I just watched Luther, a movie about the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther whose actions sparked the Reformation and gave rise to the Lutheran church in the 16th century. The film stars Joseph Fiennes in the title role and came out in 2003. It’s a pretty remarkable film, not only in terms of quality of the actual production, but in the subject matter itself. Not a lot of films are made that deal with important religious issues, and even fewer that show them in a positive light.
If you have ever taken a college course in Western Civilization, and actually listened, you no doubt have at least a passing knowledge of who Luther was. If not, well, please do more research on your own at your completion of this post; I am by no means an expert. Luther is a pretty fascinating study. He was a Roman Catholic monk of the Augustinian order and was terrified of God. He was tormented by his sin and the fear that he could never pay penance enough for them to avoid an afterlife of eternal suffering, in purgatory or worse. Encouraged to study the New Testament, he went to Wittenburg where he attended theological university, eventually becoming a professor himself. He began to see the truth in the scriptures that, yes, he was a sinful person and he indeed had no hope of ever doing penance enough to save himself. But it was revealed to him, through the study of the New Testament, that there was hope, hope in Christ Jesus alone and His finished work on the cross. Also during this time he began to speak out against the Catholic church’s sale of indulgences as a means to absolve sin, not only for the individual, but their dead realatives as well. He saw this as a non-biblical and corrupt abuse of priestly and, as he would later learn, Papal power. Events came to a head with his nailing of the 95 Theses to the door at the church in Wittenburg. I think it is fair to say that his initial goal was not to splinter the Catholic church bur reform it. But once he saw that the corruption went all the way to the Pope, and the more he studied the Bible, he realized that the truth of Jesus Christ was being hidden from the people behind centuries of tradition, ceremony, corruption, and misinterpretation. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Seeing this movie helped me gain more of an appreciation for what Martin Luther was up against. The courage that it took to stand firm against not only the Roman Catholic church, but the state as well, when they ordered him to recant all his teachings and writings is nearly unfathomable in our world. The Papacy was really at the apex of it’s power. It wielded enormous influence on who would ascend to the thrown in virtually every European monarchy. Luther’s adacious moves of refusing to recant and printing the New Testament in German so than the common man could read it for himself were literally world changing. You have to remember that when Luther talked of salvation through faith in Christ alone, what should have been old news to everybody, was, in a sense revolutionary. Not because it was a new idea he came up with, but because the true Gospel had been hidden for so long. Think of it in these terms: If I, as a Christian, tell a non-Christian the gospel in our relativist society the response I’m likely to get is, “Hey, that’s great. That’s really good for you. Not really for me, but great for you.” In the 21st century pretty much anything goes. In Luther’s time, the common man on the street was most likely devoutly dedicated to the Catholic church. Think of our time as a new blank chalkboard where writing something new is easy. Now, think of Luther’s time as an old chalkboard covered in a thick layer of old chalkdust, where nothing will stick. You would have to erase all that is there, and then wash, rinse, and repeat. At first he was virtually alone. He garnered followers was he went along, but there were no commentaries to consult or like-minded equals to confer with. Only the Bible. The scriptures was all he had to check his sanity against.
Certainly Luther had his problems. He wasn’t perfect and some of his words and deeds might be difficult to swallow when looked at through the eyes of 2006. But his courage, rooted in his faith in the Gospel, turned the world upsidedown and paved the way for religeous freedom as we know it today, and helped bring the true Gospel out of the shadows of the Vatican.
(For all my seminary homeboys, please feel free to critique my analysis in the comments section)