“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)
James now turns to describe what true religion looks like. He says in 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
First note in context here true religion is not content with removing evil only but must be concerned about what is good. There should not only be a passion to remove sin but a delight to add holiness to our lives. True religion is negative and positive: “Do not walk in the counsel of the wicked …but delight in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:1–2). This explanation of what true religion looks like again is not an exhaustive explanation of all the ins and outs of the Christian religion. No, James is saying if religion is to be true, it must have these realities in it. True religion is not garnished with ceremony or ritual, but with charity and purity before the presence of God.
By calling us in 1:27 to be those who visit orphans and widows in their affliction James deals with the group Jesus calls, “the least of these.” The verse is Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” So to James, true religion will cause you to visit the needy, the oppressed, the overlooked, the orphan, the widow, and the derelict. Why? Because this is what Jesus did. There is a profoundly theological reason for this. Jesus as the King of grace means to teach us that His grace levels the playing field in the heart. Some of you may have experienced this – before God saved you you thought of yourself as better than most of the people around you. You’d turn away from those in need and think of them as a blemish on society. After God wrecked your heart with His sovereign grace, you begin to see everyone as peers rather than as above or below you. You begin to see people as what they are, sinners in need of a Savior. The sovereign grace of God shown at the cross is the great equalizer, bringing down the prideful and raising up the “least of these.”
Since this is what the cross does, we can learn that those who continue to view themselves as superior to those in need probably haven’t been wrecked by the gospel yet. But those who have been wrecked by the gospel know what Jesus means when He said in Luke 7:47, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much. He who has been forgiven little, loves little.” Have you seen this happen in your heart? 1 John 3:16-18 describes this: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. If anyone has the worlds goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Not in word or talk, but in deed and in truth. In Psalm 68:5 we see God is the “Father to the fatherless and the protector of the widows.” Christians whose religion is pure and undefiled will see this and imitate God helping the helpless, remembering the forgotten, and representing those overlooked by society. True religion doesn’t look for the moments of pomp and circumstance, it looks for the raw and real, it lives in the messiness of life, and is willing to jump into the messiness of others for Christ’s sake. One Puritan commentator says, “True religion is concerned with all the duties we owe to our neighbor.”
The last mark of true religion in our text is in 1:27, “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” It is the glory of true religion to be pure, not mixed or interwoven with the world. It is the glory of true religion to join together charity and purity. Two quick side comments:
a) This verse is contains a reason for why I’m not catholic. The Catholic catechism in 1992 teaches that charity, as a work, can take the place of a holy life. Both Pope John Paul 2 and Pope Benedict have said that this Catechism is “a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith.” Pope Francis has been silent on this catechism thus far and until he says something one way or another this remains their official teaching. If you’re charitable enough in this life, it doesn’t matter if you’re holy or not, charity in abundance makes up for it. Well, though it be their teaching, it’s not ours. Clearly James is bringing both charity and purity to the table. It is not charity, with an additional side item of holiness. True religion consists of both charity and purity. They’re linked together.
b) 1:27 contains a reason why I’m not a seeker sensitive pastor. Do you know what that means? If I were a seeker sensitive pastor I would cater everything we do in the worship service to those who aren’t Christians. Softening the Word so it doesn’t land with a negative blow, catering to the desires of visitors to make the service more comfortable. No, the worship of the Church is not to be mixed or interwoven with worldly principles. It is the glory of Christian worship to be just that – distinctly Christian, Christ-centered, Christ-exalting, not Christ-lite, not half truths mixed with worldly church growth strategies, or half-truths mixed with worldly music to draw a crowd. James 1:27 is one of the reasons I believe this Sunday morning moment is for the Church, that it would be built up and equipped for the works of ministry. Sure when the gospel goes out in power people will be transformed, believer, or unbeliever. So people should be becoming Christians in this moment, and people should be growing in their faith in this moment. But the truth stands in James 1:27, the Church is to be pure, unstained from the world, so it should be Word principles not worldly principles that govern the Church.
In 1:27 James tells us to be unstained from the world but don’t we all live in the world? James is not advocating escapism or leaving society at large to set up our own godly little communities. No, we’re to be in the world but not of it. Aliens, strangers, sojourners passing through, unstained by the world. 1 John 2:16 give meaning to the world here, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” Meaning, true religion leads people to avoid embracing worldly values, worldly theology, worldly morality, worldly lusts, or worldly criteria for this or that. Jesus prayed that His sheep would not be taken out of the world but protected from the evil one (John 17:15). Paul said when he came to faith that the world had been crucified to Him and He to the world (Galatians 6:14), meaning that the world’s desires were dead to him and he was dead to it.
I often hear people often say church is boring, preaching is boring, worship music is boring. Well perhaps they may be right. Perhaps some of you have said such things. But perhaps it really doesn’t have to do with anything that happens here at all. Perhaps you find that moment so boring because you’ve done nothing all week but sit and feed off the table of the world. Is that you? I hope not.