They Yet Have Nothing Won

Last year our congregation sent out and asked all the congregations in the Wyoming District of the LC-MS for any old copies of The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) they had lying around unused. I was killing too many trees by inserting hymns that were better in TLH than in Lutheran Service Book (LSB).

Our brothers and sisters graciously obliged, and we’ve been richly blessed by having this resource in our pews. I joke that we’re going to add The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary next. We’ll have a real library in our pews!

One of the hymns that was hard to sing from LSB is the hymn of the day for the First Sunday in Lent, A Mighty Fortress. This is a great and wonderful hymn that is underappreciated for all its popularity. I won’t get into the beauty of the entire hymn, but would like to focus on the one line that was changed from TLH to LSB.

Stanza 4, TLH

And take they our life,
Goods fame, child, and wife,
Let these all be gone
They yet have nothing won;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

Stanza 4, LSB

And take they our life,
Goods fame, child, and wife,
Though these all be gone
The victory has been won;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

The difference is in the second to last line, where Lutheran (Book of) Worship changed “They yet have nothing won” to “The victory has been won.” LSB followed suit. Why was this change made?

I haven’t researched it properly, but have heard a few people who defended the change. Their argument was that if you lose your child and wife, you have lost something. One person said that Luther was being sexist, since it doesn’t take into account the value of women. Another argued that this is insensitive to those who have lost their children or wives.

The TLH is closer to the German (Sie haben’s kein Gewinn – they’ve won nothing). Why was this change made? I can’t say for sure, but I can say for sure that they missed the point Luther was making. In the historic epistle for Invocavit, the first Sunday in Lent, we have this description of St. Paul and his fellow pastors, which applies to all Christians, “As having nothing and possessing all things.” The same conviction is given us by the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor. 3:21-23, “Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

In other words, in Christ we have everything. When Job lost his seven sons and three daughters, God later gave him double of all that he had, but did not give him fourteen sons and six daughters. He gave him seven sons and three daughters. This is because Job still had his children. He believed in the resurrection of the body, as he himself confessed in Job 19:23-27.

When the devil and the world take goods, fame, child, and wife, they have taken nothing away from us, because all that we have is in Christ, and all of our treasure is in him. Our treasure is not on earth, but in heaven, where Christ is ruling at God’s right hand, preparing a place for us where any good we have lost here on earth will be restored to us in far greater glory than the heart of man can imagine here on earth, especially our believing children and wife, who will be changed to be like Christ himself.

I encourage you in the future to sing the hymn the way Luther wrote it. There is great comfort in it for those who suffer the loss of God’s blessings here on earth. And I encourage you respectfully to ask our synod in the future to sing it the old way, and so given us more confidence as we “teach and admonish one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Colossians 3:16.

About Pastor Mark Preus

Mark Preus is pastor of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2008 and then obtained an M.A. in Classics at the University of KS in 2010. He was ordained at Faith Lutheran Church, Wylie, TX in August of 2010. He has been married to Becky since 2005. God has graciously given them four daughters and five sons. Pr. Preus loves to read and write poetry, especially Lutheran hymns, and talk theology with anybody who has an ear to listen. He also likes coffee too much and tobacco too much, as well as microbrew beer. He can also prove with reasonable certainty that Paul Gerhardt wrote most of his hymns while smoking and drinking beer.

You can find more of Pr. Preus's writings at his blog.


They Yet Have Nothing Won — 30 Comments

  1. I don’t see a difference between these two translations as far as the main sentiment that is being conveyed.

    The “Let these all be gone / they yet have nothing won,” is a surprising statement. We, by nature, would believe that if a wife, child, goods and even our own life were taken away that “they” would be the winner and “we” would be the loser.

    The “Though these all be gone / our victory has been won” likewise is a surprising statement for the very same reasons as the TLH translation.

    The irony is also present in 2 Corinthians. When a person doesn’t possess anything, it certainly doesn’t seem like he has everything, and yet the Christian does. It would even be more reasonable to say that the Christian “will” have everything (i.e. in heaven), but the Christian possesses it now. The L(B)W translation has the present progressive tense “has been.” That seems entirely appropriate to me, even if it isn’t how Luther wrote it.

  2. The difference is this. One can win a victory having lost a lot. The emphasis in the original is on these gifts of life, wife, children, etc. They are not lost.

    “The victory has been won” is more generic. It certainly gets a part of the sentiment, but does not carry everything that the older does.

    This happens often in modernization of hymnody. The cut or umph or whatever you want to call it is taken away.

  3. Brother Preus, thank you for beautifully bringing this matter to the attention of the Church! I have been privately pointing this out for the last 35 years. I didn’t notice this change in LBW but in the LCMS’s version of LBW, LW. In that hymnal they decided to bring in the Isometric version of the tune “A Mighty Fortress,” that is the setting of the hymn that was used by J.S. Bach in his Reformation cantata (LW 297). For that setting they used F. Samuel Janzow’s translation of the hymn, which was a total revision; however, with the original Rhythmic version of the tune, which was Luther’s original tune, they retained the TLH translation except for this single line revision (LW 298). The change as you have pointed out is NOT what Luther wrote, which is biblical and powerful. The revision robs us of the power of the original. Our congregations sing it the original TLH way. It is my plea to our Commission on Worship to change this line back to the accurate translation of Luther’s words in further editions of LSB and future hymnals. Finally this has been brought up.

  4. I keep singing it the old way. I just don’t look at the hymnal and sing from memory. I sure hope they change it in LSB 2.0.

  5. Pastor if you think this is silly please take it down and I am certainly not able to debate with you concerning theology and doctrine but can you address something: if as the lyrics say my wife is taken and “they have nothing won”, how would you then address our command that we treat our wives as Christ treats his bride. Surely Christ would have some reaction if his bride were taken from him.

  6. @Lindell #6

    That is a great question, Lindell! The answer is that Christ can’t lose his bride. All treasures are in Him. If you lose your believing wife to death, you haven’t really lost her, because she is with Christ, just as Job didn’t really lose His children. They took his goods, fame, and children, and yet didn’t win anything from him, because he had Christ, his Redeemer.

  7. Since we’re on the subject if A Mighty Fortress, I’m interested in what your opinion is of what the “one little word [that] can fell him” is. We played a game a few weeks in Sunday School and my pre-confirmation 6th graders came up with some pretty impressive answers.

  8. I don’t think it’s any one word. I think it is even the smallest part of God’s Word. It’s based on “He uttered His voice; the earth melted.” The Hebrew means he gave his voice. That means, wherever God speaks the power to melt the earth is there, and therefore to take away the devil’s power.

    Luther talks about the power of God’s Word in his discussion on the 3rd Commandment in his Large Catechism,

    “For let me tell you this, even though you know it perfectly and be already master in all things, still you are daily in the dominion of the devil, who ceases neither day nor night to steal unawares upon you, to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against the foregoing and all the commandments. Therefore you must always have God’s Word in your heart, upon your lips, and in your ears. But where the heart is idle, and the Word does not sound, he breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware. 101] On the other hand, such is the efficacy of the Word, whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, that it is bound never to be without fruit, but always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness, and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts. For these words are not inoperative or dead, but creative, living words. 102] And even though no other interest or necessity impel us, yet this ought to urge every one thereunto, because thereby the devil is put to Right and driven away, and, besides, this commandment is fulfilled, and [this exercise in the Word] is more pleasing to God than any work of hypocrisy, however brilliant.”

  9. I am so thankful my congregation uses TLH. The unwarranted change Pastor Mark Preus points out here is just the tip of the ice berg with regard to some hymns being changed from TLH to LSB, stripping them of their clarity in many cases.

  10. “In a writing called “Against Hanswurst,” Luther explained that the one little word is, “You lie.” Luther writes:

    “For all such books written against me, even if there were as many as thousands of them written every day and every hour, are very easily refuted with the single word, ‘Devil, you lie,’ just as that haughty beggar Dr. Luther sings so proudly and boldly in those words of his hymn, ‘One little word shall fell him.'””


  11. Poetically, the TLH translation is much stronger. The contrast of the image between the enemy taking and yet the enemy winning nothing is much more stark and striking than the newer LSB version.

  12. I kind of like both versions. The TLH verse seems to indicate from the focus on the opposition using the pluperfect tense, that our victory is yet to come. The LSB emphasizes the past tense of the victory. It’s already accomplished. Spoiler alert: God won. Both are really cool. For those people who are now being persecuted for their faith, that cliffhanger looking toward a future reality must provide a tremendous hope. The past tense version though makes a really significant theological point. It is finished. Great stuff. Whatever version, sing loud, sing proud (borrowing from the Dropkick Murphys).

  13. @Lindell #8

    I also thought that the “one little word,” “woertlein” was “finished”; however, a Luther scholar said it was more likely the little name of “JESUS.”

  14. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

    If they take life, goods, fame, child, wife, it looks to our eyes like they’ve won.

    But the Gospel pronounces that sweet Word that they actually have nothing won. Reality is different than the way things appear.

    I think the newer version is ok, but the original provides tremendous comfort in the midst of suffering.

  15. Sorry if this is off-topic, but as long as we’re discussing “A Mighty Fortress,” does anyone have insight into why there are 3 (I think) main translations? I always wondered why…certainly translation from German to English is fairly straightforward? I suppose it has more to do with syllable-counts and rhyme patterns, and perhaps theology.

    In any event, looking at the first line, the third version has always been my personal favorite, but it’s the only one not in the LSB (I usually see it in Methodist/protestant hymnals, although I don’t detect anything particularly Methodist about the translation):

    Version 1: A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon
    Version 2: A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious
    Version 3: mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing

    Anyone have any insight?

  16. Version one that was made for TLH is the most accurate and literal translation. Version 2 was made by F. Samuel Janzow of the LCMS in the 70s, and version 3 is the traditional translation in Protestant Hymnals. There is also a literal translation in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 283 ff. Here is that translation from MacDonald, Exotics, pp. 66–67:

    1. Our God he is a castle strong,
    A good mailcoat and weapon;
    He sets us free from every wrong
    That wickedness would heap on.
    The old knavish foe
    He means earnest now;
    Force and cunning sly His horrid policy,
    On earth there’s nothing like him.

    2 ’Tis all in vain, do what we can,
    Our strength is soon dejected.
    But He fights for us, the right man,
    By God himself elected.
    Ask’st thou who is this?
    Jesus Christ it is,
    Lord of Hosts alone,
    And God but him is none,
    So he must win the battle.

    3 And did the world with devils swarm,
    All gaping to devour us,
    We fear not the smallest harm,
    Success is yet before us.
    This world’s prince accurst,
    Let him rage his worst,
    No hurt brings about;
    His doom it is gone out,
    One word can overturn him.

    4 The word they shall allow to stand,
    Nor any thanks have for it;
    He is with us, at our right hand,
    With the gifts of his spirit.
    If they take our life,
    Wealth, name, child and wife—
    Let everything go:
    They have no profit so;
    The kingdom ours remaineth.

  17. @JWSkud #17

    As you have pointed out rhyming and poetry are factors in how it is translated. There might be some more translations.

  18. “Victory” was a fave of the L(b)W era, as was “Celebrate” – both were applied to the Eucharist in an eschatological “now/not yet” manner rather than the more historically Lutheran penitential/absolutional view.

    It’s the rotten fruits that fell from the Vatican 2 nonsense.

  19. You’re welcome, JWSkud! Perhaps the Luther’s Works translation is the most literal, but it is not as poetic and powerful as the TLH translation. Pastor Niemann makes a good point about what were the fads in the church of the late 70s and early 80s. I wonder if any congregations in the LCMS still use “Earth and All Stars, Loud Rushing Planets” in place of the Gloria in Excelsis.

  20. I agree that this was an unnecessary change. I have LSB at one of my two churches, and I sing “they yet have nothing won” thee, anyway. Nevertheless, I still think I prefer LSB to TLH. I use LW and HS98 hymns (stacked in the narthex and my office) @ my TLH church more than I use TLH only hymns at my LSB church.

  21. Brother Mueller, I agree with you about the superiority of LSB. If our congregations had the money we would be using LSB rather than LW. Perhaps in the next edition of LSB they might make the needed change. After all with TLH they made at least one change in the editions from 1941 on. However, perhaps going back to the “thees” and “thous” might not be so bad. After all, they kept them in “How Great THOU ART.”

  22. @Pastor David R. Boisclair #25

    One thing I appreciate about LSB is that they actually *did* go back to Jacobean language in many cases, most notably, in the sung portions of Setting III, but also in several hymns. As I understand, if a hymn was written in Jacobean English, the LSB editors essentially said, “Why do we need to translate a hymn that’s already in English?” To be sure, there are some glaring goofs in LSB. E.g., Truncated “Like the Golden Sun Ascending”, the inclusion of a Unitarian’s “hymn”, and, with all due respect to our African-American Lutheran brethren, Lift Every Voice and Sing isn’t worthy of inclusion on *several* levels. I love TLH, to be sure.

  23. @Pastor David R. Boisclair #15

    “I also thought that the “one little word,” “woertlein” was “finished”; however, a Luther scholar said it was more likely the little name of “JESUS.””
    Which is why we sang Ein Feste on Christmas Morning a few years back, and the theme of the sermon was “One Little Word”, based on John 1:14. Stretching what Luther meant, perhaps, but I thought it was a worthwhile connection.

  24. Oh, and while I’m thinking about it…
    We had the CUC Wind Symphony at one of my circuit’s congregations Saturday evening (St. James, Logansport, IN). Absolutely wonderful!
    But the touchpoint is this: The opening piece was A Mighty Fortress, which we all stood and sang, *and* “they yet have nothing won” was what Dr. Fisher had printed in the program for us to sing. 🙂

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