19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it - they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
James 1:27 kind of jumps off the page when you read it. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this…”
I say it jumps off the page, because we have heard countless times that the Christian faith is not a religion, but a relationship, so what does this verse mean?
There’s a story of an old man who was walking along a country road with his dog and his mule. A car came around the corner too fast and knocked the old man, his dog, and his mule into the ditch.
Sometime later, there was a court case where the old man claimed damages from the driver of the car. The driver’s lawyer was cross-examining him and said, “Answer yes or no to this question: did you tell my client you were okay?”
The old man answered, “My dog and my mule and me were walking...”
“Answer the question, yes or no. Did you tell my client that you were okay?”
“Me and my dog and my mule...”
The lawyer repeated, “Answer the question yes or no! Did you tell my client you were okay?”
The man replied, “Me and my...”
The lawyer turned to the magistrate and said, “Your honour, would you kindly instruct this man to answer the question yes or no?”
The magistrate said, “Let the man say what he is trying to say.”
The old man said, “Me and my dog and my mule were walking along the road when this car came around the corner too fast and knocked us all into the ditch. And this man here jumped out. He had a gun, and he went to my dog. The dog was injured so he shot it. Then he went to the mule and saw that it had a broken leg so he shot the mule. Then he came and stood over me and asked, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘I’ve never felt better in my life!’”
Context is everything.
Context makes all the difference, and we need to look at the bigger picture of what James is teaching, but when we say Christianity is a relationship and not a religion, we need to understand that when we say this, we are merely comparing the whole basis, and not the specifics of Christianity to other faith systems.
Other belief systems, all other religions, are a search by mankind to find and understand some higher force or being, and in order to reach this force or being, these religions have a series of rituals and regulations which govern that search. So in this sense, Christianity is the exact opposite, and is not a religion. The Christian faith is the story of God seeking us out. When Adam and Eve sinned, the first thing God said was, “Where are you?” He still asks that same question today. Remember, Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
This is the fundamental difference between what we believe, and what every other faith believes, even (and especially) those which tell us we are very similar.
Adherents to other belief systems will often say that we worship the same God, but just in different ways. That couldn’t be further from the truth. From next Sunday we will begin a detailed study of the Apostles’ Creed, during which we will see that true, Biblical Christianity is unique, and stands quite alone and separate from all other religions.
So in the sense that Christianity is not about us seeking out God and trying to make things right with Him, (as all other religions are defined) then Christianity is not a religion. So what does James 1:27 mean then? Again, we need to look at the wider context of this verse.
In order to better understand this it, we need to read the whole verse: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The epistle of James is a practical book that teaches about living the faith. If you wanted to summarise James in just one sentence, it would be something along these lines: If we truly practice our faith, it will be seen in how we face trials, how we treat people, in what we say, in how we deal with sin in our lives, and in our prayer life.
In essence, he says, “This is what you believe, and these are the things you are to do as evidence of what you believe.” The Christian faith is not all theory. It is a practical faith.
Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary, says of James 1:27. “The Word gives us spiritual birth. It is like seed planted in the heart that produces spiritual fruit. It is a mirror that helps us examine ourselves and cleanse our lives. We must do the Word of God, not just read it or study it; the blessing is in the doing.”
There needs to be evidence of the transformation which we profess in our lives. In Luke 6:43-45 Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
We are to bear fruit, and this is at the heart of the message in James’ letter. Verse 22 says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
James outlines various fruits, or evidence if you like, of a genuine relationship with God. James urges and encourages Christians to prove their faith by a life of doing good works. But he also makes it very clear that we do these things not in order to be saved, but rather because we are saved.
He also says (very boldly) in the next chapter, that “faith without deeds is dead.”
Faith, by its very nature, cannot exist and be fruitless, and in the letter of James are some practical tests which will help us to measure the genuineness and depth of our faith in God – the purity of our religion.
He challenges us to live a full Christian life, while at the same time he warns us to not be self-deceived; fooling ourselves into thinking that our relationship with God is as healthy as we might think it is.
It is when we apply our faith, when our ‘religion is pure’ that we will find ourselves surrendering to the will of God and to the good of others.
So let’s ask the question: How pure is our religion?
The first point is that pure religion has its origin in the heart of God. God is the source of every good and perfect gift. James 1:17 says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Our faith, our religious service, and our worship are responses to God’s goodness, blessings and mercy shown to us. It’s all about Him.
Secondly, pure religion requires that we are to be teachable in both mind and heart. James says that we should be “quick to listen.” If our faith in Jesus is genuine, we will soon learn that this is not about us, but that it’s about Him, so we will naturally want to hear and learn from the truth of God concerning all aspects of life. We will find ourselves asking how we can apply our faith – our ‘religion’ in the so-called secular parts of our lives as well as the sacred. And if we remain teachable, we’ll also soon learn that all of life is sacred, that Jesus is meant to be at the centre of every aspect of our lives. Verse 22 again: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
The third point in understanding the extent of the purity of our religion is undoubtedly the most difficult. James encourages us to be “slow to speak.” We simply have to learn to control the use of our tongues. It’s been said that God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a very good reason: we should listen twice as much as we speak. If we hear something that is not good, especially about someone else, instead of letting it come through the mouth, we should let it go out through the other ear.
In chapter 3 James lists some devastating effects of the wrong use of the tongue. “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:2-10)
Benjamin Franklin was once quoted as saying “I will speak ill of no man, and speak all the good I know of everybody.” Those are wise words indeed.
We have all been on the receiving end of cutting and hurtful words, and we all know how much damage they can do. Why is it then, that we find it so hard to bite our own tongues?
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”
Of course, we know that’s not true. Words do some serious damage sometimes. You might not remember what you said to someone yesterday, but the person you said it to might remember it for a lifetime. Some people seem to be better at hurting others with what they say than others, but none of us are exempt from this human flaw. It is something we’re all afflicted with, and it is something we need to take to God.
Only He can purify our hearts and mouths. We would do far less damage with our tongues if we could learn to think with our mouths closed instead of open. Someone once said that if your mind goes blank, don’t forget to turn off the sound…
The fourth point is that pure religion means we are
involved in a constant battle to eliminate evil from our hearts and lives. Throughout the Bible we are reminded of this struggle, and Paul describes it so well at the end of Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:15-24)
And then he answers this question in the next verse: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We are called to holiness. We are called to separate ourselves from worldly things, and to stop compromising and justifying our sin, but for all of us this is easier said than done. But – thank God. The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The final evidence of a pure religion we will look at this morning is that our faith needs to be evident in compassionate acts of kindness. Pure religion is more than ritual and ceremony – that’s just religion. Pure religion is more than coming to Church regularly. Pure religion hears and sees the pain around us, and then does something about it, remembering that we do these things out of gratitude for what God has done for us. When we get involved in Christian service in whatever form, we are doing it for Jesus, and not in order to impress others. This is what Jesus meant in Matthew 6 when He said “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
So is Christianity a religion or is it a relationship? It all depends on how you understand our Biblical mandate to get involved in the life, the work and the witness of the Church.
As followers of Christ, it is possible for us to have pure religion. And we do that by constantly testing our hearts against the truth and teachings of Jesus.
Pure religion produces joy in our own hearts, but not only that, pure religion is contagious. How many ministries in the Church have started out with small steps, but have grown because of the enthusiasm of those involved in it?
The best witness to Christ is our daily conduct.
This is a practical application for how we should live our lives, remembering that God is the source of all that is good, we should remain teachable by spending time in His Word, we should learn to harness the power of our words, we should turn to Christ to help us in our struggle against our own sin, and finally, get involved in the work and mission of the Church by doing what the Word says.
Again, context is important. Look at James 1:26 as well as verse 27. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
There is a warning here as well as encouragement. James is telling us that no amount of outward religiosity can compensate for an unbridled tongue, an uncompassionate heart, and an unholy character.
Pure religion is not a fanciful notion and something beyond our reach. It starts by submitting to God, and allowing Him to transform us into the Christian disciples He created us to be.
God’s truth not only transforms our hearts. It is to transform our lives in response to who He is and what He has done for us.
Homegroup Study Notes
The Christian faith is often referred to as a relationship, and not a religion. What does this mean?
Read James 1:19-27 and chapter 2:14-17
One of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is that the work of salvation is complete, and we cannot contribute anything towards it. If this is the case, why do you think the Bible spends so much time encouraging us to do good deeds?
What is the real purpose of putting our faith into action?
Read James 3:2-10
We have all been hurt by the words of others, so why do you think we find it so hard to control our own tongues?
Bearing in mind that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17), discuss with your group how we should be living our lives in such a way that our religion remains pure and faultless.
How can you make a difference?