Can Belief in God Save Anyone?

by Spiros Zodhiates

"Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (James 2:19).

It has been repeatedly said that surveys show that the great majority of the American people believe in the existence of God. On that record we pat ourselves on the back and think we are the most godly nation in the world. We are to be highly commended for having on our currency "In God we trust." But what does all this faith in God really mean?

In the days of the Apostle James there must have been a great many people who prided themselves on their belief in God. Perhaps the greatest trouble which James had in his ministry was not with those who were denying the faith, but with those who affirmed their monotheistic faith quite regularly. His trouble was with dead orthodoxy.

In defense of his argument that living faith is the only faith that saves, James "Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble." This reading in the original Greek is preferred as it expresses a more definite belief in the actual formula of Jewish orthodoxy given in Deuteronomy 6:4, Spiros Zodhiates"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." When a scribe came to Jesus and asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord" (Mark 12:28, 29). This constituted part of the law which was appointed to be read or recited both morning and evening by every Jew.

We should note that our verse does not say that this man actually believed in God, but believed that there is one God, or that God is one. This indicates that his faith was an intellectual one, which never changes the course of one's life. It takes a heart faith to change one's life, its dispositions and aspirations. Anybody with a sound mind can easily come to the conclusion that there must be a God behind this wonderful universe of ours. Isn't it strange that the Bible never tries to prove the existence of God? It very plainly states that the man who denies the existence of God is not in his right mind; he is a fool. Therefore this man who believed in the existence of God really had nothing much to pride himself on. He had something which was commonly held by nearly all intelligent people. There was a Quaker who in dealing with an atheist used an excellent method. The atheist asked the Quaker, "Did you ever see God?" "No." "Did you ever feel God?" "No." "Do you believe there is any God?" The Quaker in disgust asked the infidel, "Friend, did thee ever see thy brains?" "No." "Did thee ever feel thy brains?" "No." "Did thee ever smell thy brains?" "No." "Dost thee think thee hast any brains?" If we have any brains at all, we must come to the conclusion that there is a God, that there is an architect behind this marvelous architecture called the universe.

But the argument of James is that such knowledge of God does not necessarily mean a godly life, though the knowledge itself is good and constitutes the first step toward the faith of the heart. And then he goes on to make an astounding statement, which is that the demons believe and tremble. In the Greek, the sentence begins with the work kai, which ordinarily means "and," but here it is used to express the similarity of the faith of the professing "Christian" to that of the demons. These are very strong indictments and we should do well to take note of them.

Think of it: your faith, if it is not seen in its works and fruits, is equated with that of the demons. I am not saying that; it is the Word of God.

We call these creatures "demons," for that is the original Greek word, daimónia. We are not too certain of the derivation of the word. There are, however, two opinions expressed. One is that it comes from the verb daí-o, which means "to divide, to apportion," and undoubtedly must refer to the one who apportions to each one its particular and individual fortune. The ancient people, who had no knowledge of the true God of the Bible, believed that their fortunes were in the hands of supernatural beings called demons. This verb also means "to kindle, to burn," which referred to the spirit in the form of fire or flame. And from this we derive the belief in the part which these supernatural demons had in inflaming the spirit of man.

The second root verb from which this word "demon" is believed to be especially derived, according to Plato, is dá-o, which means "to learn, to know," and then consequently "to teach." In Cratylus, a philosophical dialogue on words and the origin of language, Plato speaks of the "demon" as daímon. In other words, he identifies the demon as the one who knows, the scientist. These beings were credited with superhuman knowledge that they did not keep to themselves, but imparted to men in an endeavor to govern their lives and influence them in any way they could.

This word "demon" had gone through several stages of development in meaning, until finally in the New Testament we find that all demons are evil and constitute Satan's agents, who are actively influencing the lives of human beings. They are spiritual beings endowed with distinct personalities, acting above natural laws and beyond human sensory perception. We cannot see these demons but we can certainly feel their activities everywhere.

Now James declares that these incorporeal beings believe in the same manner as the man who says he believes that there is a God, but is not godly. In other words, the demons, and their father, the devil, believe in the existence of God. They themselves are fallen angels who at one time were in full awareness of God and His omnipotence.

As we read the New Testament we get an inkling of their intellectual knowledge even of Jesus Christ. We read that when the Lord Jesus came to the country of the Gergesenes, two men possessed with demons cried out, "What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?" (Matt. 8:29). These demons were fully aware of the personality and the power of the Son of God.

The recognition of the Son of God by the demons is most deceiving. And so is the recognition of God by men with intellect. There are many who profess to believe just as the demons do, but unfortunately they act like demons, too.

In order, then, to understand the Book of James we must understand the connotation of the word "faith." James uses it to mean the mere profession of faith without a change of heart and behavior.

James tells us that the demons not only believe in the existence of God, but they also "tremble." This is not a correct translation of the Greek word phríssousi, which means "to be rough or uneven on the surface." It refers often to what we commonly call goose-flesh, or the hair standing up on end. Metaphorically it means "to be awed or to be thrilled with passionate joy or fear."

Not only do the demons believe He exists, but they also stand in fear and awe before Him. They recognize that He is far superior to them and that they cannot win against Him. Surely the devil and his cohorts are afraid of the Lord Jesus Christ whenever they recognize His presence within us.

In spite of the fact that the demons are afraid of God, they do not obey Him. Fear can never inspire obedience that pleases God. We must remember that James here is drawing a parallel between the mere profession of faith on the part of an individual and the faith of the demons. We may believe that there is a God; we may fear God; but unless we do what God commands us to do in His Word, we are none of His, we cannot call Him our heavenly Father.

There is a story that the demons once had a conference. The purpose of the conference was to devise some effective method to do harm to the Lord's work on earth. One demon got up and said, "Let us go down and persuade men that there is no God." This, however, was rejected, with the statement that it was impossible for any intelligent man not to believe in the existence of God. Then another demon got up and proposed that they should go down and tell the people that Jesus Christ never really existed and that men should not believe in fiction. This also was rejected, since Jesus Christ is a historical figure whom not even demonic persuasion would succeed in obliterating.

Then finally the most intelligent of all the demons got up and said, "I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll go down and tell everybody to believe that there is a God, that there is Jesus Christ, that belief in Him saves, but you can get by just by professing faith and go on living in sin as you used to." Immediately this proposal was unanimously acclaimed, and ever since, Satan's agents have been telling people to believe but not to behave as God wants them to. Such belief is not saving faith, but is of the devil.