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.
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.
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).
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).