James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” James is showcasing the difference between mental agreement and a genuine saving faith. It seems people were claiming that, because they believed in the God of Moses and they could recite Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” they were right with God. James shatters that false hope by comparing that kind of belief to the knowledge held by Satan and his demons. Satan’s minions are more aware of God’s reality than most people are, yet the demons are not right with God. The demons “believe” some things that are true about God—they know He’s real, He’s powerful, etc.—but their “theological soundness” cannot be called faith. There’s no salvation for the demons, even though they assent to the truth that there is one God.
So what is the difference between the demons’ belief and the faith required for eternal salvation? Fortunately, James does not leave us to wonder. The rest of chapter 2 goes on to explain that faith without a godly result is useless (James 2:20). The demons’ type of “faith” causes them to fear their ultimate doom. The type of faith that saves us gives us humble confidence in our salvation, and it changes us, producing holy action. We can better understand that faith requires action through an illustration:
Imagine standing on the brink of the Grand Canyon. A narrow suspension footbridge spans the canyon. It dips in the middle, sways slightly in the wind, and has a few planks missing. Standing with you on the edge is the architect of that bridge. He is world-renowned for his designs, and he holds the plans in his hand. He asks if you have faith in his bridge. You eagerly reply, “Yes! I have faith in you. I believe that bridge will hold my weight.” But real faith does not remain on the brink of the canyon. That is only hope. Faith is when you step out onto the bridge and begin walking across the chasm.
So it is with salvation. The demons know more than we do about the awesome power of God. They watched Jesus Christ come to earth, live as a man, and then be crucified (Matthew 20:28). They trembled in horror as the God-Man rose from the dead and walked out of the tomb (1 Corinthians 15:3–8). They saw Him ascend back into heaven, and they know that Jesus is the Son of God (see Mark 1:24). The demons believe all this to be true, yet their condemnation is sure. James’ point is that mere assent to the historical and theological facts about Jesus will not save a person. Saving faith results in a new creation, which produces good works.
It’s not enough to believe in God or even to believe that the God of the Bible is the One True God. That belief, devoid of a change of heart, makes one’s theology comparable to that of the demons. Unfortunately, many people may not realize that what they call “faith” is nothing more than the same mental assent that the demons possess. Perhaps they prayed a prayer, got baptized, or went to church, but the direction of their lives never changed. They were never born again (see John 3:3).
The truth is that we are not saved by belief in a creed; we are saved by trust in a Person. And that trust in Jesus will result in a love for God, a love for people, and a striving for holiness in all we do (1 Peter 1:8, 15, 22–23).