You are aware that the apostle James speaks of some whose faith was dead, being alone; and that, in answer to their boastings, he reminded them that the devils also believed and trembled. Hence, it has been generally thought, there must be an essential difference between the nature of the faith of nominal Christians and devils on the one hand, and that of true Christians on the other. But this would overturn a leading principle of the Sandemanian system. Its advocates, therefore, have generally contended that “whosoever among men believes what devils do, about the Son of God, is born of God, and shall be saved;”* and that the design of the apostle was not to compare, but rather to contrast it with that of the nominal Christian; the latter as having no effect on the mind, the former as causing its subjects to tremble. It has also been commonly maintained, on that side of the question, that the faith of which the apostle James speaks, instead of being of a different nature from that of true Christians, was in reality nothing but profession, or “saying, I have faith.” “The design of the apostle,” it has been said, “is to represent that faith, whether it be on earth or in hell, if it really existed, and was not merely pretended or professed, was always productive of corresponding works.”
As the whole argument seems to rest upon the question whether the faith of nominal Christians be here compared to that of devils or contrasted with it, and as the solution of this question involves a fundamental principle of the system, it is worthy of a particular examination.
The words of the apostle are as follow:—“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”—“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works; show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead.”
If the design be to contrast the faith of devils with that of nominal Christians, the apostle must undoubtedly mean to render the latter a nonentity, or a mere pretence, and to hold up the former as a reality; and, what is more, to represent the “trembling” of the fallen spirits as a species of good fruit, good at least in its nature, and wanting nothing to render it saving but the circumstantial interference of a more favourable situation.
To this view of the passage I have several objections.—
First, The apostle does not treat the faith of nominal Christians as a nonentity, but as something which existed, though void of life, as “a dead body without the spirit.” On the principle here opposed there is no such a thing as a dead faith; that which is so called being mere pretence. The party is, indeed, represented as saying he has faith, but the same may be alleged of the true Christian with respect to works, James 2:18. If, hence, the faith of the one be considered as a nonentity, the works of the other must be the same.
Secondly, The place in which the faith of devils is introduced proves that it is for the purpose of comparison, and not of contrast. If it had been for the latter, it should have been introduced in verse 18, and classed with the operative belief of true Christians, rather than in verse 19, where it is classed with that of nominal Christians. The argument then would have been this: “Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works: the devils believe, and tremble; but thou believest, and tremblest not; therefore thy faith is a mere pretence.”
Thirdly, the copulative particle “also,” instead of the disjunctive, determines it to be a comparison, and not a contrast. If it were the latter, the argument requires it to have been thus expressed:—“Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well; but the devils believe, and tremble.” If χαὶ be rendered and, or even, instead of also, as it often is, yet the meaning is the same. “Thou believest there is one God: thou doest well; and the devils believe, and tremble; or, even the devils believe, and tremble.” None of these forms of expression conveys the idea of contrast, but of likeness.
Judge, my friend, and let the reader judge, whether the meaning of the apostle be not expressed in the following paraphrase:—Show me, if thou canst, a faith which is of any value without works, and I will show thee a faith which is of value by its fruits. Thou believest that there is one God; a great matter truly! and may not the same be said of the worst of beings? yea, and more: for they, having felt the power of God’s anger, not only believe, but tremble; whereas thy faith suffers thee to live at ease. But as theirs, with all their trembling, is of no account, neither is thine; for faith without holy fruits is dead.
If the language of the apostle may be understood as a contrast, it may be used to express that which subsists between other things that differ as well as these. For example, between the faith of Christians and that of Jews. But the absurdity of this would strike any reader of common discernment. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well:” Christians also believe, and obey! To make sense of it, it should be, But Christians believe, and obey. On the other hand, make an experiment in an instance of likeness, and the language is plain and easy. One boasts that he is not a heathen, nor a Jew, nor a deist, but a Christian; while yet he is under the dominion of avarice. A man might say to him, “Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well:” Felix the heathen was so far convinced of this, and, what is more, trembled: yet Felix’s convictions were of no value, and brought forth no good fruit; neither are thine, for faith without works is dead.
There is no reason to conclude that the faith and trembling of devils differ in any thing, except in degree, from the convictions and trembling of Felix: if, therefore, the former would in our circumstances have terminated in salvation, why did not the latter, whose situation was sufficiently favourable, so terminate? The convictions of James’s nominal Christian might not be so strong as those of Felix, and his might not be so strong as those of the fallen angels; but in their nature they were one and the same. The first was convinced that there was one God; but it was mere light without love. If, like what is said of the stony-ground hearers, a portion of joy at first attended it, yet, the gospel having no root in his mind, and being in circumstances wherein he saw no remarkable displays of the Divine majesty, it made no durable impression upon him. The second might also be convinced that there was a God, and neither were his convictions accompanied by love, but “righteousness, temperance, and a judgment to come,” being set before him, he “trembled.” The last are convinced of the same truth, and neither are their convictions accompanied by love; but being placed in circumstances wherein the awful majesty of God is continually before their eyes, they already know in part, by sad experience, the truth of his threatenings, and tremble in expectation of greater torments.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). “The Faith of Devils and Nominal Christians,” Letter IV. Strictures on Sandemanianism. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 2, pp. 583–585). Sprinkle Publications.