“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his own 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.” (James 1:26-27)
Have you ever noticed the verses directly before James 1:26-27 call our attention to the importance of being hearers of the Word and doers of the Word? Is it than any surprise that directly after James tells us this he gives us direction to put that truth into action in 1:26-27? How are we to be doers of the Word?
Have true religion, not false religion.
In the original Greek text of the New Testament word order is very important, and unlike English, the most important subject in the sentence is brought right up to the front. In the Greek text of James 1:26-27 we find the word “threskos” or “religion” (sometimes translated as “ritual” or “ceremony”) not only at the front of 1:26 but at the back of it as well creating a sort of bookend idea to the whole verse. The word is also brought directly to the front in 1:27 too – why does this matter? This matters because in this Greek word order we see what is most important to James in these two verses.
To James this whole passage is about one thing – true or false religion.
A question then comes into view, I think, for most of us. Would we, or perhaps should we, consider ourselves as being “religious?” Does this rise out of the text for you? It does for me. I think most of view the word “religion” as a dirty word because in whatever context the word comes we seem to understand it as a word of confinement, or a cage, or a box, and you know how much modern man enjoys to feel confined right? One time in particular I recall doing this myself. I was 19 years old, God hadn’t saved me yet, freshman in college, hanging off a climbing rope 1100 ft. in the air on a cliff, thinking to myself – “I love this. Good view, good climb, sunny day, does it get any better?” Then the phrase that came into my mind next is telling about where my heart was at the time. Beholding the glorious view I thought to myself, “Who needs religion? This is my church.” Little did I know how religious I was being at the time, bowing and worshipping at the altar of the creation rather than the Creator. God saved me a year later, and to the eyes of many, I became very “religious.”
Now the question of whether or not Christians are to be called “religious” is neither here nor there. It doesn’t really matter what labels we use to identify ourselves, what really matters is what we mean by those labels and how we define them. This is what James is probing into. We can easily hide under labels and think ourselves to be this or that regardless of how we live. There are ways to be very religious and yet remain very far from God. There are ways to be considered by others as religious and not even know God. There are also ways to be religious and really know God while others may think you’re as pagan as they come. What really matters is this – is our religion true? Or is our religion false? This is the overarching reality James brings us to face in this passage. Are we true? Or are we false?
Now that we’ve seen the grand overarching reality James has given us in this text, he gives us examples of what true and false religion look like. We’ll look at these in the days to come.
Keep in mind here – James is not describing all there is to the true Christian religion. He’s saying that religion with or without these things makes it pure or worthless.