My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 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. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it - he will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his 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.
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
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 men. I tell you the truth, 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.
Let’s look again at the first half of James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this…” And the logical question is this: How pure is your religion?
You will have heard many times that the Christian faith is not a religion. It is a relationship, but we need to understand that when we say this, we are merely comparing the whole basis of Christianity to other faith systems. What I mean is that all other belief systems, all other religions, are a search by mankind to find and understand some higher force or being. Christianity is the exact opposite. The Christian faith is the story of God seeking us out. 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.
For instance, you may have heard Muslims saying that we worship the same God, but just in different ways. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Islam rejects the deity of Jesus Christ, and any religion which denies that Jesus Christ is God has nothing in common with the Christian faith. Biblical Christianity is unique, and stands alone.
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?
In order to better understand this question, 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.”
You’ll remember from last week that I said there needs to be some evidence of the transformation which we profess in our lives. In Luke 6 Jesus says that we are to bear fruit, and this is at the heart of the message from 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 is a very practical letter, and it urges 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.
Jesus gives us a stern warning about superficial faith in Matthew 7: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:21-27)
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 turn our focus to our reading from James as we 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 merely responses to God’s initiative.
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. “If we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3:2-10 NLT)
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: “The trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” And then he answers this question in the next verse: “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
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 men. I tell you the truth, 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.
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.
The Church completes Christ. This is quite a responsibility, but it’s also 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.
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.