I want to comment on something I’ve been hearing lately in Christian circles — that the worklessness of Satan or demons proves that faith in Christ must include a life of commitment and good works for it to be truly saving. John Piper tweeted recently “If we could receive Jesus as Savior and not receive his teachings as our daily norm, Satan would be the first person in line.” All too frequently James 2.19 used in the same way: that if “even the demons believe [that God is one] and shudder” yet have no good works, then also if we humans believe and do no good works, our faith is incapable to save and we’re on our way to hell. The debate over the relationship between faith and works is an important one, but this argument is very misguided!
The simple truth is this: The only way to be saved is to have Jesus die for you. BUT Jesus did not die for Satan and the demons. Nor for plants, or animals, or rocks. Jesus died for humankind. God became man to die for man; if He wanted to open a way of salvation for these spirits, he would have become a finite spirit like them.
Scripture clearly teaches that it is because of the death of the Son of Man that people can be saved. Without the cross, no matter how much humanity believed in God, they could never be saved. We’ve sinned. The penalty is death. Whatever righteousness we do is filthy rags (Rom 3.23, 6.23a, Isaiah 64.6) before God. If our works of righteousness are so worthless, how much more pitiful is believing in God without a way to pay the penalty for our sins!
Only because of the cross is there an open way for humanity’s salvation, and God has chosen that this salvation is not to be obtained by working for the benefit of atonement, but simply believing into Jesus to receive this benefit freely as a gift. None of the angelic spirits have access to this. In fact the whole point of Hebrews chapter 2 is how Christ died for man to put man in authority rather than the angels. If Christ did not die for His own angelic spirits, he certainly did not die for the evil angelic spirits. So no – Satan is not first in line for salvation, nor can he be.
The only biblical reference for these common demonic faith analogies is James 2.19, but this misconstrues this passage, imposing pre-conceived assumptions. James 2.19 is using demons as an example of the importance or unimportance of works. It is debated whether James is even teaching this himself or if he is still quoting the objector from verse 18 (Greek did not have punctuation marks, so where the quotation marks end is up for debate from the context). But for this argument, whichever option doesn’t link to human faith:
1.) If 2.19 is quoting an objection to James’ argument, then it’s using demons as an example to argue that faith and works have no relationship because demons believe and don’t do good, to which James responds to re-assert that faith without works is useless and gives examples with Abraham and Rahab to show works do fulfill faith’s righteousness.
2.)If we take it that the quotation marks end before 2.19 and this is James resuming his argument, then it is apparent James is only using demons as an illustration to say that living a life that has faith but no works is repulsive. No one likes to be compared to demons. Furthermore, demons “believe God is one.” This is mere monotheism, not a trusting faith in the person of Christ for salvation. Big difference!
Either way, James’s point is the unproductiveness of faith without works, not that demons would be saved if they only had faith with works attached to it. To say anything beyond this pushes the analogy farther than what the text actually says. There’s a good summary of this from Dr. Charlie Bing, “Demon Faith and the Misuse of James 2.19”
The condemnation of Satan and his spirits was accomplished before humanity’s fall, and their knowing choice for rebellion was already quite made. They are not in any way analogous to what kind of faith humans must have in Christ to be saved. They are only analogous to us in that we both do evil things. Therefore, statement’s like Piper’s above are confusing and misguided, and should be avoided in any debates over the relationship between saving faith and works.