Sometimes it’s hard, living in America, to truly appreciate what religious persecution is. We see some forms of it, with political events that sometimes challenge our religious freedom, or in some forms of discrimination in the workplace, but in general, we don’t really know what it’s like. We don’t know what it’s like to be threatened with execution because we believe something different from our religious leaders. We can’t grasp the scenario wherein we face excommunication for sharing the Bible with the common man. Martin Luther did, and even more impressive, he marched on anyway, literally changing the world. That’s what makes his story so compelling, and this film so inspiring.
At the beginning of the film, we find Martin a young monk and priest who is struggling with his faith. He goes through the motions—he says the prayers, partakes in the sacraments, and obeys the bishops, but he despises the idea of a wrathful God. He tells Johann, who is a sort of father in the faith to him, “I want a God I can love, and a God who loves me.”
But Martin doesn’t see that in the God portrayed by Roman Catholicism. He sees a God whose wrath must constantly be atoned, a God who is appeased by repetitive motions of service, not by acts of love and devotion. That even leads him to utter the blasphemous words “I wish there were no God.”
So Johann sends him away, so that he can learn the scriptures themselves. So that there he can find comfort. And it’s there that things start to come together for Martin—only not in the way Johann imagined it. There, he finds a loving God. He finds Christ. We see several encouraging segments of him encouraging his flock of parishioners, telling them of a God who loved them so much that He sent His only son to die, so that all of us could live. But it’s also there that he starts finding fault with the Catholic Church. He starts finding inconsistencies between the Church and the Bible. Did Jesus really make Peter the Pope when he said “Upon this rock I will build my church?” If only the Roman Catholic Church is correct, then are Greek Christians condemned to Hell?
But even to this point, Martin’s purpose is not to leave the Church. His purpose is to reform it. But when he sees the blatant hypocrisy in selling indulgences, the very idea of trying to literally buy your way into Heaven, he starts heading down a different path. He’s sure that these preachers must be doing this without the Pope’s consent, so he writes and spreads the word about it.
But the Pope was in favor of it all along. The whole Church’s leadership, it would seem, supported the sale of indulgences. So Martin instead gets himself into a lot of hot water with the church’s leadership, and is inevitably faced with a choice: recant or suffer death. Martin makes his priorities clear in a discussion with the Cardinal prior to his trial. In this scene, the Cardinal tells Martin that indulgences give the people comfort, to which Luther angrily replies “I don’t care about comfort; I want the truth!”
And therein lies the beauty of this film. There are many questions that inevitably come with Martin Luther’s teachings, even beyond his eventual break from the Catholic Church. You could ask if he would have objected to a denomination being named after him, whether all of his theology was correct, how he admitted having trouble reconciling the book of James with certain specific aspects of theology, and other sorts of questions, but the film doesn’t address those. It shouldn’t. There is a time and a place for those discussions, but the strength of this film, as the strength of the story, is in the simple fact that Martin Luther was a man who would get to the truth, no matter what the cost.
And not only would he find the truth at any cost, but he would educate the common man with the truth at any cost as well. It’s to this end that he writes a German Bible (at this point in time, Bibles were only distributed in Latin, so that only monks and priests, with the addition of white, land-owning wealthy men, could read it), and gets into even more trouble with the elite.
So this film, in all is about a quest for truth. Even if you have disagreements with certain aspects of Luther’s theology, you cannot have qualms about his mission. In the face of persecution, he drives hard in his quest for truth, educating all he can, and even making sure that he goes about it in a Christian way, finding himself fighting against violent rebels who have taken his mission and run with it in a devilish way instead of a Christian way.
It’s also a reminder that sometimes we can’t just reform. Sometimes we need to leave. Johann later tells Luther that he’d hoped that he’d reform the church, instead of acting so blatantly against it, but sometimes, when finding that the group we’re worshiping with is teaching what is false, and they will not reform, we have to leave. Luther is a clear reminder of that.
So even without the phenomenal acting, emotional script, and general incredible execution, the film on its own serves a very important purpose in showing us what can happen when just one man stands up for the truth, and goes searching for what God says, not what some man claiming to speak for God says. And I daresay that if we were all to take this film’s message to heart, we would find modern Christianity resembled the New Testament far more, and had a far greater impact on the world.
This review was originally posted on Let There Be Movies.