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.James 1:26-27 KJV
The Lord, through the pen of James provides us with a working definition of the term religion that will be used in this brief report. Religion is the ‘doing’ associated with spiritual matters. We find the fullness of God’s Word to teach both that we are saved by grace alone, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8), and that such authentic grace will not be without works (Ephesians 2:10). Religion then, the doing that flows from believing, while not required to be saved, is required if you are saved. The pure religion of James 1 is evidence and fruit of genuine salvation and has at least these 3 emphases: self-control, love toward others, and holy living.
Self-control: This is an area of great concern and need in our churches today. We have been too often influenced from the surrounding culture which idolizes hedonism and criticizes disciplined living. The danger is amplified in our day with the advent and proliferation of social media. A lapse of judgment in speech might be heard by a few standing around. A hasty tweet or Facebook post from a professing Christian can instantly be seen and read around the world and is by and large a bell that cannot be un-rung. Both are highly destructive to individual and our collective witness. Young believers need to be taught to be cautious when posting online. Adult and senior believers need to be reminded of the same. Our tongues, keyboards, and smartphones all need bridling lest our religion today be in vain and the message of the gospel of Jesus be obscured.
Love toward others: Visit them in their afflictions, says James. We need not unnecessarily narrow the application only to the fatherless and widows, but rather view those as clear examples of people in need. Needs vary. Some seem to color our willingness or eagerness to serve. Far too often God’s people have allowed pride and prejudice to prevent ministries of mercy. In Luke 10 Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In verse 36 He asks which man proved to be the neighbor, and in so doing revealed the self-righteousness of the questioning lawyer. Today, there are new and varied groups of Samaritans; that is to say groups or classifications of people to whom otherwise well-meaning Christians are hesitant to visit in their need, in their affliction. We ought never allow members of our own church families to go without being ministered to. We ought never avoid reaching out to those whom God has providentially placed in our lives. We need to ask both as individuals and as churches: “Who is it we are not reaching around us?” And, “Why aren’t we?”
Holy living: To be unspotted from the world is to be like Christ, the spotless Lamb of God. Paul writes to the Roman believers and instructs them (and by extension us) to not be conformed to this world. This is indeed a great and life-long struggle for us all. Perhaps one of the largest failings in this regard is that we have in recent generations neglected the very prescription given; that we be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Christian conscience has always been an important tool, but not to the exclusion of or apart from knowledge and understanding, else we might have zeal, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Great emphasis was given in the Old Testament to know the commandments and statutes of The Lord. While we are in no way bound to the same ceremonial and national restrictions given to Old Israel, we need to know God’s Word and be grounded in Christian thought that we may know what holy living is. Traditionalism is no suitable substitution for holiness; it is idolatry. Literacy rates in our day are higher than they have ever been, yet Biblical literacy is scarce. If we are not having our categories and patterns of thought renewed by, informed by, and aligned with scripture, we cannot avoid being conformed to and spotted by this world. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure our homes and churches are regularly covered, baptized in The Word of God.
We must and should be thankful to God for bright points where we see God’s People being drawn closer to Him; when we see faithfulness from a grateful people. God is still moving and working and saving and He is worthy of all praise for His enduring grace and mercy. That said, we must not close our eyes and ears to the realities of the often-pitiful state of religion among us. We ask God to stir the hearts of His children to greater fervor and obedience; that our religion would not be vain.