Last month we looked at the way Luke uses the word believe in the book of Acts. Passages like Acts 2:44-47 and Acts 16:31-34 use the word believe to describe conversion. The context of the passage defines what the word means. This month, let us look at how James uses the word believe in a different context, with a different meaning. James does not use the word believe as conversion but as a fruitless belief in God’s existence.
James explains to his audience that faith without good works is dead. Faith has no meaning if the person of faith is not willing to act on it. He gives the example of someone seeing his brother or sister without daily food, and he says, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled.” What good did that do? Unless he acted on faith and gave food to his brother or sister, his command profited nothing. That person might claim to have faith, but his actions say otherwise. James then says that person’s belief in God is not all that special.
“You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:19-20)
Is James using the word believe the same way Luke does in Acts 2:44-47? Is James saying that the demons have an encompassing belief in God that produces repentance, baptism, and the free gift of salvation? Are the demons converted to God? No. James says that his audience, like the demons, believes that God is a real person with real power, but refuse to be moved to action. This is not an encompassing belief; this is a belief that is only a thought. This is a belief that resides in the mind but never moves to the heart or the hands. This is not an encompassing belief.It is a fruitless belief.
John 12 gives another example of fruitless belief. Jesus performs many signs and wonders and some of the rulers of synagogue believed in Him. However, notice their reaction.
“Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:42-43)
These rulers believed in Jesus, but due to their fear of the Pharisees kicking them out of the synagogue, they did not confess Him. Their belief was only a thought.
Is our belief in Jesus an encompassing belief or a fruitless belief? Is it a belief that leads to repentance, baptism, and salvation? Is it a belief that is no more than a thought that God is real, like the demon’s belief?
Why do we not believe like we should? Like the rulers of the synagogue, it might have a lot to do with fear. John says, “They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” They became afraid that if they pursued Jesus they would be rejected by men. Christians that act on their belief today are treated cruelly. In the South, perhaps, not many will ridicule a Christian for believing in God. But when that Christian tries to act on hisbelief, some might ridicule trying to justify his own non-action. Just like those in James 2 that deceived themselves by saying that a belief without action was enough to please God.
— Andrew Smith