James 2:17-20: Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 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.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
Gordon Clark in his book, What is Saving Faith, defined faith as an assent to understood propositions and saving faith as an assent to the understood propositions of the Gospel. Yet, the perennial objection raised by Clark’s detractors (or even by those who simply don’t know any better) is what about the demons? Above we have a situation addressed by James of believing devils who while believing are not saved.
As someone recently wrote:
“If “assent to propositions” is a synonym for “belief,” and belief is a synonym for “faith,” [don’t you end up] with saying that the kind of faith the devils have (“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”) is the kind of faith that is saving for people? That is so clearly contrary to what James is saying that I expect I’m not understanding.”
Well, is it contrary to what James is saying?
First, belief and faith are both derived from the same single Greek word pistis. As Gary Crampton points out:
In the New Testament, there is only one word for belief or faith, pistis, and its verb form is pistein, believe. There is no separate word for faith, and those who wish to say that faith is something different from and superior to belief have no support from Scripture. Gordon Clark once remarked that the Bible’s English translators could have avoided a lot of confusion if they had not used the Latin-based word “faith” and had instead simply used “believe” and “belief” throughout the English Bible, as the writers of the New Testament use pistis and pistein throughout the Greek Bible.
Second, it should be clear that the above reaction, which has become almost knee jerk whenever Clark’s definition is mentioned, simply ignores the passage in James. James is arguing that belief in God alone and even that God is one (i.e., monotheism) is not enough to save a person. The demons also believe in God and that He is one, and, while they’re not wrong for doing so, belief in monotheism is not saving. Apostate Christians, Jews and Muslims to mention just three all believe in God and that He is one, but for a person to be saved they must also believe the Gospel. Further, even if demons believed the Gospel (and James doesn’t say they do), it doesn’t follow that they too would be saved. For one thing Jesus didn’t die for demons but for sinful men, so the message of the Gospel does not apply to demons.
That’s why Clark correctly argued that the difference between faith and saving faith are the propositions believed and not some added psychological element that (magically) makes ordinary run-of-the-mill belief saving.
I’ve heard well meaning Christian pastors say believing the Gospel is not enough. By itself that is quite extraordinary, but it is also one reason why the so-called “Federal Vision” has grown exponentially in recent years, even in spite of feel-good committee reports marking the Federal Vision as heretical while calling its teachers “brothers.” After all, men like Doug Wilson and Doug Jones who contend “believing is doing” find a lot of tacit agreement among Reformed men simply because most are already predisposed into believing that saving faith consists of something more than mere belief alone, or what Wilson derisively mocks as salvation by “raw” belief alone.
The history of how Presbyterian and Reformed theologians have defined the word faith is both a disturbing and miserably confused read. That’s why I would highly recommend Gordon Clark’s What is Saving Faith as an excellent and much needed study of this question. It is especially important given the rise of the false teachers of the so-called “Federal Vision” who have been able to capitalize on the tautological and traditional definition of saving faith as consisting of notitia, assensus and fiducia or understanding, assent and trust.
Of course, just because something has a long tradition doesn’t make it true. The problem with the traditional definition is that to believe something and to trust something are the same thing. If I say I trust someone that means I believe what they say. Similarly, if I say I believe someone that means I trust what they say. The words “believe” and “trust” are synonyms. Clark’s objection to the traditional definition is that the addition of fudicia or trust adds precisely nothing to our understanding of what faith is and is merely (etymologically speaking) defining a word by itself.
To assent to some proposition is to agree or subscribe to it. For example, I understand dialectical materialism pretty well as a philosophy and as a form of economic determinism, but I do not assent to it. Understanding alone is not enough to make me a Marxists and understanding the Gospel is not enough to make a person a Christian. Many people understand the Gospel but don’t believe it and there are many unbelievers who sometimes understand the Gospel better than many believers. As Clark points out the problem with unbelievers is that they don’t believe, and, even while unsaved, the Apostle Paul arguably understood the Gospel better than most first century Christians, which is why he hated them so and persecuted them. Understanding alone saves no one, yet however little someone understands of the Gospel and believes it (i.e., those who have as the Bible calls “faith as a mustard seed”) to that degree we can say that person is a saved person. Nothing else is needed, much less the good works of sanctification.
Another overlooked aspect of James is not only what the demons believe (God is one), but their reaction in response to this belief (trembling). James is teaching us that not only is belief in God and monotheism not enough to make someone a Christian, but the sincerity and “heartfelt” nature of that belief also isn’t something which saves a person — nor should we be fooled by such displays. Of course, this would put most Televangelists out of business. You might say James is providing an interesting refutation of the Kierkegaardian idea of “infinite passion” and the idea that it is the “passion” or conviction one brings to the objects of their beliefs that saves and not the propositions believed.
I imagine like most, I’ve met a great number of folks over the years who are very sincere in what they believe, some have even been trembling, but who did not believe the Gospel even though they might have even professed a belief in God (or, better, a “god” or even a “christ”). James is explaining the ways in which we can identify true faith from the feigned variety. James is not teaching that works done by faith is what makes faith “saving” or any such thing.
James is teaching us not to be fooled.