Here in vs. 19 we find James’ response to those who have a shallow conviction with no expression of faith. The first thing that we see is that these individuals believed in the one true God. This is a direct reference to Deuteronomy 6:4. This was a very important confession. This passage is known as the “Shema” which is Hebrew for hear. This became the Jewish confession of faith, recited twice daily by the devout Jew. The purpose of these words was to give a declarative statement of the truth of monotheism in a polytheistic world. There is no doubt that James and his readers would have been very familiar with this passage. But as was the case in vs. 14 there is a verbal profession that never goes beyond words. It is interesting how James describes their belief. He does not say that they believe in (en) God, or (epi,) on God which are the normal preposition used in the NT. Instead, James says that they believed that (hoti) God was one. This was the problem, this individual believed in a creed but never had the distinctly Christian trust, and commitment (a commitment that would lead to obedience) in Christ. What this person believed was true, but it was not the “power of God unto salvation.” All that this person had was a shallow conviction about the common knowledge of God. “This common knowledge can no more connect a man with God that the sight of the sun can carry him up to heaven” With a touch of sarcasm James commends a belief in the “shema.” The problem is that their belief in the one true God was no different than the belief that the demons have. The demons, particularly the devil, undoubtedly have a great degree of knowledge about God. As Jonathan Edwards put it “[the devil was] educated in the best divinity school in the universe, the heaven of heavens. He must…have such an extensive and accurate knowledge concerning the nature and attributes of God, as we, worms of the dust, in our present state, are not capable of. And he must have a far more extensive knowledge of the works of God, as of the work of creation in particular. For he was a spectator of the creation of the visible world.”
The Bible records many events for us in which the demons displayed a great knowledge of the character of God.Mark 1:22-24 They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”
Acts 16:16-17 It happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling. Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.”
In both of these cases the demons involved were correct in the assessment of who Jesus was. Their belief was orthodox (correct) but their character was evil. The fruit of their belief was the fear of immanent judgment rather than repentance. What is ironic is that the people claiming to have faith believed the same thing that the demons did, the only difference was that they did have any reaction at all. At least the demons shuddered in fear! These people, just like the demons, believed the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4 but did not obey the command of Deuteronomy 6:5. They believed in the one true God but did not love him with all their heart and soul. Belief like this is useless! It is the same kind of belief that the demons have, and it is the same dead faith that James has been talking about.
The lesson that we should all learn from this passage is that for a person to believe the doctrines of Christianity merely from the force of arguments, as discerned only by speculation, is no evidence of grace. You cannot choose the terms that you are going to come to God on. God has made salvation available to us, but we must be willing to submit to Him. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that going to church, memorizing Scripture (remember the shema), and saying the right things are going to make you right with God. God has a plan, and that plan is that men can only come the Father through Christ Jesus His Son.