Chapter 1:26, 27, Pure and Undefiled Religion
These verses contain the theme of the Epistle of James. Having willed it God caused us to be born with the Word of truth in order that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creation (verse 18). In order that this conscious birth may come to expression we are admonished to embrace the implanted Word as it comes to us through the preaching. For that reason we must not speak out in wrath against the Word because the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God. Rather we must lay aside all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness (super-abundance of malice) and receive the Word with meekness, because it alone is powerful to save our souls (verses 19-21). And, embracing the Word with meekness means we are not mere hearers of the Word but doers of it. Those who merely hear the Word deceive themselves, while he who is a doer of the law of liberty, “this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (verses 22-25). The sum of all this is found in the verses we consider in this article. James instructs us concerning “pure and undefiled religion.” This religion is characterized by “bridling the tongue, visiting the fatherless and widows, and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.”
Now the thought is complete. Living thus before God and the Father we endure the divers temptations with joy, pray in faith for the wisdom of God, rejoice in our exaltation, and look forward to the crown of life which the Lord has promised to them that love Him. In the succeeding chapters James will develop this theme in detail. Visiting the fatherless and widows is the subject of Chapter 2; bridling the tongue is treated in Chapter 3, and the last two chapters have much to say about keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.
The question is; what is the pure and undefiled religion? Liberals and modernists of every stripe are generally quite fond of these verses. The old, 19th century liberals denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, the power of the cross, and wanted no “blood theology.” They taught that God is the father of all men and that all men are brothers. Salvation consists in following the example or pattern of the life of Jesus, the good manof Galilee. The children of these liberals, generally known as “neo-orthodox,” teach essentially the same. Everyone is saved. The only difference between believer and unbeliever is that the latter does not know that he is saved. The Kingdom of God, so it is said, will come by the action of the church. The church’s task is to serve humanity. Religion is service to humanity. Visit the fatherless and widows—that is religion. The essence of religion is to “love everyone” and hurt no one. Sin is defined in terms of harming one’s fellow man and not in terms of the Law of God. Anything and everything goes under that—adultery, abortion, homosexuality—all these are good, providing there’s love and no one is harmed. And, one’s particular set of beliefs makes no difference; whether one be a Buddist or a Moslem, an atheist or believer in God or at least a supreme Being; whether one be Roman Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian—is insignificant. If the essence is there: service of “love” to mankind, one is religious, and here lies the salvation of the world.
It’s in these terms that the task of the church is defined. The Church is “called to serve” the world. Whether this be put in terms of Arminian fundamentalism—”reaching all mankind for Christ”—or in terms of the modernist social gospel makes no essential difference. The task of the church in either case is to serve mankind.
We ought to understand and be willing to say that this is a denial of the truth of the Scriptures. It turns the truth around into the lie. The Church is not called to serve the world but called to serve her Lord. The church must keep itself unspotted from the world. And, that world in spite of itself must under the power and providential direction of God serve the church.
What then is religion according to the Bible? The term used in the text refers in the narrower sense to formal worship of God; prayer, preaching, singing, etc. In the wider sense religion refers to serving God in all of life. But in either sense religion is the service of God. The Dutch translation, Godsdienst, captures the exact meaning. That religion or service of God must be “pure” i.e. holy, consecrated service of God; and, “undefiled” i.e. free from the pollutions of sin. Still more, James speaks of pure and undefiled religion “before God even the Father.” Religion is the service which meets with the approval of God. It measures up to the standard of the Law of Liberty.
The antithesis of this pure and undefiled religion is “vain religion.” James writes, “if any man among you seem to be religious.” There are two possible meanings of this word “seem.” It can mean that this man appears to be religious to others—in this sense the man is a hypocrite. Or, it can mean that the man “thinks himself to be religious.” Luther translates, “imagines himself to be religious.” In the light of the fact that the text says this man “deceiveth himself” this latter meaning is correct. This man imagines himself to be in the service of God. He is very pious in his own estimation. He has a knowledge of the teachings of the Bible, he attends the worship services of the church, “goes through the motions” of serving God. He thinks himself to be a genuine servant of God. But, as a matter of fact, he does not “bridle his tongue.” To bridle the tongue is to hold it in check, to control it. This is what in fact the man does not do.
This, understand is a grievous sin! The idea is not that this man just talks too much. In the light of the immediate context which speaks of that “superfluity of naughtiness—malice” and in the light of chapter 3 of the Epistle where the same figure is used, we conclude that the sin of an unbridled tongue is the sin of evil-speaking against one’s fellow saints. This is the picture. The man claims to be religious and imagines himself to be such and more than likely even appears to be such. He is no adulterer or drunkard; he’s faithful in his church attendance, but his tongue runs like a wild horse. The man’s mouth is full of backbiting and slander; he spreads evil gossip and rumor, he is a vicious evil speaker.
This man’s religion is vain! It serves no good purpose. It is not the service which is to the glory of God. His religion is a pretense. And so, too, he deceives his own heart. In imagining himself to be religious he beguiles his own heart. His heart is not “born again with the word of truth.” There is no love of God in his heart, and the proof is found in that there is only the evil fruit of an unbridled tongue. Thinking himself to be religious he only fools himself. He will open his eyes in hell.
Pure religion and undefiled is characterized by “visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” James does not mean by this that our visiting must be confined to orphans and widows. The Holy Spirit makes use of a comma n figure of speech in which the part is mentioned for the whole. Orphans and widows in their affliction are dependent upon others for their means of support because they have lost husbands and fathers. These must be visited. That visiting is not merely a social call, a chat over a cup of coffee. To visit means that one comes to care for them by providing for their need. As such, these fatherless and widows are a graphic picture of all the saints of God. What the text is saying, then, is that we must come to the aid of one another. As members of the body of Jesus Christ we are ONE. When one member of the body suffers, all the members suffer with him. Pure and undefiled religion before God even the Father is this: to visit one another for the purpose of caring for one another in our common affliction. That’s exactly what God did for us! God did not leave us in our misery. He visited us in the Person of His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. His law of liberty for the redeemed in Christ is that we visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction—which is to say that we must love one another. The Scriptures abound with this thought. Read prayerfully such passages as; Galatians 5, 6 or I John 3 & 4. Holy and undefiled religion is that we visit one another; edify one another, help the needy, comfort the sorrowing, encourage the downcast, admonish the wayward. Then we are serving God and we are following Jesus, who came “not to be ministered unto but to minister” and who demonstrated what He meant by getting on His knees and washing the disciples’ feet (John 13). Thank God! He did more than demonstrate. Christ went to the cross and atoned for our sins in order that we might be made free to serve God by serving one another. The new commandment, the law of God fulfilled in Christ is, “That ye love one another.”
Secondly, pure and undefiled service of God is characterized by “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world!” This is the part the liberals ignore. This too, however, belongs most emphatically to pure and undefiled religion. By the grace of God in Christ Jesus we have been separated from the world of unbelief and sin. We have been transformed into the image of Christ. While we are in the world on our pilgrimage to glory we must keep ourselves unspotted. Keep yourself unspotted! Attend to that very carefully. We are not to be soiled with the filth of this fallen, hell-bound world in which we live!
This is pure and undefiled religion. Jesus said it: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul, and strength; this is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40).