True Religion

22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not abridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:22-27)

A major theme in the book of James is a desire that no one be deceived into thinking that they are saved when they are not. The Lord wants people to be saved and not deceived. That is why He gives us such clear direction over and over in Scripture as to what saving faith consists of and looks like.

Scripture also declares over and over what kind of heart and actions are consistent with someone who is saved, so that we can have assurance that we are saved and growing in Christlikeness as we walk with Him. 

If we do not have saving faith, the Word of God will also confront us with that reality! Not to our shame and despair, but so that we can turn to Christ and trust in Him for the forgiveness of our sins. So we can trust in Him for a new heart, with new desires, and a new purpose for our life.

There are only two categories of people. First are those who are trusting in Jesus the Christ, just as He is revealed and described in the Bible. They are trusting in Jesus as the Savior of their souls and the Lord of their life. They belong to Him. As the songwriter says, “I am His and He is mine.”

The second group are those who do not belong to Christ. They are spiritually dead and lost to an eternity in hell if they do not repent. Within this second group who are lost, there will be those who make no bones about their spiritual state. They have rejected the idea that they need a savior, they believe they are good enough to live forever in heaven before the presence of the Holy God. And there are many who have even rejected the idea of God altogether. And for them to die and find themselves in hell, they will be shocked that they were wrong, but they will know exactly why they are there. They will know that they rejected Christ, or for those who even denied God, they will know instantly the utter foolishness of suppressing in their own mind the knowledge of God. How tragic – utterly just, but tragic – that any soul will spend an eternity in hell.

But even more tragic are the many who thought they were saved, then die and find themselves in hell, and not understand how they got there. How can this happen?

First, by following a false religion which might include believing in a Jesus other then Jesus Christ as He is described in the Bible. Many religions view Jesus as a great teacher, or prophet, or as a good man, or the Son of God in a way that is somehow less than God the Father. But false religions, if they talk about Jesus at all, always view Him as something less than both fully God and fully man. So they either worshiped a false God absent a savior, or the Christ that they were professing was not the Christ as revealed in Scripture.

Second, they did hear the true gospel message and made a false confession of faith, believing, “If I say I am trusting in Christ to save me, I am in, I have checked the salvation box,” and they go on living their life the way they want, never really trusting is Christ so that they even remotely obeyed Him. 

You can see people living lives of gross sinfulness and wearing crosses around their necks, and if you talk to them about Christ they will say, “Oh yeah, I am a Christian. I came forward at church one time, I walked down the aisle, or repeated a prayer after someone. God and I are good.” But the Bible is clear, those whose hearts have been changed by Christ will follow Him in obedience to His Word. Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” And the will of the Father is that you believe in and follow His Son. And if, in your religion, you are not following Christ, you are not following the God of the Bible! And if you are not following the God of the Bible, you are not following the one true God at all.

If man is to have a relationship with God – the creator, the holy one – it is not man – the created one, the fallen one – that gets to dictate the terms and parameters of that relationship. Even Adam before the Fall was instructed by God on the terms and parameters of their relationship. It was Adam and Eve’s transgression of those terms that caused mankind to fall and have a nature of sinfulness. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the triune God, the three in one God, that determined and established that for man to have a relationship with God they must come to Him through saving faith in Christ. There is no other way! Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)

The last way to hell by self-deception we are going to look at is for someone to be around the saints of God, to hear the Word faithfully preached, and not trust in Christ but in the rituals and routines of church life, such as church membership or attendance. In the mind of the unsaved person they are trusting all of the things they think they have done for God, things like teaching Sunday school, giving to the church, singing in the choir. There is nothing wrong with doing any of these things. And we are commanded in Hebrews 10:25 not to forsake our assembling together, so church attendance is important. And we are commanded in Romans 12:6 to exercise or use our spiritual gifts, so teaching Sunday school or singing in the choir may be, for you, part of exercising your spiritual gifts, which would right and good. We are told in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that God loves a cheerful giver, so giving is important. 

Here is the distinction: in the church there may be unbelievers and believers who perform the same rituals and routines. So to someone observing them, they may look the same. But one believes that their church activities make them acceptable to God, doing all that they do in their own power and strength, so they feel free to live how they want to live the other six days of the week. They see themselves as their own master.

The saved person performs the rituals and routines in loving obedience to the Word of God, out of gratitude for what Christ has done for them, in forgiving them of their sins, saving them from hell, and the penalty of sin which is death. The saved person is trusting in the blood of Christ to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. And they see every day this side of heaven as a day that they are being conformed to the likeness of Christ, sanctified. They see themselves not as their own master, but as slaves to Christ.

So in order for us to not come to church and be deceived into thinking that we are saved when we are not, James has been instructing us on the true nature and way of salvation.

First James tells us that it is a work of God and not of man (James 1:18). And we can only become aware of and be saved by this work of God as we hear it or read it, and respond by believing it. James says in verse 21 to receive the word implanted which is able to save your souls. 

So James gives us a way we can test if we are saved or not. He says if we just hear the Word and never obey the Word, as it describes to us how to be saved, and how to be sanctified, then we are deceiving ourselves, as he says in verse 22. Salvation not only comes by hearing the Word of God, but by responding to it in faithful obedience. 

In verses 23–25 James further fleshes this out for us so that we can understand how the Word of God works to reveal to us our ongoing need for change. As believers, as we obey what we see in the Word of God we are becoming more and more like Christ. 

So here in the two verses we are going look at today, James gives us three additional tests to help us determine if our salvation is real and our religion is true. First he says…

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

James is sharing with us that true religion is an issue of the heart. It is the heart that controls the tongue, and an unbridled or uncontrolled tongue is symptomatic of an uncontrolled heart. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

A tongue that is bearing the fruit of the Spirit will be self-controlled, not out of control. A person whose speech reflects a relationship with Christ will speak words of edification, godly instruction and encouragement, words that build up, words that are gracious, words that are loving, words of truth, speech that considers the feelings and needs of others even over the needs of ourselves. A heart that belongs to Christ also speaks words of thanksgiving for everything that God has done for us. 

Conversely, a heart that is controlled by Christ, and that is praticing true religion, the pattern of its speech is not one of foolish talk, coarse joking, or obscene language. It is not speech that is angry or full of wrath, or malicious or slanderous toward others. It is not speech that lies or deceives. 

What kind of language describes the tone and tenor of your conversations? Does your conversation reflect true religion that is rooted and grounded in Christ?

Keep in mind that a changed heart is reflected in controlled and appropriate speech, which James uses to represent all of the fruit of the Spirit.

James tells us that if anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle or control his tongue, he is deceiving his own heart, and his religion is of no value, it is in fact worthless.

Here are some verses that will help us with thinking through this issue of our speech: Colossians 3:8-9, 4:6; Ephesians 3:15, 4:29, 5:4; Matthew 12:34-37.

The reality is, if we are honest with ourselves, as believers we know our speech does not always reflect the wholesome communication that it should. And we may struggle with one or more aspects of how we speak to one another. Maybe we have an issue with lying, gossip, or speaking to others in anger. 

If we are saved, the dominant pattern of our speech should be as Scripture describes it should be. And in our areas of struggle the Holy Spirit brings conviction, and we through the power of the Spirit of God put off such speech and put on speech that is controlled by the Spirit of God.

James next describes for us what true religion is…

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

James says that the determination of what true religion is is not made by man but by God the Father. God lets us know in His eyes what He considers true religion. And God the Father has determined that true religion is pure and undefiled. It is the worship of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, God is the only one who is pure and undefiled. And only those whose hearts have been changed can worship Him, only those whose lives are constrained by Christ can worship Him in spirit and in truth. We worship Him having been indwelt by His Spirit and believing and following His truth as it is revealed in His Word. And the truth of Jesus Christ is stated in John 1:14 – “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

To trust in, love, and follow Jesus is pure religion, in which is found salvation and sanctification that leads to the pruning of the branches of our heart and mind so that we are fit to bear fruit that reflects the pure nature of the holy and glorious Christ. In this pure religion, as Paul says in Romans 6, we are dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Our lives now belong to Christ, we have His righteousness, His peace, His inheritance, His Spirit. Our lives are wrapped up in Him! And He is not only pure, He is the unblemished and spotless Lamb (1 Peter 1:19). 

If we are worshiping God, then we will have the same priorities as He has. And He has always been concerned about those who are most in need. James says that pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress.

Orphans and widows tended to be then, and still are now, some of the poorest and most neglected groups, and James uses them to represent those who are most in need. As we read through Scripture this list would also include the poor, the sick, those with physical challenges, and the alien or stranger. Mankind exploits them, but God protects them. It is not that God loves them any more then He loves the rich, because God is no respecter of persons. But God knows the rich have the resources to take care of their physical needs, while the poor, weak, and defenseless do not. 

A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, Is God in His holy habitation. (Psalms 68:5)

The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, But He thwarts the way of the wicked. (Psalms 146:9)

‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:19)

The Lord instructed the nation of Israel to take care of the needy, and they were to be His example to the whole world of how to have compassion on those in need.

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 26:12)

The Lord also made provision that the poorest and most neglected in society should have the dignity of work.

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 24:19)

He continues in veses 20-21 instructing them that when they pick olives or grapes that they shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.

The Lord is so concerned about taking care of the needy that He instructs His people in the Old Testament on how they are to do it. And in the New Testament the Lord instructs us again through James in this verse. He says that we are to visit orphans and widows in their distress. So you and I are not just to wait until those in need come to the church, but the church should go to those in need. 

James did not send this letter just to elders and deacons to start ministries of outreach, though those are good. This letter is sent to each and every one of us in the church whose true religion is to worship Christ, so that we individually would take on the responsibility of reaching out to those in need. 

James is saying that the mark of true religion is to show the love and compassion of Christ to those who can do nothing for us in return. Isn’t that what God has already done for us?

In the Old Testament the Lord reminded the nation of Israel to take care of the alien, the orphan, and the widow because they were to remember that they were once slaves in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:22). And it was the Lord who had compassion on them when they could do nothing for themselves.

And for us now, didn’t the Lord take care of us who were and are poor in spirit, by giving us His Spirit? Didn’t He adopt us who were estranged from Him? So we must go and do likewise for those who have material needs we can meet. Sharing with them not only the material resources that God has blessed us with, but also sharing with them the reason for our compassion. Sharing with them the word of truth that is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. 

The Lord may send you halfway around the world to minister to orphans and widows, to minister to the sick and shut in, the broken and battered. But for most of us there is so much for us to do right here in the area in which we live! How are you doing with consistently reaching out to those who are in need? 

If this has been an issue on your heart and you do not know where to start, I would encourage you that there are so many nursing homes, food pantries, homeless shelters, hospitals, and prisons where you will find many, many souls in need of your help, in need of someone to shine the light of Christ into their life, to bring Christ’s heart of love, compassion, and provision into the lives of people that may live nearby, but may never find their way here to this church. 

You and I can take the love of the Lord and the person of Christ to them, to those who are orphans and widows, aliens, the sick, the shut in, and the poor. 

I know that many of you have. The question is, will you continue to grow in this work? For those who have not, but the Lord is bringing conviction to your heart, will you now respond in obedience to Him? 

Lastly James says that pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is to keep oneself unstained by the world. The world that James is referring to is a system of thought that is contrary to the character and will of God.

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

So what do the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life look like in the world? There are many lists throughout Scripture that can help us with that. I will read two for us to consider today. Paul, writing to Timothy, says…

1 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

These kinds of attitudes and behaviors you and I are not to embrace. We are not to be stained by them so that we look just like everyone else in the world. Paul, writing to the Galatians, says… 

19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

You will find just in these two lists, descriptions of the attitudes and behavior that should not mark our lives as believers.

The bottom line is this: God is holy and He has saved us and called us to be holy, so that we might be His light bearers to a dark world. And we are not to let the dark world block or diminish that light by our adopting the sinful practices of the world. As believers, our lives must be led by the Spirit of God so that our attitudes and behaviors are in keeping with His character and will.

Paul goes on in Galatians to tell us what that should look like in our life…

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25) 

And if we do, we will be unstained by the world.

True religion is to worship God as He is revealed in the Bible, and only those whose hearts He has changed can worship Him in spirit and in truth. Those whose religion is true worship God by living lives that bear the fruit of His righteousness, living lives that are controlled by the Spirit, taking care of those in need, and keeping ourselves unstained by the thinking and behavior of a sinful world. 

26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)