True Religion
James 1:26-27


As we go back to our study of James this morning it is important for us to always remember, as we study James’ letter, that although James was Jesus younger, half-brother, he never believed in Jesus before Jesus was resurrected from the grave. James thought his brother was crazy, that He had lost His mind. That is fascinating to me because as I spend time each week studying what James has written I hear echoes of Jesus at every turn. It has led me to the conclusion that though James didn’t believe Jesus’ claims, he was most definitely listening to what Jesus said. Our lesson today is a great example.

There was a group of people in Jesus’ day who were viewed by everyone in society as super religious. The Pharisees looked the part, they played the part in public, but Jesus saw right through their thin veneer of religion and let everyone know that it was a ruse. The Pharisees were all smoke and no fire. Jesus said, “Everything they do is done for men to see:” (Matthew. 23:5 NIVO) A little later in Matthew’s Gospel we read where Jesus was at the temple teaching. There must have been some Pharisees in the crowd and they must have been shocked when Jesus said,

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25-28 NIVO)

Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there on that day, at that moment? The most religious men in Jerusalem had just had the veil pulled back to reveal to everyone listening what was beneath their pious appearances. They were whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but spiritually dead underneath their religious words and deeds.

Consistently, throughout Jesus’ ministry, He taught His disciples and everyone who would listen what true faith looks like. He told parables to illustrate the love God has for us and the love we are to have for God and one another. The same Pharisees who carried out their religious charades before the people asked a question of Jesus one day. Turn with me to Matthew 22:34-40.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40 NIVO)

The Pharisees didn’t ask Jesus about the second greatest commandment, but for Jesus, it was so closely tied to the first commandment that it must be shared. A genuine love for God will spill over into a genuine love for our neighbor.

In our Scripture for this morning, found in James 1:26-27, we will hear echoes of Jesus’ teaching. James wants his readers to know what true religion, a genuine love for God looks like in everyday life. Let’s read our Scripture together and then we’ll see what we can learn.

26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his 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. (James 1:26-27 NIVO)

Here in verses 26-27 we find three signs of life, signs of the new life that God has given to those whom He has given new birth through the “Word of truth.” Do you remember that phrase from James 1:18? Let’s go back and read it again to refresh our memories. James wrote,

18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:18 NIVO)

God has not given us new birth through the word of truth simply so we can go to heaven. He has given us new birth, a new life in Christ, so that we might reflect His life, His heart, to the world around us. Dr. Motyer writes in his commentary on James,

The three Christian characteristics of verses 26-27 are thus not an arbitrary choice. They say to us, ‘Like Father, like child.’ It is right that the life which he has given to us should bear the same fruits in us as in him. James is so convinced of this that it is to these three topics he devotes the whole central substance of his letter (2:1-5:6). (Motyer, J.A. The Message of James. pg. 73-74).

Dr. Motyer goes on in his commentary to lay out how each of these three characteristics; the way we use our tongue, the way we treat those who are on the margins of society, and our desire to live a holy, set apart life for the glory of God make up the rest of James’ letter. He outlines it for us:

  • A Caring Ministry (2:1-26)
  • A Controlled Tongue (3:1-12)
  • A Holy Life (3:13-5:6)

James wrote to his first readers and urged them to live a life that reflects the life and heart of God. James writes to us this morning and urges us to do the same. We are called by God to reflect His life and heart to the world around us.

It is important for us to remember the Pharisees as we study these passages this morning. Remember how they did all the right things, but for the wrong reasons? They did what they did while people were watching so they could gain the applause and approval of people, but Jesus knew their hearts. I know me all too well. I’ve noticed three different tendencies within me that grieve the heart of God. First, I can know what God desires of me and yet there are times that I do what I want to do, totally disregarding His will and His Word. That grieves the heart of God. Second, it is so easy for me to fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. I can do the right thing while looking around to see who is watching instead of looking up with a desire to honor and glorify the One who has given me new life. Do you know what I mean? I can love those who are in need because of my own need to be loved, appreciated, and applauded. Lastly, I can go through the motions of doing the right thing and miss the fact that I am experiencing a holy moment, an opportunity to reflect my Father’s heart to the one He has sent my way. I’m sharing this with you because it is important for you and me not to turn these three characteristics into a checklist thinking that simply by watching our mouth, caring for the hurting, and staying away from “worldly” activities that we are living lives that are pleasing to God.

I think Dr. Motyer is so right in pointing out for us how these three characteristics are reflective of the Father’s heart and life. What God does flows from Who He is. God is love. He loves us, genuinely loves us, sacrificially loves us, and that love is expressed in the way He relates to us. If we love God, truly love God, genuinely love God, then our love will translate into the way we live life in this world and how we relate to those around us. Let’s take a look at each of these three characteristics. Turn to James 1:26 with me and let’s read together.

26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26 NIVO)

In the first chapter of James’ letter he has warned the readers not to be deceived and not to deceive themselves. We are easily misled or deceived aren’t we? There are many people in our community who will try and deceive us, but they are not our primary problem. We should be most concerned about the way we deceive ourselves. James points out to us that we can even deceive ourselves about the most important thing in life–our relationship with God. What we say about God and about our relationship with God isn’t necessarily true is it? Jesus said,

21 “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. 22 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?’ (Matthew 7:21-22 NIVO)

They called Him “Lord,” they prophesied, drove out demons, and performed many miracles in His name and yet Jesus said He never knew them. You can say all of the right words, do the right things, and your heart be far, far from knowing and loving Jesus. I do need to emphasize something for you and me. We are not saved, made right with God, by our works. We are reconciled to God, forgiven of our sins by faith alone in what God has done for us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus’ work and not our good deeds that make us right with God. Martin Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone” Our new life in Christ will bring about changes in our life that reflect the heart and life of God.

One of the changes that our new life in Christ will produce is a change in the way we use our words. James says those who are truly in Christ, who have surrendered their lives to Christ, will “keep a tight rein on their tongue.” The Greek word translated, “tight rein,” literally means, “to lead by a bridle, to restrain.” Oh how we need a bridle and bit in our mouths. Our tongues can slice and dice others like a razor blade. At the same time, our words can soothe, comfort, and bring healing to broken lives. We will get into much more detail about what James has to say about our tongues in James 3, but let me give you a little preview by turning to James 3:9-10.

9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (James 3:9-10 NIVO)

Oh the damage we can inflict with the words we use. In Galatians we can read about the fruit of the Spirit. The last quality listed is “self-control.” “Self-control” actually means being controlled by the Spirit of God. Our language, the way we use our tongue, must be controlled by the Holy Spirit or what we say, how we use our tongue, will most assuredly more accurately reflect the culture around us than our Father.

The book of Proverbs is filled with wise counsel about the power of our words. In Proverbs we learn that our words have the power to wound or heal. Turn to Proverbs 12:18 and let’s read together.

18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18 NIVO)

There it is in a single sentence. The same tongue can pierce like a sword and bring healing to those in your life. In Proverbs we also learn about a “lying tongue” (Proverbs 12:19), “gossip” (Proverbs 20:19), a “flattering mouth” (Proverbs 26:28), “harsh words” (Proverbs 29:20), speaking “hasty words” or words that are not thought through before they are spoken (Proverbs 29:20), and “when words are many,” or those who talk too much (Proverbs 10:19). At the same time we learn that “he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19), “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “the tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).

If we want an indicator of the condition of our heart then we should record our speech for a day and then go back and review the tape. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34 NIVO) The good news is this, through the power of the Holy Spirit we have the power to swallow those words that would not accurately reflect the heart of our Savior. Through submitting our speech to the Lord our words can be used to build up, encourage, and bless those the Lord leads into our lives. We need God’s help don’t we? We are not the first to need His help and that is why the Psalmist prayed,

3 Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3 NIVO)

Let’s move on and take a look at the second characteristic that James highlights for his readers. In James 1:27 we read,

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. (James 1:27 NIVO)

Real faith, a genuine love for God, James says, is expressed in our love for the least of these, those who are vulnerable in society, and in seeking to live a set apart, holy life before God. It is interesting to me that today in America we oftentimes find the Body of Christ divided into two camps. There are those who identify most closely with Jesus’ call to visit the sick, care for the poor, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. These and many other ministries can all be placed under the heading of “social justice ministry,” that’s the terminology most used today. Then there are those who identify most closely with Jesus call to be righteous, to be holy, to live a life different from the way the world lives. Jesus told the people that unless their righteousness exceeded the righteousness of the Pharisees they would never see the Kingdom of God. He then went on to explain what He meant. He said,

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28 NIVO)

It is a matter of the heart my friends. We can avoid committing adultery and be rotten to the core of our souls. We can avoid committing sins of various kinds and be rotten to the core of our souls. The problem that we run into with those who identify most closely with Jesus’ call to righteousness is that they often do so while neglecting the opportunity to live the righteous life by meeting the needs that are right before them each and every day. Pastor Roger Ellsworth once wrote,

One of the saddest dimensions of our day is that so many Christians are so absorbed with their seminars, charts, notebooks, study groups and discipling techniques that they don’t have the time to bake a pie, send a card or mow the grass for the sick, the elderly and the lonely. It’s easy to be a very good Pharisee while the world cries for a good Samaritan. (Ellsworth, R., Opening up James (p. 71). 2009).

Both those who identify with Jesus’ idea of justice and mercy and those who identify most closely with Jesus’ call to holiness are right. It’s not an either/or proposition, it is both/and. We are to genuinely love and care for, even sacrificially care for those who are vulnerable because this is how God loves and cares for them and we are to live lives that are different from the lifestyles of the people who claim no allegiance to Jesus.

Throughout Scripture God’s love for the vulnerable rings out with absolute clarity. Turn with me to Exodus 22:21-23. God spoke to the Hebrews who had been slaves in Egypt and He told them how they were to treat the vulnerable among them. Listen to this.

21 “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. 22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. (Exodus 22:21-23 NIVO)

Did you hear that? God called His people to remember. He said, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” You were between a rock and a hard place and I rescued you, I loved you, so remember that and love them. In Psalm 68:5-6 we read about who God is and what He does. Listen to this.

5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Psalm 68:5-6 NIVO)

Oh what an incredible God we serve! He doesn’t love the alien, the fatherless, or the widow more, but God knows that these, those who are vulnerable, are the most likely to get left behind, left out, and taken advantage of by ungodly people in our society. We must defend and care for those whom others would use.

Let’s turn to the final indicator James gives us in weighing the authenticity of our relationship with God. James says that those who have genuine faith are those who keep themselves from being polluted by the world. First, let me make clear what James is not saying. He is not saying that we are to withdraw from society and hole up in some desert monastery somewhere. He’s not saying that you should cut off all of your friends who are not followers of Jesus. Dr. Dan Doriani has written a wonderful commentary on James and in his commentary he writes,

James expects his people to remain pure while staying in this world. We do not stay pure by abandoning society. We do not gain purity by giving away our radio and television, though we should avoid entertainments that promote and glorify sin. The heirs of true religion neither flee the world nor let it corrupt them. Physically, we dwell in the world, but morally, we keep our distance. (Doriani, Dan. James. pg. 60)

One of the problems we have in our day is that you can’t distinguish between the people of the world and the people of God. Our language, our lifestyles, the way we use our money and time, all of these aspects of life closely mirror those in our society who claim no allegiance to Jesus. Pastor Spurgeon once wrote, I believe that one reason why the church has so little influence over the world–is because the world has so much influence over the church!” Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about 62 A.D., more than 1950 years ago, and this is what he wrote,

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24 NIVO)

As you look back over your life can you remember what you loved and what you did before you came to know Jesus? For those of you who have come to know Jesus as Lord and Master have your loves and the things you do changed? I’m not pretending that we don’t still wrestle with sin, but is your heart set on the things of God, are you yearning to know Him more and more, and to share His love with others? Do you desire to walk in a way that reflects His purity, righteousness, and holiness? I pray that you answered “Yes” to those questions, but if not then I want to urge you, plead with you this morning to turn from your ways and cry out to God for forgiveness and grace. If you have never surrendered your life to Jesus and asked Him to come into your heart and do His work of reconciliation and transformation then what would keep you from doing that this morning? Won’t you invite Him in?

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

November 26, 2017