Sermon preached on James 1:26-27 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/21/2021 in Novato, CA.
Many well-meaning Christians have parroted the slogan, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” The problem with that slogan is a passage like today which reminds us that these things are not at odds with each other. Yes, Christianity is about a relationship with God in Christ Jesus. But it is also a religion, and in fact the only true religion. Now to be fair, when such people say that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship, what they usually mean is along the lines that Christianity is not about merely adhering to a set of religious rituals or beliefs. Going through the motions in terms of religious rituals or knowing what the right answer is to some doctrinal question isn’t how one is saved. That is something we can agree on, yet without throwing away a proper, biblical use of the word religion. In fact, what James addresses here is not that far off from the concern raised in that problematic slogan. Here, James pushes back against a mere externalism in our worship or faith. Instead, he points us toward having a changed life in Christ Jesus. So, we can and should redeem the term “religion”, but also appreciate that there is much done today in the name of religion that is worthless. Ultimately, James wants us to know the true religion that is pure and undefiled before God and that does flow out of our saving relationship of being united to Jesus Christ through faith.
Let’s start our sermon for today by first considering James’ point that someone could think themselves religious when actually they are just deceived. This is raised in verse 26. I’ll start this point off by defining the word “religious” here. The meaning and nuance of this Greek word is pretty much identical to our word “religious” in English. It refers to the devotion and worship given to a divine being, expressed in both beliefs and rituals.
So then, James says that someone can think they are religious but be wrong. There could be a way, he says, that one could deceive their heart by thinking are religious when really their version of religion is worthless. What a wake-up call James gives here. Someone could really believe themselves to be a Christian by their faithful devotion to either a creed or a ritual and find that they’ve been living a lie that they told themselves. Of course, how true this is to reality. How many people today, if asked their religion, would immediately reply “Christian”, and yet how many of such people have truly known the Lord? This is surely a less common in our area where it is not the social norm to call yourself a Christian or to go to church. We could imagine this as a prevalent issue in the Bible Belt region of the southern United States where going to church and calling yourself a Christian is the cultural norm. But just going to church or calling yourself a Christian doesn’t mean you have truly known the Lord. And this problem of thinking yourself religious when you’re not is not unique to the Bible Belt. James wants to get us to do some self-examination of our claim to be Christian to see if our supposed devotion to God is genuine.
You see, he explains that someone’s religion might be worthless. The word for worthless in the Greek is about something that is in vain or useless or empty of what it claims to be. Notice even how he describes that in verse 26 that “this person’s religion is worthless.” It’s not saying that true religion is worthless. It is saying that whatever religion “this person” has, it is not of any value in God’s eyes. In other words, such a person that is self-deceived is because they have come to hold a religion that is not true religion. James here challenges us all to examine ourselves to see that we are in the true faith.
That leads us to our second point where James further explains his concern here by describing true religion. This is verse 27. He speaks of pure and undefiled religion. For religion to be “pure and undefiled” means it is not tainted with things that aren’t real religion. Imagine a glass of water that put a drop of poison in, it is no longer pure and undefiled and thus no longer suitable for drinking. James points us to pure and undefiled religion. This is holy and true and genuine and unadulterated religion. But notice how he defines such true religion. He defines it not in terms of creed or cultic ritual. He defines it in terms righteous and moral living.
Now to clarify, I don’t think he is intending to convey that true religion is just all about moralism. I don’t think he is saying that religion that is founded on a creed and with certain religious rituals is bad or wrong. Rather, he surely assumes that our religion will have a creed and rituals. But the bare existence of creed and ritual, is not a sufficient religion in God’s sight. Mere outward observance of certain rituals along with mental assent to certain beliefs does not demonstrate a true religion. Rather, real religion will also show forth itself in godly living. This is not far off from what James will talk about next chapter when he speaks of a live faith versus a dead faith. In other words, it’s not that we should equate religion with righteous, moral living. But if our religion doesn’t bear any fruit of righteous, moral living, then we must not have known true religion.
So then, look at how he illustrates that here. He gives three example commands of such righteous, moral living. He says we need to bridle our tongues. He says we need to visit widows and orphans in their affliction. He says we need to live a life unstained from the world. I call these example commands because surely James is not saying that these three commands are an exhaustive list by which to judge the moral fruit of our religion. Rather by way of example, he wants us to recognize that if we have the true religion, that religion should have fruits of godliness being produced. Let’s touch on each of these three example commands that he gives.
Bridling the tongue. This is verse 26. There he gives that as a negative example. If you claim true religion but don’t bridle your tongue, something is wrong there. Implied is that true religion should look to produce a bridling of the tongue. The imagery here is of bridling animals, like a horse. The bridle is the headgear that you put on say a horse, which then has a bit in the mouth. You use the bridle to direct and control the horse. You use it to make the horse submit to your will instead of letting the horse run wild however the horse might otherwise do. The analogy is clear. We need to keep our tongues in check. We need to control and guide our tongues to be used in keeping with righteousness. Otherwise, our tongues are going to be “wild” like an unrestrained horse and go about saying whatever it wants whenever it wants. In chapter 3, James will talk about how destructive that can be – such an unbridled tongue. So many sins can flow from an unbridled tongue. The list includes gossip, slander, lies and deception, name calling, filthy language, angry verbal outbursts, unwise speech, unkind speech, promoting false doctrines, and more. But you see the true religion calls us to pursue sanctified speech. True religion doesn’t disregard what we say. It looks to purify what we say. God gave us our tongue to be used for good, not evil. He gave us our tongues to serve him. May our religion call us to what God has called us to do with our tongues. Things like speaking truth; giving prayer and praise to God; speech that encourages, admonishes, and comforts; speech that gives wise counsel to others; and speech that is loving, kind, and wholesome.
Visiting widows and orphans in their affliction. This is verse 27. Unlike with the tongue where James spoke about something not to do, here he puts this in positive terms. This is something we ought to be doing. So then, these two examples show sins of commission and omission. Our religion should be concerned to put off those things we shouldn’t be doing, and also to be putting on those things we should be doing. Here, it’s an example of something we should be doing: visiting widows and orphans in their affliction.
Remember why a widow or orphan would need you to visit them. It describes their affliction. Their affliction is that they are all alone. A widow no longer has her husband as a provider or caretaker or companion. An orphan no longer has parents to care for him or provide for him or to rear him. Their affliction is related to this loss of someone in their life who would be either this husband or parental figure. So then, James says that if our religion is true, it should call us to look to love our neighbor by doings things like help those in need like widows and orphans. I would note that this is a commandment not just for pastors, deacons, and elders, but for all Christians. True religion would have us to visit those in need.
Think about what this visiting involves. In a minimum, it is to spend time with them. But it is noteworthy that the language here in the Greek is more than simply spending time with them. It’s the idea of looking after them. The Greek word comes from the same root where we get the word “bishop” which means overseer. To clarify, this is not the word for overseer in the Greek, nor is this implying that you try to exercise authority over widow or orphan. Rather, coming from the same root in the Greek, the idea is that your visiting of them is to go and look and see how they are doing and how you can help. It’s a word that is more than just stopping by to say hi, but also looking to check in on them and to show care and concern for them. Again, this is what the fruit of true religion looks like. Someone who claims himself religious but disregards God’s command to love our neighbor, especially the most needy of our neighbors, has a defective religion.
Keep oneself unstained from the world. This is how verse 27 ends. This is a much broader command than the two others which were very specific. This also speaks against sin of commission; against such sins of all sorts. It’s a call for moral purity. This reminds us that Christians are called to holiness, that they are supposed to be set apart and distinct from the rest of the world. As the apostle John says in 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world.” Yes, the world might try to live however they please and whatever seems right in their own eyes, but true religion calls us to a higher standard – to God’s standard.
It is worth noting that the language of unstained here is sacrificial language. It could also be translated as unspotted. Like how the sacrifices of the old covenant were supposed to be things like the lamb without spot or blemish. Likewise, the language used for “pure” and “undefiled” when talking about religion are also words associated with the sacrificial system. Pure, for example, could also be translated as “clean” as in speaking to ceremonial cleanliness. All this language further drives home what James is trying to do. See, just like us today, when you hear that word “religion” you tend to think of the rituals. Under the old covenant, if you heard that word “religion” you’d probably think of all the sacrificial system. Under the new covenant, by extension, you might think of things like baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, and assembling for worship, etc. But James takes all those rituals and devotions of religion and says you need to apply the concept to how you live. True religion doesn’t just demand you worship God in church. True religion also demands that your whole life is an act of worship in a sense. Like how Paul says in Romans 12:1 that in response to the gospel we are to offer our whole lives as a living sacrifice to God, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Again, we find James and Paul in agreement and which further makes the point that James is not advocating salvation by works.
Which does leads us nicely to our third and final point for today. If the true religion is not merely adherence to certain creeds and rituals, but includes the call to live an unstained life, where does that leave us? What I mean is that if we look at our lives, none of us have lived an unstained life. None of us can offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God without spot or wrinkle. We are all spotted. We are all wrinkled. All of us are people afflicted by our varying sins – sins of both commission and omission. Is there any hope for such stained and afflicted people?
Thanks be to God, because the answer is yes and amen in Jesus Christ. The true religion does call us to an unstained life. But the true religion also points us to the hope found in Jesus Christ for all us who have failed to live unstained lives. And its all this sacrificial language that tells us why Christ is our hope in this regard. Because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, without spot or blemish, and he was offered up to God on our behalf. Why? To save us from our sins.
Jesus our Lord bridled his tongue to go to the cross, not reviling when he was reviled. He came to this earth in the first place to visit us spiritual orphans and spiritual widows in our affliction. To make God our heavenly father as it says in verse 27. To take us as his bride, despite our spots. Indeed, the God-man Jesus Christ showed himself the fulfillment of Psalm 68:5 which speaks of God being the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows”. Even now, Jesus continues to “visit” each us personally in our ongoing afflictions by his Spirit, to watch over us, and care for our souls. And to also work the cleansing of sanctification in our hearts. So that Jesus might sanctify us his bride, having cleansed us by the washing of water with the Word, so that he might present us the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we might be holy and without blemish (c.f. Ephesians 5:26-27).
What’s my point? When we hear James call today for true religion, see how we must be pointed back to Jesus. Let us see how we fall short of this call for true religion and must find it in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If you want true religion, this is where it has to start, and that is how it will have to end: in Christ through and through. Because true religion, is the Christian religion.
Does the fact that we rely on Christ’s forgiveness and salvation negate the point of today’s passage? No, not at all. Rather, it establishes it. May our religion not be merely in word but also in deed. May our doctrine and profession of faith be adorned with godliness. May our religion never be mere ritual, but ritual that is fueled from our saving relationship with Jesus Christ. May our religion spur us on to live lives holy and set apart from the heart to the Lord. And may today’s passage further be useful in our ongoing call to examine our faith, to see that we are in the true Christian faith and religion. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.