In verse 19 James addresses the opponent introduced in verse 18, the argument still using the second person singular you. Having, in verse 18, denied the argument that faith and works are two different ways in which one can live before God, and having insisted that faith and works belong inseparably together, James now sharpens his point.
“You believe that God is one” (su pisteueis hoti heis estin ho theos). There are numerous variants in the Greek manuscript tradition for this phrase (see McKnight, 233-234, whose partial list includes ten variants), but basically they reduce to two primary ideas: that God is one, or that there is one God. Many commentators prefer the translation “God is one” as the NRSV has it (cf. NIV), though both possibilities amount to the same confession of monotheism.
James appears to affirm this belief: “you do well” (kalōs poieis). This would be hardly surprising given the confession of monotheism was basic in Judaism and Christianity. Further, James uses the same phrase (kalōs poieite) in verse eight to affirm those who keep the royal law of love. Yet the context here suggests that James is being ironic or sarcastic, because he immediately pours scorn on this person’s belief. It is as though James is saying, “You believe that God is one—whoopy doo!” For “even the demons believe…” (kai ta daimonia pisteuousin).
This is a savage piece of rhetoric which cuts the legs out from under his opponent. It is immediately apparent that James views faith in a different way to his interlocutor. Faith is not simply belief; faith is more than belief, even orthodox belief. To believe in the unity of the one God was quite unusual in the ancient polytheistic world, though it formed the foundation of Jewish and Christian spirituality. The belief—which in and of itself is correct—is not yet faith, however. In chapter one we saw that James associates faith with a steadfast and enduring commitment to God. In chapter two we find that faith has implications: one cannot hold “faith” in Jesus Christ and simultaneously hold convictions, attitudes or behaviours that are contrary to Jesus Christ (2:1). That is, faith conforms the believer to its object, and for James, God—the object of faith—is generous (1:5), the God who chooses the poor (2:5). Faith, therefore, is not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of a point of doctrinal truth. Faith involves an existential commitment of the whole person to the person and will of God. Faith is self-involving, drawing the life of the believer into the life and activity of God.
It is clear that James is challenging a sub-biblical and non-Pauline understanding of faith. Both Paul and James—together and the whole New Testament—understand faith to be far more than assent to a doctrinal point. If James is reacting here against a form of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith without works, it is not Paul’s teaching, but a distortion of it that is at issue.
Belief is important: it provides structure and orientation for faith. But faith is more than belief. An orthodox confession, by itself, is not salvific: faith issues in salvation. Faith is oriented toward God and conformed to God. It issues in a life of deeds that image the character of the generous, ever-giving Father of lights.
Thus James asserts that his opponent’s belief is not faith at all. He is no better than the demons who likewise acknowledge the fact of God’s oneness, but who are against God and his work. At least the demons “shudder” (phrissousin)—at least their faith has some consequence, which is more than James can say of his interlocutor!