Ask the question of people in the U.S. and you’ll hear responses such as: a religious person is someone who believes in God or a religious person goes to church. Perhaps from some you would hear that a religious person is someone who reads the Bible or gives money to the church and other worthy causes.
James has shown us in the first 25 verses of the book of James that Christians can be recognized for certain behaviors. He sums it up by telling his readers they should be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” So we will use that as one of our working definitions as we take a look at the last part of chapter 1, where he gives us some illustrations of how to be doers of the word and some examples of true and false religion. James writes in verses 26 and 27: “If anyone among you things he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Now that’s a tall order! But let’s take a look at what he is telling us and break it down into some basic, commonsense Christian ideals.
Our identity with Christ comes from within (26)
“Religious” and “religion” in verse 26 refer specifically to external worship and ceremony. Remember that the book of James is the New Testament’s earliest book (written about 45 A.D.). James was a key leader in the Jerusalem church, a leader whom Paul later called a pillar of the church (Galatians 2:9). The church at Jerusalem was our first large local church and was made up almost entirely of Jewish converts. Many Jewish Christians had fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen and increasing persecution from Herod, and James still felt a connection to them. He wrote his letter with the intent that it be copied and read in church meetings among the dispersed Christians.
To these early Jewish Christians, public ceremony and religious rites were very important. This was their religious heritage, which involved centuries of their forefathers worshiping at the Temple ceremonies in Jerusalem before the advent of the Messiah, families with the rich religious and cultural heritage of celebrating holy days, such as the Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, etc. This was their mindset, and they tended to be formal and ceremonial as the new faith grew.
Consequently, Christian ceremonies to them were highly important and occasions to ceremonially proclaim their faith. The Lord’s Supper, for example, was part of every worship service, where they not only remembered their Savior until He would come again, but also as a rite to affirm their faith to each other.
James wanted to make the point strongly that faith comes from within, and not from ceremonial rites. That, in fact, could easily be called the theme of the letter. Our faith does not consist of mere outward conformance and ceremony. No doubt James remembered this was one of Jesus’ most forceful messages to a people who had in recent centuries lost that truth under the leadership of the scribes and Pharisees, who stressed ceremonial obedience to the law and the Temple observances, while even they, themselves, lived sinful lives. Hardly a stronger condemnation of this can be found than Jesus’ charge against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”
So it would be accurate to observe that the entire message from James is designed to help these Christians from Jewish background to realize that our faith comes from within and does not consist of outward ceremony, as their culture had practiced. It was a message the earliest Christians needed to understand and one which we, in our secular and universalist culture, should know also.
Nowhere does God, in this letter written by James, ban public ceremonial worship, but He wants Christians to understand that it is not the worship practices that define us to the people around us as children of God. Rather, what defines us as Christians to the people around us is the evidence of a changed life.
The example he gives is the tongue. It’s a great example, because it’s not our ceremonial worship, but what we say and how we say it, that reveals what is really going on inside us. What we say reveals love, hatred, racism, anger, doubt, forgiveness, faith, etc. Perhaps another way to look at it is that heartfelt faith in our Lord and Savior controls every part of our life; not just how we conduct ourselves, but even down to what we think and say.
James is talking here about the ongoing or consistent quality of a Christian’s life, not an occasional slip. What comes out of our mouths tells us and everyone around us what is inside our hearts. Almost 20 years later, Paul gave a more specific example in his letter to the Ephesians. In Ephesians 4, he cites a list of dos and don’ts in Christian relationships, not as means to qualify for God’s favor, but simply as signs to each other and to unbelievers of how one who has been saved and sanctified will naturally behave.
Paul includes in his list basic qualities and behaviors that arise from the inner transformation God does in the Christian: speak the truth, don’t steal, work to provide for your needs, share with others, don’t be angry or bitter, forgive one another. While it may sound like that well-known “All I Ever Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” list (share everything, play fair, don't hit people . . .), the lesson still is one that is important for Christians who contend daily as they struggle with the temptations and sin of their cultures.
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul, like James in James 1:26, mentions Christians’ manner of speaking: “Let no unwholesome (literally, foul, rotten, or putrid) word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Paul doesn’t give details or examples about what is and is not an unwholesome word, but he does tell us with the contrast he draws. It is the opposite of “a word that is good for edification.” The meaning of the term he uses, edification, is “the act of one who promotes another's growth in Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness” (from Strong’s Concordance).
I think that is consistent with what God is telling us through James: what is inside us as Christians is positive, uplifting, builds up each other, and demonstrates our faith to the world, because it will be evident in whatever the authentic Christian says and does.
Our identity with Christ shows in our care for others (27)
James tells his readers that true and undefiled religion is to help those in need. In the first century, the poorest and neediest were orphans and widows. Culturally, the role of leader and provider fell to the husband or father, making the example of widows and orphans the strongest example James could give his readers of people who were poor and needy. His point is that the real Christian will naturally care about, and care for, the needy.
The English translation of the term “visit” in verse 27 is inadequate. The Greek term used here means to go to someone in order to help or take care of their needs. Jesus used the same language in Matthew 26 of those who will inherit the kingdom: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; . . .” (Matthew 26:35-36).
We should see James’ reference to orphans and widows as meaning people who need us to care about them and the Christian’s responsibility to care for their needs. He does not see this as a mere outward obligation, the context of James’ entire message is that the Christian, born of the Spirit, has the inner characteristic of naturally wanting to do this and the will to follow through. John makes this point very clearly in 1 John 3:17-18: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” Note what John is saying: one who is well off and does not care about the needs of the poor is not truly a believer. Why? Not because he or she did not help the poor, but because he or she isn’t naturally driven to help those in need. Neither James nor John is referring to behavior per se, but to the inner drive that results in the behavior.
Our identity with Christ shows in our relationship with the world (27)
God tells us in James’ writing in verse 27 that “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The meaning of the term is pretty clear. The term James used,“unstained,” means irreproachable or free from vice.
God is telling us in verse 27 that we are different; anyone should be able to pick us out of the crowd, not because of the way we look or the cross pendants we may be wearing, but by the way we act, our concern for others, and all the other characteristics one will naturally exhibit when he or she is dedicated to serving the Creator and not the self-centeredness of the world.
James is not the only biblical author to address this subject. The Bible contains lots of descriptions of what a Christian is like. Many of the passages describe how Christians live, what we say, how we worship and praise God. But I think James hits the nail squarely on the head: “Pure and undefiled religion (that is, authentic or real belief and trust in the Savior) in the sight of our God and Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Being stained by the world is not a behavior that separates someone from God; it is a behavior that demonstrates that someone is not a believer.
Paul talks about this by calling us “ambassadors for Christ.” Here is what he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, 20: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Then in v. 20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ . . .” Christians literally are citizens of the kingdom of our Lord who are residing in a foreign land and serving Him, just as any ambassador is on assignment in a foreign culture. His or her purpose is not to assimilate into that culture, but to represent his or her own country’s welfare and interests to that foreign culture.
Paul tended to be pretty wordy, kind of drawing a picture for us as foreign ambassadors. But James gets to the point. Instead of a picture of an ambassador, he simply says we are to be unstained by the world: free from its sin and evil practices, free from its lusts and self-centeredness, and focused on our Lord and Savior.
Isaiah gives a good summary of the differences in his warnings in Isaiah 5. In 5:20-21, he warns those who buy into the evils of the world: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!” James just puts it more simply: the characteristic of God’s people is that they are unstained by the world.
Let me close with three other short passages from scripture addressing the subject:
James 4:4: “. . . do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”
Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
So there we have it. I think if James were here today, he would probably close by saying something like this: Being a Christian isn’t just attending church, studying the Bible, reading Christian books, and voting for the anti-abortion politicians. Being a Christian means we are different from the inside out. We care about each other. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and act like it. People see us as we really are. And they can easily pick us out of the crowd.