“If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.
27 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.”
Today’s passage is a bit unique to the Scriptures in that the term “religious” is only used here in the New Testament. The closest usage might be “religion,” (which is used twice afterwards) but the idea of being a religious type of person would only be found specifically in James 1:26. Depending upon who you talk to, the term “religious” can be either negative or positive; Bible-believing Christians tend to shy away from such a term typically in the association of being nothing more than a devoted church-goer or someone who believes in God. “Religious” might be a term we hear more from those that don’t consider themselves “religious,” saying something to the effect of, “Oh, my friend is pretty religious,” and things of the like. It is a very overgeneralizing term typically, as it tells us very little of what a person believes, only enlightening us to the fact that they believe something that affects them somehow, or creates an identity for others to associate with them.
What does the term “religious” mean? Strong’s Concordance details the word as follows: fearing or worshipping God; to tremble (Strong’s, reference G2357). Why does the Bible talk about fear when it is tied to worship? Fear causes us to pause, to adjust ourselves, to act in caution and to treat something or someone with great respect. If you have a fear of heights, walking on the edge of the Grand Canyon might very well cause you to step away, freeze in place, move slowly or become very aware of both yourself and your surroundings. Nervousness and shaking would not be far-fetched in such a scenario.
Fear alters us towards that with which we are afraid. Biblical fear is not simply terror, but it also entails reverence, which is a great deal of honor shown. James says that if someone thinks (dokeo, which means “considers”) himself to be a God-fearing (religious) person, then there should be a correlation of life to belief. A brief trip through the Bible would introduce us to multiple occurrences in which a select few individuals stood in the presence of God, and in those instances nothing came over them of simple respect, but pure terror to the point of falling in absolute fear in His presence. We know that the world and ourselves have not yet seen God when we have yet to have such a response to God, but one day, this will change. The only thing that will keep any of us from the greatest terror of our lives is the righteousness afforded to us on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross; without this, we would all feel a fear that will never have any equivalent. Thank the Lord that we can not only avoid such terror, but actually find the greatest sense of comfort at the thought of meeting face to face.
Why does James begin talking about worship right after talking about being doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves? Look back at v. 25 once more: “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” What James is speaking of is a faith that actually translates into an altered way of life in response to a reverential attitude towards the Bible. He uses a similar line of thought in v. 26 when he says that a person who considers himself or herself religious but does not “bridle” his own tongue but deceives his own heart…has a useless religion.
The word for bridle means “to hold in check,” and we could more easily say, “restrain.” Restraint is done as a response to what someone believes; we do good things in faith to please God, but we also resist the temptation to do wrong things out of honor for God, too. Restraint usually comes as a response to a negative interaction, where we might easily lose our temper or give any number of improper responses, but rather than doing what appeases our flesh, we choose rather to honor God by restraint. Restraint can be an active choice but it can also be a reactive response; the more we learn to practice restraint, the more it comes naturally. Mind this, restraint is not just external, but internal, too; we can be collected on the outside and boiling with bitterness on the inside, and restraint would be holding ourselves in check in our thoughts and so forth just as much as our physical expressions.
So what is James getting at? When we consider ourselves God-fearing, but do not practice this in real-life, our consideration of ourselves as religious people is “useless.” The word for useless, mataios, could be translated as “pertaining to being of no use, idle, empty, fruitless, useless, powerless, lacking truth” (BDAG, Bibleworks). Paul uses this word in 1 Corinthians 15:17 when he writes, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile (mataios); you are still in your sins!” It is quite clear that the idea of being religious but not acting in accordance follows the prior thoughts of James in the self-deception of being hearers but not doers of the word.
Is v. 27 a complete idea of what it means to be religious? More than likely, James is using some real-life examples of what being restrained by one’s faith would look like (there are many more ways of being a God-fearer than just the few mentioned here). “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this…” Pure refers to being free from moral guilt, while undefiled refers to unsoiled morally, which is tied to the last part of the phrase of v. 27, “unspotted from the world.” Note that this is not religion in accordance with the approval and definition of other people, but it is that which is “before God and the Father.” The ESV translates God as “God the Father,” NASB identifies Him as “God and Father,” whereas in the NKJV we see “God and the Father.” It is not differentiating between God and Father as though God is not the Father, but rather identifying Him both as God and Father to every believer.
So what does God honor? What is approved in His sight? What is God-fearing in substance? James gives two primary examples: first, “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.” Visiting is not just stopping by to chat (though this can be service to others); it is the act of stepping into another’s life with the intention of helping them. It is making sure that they are not simply overlooked and that their needs are met. Even in the book of Acts, this was a major function in the development of what we now know as “deacons,” (literally, “through the dust” referring to servants). The passage being referred to is Acts 6:1-4, which states,
“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Remember that in the days of the early church, there really were no benevolence systems like we might think of in America. Believing in Christ meant the potential for suffering great loss of social status, jobs, income, and ostracization. It also often meant oppression, so the church very much had to have each other’s backs as a group. Being a widow or orphan at those times meant incredible destitution if worse came to worse; an inability to take care of one’s self and no one to step in to help unless someone so moved. There would be little or no return for any help offered to an orphan or widow, but certainly it was honorable in the sight of God to do so. It meant entering into someone else’s life and determining to care for them. The principle is far more an act of agape love, selfless and determinate in nature, not one of care with an expectation of return. The nature of such care is the heart of being a God-fearing person, or a truly religious person in God’s estimation.
The second part of pure and undefiled religion before God was this: “to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” We can probably track with most of those words, so the word to hone in on most is “unspotted.” BDAG defines the usage of the word aspilos here (unspotted) as, “pertaining to being of untainted character, pure, without fault” (BDAG, Bibleworks). “To keep” refers to the act of preservation. Preserving ourselves from that which would taint our character is a form of pure religion in the sight of God. It is done to His honor and for His glory. Both of the examples that James gives speak to the intent of the heart in the actions prescribed; it’s not simply acts that look religious, but those actions which are directed at the benefit and/or honor of others and God.
The preacher D. Martyn Lloyd Jones once quipped, “Religion is man seeking God; Christianity is God seeking man.” Man-made religion, which is generally how some of us hear the word “religion,” is typically self-focused with an intent on self-preservation. The religion that God honors, though, is focused on the Lord and preserves us for His sake while also looking out for the spiritual good of others. We must be careful as we reflect upon our own hearts as to whether our relationship with God is all talk and no walk, or if it is a growing relationship with more of God and less of us as the focus. This can only come from an assurance of our standing before Him; when that assurance is doubtful, the outcome will always default to religious acts done in an attempt to soothe our consciences as we contemplate our eternal futures.
Jesus Christ died on the cross to offer salvation that we might believe on Him and by believing on Him, find newness of life and a steadfast hope as we move towards eternity. We cannot outgrow our level of trust in the promises of God; sanctification is not just a process of passively being made more like Jesus, but also actively growing in our belief of what He has said is true and living in light of the truth.
Thank you for your time and I hope this devotional finds you well. Happy New Year!
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.