Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
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.
There are those in the church who seem to be religious, but whose religion is vain. Sometimes they demonstrate that fact by not bridling their tongue. At other times they show it by neglecting the fatherless and the widows. Still again this becomes evident as they defile themselves with the filth of this world. How sad to have a religion that is vain.
How sad only to appear to be religious.
Each must be careful that his religion is pure and undefiled.
James has just explained to the saints of his day that they must not just be hearers of the Word but also doers. Now James gives a few examples of what doers of the Word do. They bridle their tongue. They visit the fatherless and widows. They keep themselves unspotted from the world. Those who accomplish these things in the grace of Jesus Christ also have a religion that is pure and undefiled.
There are a number of different religions in the world. There are the Christian religion, the Jewish religion, the Muslim religion, the Hindu religion, the Buddhist religion, and various other pagan religions. Each of these religions has its own god or gods, worship practices, and set of beliefs. We adhere to the Christian religion that acknowledges one God (Jehovah), one Mediator (Jesus Christ), and the Bible as the sole rule for what we are to believe and how we are to live.
The basic meaning of the word “religion” found in this passage is that of fear and trembling. In all religions other than the Christian religion this fear and trembling is that of dread terror. Mankind stands before a vengeful god that he must somehow appease, lest his god break forth to consume him. How strange that when sinful man makes his own god, he makes a god like that. In the Christian religion, however, this fear and trembling is different. It is one of loving adoration. Yes, there is a trembling over the realization of one’s sin and the horror of sin. But this trembling is primarily a trembling over the greatness of God’s love to save a lost sinner in the blood of Jesus Christ. This is a fear and trembling, therefore, of loving adoration, which leads on to devoting oneself to the service of God.
The word “religion” found in this passage is used in Scripture to describe especially the outward forms of religion. It emphasizes the acts of worship in the hearing of the Word, the seeking of the sacraments, bowing the knee in prayer, singing the songs of Zion, and meditating on the Word of God. The word suggests that these forms of worship are acts of praise and gratitude that rise from an inner trembling and adoration before God.
A contrast is made between religion that is pure and undefiled and a religion that is vain.
The word “vain” means that which is devoid of truth, force, or result. From this we understand two things about a religion that is vain. First, it is a religion void of truth or reality. It is false. It may appear outwardly to be true adoration and service of the living God, but in reality it is not. It is only an imitation, a fraud. It is only a show religion. It consists only of words and actions, and it lacks the true essence of religion. For that reason, and secondly, it is a religion that does not bring God’s blessing. A religion that is only a show religion does not have God’s approval. Neither, therefore, does it have God’s blessing.
In contrast, there is religion that is pure and undefiled.
“Pure” and “undefiled” mean essentially the same thing. That which is pure is undefiled. In turn, that which is defiled with anything is not pure. A religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is a religion that in the very judgment of God is not tainted with anything that would render it false or useless. It is a religion that is true. It is a religion that has the very essence of what religion is all about—true adoration and service of the living God. It is, therefore, also a religion that carries away God’s blessing.
Now there are those in the church whose religion is vain. They may seem to be religious. They may go through all the motions of religion. They may attend church, confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, and educate their children in the Scriptures. They may even serve in a special office in the church. But in actual fact their religion is vain.
James indicates that they often deceive themselves into thinking that theirs is a pure and undefiled religion. They should know better. But they have tricked themselves into thinking that their religion is true and genuine.
Let us be on guard that we not deceive ourselves.
Three things are mentioned that differentiate pure and undefiled religion from vain religion. 1) How we use our tongue. 2) How we care for the fatherless and widow. 3) What our relationship is to the world. This certainly is not an exhaustive list, so that this all there is to religion. The idea is rather that one who does the things mentioned here shows thereby that his religion is pure and undefiled. These are the inevitable fruits of true religion. For that reason they are also the proofof true religion.
First, one shows the nature of his religion by how he uses his tongue.
Chapter 3 of this epistle speaks of the great evil of the tongue. It is a little member of the body that can do much damage. With the tongue one can rail on another and horribly abuse him. With the tongue one can destroy a person’s name with gossip, backbiting, and slander. There was much of this in the church to which James wrote, as there is often in the church today.
James speaks of bridling the tongue. The horse that has a bit and bridle is under the control of the rider. The unbridled horse gallops out of control, wherever he wants. There are people whose tongues are like that too. Their tongues are as uncontrolled as a wild horse. With their tongue they gossip and slander. They are often very abusive. And they show thereby that their religion is vain. They may go to church. They may be defenders of the faith. They may even preach the gospel eloquently. But their religion is vain. Only those who bridle their tongue show that their religion is pure and undefiled.
Mention is made next of visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction. There were many orphans and widows in the early church. And they were in affliction in that they had no means to support themselves. The fatherless and widow represent a whole class of people that we often encounter—people in great need, requiring a great deal of help but having nothing with which to pay back. One shows whether his religion is true or false by whether he will visit these kinds of folks. To visit the needy in their affliction means to look in on them in order to help, to care for them. To do this effectively often requires a great deal of time, energy, and commitment. Many find themselves too busy with other things to bother with this. After all, they have their family, their work, their hobbies, their hunting and fishing. These have a religion that is vain.
Finally, James speaks of keeping oneself unspotted from the world.
The world here is the world of evil and abomination that lives in sin. This is the world of television, of the movies, of popular song. It is the world with its immoral lifestyle that tramples underfoot every commandment of God.
Very easily we are spotted with the filth of this world. Think of someone in a pure, white robe making his way through a muddy field. How easily his robe becomes spotted with mud. In like manner, we are required to make our way through this world with all its spiritual filth. Easily the filth of this world soils our garments. It does this every time we conform ourselves to this world. Our religion is vain, if we allow this kind of thing to happen. Our religion is pure and undefiled only when we keep ourselves unspotted from the world by living in spiritual separation from the world.
How is this to be explained? Why are these three the test of pure and undefiled religion?
Were we to make our own list, we would probably include different things. We might consider whether a person attends the worship of the church regularly. So many who claim to be religious do not. And we might ask whether they attend a church that proclaims the truth of Scripture. Many churchgoers give little consideration to the purity of the gospel. And our list might include whether one is willing to be active in the church—serving on committees or even in an office. And what about his home life? Is he a good husband? Is she a faithful wife? Is one a conscientious parent?
All these things are important and are part of true religion. But they are not the test of whether one’s religion is pure and undefiled. One can be and do all these things and still have a religion that is vain.
The sure test of whether one’s religion is pure and undefiled is determined by how one uses his tongue, how he cares for the needy, and the relationship he has with the world.
There is good reason for this.
First, religion that is pure and undefiled is primarily a matter of the heart. It comes from a heart filled with loving adoration and an overwhelming awe of Jehovah God for His salvation in Jesus Christ. This inner love and adoration must and will express itself in acts of worship and service. But there is among men a worship and service that is not an expression of this inner love, adoration, and awe of Jehovah. This is vain and abominable to God.
So we must add that it is only this inner love and adoration of true religion that will result in the three things James puts before us.
What we do with the world and its filth is the ultimate test of our loving devotion to God. How appealing the world is to our flesh. However, friendship with the world is enmity with God. One cannot be the friend of the world and of God. This James emphasizes in chapter 4:4. Only a deep, loving devotion to Jehovah—the heart of true religion—will bring us to Christ to find the strength to live apart from this world and to keep ourselves unspotted from it. A religion that is only show religion will not bring us to this point.
In turn, our loving devotion to God is also tested by whether we will show love to the neighbor. And the true test of love to the neighbor is whether we will bridle our tongue for his welfare and visit him in his afflictions.
Let each examine himself as to whether his religion is pure and undefiled. So easily we deceive ourselves in this regard.
And let us maintain a religion that is pure and undefiled.
Only those who have tasted the salvation of God in Jesus Christ are able to do so. Let us by the power of grace and salvation devote ourselves to the true service of God with a religion that is pure and undefiled.