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True Religion
James 1:26-27
Dean Olive
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Following his exhortation to be doers of the word and not hearers only, James provides his readers with some examples of what it means to be a doer of the word. What does active obedience to the word look like? James sets before us three cases in point that illustrate what being a doer of the word looks like. He says:

"If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

True obedience to God's word, according to James, involves (1) controlling the tongue, (2) helping the helpless, and (3) avoiding worldliness. "These three manifestations of obedience to the word introduce or touch on key ideas that James will return to again in the letter" (Moo).

1.Controlling the tongue - 1:19-20; 3:1-12; 4:11-13
2.Concern for the helpless - 2:1-13, 15-16; 5:1-6
3.Avoiding worldliness - 4:4-10

Before we examine his examples of what it is to be a doer of the word, let's focus our attention for a few moments on his use of the word "religion." James uses a form of this word three times. "If anyone among you thinks he is religious… this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this…"

Evangelicals are not always comfortable in speaking of religion. We often say, "We don't have religion, we have Christ." We say, "Christianity is not a religion, it is a person." To us, religion is something formal but lacking in substance. It is outward form but not inward reality.

That is often the case. There are many religious people who are strangers to the grace of God but that doesn't mean the notion of religion is bad. What we need to be sure that we possess is the "pure and undefiled religion" that James speaks of. Of course there is a religion that is "useless," but let us be careful that we do not speak ill of true religion.

Christianity is a religion but we can have the outward form of it, that is, be religious, without having the true substance of it. According to James, true religion is "more than mere observance of outward forms of 'religion' (church attendance, rote prayers, participation in the rites of religion)" (Hiebert). He says:

What does James mean when he speaks of "religion?" The Greek word James uses (threskeia) appears in only two other places in the NT, and that is in Col. 2:18 and Acts 26:5…

Colossians 2:18 - "Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind…"

Acts 26:5 - "They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee."

The word religion "can refer to one who has a genuine walk with God or to one who merely keeps outward rituals" (Holloway). The emphasis in the Bible of course is "not on religious ritual but on right living" (BKC).

But some men deceive themselves; they think they have true religion because they attend church, sing hymns, take communion, etc. But if this man does not control his tongue, help the helpless, and remain unspotted from the world, he has a religion that is useless. Elsewhere the Bible calls such a person a hypocrite…

But for James, true religion is manifested in a lifestyle of obedience to God (Moo). James does not define religion, he just shows what true religion looks like! He shows us that a genuine religious experience can be tested. If our religion is not the real thing, it will manifest itself in the outward observance of ritual and ceremonies; if our religion is the real thing, it will manifest itself in things like controlling the tongue, helping the helpless, and avoidance of worldliness. True religion will concern itself the proper ceremonies established by Christ, but it goes further. True religion makes one like Christ!

Do we have true religion? Let's examine the three marks of true religion that James sets forth and then we should be better able to answer that question. These three marks are test cases for true religion.

I. True Religion Controls the Tongue

First on James' list is controlling the tongue. He writes, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless" (26).

True religion changes how a man talks. Spurgeon was right when he said, "An unbridled tongue indicates a godless heart." The religion of Christ affects a man's tongue.

James wasn't presenting something new to his readers. These Jewish Christians certainly knew the teaching of the OT on this point. The Wisdom literature of the OT, especially the book of Proverbs, has a lot to say about the right use of the tongue. Look at several passages with me from Proverbs:

11:11, 13
12:18-19, 22
15:1-2, 4, 23
17:14, 20
21:9, 23

James supports the teaching of Proverbs on the proper use of the tongue.

When James talks about controlling the tongue, he uses the imagery of a bridle. He is the only Biblical writer to use this description. He speaks of a bridled tongue here and also in 3:2.

A bridle is something we put on horses so we can control them. Have you ever tried to ride a horse without a bit and bridle? It's impossible! The bridle refers to the headgear of a harness; the bit is the metal mouthpiece by which the bridle works to control an animal. You can't direct the horse the way you want him to go unless you have the bit and bridle.

James applied the term “bridle” as a symbol of the believer’s submission to God’s control. The person whose religion is the genuine article will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to exercise caution in what he or she says. Where the Spirit resides, there is a desire to speak wholesome and good words. The control of the tongue is one of the sure marks that we have passed from death to life. True saving religion puts a bridle on the tongue.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit, he listed "self-control" as one of the beautiful flavors of that fruit. He said, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (5:22-23).

Self-control manifests itself in several areas. The Bible uses this term particularly in connection with the use of alcoholic beverages (usually rendering it 'sober') and with sexual purity. But the Christian is to exercise self-control in all things. That includes the use of the tongue. Lehman Strauss said, “A true test of a man’s religion is not his ability to speak his mind, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.”

According to James, the person who has a show of religion but constantly speaks evil of others, has deceived himself. He is actually presenting a hypothetical case. "If anyone among you," he says, "thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue," then I want you to know two things about that man.

1. First, he deceives himself. James says such a man "deceives his own heart." James has already spoken twice about deception – 1:16, 22… Burdick says, "In v. 22 the person who hears the truth but does not put it into practice is self-deceived. In v. 26 the self-deceived person is the one whose religious acts do not make a difference in the way he lives."

2. Second, his religion is useless. The word "useless" is often used in the Scriptures to characterize idolatry as "vain" or "meaningless" (Moo). In the NT it is found in:

Acts 14:15 - "Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them…"

Rom. 1:21 - "Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations [futile in their thoughts], and their foolish heart was darkened" (KJV).

Eph. 4:17 - "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity [futility] of their mind" (KJV)

1 Pet. 1:18 - "Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [empty way of life, NIV] received by tradition from your fathers…"

"The 'religion' that people who do not control their speech have is no better… than idolatry" (Moo). It is worthless, empty, and vain.

If you are a Christian, keep a tight reign on your tongue! Exert restraint on your speech. Rid yourself of cutting criticism, filthy language, and lies. If you are unable to control your tongue, your religion is a sham.

As often as James speaks about the right use of the tongue (1:19; 3:1-12; 4:1-12; 5:9, 12), we surmise that how we talk is a vitally important matter. This is not a secondary topic, a peripheral issue; it goes right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. "It is the tongue that reveals the heart (Matt. 12:34–35); if the heart is right, the speech will be right" (Wiersbe).

Genuine, saving faith will produce actions in the believer’s life, which are in accordance with the teachings of the word of God. Pure speech is one of those actions. We had better give attention to our words for how we speak is one of the reliable indicators of whether we have true or false religion.

"If the tongue is not controlled by God, it is a sure indicator that the heart is not, either. Jesus told the self-righteous Pharisees, 'The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart… For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned' (Matt. 12:34, 37). Religion that does not transform the heart, and thereby the tongue, is totally worthless in God’s sight" (MacArthur).

II. True Religion Helps the Helpless

The second mark of true religion that James sets forth is found in verse 17. He writes, "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble."

Orphans and widows are regarded as the helpless in the Bible. Looking after them was a requirement that God placed on the Israelites.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29 - "At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do."

There were no welfare programs in those days. That left orphans and widows without any means of support.

Unwanted children were often abandoned, left to die. The state didn’t care for them and there were no orphanages. Without family, on their own, they were certainly in distress.

A widow without children or with children who would not support her was doomed to poverty. She was dependent on her husband to care for her. If her husband died, and they were poor, there wasn’t any life insurance to collect. If she didn’t have family to care for her, she was helpless.

That is why orphans and widows are singled out by the Old Testament as protected by God and as proper objects for compassion and assistance (Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:28–29; 16:11; 24:17; 26:12; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:8–10; Malachi 3:5). The NT is not silent on the issue either: cf. Acts 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:16. James does not intend to limit compassion to only widows and orphans; but they are the ones who most desperately need it.

God expects his people to care for those in the assembly of the saints who are in need. If a believing widow has family to care for her, then they should care for her, but if not, the church should care for her. The same is true of a child left as an orphan…

Psalm 68:5 describes God as "a father of the fatherless, a defender of widows." Those who help orphans and widows are imitating God. God is a Father to those who are in need. James uses the title "Father" to refer to God in this context.

The Lord God warned the ancient Israelites "not [to] afflict any widow or fatherless child" (Exodus 22:22). If you want to get on God's wrong side real good, then afflict the helpless! The next two verses of Exodus 22 go on to say, "If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless."

When Isaiah described the hypocritical religion of the people of his day, it was a religion that emphasized the rituals and the ceremonies and neglected the helping of the needy. When God called them to repentance, one of the things he called on them to do was to "defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17).

God will not accept our worship if we do not help the helpless among us! If there is a widow in need, those who religion is true will help her. If there are orphans who need a home, the truly religious will help them.

Jesus spoke of caring for those in need and it being an evidence of salvation in in Matthew 25:36, 43… The reference to visiting the sick is not merely making a social call, it is in order to care for their needs. This is "faith expressing itself through love" (Gal 5:6) (Burdick).

Such a religion is "pure and undefiled." These two words were associated with ceremonial cleanness in the Old Testament (Genesis 7:2; 8:20; Leviticus 4:12; 7:19; 11:32; 15:13; Numbers 8:7; Deuteronomy 12:15).

True religion to James is found in selfless acts of service, like caring for the helpless. True religion is what spurned George Muller of Bristol to establish an orphanage and help thousands of homeless children.

1 John 3:17-18… Christian love manifests itself in deed!

III. True Religion Avoids Worldliness

The last mark of true religion that James describes is "to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

The word "unspotted" means, "unstained." The believer is to be spotless; there is to be no moral pollution in his life, no stains.

When James speaks of "the world," he means the lifestyle of those who are ungodly. "World" describes the total system of evil that pervades every sphere of human existence and is set in opposition to God and to righteousness.

God intends for us to be separated from the world. We live in the world but we are not to be of the world. We are to distance ourselves from the way of the world. The controlling influence upon our lives is to be God and his word, not the world and its way.

Later in his letter, James warns his readers about the “friendship of the world” (James 4:4) Friendship can lead to love and John tells us, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…” (1 John 2:15–17). Paul said, “Be not conformed to the world” (Rom. 12:1–2).

Lot got to friendly with the world. You remember how he pitched his tent toward Sodom, and then before long he moved into Sodom. It wasn’t long after that that Sodom moved into Lot and he eventually lost his everything, his testimony and even with his own family.

“It was Abraham, the separated believer, the friend of God, who had a greater ministry to the people than did Lot, the friend of the world. It is not necessary for the Christian to get involved with the world to have a ministry to the world. Jesus was “unspotted” (1 Peter 1:19), and yet He was the friend of publicans and sinners. The best way to minister to the needs of the world is to be pure from the defilement of the world” (Wiersbe).

ILLUS - Donald Grey Barnhouse told a story about boys whistling out of tune in London. He that that years ago, musicians noted that errand boys in a certain part of London all whistled out of tune as they went about their work. It was talked about and someone suggested that it was because the bells of Westminster were slightly out of tune. Something had gone wrong with the chimes and they were discordant. The boys didn’t know there was anything wrong with the peals, and quite unconsciously they had copied their pitch.

So we tend to copy the people with whom we associate; we borrow thoughts from the books we read and the programs to which we listen, almost without knowing it. God has given us His Word which is the absolute pitch of life and living. If we learn to sing by it, we shall easily detect the false in all of the music of the world.


So there we have it. James says that true religion incorporates controlling the tongue, helping the helpless, and avoiding worldliness.

"We would badly misunderstand these verses were we to think that James is intending to summarize here all that true worship of God should involve… Specific and concrete actions are needed to demonstrate the reality of one's claim to 'have religion.' The matters that James mentions in these verses were undoubtedly problems among the Christians to whom he is writing. But they are also frequently mentioned in Scripture as key components of a biblical lifestyle" (Moo).

The main message of James is that a person's religion must consist of more than superficial acts or ritual. It is not enough to hear the word, we must do it (vv. 22-25) and it is not sufficient to engage in formal religious activity, we must put spiritual truth into practice! And that can be seen in a tongue under control, in a life marked by love for others, and in a life that is holy before God.

Now we ought to be better able to answer the question I asked earlier. Is our religion true religion?