The particular passage in question is James 2:19, but we'll end up exploring the rest of James 2 also, because it's very easy to take away from James 2 that faith in Christ isn't really enough, that we also need works in order to prove that our faith is valid.
I have several examples of how this text is abused. The first comes from the Bible Believer's Commentary on James 2, where the author writes:
"These verses are commonly misused to support the heresy that we are saved by faith plus works, called 'synergism.' In other words, we must trust the Lord Jesus as our Savior, but that is not enough. We must also add to His redemptive work our own deeds of charity and devotion."So the author here begins with a proper smack-down of this idea of "synergism," the notion that works must be added to faith. Bravo on that. Notice, also, that the author believes that adding works to faith is heresy. But in the very next paragraph, he steers the reader right back to that very idea:
"James insists that a faith that does not result in good works cannot save. There are two keys which greatly help in the understanding of this verse. First of all, James does not say 'What does it profit ... though a man has faith ... .' Rather he says, What does it profit ... if someone says he has faith. In other words, it is not a question of a man who truly has faith, and yet is not saved. James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith. He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it. The second helpful key is brought out in the NASB. There, the verse closes with the question 'Can that faith save him?' In other words, can that kind of faith save? If it be asked what kind of faith James is referring to, the answer is found in the first part of the verse. He is speaking about a say-so faith that is not backed up by good works. Such a faith is worthless. It is all words, and nothing else."So after the author soundly refutes this idea of adding your works to faith, and right after he appropriately deems it "heresy," he turns right around and affirms exactly the same idea when he insists that if your faith is not "backed-up by good works" then you're not really saved. Partly, the confusion comes because the author assumes that when James uses the word "save" in verse 14, he's talking about eternal salvation from Hell and that "faith" necessarily refers to one's faith in Christ. The logical result of those assumptions is that faith isn't really enough, you must add works. And that right there is synergism, is it not?
Another example comes from Norm Geisler's book "When Critics Ask," page 527, where Geisler writes:
"The demons are not saved because they do not exercise a saving kind of faith. This is James' very point, namely, not any kind of faith can save a person. Only the kind of faith that produces good works can save. While we are saved by faith alone, nevertheless, the faith that saves is not alone. It is always accompanied by good works."Once again, good works are a part of the equation because if you lack good works, then you're not really saved. And yet somehow we're supposed to think this is not synergism? Just what is going on here?
Well, there's an entirely different--and very sensible--way to understand James 2 which does not require any doublespeak whatsoever. But to get to that, I think it makes sense to dive into verse 19 first. And here we will learn some very interesting things about how how our English Bible was translated.
First, take a look again at Geisler's statement:
"The demons are not saved because they do not exercise a saving kind of faith."Hmmm. Is this true? Would the demons be saved if only they would exercise the right kind of faith? Doesn't that imply that there is a plan of salvation in place for demons, and that, as it is for humans, it is based upon faith in Christ? But is there a plan of salvation for demons? Did Jesus die for the sins of demons? How could Jesus pay for the sins of demons unless He, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, become a demon as well as a man? Well, the answer is "No." There is no plan of salvation for demons. So then why would James write this?
By now it should be apparent that, in general, Christians are having trouble making sense of James 2 and reconciling it with other New Testament passages. And this goes all the way back to Martin Luther, who wanted to remove the book of James because he was convinced that it contradicted Paul. Well, Martin Luther has a point… sort-of. I think that if, by the word "save" in verse 14, James means "eternal salvation from Hell," then I don't know what other conclusion you could reach, but that James is contradicting Paul. Clearly, if James is saying that faith isn't enough to save a person from Hell, then not only is he contradicting Paul, but he's contradicting Jesus Himself.
But, of course, if James did not mean "salvation from Hell," then all bets are off. And if that sounds far-fetched to you, just ask yourself this question:
"Do I mean 'eternal salvation from Hell' every time I use the word 'save?'"The answer is "Of course not!" I might say "I was saved today," but you might discover that I was on a rafting trip and fell out of the raft in a dangerous rapid. In that context, the word "save" has nothing to do with salvation from Hell, does it? No, it just means that someone pulled you back into the boat, rescuing you from the dangerous rapid!
And we find something similar in the Bible… sometimes the word "save" is used to refer to eternal salvation from Hell, and sometimes it's used to refer to salvation from something else. And how do we know? Same way we'd know about the rafting accident: context.
So, let's zero-in on James 2:19 first, and then we'll step backward to verse 14 and piece it all together. Here it is:
"You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble!"The standard teaching of this passage suffers from three basic problems:
First, consider the statement "You believe there is one God…" This might be useful for understanding our salvation if our salvation was contingent on believing there is one God. But this is not the case… our salvation is contingent on believing in (trusting in) Jesus Christ. In other words, the person who merely believes that there is one God isn't saved any more than the demons are.
Second, there is no plan of salvation for demons. Christ died for the sins of humans, He didn't die for the rebellious angels. With this in mind, it's hard to imagine how this verse informs us about our own salvation at all. If demons are trembling, it's because there's no plan of salvation at all for them, not because their belief isn't the right kind of belief.
Third, do the words in verse 19 reflect James' own thoughts? Over and over again these words are attributed to James himself… after all, these words are found in an epistle written by James. So, isn't it a foregone conclusion that these words reflect James' own thoughts?
Well, it turns out the answer to that question is "No, it's not a foregone conclusion." And this is because of three very simple words recorded in James 2:18:
"Someone may say…"With those three words, James is bringing into his discussion an argument which he anticipates someone making, and James intends to respond to that argument. Notice that he's not talking about an actual person here… he's speaking hypothetically. The question is, "What might someone say?" What is the totality of that person's argument, and what is James' response to it? And here's what's interesting: Our English translations do not agree on this point, and what's even more interesting, is that the vast majority of popular Bible teachers seem to be utterly unaware of it.
So next time we'll examine this problem more closely, we'll compare the English translations, and we'll track the interchange between James and this hypothetical objector and see what we can make of it. I think you'll be amazed at what we'll find.