499 years ago, on 31st October, 1517, the reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. He had come to know the freedom of the gospel of grace, and called the church to declare and live this message. His actions inflamed the protestant reformation. As inheritors of this movement that re-discovered justification by faith alone, we owe a great deal to his courage and determination.
Martin Luther, though, didn’t like the letter of James. He called it an “epistle of straw”. He thought that it undermined the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Like all of us, he lived in a context. The context was the Roman Catholic Church selling salvation, in the form of indulgence certificates, which they said would guarantee your place in heaven. Part of their justification for doing this came from our passage today – a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). Both the Roman Catholics and Luther misunderstood what God says through James. James clearly says that our salvation is a gift from God (1:17-18). And the kind of actions that are the hallmark of saving faith are showing love for God and your neighbour (he doesn’t mention giving money to the church!).
What James is teaching is that saving faith, a gift from God, is not something static and dead. It changes your life. Being overwhelmed by God’s free grace toward us inevitably means living a grace-filled life of loyalty to our Saviour and Lord that spills over into all our relationships. The person with real saving faith cannot and does not remain unchanged. As the later reformer, John Calvin wrote “It is faith alone that justifies, but the faith that justifies can never be alone.”