James is pre-eminently the apostle who deals with good works from a practical, everyday point of view. He always speaks of good works as a vital and necessary function in our lives—so vital and necessary, that it is basic to our salvation. This is not to say, you understand, that James makes works a condition unto salvation. This is far from the truth. There is no discrepancy between Paul and James, although some think so. The misunderstanding is that it is not understood that both James and Paul approach the idea of works from a different viewpoint. Paul’s emphasis is this, that our righteousness is never based upon our works but only upon the merit of the Savior. James, in perfect agreement, points out that having the righteousness of Christ through faith must needs become manifest in our walk, and this in the way of good works.
To speak bluntly, the message of James is that theory and practice cannot be divorced. If we profess to be Christians and to know the truth of salvation, yet we do not manifest this in works of thanksgiving, then we are liars. Faith, of its inherent character, must produce good works.
Within the scope of this main emphasis of James, we want to explore religion. You say this is very broad, and I agree. Yet this need not dissuade us in any way, since James by the inspiration of the Spirit has the knack of infiltrating this principle so as to expose its inner and deepest principle. I have in mind the passage which is always much on my mind and very familiar, I am sure, to all of you. James 1:27: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Extreme is the simplicity of these words; but at the same time their depth and calling are overwhelming.
What is religion? There are many books on my shelf that bear that title, and yet more that attempt to illucidate the concept. But James sounds an awesome warning to us. Religion not in the eyes of men nor according to their vacillating standard but “before God and the father.” I emphasize this so we may take the proper approach to our subject. Ofttimes we have pious thoughts regarding religion, and even pride ourselves in various religious activities. We must put all this from us, because we stand before the face of God and are subject to His criterion as we discover religion.
Pure and undefiled religion, according to the standard of the Almighty, says James, is “to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” True religion, therefore, is antithetical in nature. We must understand “world” here as referring to the domain of the prince of the power of the air. God’s creation as it is enslaved to the Devil, that Old Serpent who was a liar from the beginning. This is the world that is ruled by the principle of sin. We ought to understand that there is indeed such a world where the Devil wields his power and influence, persuading men to seek themselves and their own glory and to manifest all hatred against God. Satan has access to the hearts of reprobate and ungodly men so as to make them seek and live the lie. It is in such spiritual corruption that man abuses the kingship that God gave him over this creation by no longer seeking the glory of God in it, but rather using God’s creation to further his own selfish purposes. We see this in abundant clarity today; men use their bodies, inventions and technology, and the whole of God’s wonderful creation to further the pride of life and steep themselves in sin. Little do they realize that God’s measure of forbearance is quickly becoming full.
It is our calling to live antithetically. To be in this world but never to be of it. We, as God’s people, are called to be pilgrims here below. Always we are aliens. Always we are strangers. This is exactly why our lives are filled with opposites. It makes no difference which aspect of our lives we may bring under observation, it is always a question of the truth against the lie, the Kingdom or mammon, God or the Devil, the Word of God over against the words of men. It is materially no different now than it was at the beginning. Even Adam was called to live antithetically with regard to the two trees in the garden. And the opposites in our life are absolute! He who is a friend of the world is God’s enemy. Christ tells us that we cannot serve God and mammon. Sometimes we imagine that there is some kind of a mutual ground to be found. But, there is no life style that pleases both Satan and God. It is impossible to be of the world and still maintain a backdoor entrance into heaven. Religion must be pure and undefiled!
James is quite emphatic about this antithetical principle. We must be pure in our religion by keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. This implies, and this we ought to understand, that the world has the characteristic of being able to spot and taint the child of God with its colors. The world has a tendency toward rubbing off on us if we associate and participate in its customs and ways. This is, of course, not so strange, because the principle of the world is sin. This terrible principle is engrained in their very nature and motivates and propels them in all their life and activity. The world stands outside of the sphere of God’s grace! We can just imagine what happens to us when we engage ourselves with the world. We have our own sinful flesh to reckon with at all times. And our flesh loves the ways of the world; it loves the excitement of sin and corruption. And soon sin leaves its ugly sear upon us! To put it simply, if we play with fire, we’re going to get burned. James puts it this way: “But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth death.” Such is the horror of sin. To be caught in its tentacles without escape results in death. Let us keep ourselves unspotted from the world!
The question then is this: how can I continue to keep myself without blemish of the world? Certainly this does not mean that we must withdraw ourselves from the world. Cloisters and monasteries are not according to Scripture. Those who seek to escape from the influences of sin in this way are sadly disappointed in that they take their own sins with them behind the cloister walls. Most certainly, God calls US to be the light of the world. We are His witness before all men. Yet, in all this, we can and may not become one with the world in principle or practice. Our motivating principle is that of righteousness. For that is the characteristic of the citizen of heaven. Within US dwells a life that is heavenly. Now, it is this spiritual principle within us that always seeks the good and never seeks sin or the enjoyment of it. But this is not the whole picture. There is another factor that greatly hinders our keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. That is our sinful and corrupt human nature. Therefore we must say with the apostle Paul, “. . . I keep under my body and bring it into subjection . . . . ” It is not so, that the flesh dominates the Spirit but the other way around. The Heidelberg Catechism calls this true conversion whereby we crucify the old man and his deeds and put on the new man in Christ. Practically speaking it means, that I say “no” to the sinful ways of the world that will defile me and “yes” to the ways of righteousness.
To mind comes the admonition of Paul to the Romans, “And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind , . .” (Romans 12:2) If we adapt to the world and its mannerism, we become soiled and filthy, with the consequence that our religion is less than pure. We must be transformed to live according to the principle of the Spirit of Christ in the way of righteousness. The way that stands in direct opposition to the way of sin and worldliness. That is religion pure and undefiled in the eyes of our Father in heaven. And as His sons and daughters we walk in His fear.
This covers only about half of that which James has to say to us regarding “pure religion.” In this article we have addressed ourselves chiefly to the negative aspect of this command. Next time, D.V., we would like to explore the positive example that James uses to illustrate that which we have briefly discussed above, that we visit the fatherless and orphans in their affliction.