4 Books That Made a Priest Leave the Church

The year 2017 is the year of Martin Luther—or at least it should be. Nearly 500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed (or “mailed,” for some historians debate this point) his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church.

Even so, Luther didn’t become a full-fledged protestor of the medieval Catholic church in that single moment. It took him about eight years (1513-1521) to challenge and hammer out a more robust understanding of the gospel.

Have you ever wondered what Martin Luther was reading during this crucial time in his life? Maybe I’m just a nerd, but I thought at least someone else might be interested in what Luther was reading during his slow, but steady, transition out of the medieval church and into the world of reformation.

Remember, Luther’s goal wasn’t to invent or start an entirely new church. His goal was to reform the church and call her to repentance and faith in the abiding Word of God.

Here are four books Martin Luther read that made him question everything:

1. The Psalms

Luther spent time studying and lecturing through the Psalms in the Bible. He began to realize that the Bible teaches we are not generally sinful, we are totally sinful. Here, Luther had the beginnings of what theologians later would refer to as “total depravity,” meaning that we are sinful in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

2. Romans

After that, Luther lectured through Paul’s letter to the Romans. He came across Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” The last part of this verse is a direct quotation from Habakkuk 2:4.

Luther began to see something that he never saw before. He began to see the doctrine of imputation—that we are declared right before God not by our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of another.

He began to understand that the righteousness of God that was such a terror to him as a priest (because it told him that he was unholy and unworthy), was actually the righteousness from God that told him he was holy and worthy. God gives this right standing by faith alone. It is a righteousness that is received as a gift and not earned.

3. Galatians

It wasn’t until Luther started lecturing through Galatians that he began to realize that faith does not justify us before God. Faith is merely an instrument that God uses. Faith is a tool by which we embrace Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Faith is, as John Murray once said, “extrospective.” It looks outward—not inward—to embrace the God who gives himself. In other words, faith is only an empty hand. It justifies because it grabs hold of the Jesus who justifies (Rom. 3:26).

4. Hebrews

The last book that turned a medieval priest into a true Reformer was the letter to the Hebrews. Luther began to embrace an entirely different understanding of how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. He realized that the law is not simply the Old Testament and the gospel is the New Testament, but that the gospel of God can be seen as preached throughout both Old and New Testaments.

The same Jesus of the same gospel was offered freely to both Jew and Gentile alike, throughout the whole Bible. Sure, there was a greater and fuller proclamation of that message, such that it went out to the whole world instead of only Israel and their close neighbors—but the gospel was preached nonetheless!

In short, reading and studying the Bible is what ultimately made Martin Luther "protest" the medieval church. Luther was convinced that the Bible was worth listening to. So this year we celebrate the anniversary of a “recovery of the bright light of the gospel.” To God alone be all the glory (Soli Deo Gloria).

Photo of Nicholas Davis

Nicholas Davis

Nicholas Davis is lead pastor of Redemption Church (PCA) in San Diego, California. Nick has worked for White Horse Inn for several years, has written over one hundred articles for Core Christianity, and has work featured in Modern Reformation, Fathom Magazine, Mockingbird NYC, Church Leaders, Banner of Truth, and other places. Nick and his wife, Gina, have three sons. He blogs at nicholasmartindavis.com. Connect with Nicholas on Twitter @MundaneMinister.

Related Resources

Card image cap Church

Should Churches Use Wine or Grape Juice in Communion?

Episode 364 | Dr. Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez answer questions about using wine in communion, God creating evil, responding to church scandals, what it means to be...

Card image cap Church

7 Glorious Lines from Christmas Hymns You Have Never Heard

Read these ancient hymn lines as you meditate upon the birth of Christ and what it meant for the world. 

Card image cap Church

Can Women Teach in the Church?

Episode 325 | Dr. Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez answer questions about hell, women teaching in church, how the Bible was canonized, miracles, Jesus’ teaching on the sermon...