Pure and Undefiled Religion | James 1:26-27

If you would, turn with me to James chapter 1. Today we are finishing out this chapter of James. Next week, we will have a 1-week hiatus from James, because I really want to cover something that is incredibly important, and often completely forgotten, and that’s something called “church discipline.” No, I don’t mean by that when someone does something bad they get a spanking or some other punishment. Instead, I mean the very clear mandate we see from Jesus himself in Matthew 18:15-17. So we’re going to look at that next week before jumping into James chapter 2 the following week. James chapter 1. We’re going to be focusing our time on verses 26-27, but to get into it, I want us to start with verse 22.

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

If you remember back to last week, James is in the middle of explaining how the Word of God is not just something we hear, nor even just something we and study and seek to understand; it is something we do. God has regenerated our hearts. Last week I was trying to think of a movie with regeneration, and I mentioned Transformers because I couldn’t figure out what movie I was thinking of. Isaiah Palmer revealed to me after worship the movie I was thinking: Wolverine from X-Men! That’s it! When he gets hurt, his body just regenerates, supernaturally.

Similarly, at least kind-of (it’s actually not the best metaphor, but it’s what came to my mind). Similarly, God has regenerated our hearts in that he supernaturally puts something there that we had no power to put there ourselves. We were born again. We are new creations, and so we have NEW LIFE! And part of this new life is living in obedience to God.

In fact, we know that there is a problem when we’re not living in obedience, when we’re not living the new life that God has given us. There’s a disconnect somewhere. James, in these last two verses of chapter 2 goes even deeper into this disconnect that can happen. James moves into three specific marks of genuine religion.

 

Three Marks of Genuine Religion

Now, I have to speak a little bit into what religion actually means. I know, within mainstream Christianity, there is this common slang about how religion is bad because it’s all about rules, and how Jesus hates religion, instead he’s all about the relationship. Religion is about trying; Christianity is about trusting. Religion is about man trying to reach God; Christianity is about God reaching down to us. Those are understandable and useful contrasts. But, just speaking logically, Christianity is still a religion, at least with how most people define religion.

I think I agree with what we mean when we say those things about religion and how Christianity is different, but I also think we’re maybe the only ones defining the word “religion” in that way, and it’s really a very recent development. For most people, the word “religion” refers simply to a particular faith. And, certainly, the Christian faith, the Christian religion is not just all about rules and regulations. Biblically, it’s all about Jesus. But Jesus never threw out all the rules and regulations. In fact, he gives us the very heart that desires obedience to God’s rules and regulations.

According to the Bible, true religion pleases God. It does! Pure and undefiled religion is pleasing to God; we just read about that. So, I just think we need to be careful in our little Christian sub-cultures with being clear. It’s an effective thing to contrast all other religions with Christianity, because biblical Christianity is so different. But, most people equate religion with obedience, churches (like, organized religion), church leaders who try to influence people, doctrine and theology. That’s what many people equate “religion” with, and I sure hope we don’t want to throw those things out, because God calls us to pursue those things.

It might be a better idea to use the language James uses, in making the contrast between true religion and man-made religion. I know I’m getting a bit deep into semantics here, and if you say that around me, I’m not going to look down on you or correct you or anything like that, because I know exactly what you mean, but I just want us to be aware of how easy it is to jump on cool-sounding modern Christian lingo without really thinking through it, or even without checking to see whether it’s biblical or not.

So, the way James thinks and writes of religion, religion is not a bad thing. He speaks of pure and undefiled religion, what I’m going to call genuine religion. Having in mind what we talked about the last two weeks, James is using this really neat progression: First, we have the new birth that God brings about in verse 18, then we have growth in the new life through the Word in verses 19-25, then, today, we have a few marks of that new life. This isn’t an exhaustive list of what the new life looks like, by any means. But, it is really interesting what three things James chooses as examples of what the new life actually looks like. So, three marks of genuine religion. Number 1:

 

  1. A Bridled Tongue (v. 26)

Verse 26- “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Talk about pointed, right? If anyone “thinks,” he has the opinion of himself that he is religious, that his life is clearly God’s, that it is evident to people that he has a heart-relationship with God, if he thinks that, but does not bridle his tongue, his religion is worthless.

Now a bridle, if you happen to be familiar with horses, is the headgear used to control the horse. So James is using this language to suggest that the tongue, our mouths are like wild animals. And when these wild animals are tamed and directed, guess what? They can do great things! But, when not tamed and directed, just left to do whatever they want to do, they can be incredibly damaging. In fact, I remember the first time that I rode a horse. I didn’t know how to control it at all, and so it almost threw me into a barbed wire fence. That’s how dangerous our mouths, our communication, can be. James is going to say much more about this in chapter 3, which we’ll get to just before Easter. But, suffice it to say for now, our mouths, what we say, can be so subtly damaging that we deceive ourselves.

Did you catch that part of the verse? “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is worthless.” How does this happen? How can we deceive ourselves? Well, first, we can use our mouths to tear people down instead of building them up. This certainly doesn’t mean we only say positive things, because sometimes there needs to be loving correction and things of that nature. But it is to say, that using our words to do anything to harm does not fit our new life in Christ.

One way that this happens that I just have to bring up because it’s so rampant in Christian circles, and most people have tricked themselves into thinking that they don’t do it. That is, gossiping. We must stop talking about other people, unless we’re building them up. We must control what we say and how we say it. If what we’re saying about someone does not involve building them up, we have no business saying it! Ephesians 4:29- “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

If your mouth in unbridled, not directed and under control, you’re deceiving yourself. That’s what verse 26 says. You’re deceiving yourself. You have no idea just how much your religion is not something genuine and from the heart, but instead a façade, at least when it comes to what you do with your mouth.

James says, “this person’s religion is worthless.” It’s worthless, meaning it accomplishes absolutely nothing. Why? Because our mouths reveal that our hearts don’t fully belong to God. That’s how strong the language is when Jesus says, in Matthew 15:18- “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart.” Or I like the way Luke puts it: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Turn that around and what does it also reveal? That if the heart is right, the mouth will reveal it. That’s the first mark of genuine religion, a genuine fostering of the new life we’ve been given. A bridled tongue. 2nd mark:

 

  1. Compassion for those in need (v. 27a).

Verse 27- “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Pure and undefiled, those are basically synonymous, the positive and negative sides of the same thing: Pure and undefiled, TRUE, genuine, REAL religion before “God the Father.” Now that is something! True religion according to who? God! Not according to man! There we do see the difference between Christianity and every other religions, yes? Christianity is God-made, true, pure religion. Everything else, including secularism, is false religion. God is the arbiter of truth, meaning he’s the one with the authority. He’s the one with the opinion that matters.

I think this is such an important point to make, because it’s so easy to think of ourselves as religious based on what WE think is religious, without even realizing it. “I go to church. I obey the commandments. I’m a good person.” We’re determining what it means to be truly religious or spiritual. Here’s the problem:

Thinking that we determine what it means to be truly religious, or truly spiritual, is like buying your wife a present that reflects something you really want, and even thinking she’ll really like it. Something that’s meant to be for her, but we’re really buying it for ourselves, or at least we’re seeing its significance through our own eyes as opposed to hers: “Hey Lauryn, for our anniversary, I bought you a brand new potato bag. You’ll love it. You put your potatoes in there, and it cooks them in like 2 minutes.” Or for some of you more manly men, “Honey, for your birthday I bought you a brand new Remington Versa Max Tactical Semiautomatic 12-gage shotgun.”

What’s the problem? We’re taking something meant for her, really that belongs to her, and filtering it through our minds, our desires. We do that sometimes when it comes to truth. Truth belongs to God. God determines what is truly spiritual, religious, and he has determined that it is much more than just external things. It has to do with the heart. External things reveal internal things. An unbridled tongue reveals a corrupt heart. Not having compassion on those in need reveals a lack of Christ-like love, which is supposed to define us!

It doesn’t matter how religious we think we are, does it? No! What matters is God’s standard for true religion. We can think we have it made, or that because we come to church, or give money, or even know the Bible, we can have whatever standards we’ve made up for ourselves, and still completely miss God’s standards, the very one who regenerated our hearts and gave us this new life in Christ in the first place. According to God the Father, the arbiter of truth, true religion involves a genuine compassion for those in need. James writes, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” God cares about those in need, specifically orphans and widows. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father to the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy dwelling.”

Now orphans and widows are not exhaustive here, obviously. They represent all those in need. We are to care! No matter how much we may believe in capitalism and hard work and people learning to figure things out on their own, which I totally think is important, that does not excuse us from caring, from compassion. I’m not trying to make any political point here; I’m asking you: do you care? For the widows in our church that have lost their husbands? Do you genuinely care enough to do something? Do you genuinely care about those in terrible financial situations or family issues, inside and outside of our church? Do you care? Do you have compassion?

In Isaiah chapter 1, Isaiah announces that God is not going to recognize this apparent worship of his people. Instead, he wants them to, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” We’re to genuinely desire the good of all mankind, of every single person on the planet, especially those in need. Those who have no one to defend them or protect them or provide for them. Are we doing it, though? Or are we too busy with our own lives, and our own comfort?

 

Orphans

Do we care about orphans? Children that have no parents, or children in foster care who have parents that could have their parental rights terminated at any moment? It says to “visit orphans.” Now, he’s talking about a lot more than simply visiting, saying hi, then leaving. In Matthew 25:36, Jesus says, “I was sick and you visited me.” That means cared for, nurtured, geniune compassion that resulted in doing something.

The question for us when it comes to those in need is: Do we care enough to actually do something? Caring for orphans does not mean every Christian needs to adopt. That is a very specific calling that can bring a lot of hardship. But, I have to give you some numbers. On average, on any given day, there are about 110,000 children eligible and waiting to be adopted in the US. Guess how many Christian churches there are? About 340,000. That’s one child for every three churches.

There are on average, 415,000 children in foster care on any given day in the US. How can we, the church, care for orphans, even temporary orphans who are taken from their parents? We can adopt, we can foster. Even a rather unknown need is respite care for foster families. You can keep children for as brief as a weekend, and as long as two weeks, for foster families who have to go out of town or have things come up. Drew and Edith Erickson do respite care, if you’re interested in more information.

But even if God has not called you to open up your home to a child in this way, how can we as a church care for these children? We have an insert in your bulletin to help us think through just that.

 

What We as a Church Can Do To Support Foster/Adopt Children

Pray about opening up your home

  1. Respite Care
  2. Foster Care
  3. Adoption (Domestic or International)

Support Foster/Adopt Families

  1. Love foster children and adopted children. Make sure they feel loved and welcome in this place, just like any other child.
  2. PRAY for these children, their biological parents, and their foster/adoptive parents. Pray for continued bonding of new parents of adopted children. PRAY!
  3. Don’t see adoption as the end of the need for support and prayer. See it as the the beginning for even more fervent prayer for these families who adopt.
  4. For families with new foster placements, or newly adopted children, volunteer to bring a meal to them! This is VERY helpful for families adjusting to a new addition to the family (even if temporary w/ fostering)
  5. Ask if there are needs like diapers, clothes, toothbrushes, or other small items.
  6. Donate toys or other items that can be circulated within the families who foster.
  7. For a family with a new placement, offer to take the list of new things they need (diapers, clothes, toothbrushes, shoes, etc.), and the foster parents’ money, and go to the store for them while they get settled with their new child or children.
  8. Buy zoo passes, movie gift cards, or anything else to help support these families.

Support Families getting Foster/Adopt Training

  1. Offer to babysit during their training.
  2. Offer to pay for their meals before and after training.

The question for all of us, pulling back and thinking again not just of orphans, but widows (who, especially in the first few centuries were in a really rough spot as far as having anyone to take care of them), also those in poverty. Do we have truly love the people around us and even those not around us? Does our love result in action? Or is our love just an emotion we feel, and wishful thinking that things were different? “Oh man, that stinks for them.” I can’t really help: I think we need to stay away from these rough situations, these people who are struggling, we get too close, we could get taken advantage of! We’re risking too much?

I’m not saying jump in giving your money and time to random people or charities. I’m saying, where’s the heart of Jesus? I gotta be honest—this is something I struggle with. I’m busy. I got school, family, work. I like staying in my own little world. I like focusing on me and my needs or, really, desires, ambitions. Do we care? About poverty? About children in pain? About widows who at times feel so alone even in the midst of a big crowd?

It’s a mark of genuine religion, a characteristic of people who’ve been born again, who’ve been brought from death to life, that we love and care for other people. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense for us not to have genuine compassion that results in action because we’ve been shown the greatest compassion in the history of the world! God, despite our sinful rebellion, loved us! He loved us so genuinely that he sent his Son Jesus to die for us, taking upon himself our sin and shame, then rising again from the dead three days later. God had compassion on people who were helpless. That was you and me! We were helpless. We couldn’t help ourselves. No one else would or could help us. But God did, in the biggest way possible.

Tony Merida recently put it this way: “In the gospel, we’re the adopted orphan, the widow with a coming Groom, the poor with an inheritance, the refugee with an unending kingdom.” Talk about incentive to truly love and care for the people around us, especially those in need. The third mark of genuine religion:

 

  1. Personal Holiness.

We see this at the end of verse 27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Unstained means spotless, pure.

This one doesn’t take too much explanation. We are called to be holy as God is holy. Leviticus 20:26. Then 1 Peter 1:16 quotes Leviticus. We’re called to be set apart, different from the world, and this is one of the summary marks that James chooses to use in closing out this chapter. In other words, it’s important! I know it may feel like it’s just thrown in this verse real quick, but that’s the way James does things.

I’ve mentioned before that I think there’s only one problem in the American church bigger than not caring for the world. That’s a huge problem, Christians who don’t truly care and have compassion for the world, which is what we just talked about in Mark #2!

I think that’s a big problem in the church is that often we don’t truly care. BUT, the one problem I think even bigger than not caring for the world is that we look too much like the world. We don’t look distinct except in that we go to church on Sundays, maybe we don’t curse, maybe we even want to be good people. But our deepest desires, ambitions, goals so often look the exact same as that of the world. There’s a problem here.

We’ve been called to the greatest purpose for which anyone can live. We should look drastically different. These characteristics we’ve talked about today should mark us. Everything we see in the Word should, slowly but surely, become more and more part of who we are. Through obedience and submission to the will of God, that we find in the Word that He has given us, and with the very power and courage to obey that we find in the Holy Spirit that He has given us, and ultimately by living in this new birth and new life we have in Jesus Christ, whom he gave for us, we can live for the glory of God.

That’s pretty big. That’s pretty joyful. That’s pretty satisfying. There’s nothing quite like it.