The Faith of Demons

I can't tell you how many times I've waded into James 2 to hash out with someone the proper relationship between faith and works. You likely know the famous text:

James 2.17-19, 26
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. 
Typically, the debate about faith vs. works is discussed in the abstract. "Works" are good deeds generally conceived.

But, and here's my point, the works being discussed in James 2 are very specific. Faith without this specific work is dead.

So what is that specific work?

The context of the "faith vs. works" text highlighted in red:
James 2.1-19
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.   
The context is clear. The works being discussed in the "faith vs. works" debate is the preferential option for the poor. James is very clear on this point. Can a faith which ignores the plight of the poor save us?


That sort of faith is akin to the faith of demons.

Faith without the preferential option for the poor is dead.

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14 thoughts on “The Faith of Demons”

  1. "It is important to revive and revitalize the biblical meaning of judgement as that establishment of justice which by necessity means mercy for the wronged and loss for those who have too much"
    Krister Stendahl

    The delusion that much of the evangelical world is under, that the rich and powerful is its friend, has turned American Christianity inside out. I think I know partly why this has happened. With much of the social change that has taken place over the last thirty to forty years conservative evangelicalism believes it sees the wealthy as those who have what they have from strict, disciplined living of American values. From this they have taken on a reverence for the rich, as well as convincing themselves that the rich appreciate them and desire to protect them. However, this perverted hero worship has created a disdain for the poor, seeing them as enemies of "Christian America".

    One of the great lies within Christianity is that there are no legitimate poor in America today. That is because a standard of conduct has been constructed that the poor are required to follow, and part of that standard is, "No anger and no demanding. Your conduct and appearance must pass a final approval by those of us who know your needs better than you". So, with a wave of the hand, much of the poor are easily brushed aside, while protecting the rich who use them. For this reason, since the poor cannot find mercy from much of the church, I pray for it, and pray for it hard, while exercising it through the ballot box.

  2. In November 2013 Dr.Roger Olson spoke before his seminary at Baylor on "Sin Boldly: Christian Ethics For a Broken World" That alone is click bait for a blog post and worth reading. August Higgins gave a reply there that changed the way I thought about preferential option for the poor. I could not figure out how to cut and paste it. It is too long to re-type. Here almost two years later I find it apropos, mind altering for me.

  3. Faith without the preferential option for the poor is dead.

    According to the argument, worse than dead. To re-mint an old (and in its case, stupid) cold war slogan: Better dead than demonic.

  4. I agree with your diagnosis of the idolatry of a large portion of U.S. Christianity, but I think its even worse. The heyday of the "American Century," for the 99%, was about 1946 or so until about 1975. Since the later date the earning power of the "middle" and "working" classes has actually declined, while their productivity have continued to increase. But despite the harsh reality that ever more of our sisters and brothers are struggling harder than ever just to keep from falling farther and farther behind, you hear the same old bromides over and over again, most of them summed up in the idea that if you're not successful, it's no one's fault but your own.

    I read a chapter out of one of the gospels first thing every morning, and one from the letters every day around noon time. I don't have such a schedule for the prophets, but I don't go very long without reading a book by Walter Brueggemann or one of the other great Old Testament scholars, or listening to their lectures on the internet, like when Walter was at ACU several years ago. Over and over again I have the same thought: how can anyone read and listen to this, and still believe in, and in election after election vote for people who not only advocate but also enact legislation that is centered on a Preferential Option for the Rich and that leaves everyone else to fend for themselves?

    Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." He could have just as easily said, and I'm sure he did in his sermons from time to time, that Scripture is clear, from Genesis to Revelation, that Isaiah, Micah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, James, and John the Evangelist all made the same point about who God stood with on this question.

    Or, to quote an old labor song, "which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?"

  5. We can only love (works) to the degree that we believe (faith) we are loved.
    more we believe we are loved the easier to love others. I believe that
    James was basically saying that trying to love without believing we are
    loved is impossible. Jesus talked about loving Him by loving the least of these.

  6. The Talmud teaches that if a beggar asks, we are required to give. We don't have to give much, but give we must. And if we don't have anything else to give, "greet him with a cheerful face."

  7. I find this view of the passage in James to be both challenging and helpful. In addition to raising for me the question reflected by Nimblewill, it also causes me to see that I view the pie as small, and too easily hold onto my scraps out of fear.

    As I thought more about the connection between faith and care for the poor, I was similarly challenged by Matthew 25, the parable about the sheep and the goats (e.g., that the "King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ")

    I have never previously seen the connection so clearly. John's comments give me much to think about as well. As always, many thanks.

  8. Why do you use "preferential option for the poor" in the context of James 2? As I read it, the believers are showing a preferential option for the rich, and they are being called to jettison favoritism and to embrace meeting the needs of the poor. "Preferential option" language makes me thing of taking the side of the poor in a conflict out of principle - the kind of position that would pursue redistribution of wealth by the government, or would cause a judge to automatically side with the poor in a court case.

  9. James quote's the second great commandment that Christ spoke of, "love your neighbor as yourself". I guess I look at the rich, the poor and those with just enough all in need of love. The poor might need our physical love, and the rich may need our spiritual love. Our message must be love in the context of Christ. He offered the rich young ruler a way to see his love, and the young man chose not to follow.

    Though the message to the poor may seem different than the message to the rich, the fact is that they both should be motivated by love, and not by wanting to make up for a wrong.

  10. Both rich and poor are bound and need to be set free. Singer and author Andrew Peterson put it this way; "I'm shackled by the comforts of my couch."

  11. You say:
    "The context is clear. The works being discussed in the "faith vs. works" debate is the preferential option for the poor."
    ...and I agree. But I don't think it's James main point in this chapter.
    I don't think he's talking about works so much, or the poor necessarily - I think James is talking about faith in God and Mercy and Love using the poor as examples. In verse 17, he says, "In the same way, FAITH BY ITSELF, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
    If you have "faith in faith" and not faith in God, what good is that? Because if your faith is in God, you want to obey Him and Love Him, and have love and mercy for others and help the poor.
    And verse 23 says that "The scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone."
    So if a person just has faith in faith and sits around doing nothing, I really don't think that pleases God. But I still think it's more about faith in God than anything else.

  12. In my fellowship I've heard James 2:24 quoted many, many times, but I've NEVER heard it interpreted in the context. Thanks!

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