow it took me about twenty years to realize that I had no idea what Martin Luther was talking about in this line in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Now, a confession: I am a Baptist, not Lutheran — I’m willing to admit there may be a real, mystical meaning of the “one little word” that only Lutherans can understand. But probably not.
The identity of this word should matter to us. Most Protestant churches still sing this “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” regularly in worship. It does little good to know that a single word will take down the raging Prince of Darkness if we have no idea what that word is. So, what word might Luther have in mind?
When I was a little kid, the only act of spiritual warfare I knew was simply to say out loud the word “Jesus.” Somewhere, I picked up the idea that demons scatter when you mention Jesus’s name. Maybe Luther’s one little word was “Jesus”?
While it may be a popular and catchy idea to mention “Jesus” for protection against Satan, the Bible doesn’t specifically commend that approach. The demons themselves are not afraid to say Jesus’s name — they even talked directly to Jesus, knowing exactly who he was (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7).
The common idea that “Satan flees at Jesus’s name” may come from the narratives in the Gospels and Acts where demons are cast out “in the name of Jesus” (Mark 9:38; Acts 16:18). It is repeated in a well-known worship song: “The Enemy, he has to flee at the sound of your great name.”
But we know from the Bible itself that demons feel no fear simply at the sound of Jesus’s name. Some “itinerant exorcists” adopted this verbal formula of simply citing Jesus’s name only to be driven out by the evil spirit “naked and wounded!” (Acts 19:13–16). It is clearly not the mere sound of those two syllables that commands Satan, but the authority from God that lies behind them (Mark 1:25–27).
Jesus’s name is not a magic spell used to take down evil spirits.
Jesus, the Word of God?
Perhaps Luther meant the Word, Jesus himself (John 1:1). While it is certainly true biblically that Jesus will be the one to finally destroy the devil in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10), it’s probably not what Luther refers to here.
It is unlikely that Luther would refer to Jesus, the ascended King reigning now over every name in heaven and on earth, as a little word (in Luther’s German, wörtlein). Indeed, “the Word was God.”
Ultimately, our hope of victory against Satan’s schemes is secured by his final destruction, but more than that, we have hope now. Even while Satan prowls this earth like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), we are not at the mercy of our supernatural foe. “His rage we can endure” now, before his destruction, by another word.
That Little Word
Martin Luther actually identified the word he had in mind, the one little word to fell our foe:
“Devil, you lie,” . . . Dr. Luther sings so proudly and boldly in those words of his hymn, “One little word shall fell him.” (“Against Hanswurst”)
Speaking of himself in the third person, Luther says that the one simple proclamation that defeats Satan is the simple verdict “Liar.”
Satan is a “liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). From the very beginning, Satan has twisted and contorted the truth of God into a lie (Genesis 3:1). And from the very beginning, Satan’s favorite lie has been to declare “unclean” what God has made clean, to declare “guilty” those whose sins God has covered.
There’s nothing Satan wants more than to eat away your faith in Jesus. Satan wants nothing more than for you to forget who you are in Christ. Over and over, the Bible warns us not not play games with this devouring, roaring beast of a being. His rage we cannot endure if our strategy is just to disregard him.
The Word of Faith
The text Luther most likely had in mind was Revelation 12:10, where John writes that “the accuser of our brothers [who is Satan; 12:9] has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” So there is an accusation, a lie — Satan speaks “guilty” against the ones God has redeemed. It’s the same lie that Satan always speaks to God’s people (Zechariah 3:1).
The answer to this age-old lie is not to repeat Jesus’s name like a mantra. Nor is it simply to remind ourselves that Satan’s days are numbered. The answer, for Luther and in the Bible, is to believe the truth, the gospel. The answer is to believe the promises of God, that in Christ you are justified (Romans 5:1), clean (1 Corinthians 6:11), holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4), loved by God (Colossians 3:12), a branch saved from the fire (Zechariah 3:2).
The one, little word against Satan — “Liar!” — is the word of faith. When we take all of Satan’s lies, his accusations, his reminders of our sins and place them in the blood-sealed file marked “Lies,” it is a profession of our faith in Christ’s promises over against Satan’s accusations. This word is “the victory that has overcome” not only the world, but Satan himself (1 John 5:4).
We Tremble Not for Him
Satan is the grim Prince. He is deadly. He is a devouring, fearsome dragon (Revelation 12:9).
But he is nothing against “the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4). We tremble not for him because every one of his accusations — “guilty,” “condemned,” “unrighteous” — are shown to be nothing but lies before Christ.
So, the next time you sing Luther’s hymn, sing these words with all the more confidence and joy in Jesus. Say with Luther, “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf.
“His name is Jesus Christ.”