The fact that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by a combination of faith in Christ and our own good works does not mean that demons are saved because they know and believe that God exists. This objection comes both from a misunderstanding of what genuine faith is and, particularly, a misunderstanding of James' words in Chapter 2 of his epistle. We are not saved by the mere knowledge and realization that God exists or that the gospel is true, but rather by genuine faith in the person and work of Jesus; a life-changing trust that leads to complete surrender to Him as Lord.
Salvation Through Faith in Christ Alone
One of the central truths of the biblical, Christian gospel is that we are saved by the complete and sufficient work of Jesus Christ apart from anything we ourselves can do. Jesus took our sins completely upon Himself. Jesus bore the full punishment for the sins of those who are His own:
"Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him," (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Jesus Himself taught that we are saved by coming to Him in faith and not by our good works, explaining in such words as:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life," (John 5:24).
Paul likewise teaches that this gracious gift is accessed through faith alone apart from any righteous works we do, writing things like:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Even in the earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament, we read the affirmation:
"All, therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through his will. 4 And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen," (1 Clement, Chapter 32)1
So, salvation is all of God in Christ and nothing of us. No works or piety done with even the holiest of intentions add an ounce to the finished work of Christ. It is only by trusting entirely in His completed work on our behalf that we receive God's grace. Good works flow out from such a faith, but such works are the result of our salvation. They are not an additional requirement to receive it.
But Demons Believe in God. Why Aren't They Saved?
This objection comes from a single quote from James who taunts those who claim to have faith while not having any visible works. James says to them:
"You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder," (James 2:19).
The demons certainly do believe that God exists. They also believe that Jesus is the Son of God and final judge of men and angels. When Jesus confronts the demon-possessed, they cry out in words like:
"What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?" (Matthew 8:29).
The demons clearly are not saved. They know that they will be tormented when the day of judgment comes, and they are fearful. So, there is a clear sense in which the demons believe in God and in Jesus Christ, but this obviously does not save them. Acknowledging the truth of something and even being so convinced of it as to elicit an emotional response does not save you. This is what James is warning. There is an inactive, purely internal belief that is not genuine saving faith. Merely acknowledging to yourself and even admitting openly with your words that the gospel is true puts you in no better position than the demons. They did all of that with fear in their hearts, but they will not be saved.
Does that Mean Faith is Not Enough?
Many take this fact and run too far the other way. They claim that what this means is that faith is not enough. You must also contribute your own good works to your salvation. They admit, of course, that you need Jesus and His gracious gift, but then you also need to fulfill a certain lifestyle or even a list of sacramental rites and rituals, otherwise you will still be condemned. This is not what James is saying. James begins this section by posing the question:
"What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" (James 2:14).
James is not talking about someone who has true, genuine faith and yet no works. Indeed, as we will see, he is demonstrating that such a person cannot exist. It is not that works must be added to faith to save us because faith in Christ is somehow just not enough. The point is that genuine saving faith will necessarily be lived out in actions. The actions don't save you. They are the result, the fruit, of real faith. Your claim to supposedly having faith is justified by how you live that faith out, as James explains:
"But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works,'" (James 2:18).
The works are a demonstration of the faith, a justification of your claim. They are not a meritorious addition to Christ's finished work that aid in your salvation. Notice the examples that James gives in this chapter to illustrate his point:
"If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?" (James 2:15-16).
James first compares it to a man who, in mere words, claims to wish a poor man well but does nothing. That is obviously meaningless patronizing. If you really wished the poor man well, if that was really your heart, you would act on it. It would lead you to do something for the man. James analogy compares mere words to a genuine change of heart. The difference is perceived in the fact that a genuine heart-change leads to actions. James also illustrates his point in two real-life examples of faith:
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God," (James 2:21-23).
"In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" (James 2:25).
Interestingly, James does not choose examples of people keeping the law, fulfilling rites or rituals, or really doing anything at all that is inherently virtuous in and of itself. Abraham attempts child sacrifice and Rahab betrays her people and commits treason by harboring spies and lying to the authorities to protect them. These are not examples of people doing good works or carrying out sacramental ordinances. What these are, however, are examples of people who believed God so strongly and trusted in Him so completely that it made a radical, visible difference in their actions. These actions are praiseworthy solely because they represent a total faith in God. They are not religious do-goodery or mere pious virtue. Rather, they are faith lived out. They are not things we are asked to repeat. I don't need to sacrifice my own child or harbor spies in my own home to be saved. The point here is not, "sure, have faith in Christ, but also do this too!" It's not about adding meritorious works in addition to faith so that we can somehow finish through our own work what Jesus only started. No, Jesus finished the work. He did it all Himself. Jesus is enough. James is not denying that.
So what, then, is the point? The point is that there is such a thing as false faith. We can deceive even ourselves into believing that we are trusting in Jesus simply because we know what the gospel is and think that it is probably true. There is a kind of "faith" that knows but does not actually trust or commit.
It's like a man who boasts of his great faith in modern banks to protect our money while keeping his own money in a locked briefcase and never depositing any. It's like a man who boasts in how much he trusts the safety of modern aircraft but never has the courage to actually fly anywhere. Such a man boasts great faith in something, but his actions betray that the faith is not genuine. He may know and believe the facts, but he has no trust. It is trust that changes us. We act on trust. Trust is at the heart of genuine faith. If I trust that Jesus really did take my sins away and I believe completely that He is, indeed, Lord and Master of all, that is going to have a radical impact on how I live. If I say I have faith in those things but it doesn't actually change my life, its probably because I don't really have any faith in it. I may know intellectually that the gospel is true. I may even have strong emotions about the matter. But I don't have a living faith. That is the difference between the faith that saves and the belief that even the demons possess.
For more on this matter, see our article HERE.
- 1. Translation by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Publishing Group, 2006) 56-57