What does it mean in James 2:19 that 'even the demons believe'?
In James 2:19 James writes, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" This statement comes in a passage where James is explaining "religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father" (James 1:27). His main instruction is to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). To draw this distinction between hearing God's Word and actually living out the Word of God, James reminds his readers that even the demons believe. They believe Jesus is the Son of God, that He died on the cross for the sins of the world, and that He was raised on the third day. In fact, they don't only believe it; they know it because they have witnessed the events since before the creation of the world (Ezekiel 28:13). In Mark 1:24 when Jesus cast out an evil spirit from a man, the spirit said, "I know who you are—the Holy One of God." This understanding of Jesus is what James is referring to when he wrote that "even the demons believe."
James's purpose in highlighting the demons' beliefs is to show that simple acknowledgement of God and His identity does not equal a saving faith. When James says, "You believe that God is one," he is referencing a deeply held tenet of the Jewish faith. Every day Jews recite the Shema, a prayer containing Deuteronomy 6:4 that states, "The LORD our God, the LORD is one." But simply believing in the LORD (Yahweh) of the Bible is not what brings salvation. Instead, Psalm 51:17 teaches that the sacrifices God accepts are "a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart." It's a recognition of God's holiness and of our lack of living up to that standard, a repentance from those ways, and a reliance on God's mercy and grace alone (Ephesians 2:8–10). When one comes to this posture of humility before God, it leads to a surrender of the will—a willingness to allow God to rule one's emotions, thoughts, and actions. This attitude of surrender to God is what the demons lack.
James points out that when a person is surrendered to God, it is evident in their actions. He says, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18). It is not that his works caused his salvation, but rather that his surrender to God in faith led to his salvation and that his surrender to God is seen in the works God now leads him to do. James defines "religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father" as "to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). James shows that a true faith will result in actively loving "your neighbor as yourself" (James 2:8). In fact, he provides a real-life example in James 2:15–16. "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" It is neither good for the poorly clothed, hungry person nor is it an indication of a good (saving) faith.
Jesus also used a word picture to speak about the difference between being merely a hearer of the word and being an actual doer of the word. In Matthew 7:24–27, Jesus says, "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." Faith that stands is a faith put into practice and lived out in a way that follows God's Word and results in loving God and loving one's neighbor (Mark 12:30–31). Faith that is merely an intellectual assent to the realities of God without a surrender of the will as evident in one's actions is not a saving faith. This distinction is what James was teaching in James 2:19 when he pointed out that "even the demons believe."
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