The Meaning of True Religion (James 1:27)

“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.” James 1:27

The Epistle of James is a crucial balance between the doctrines of faith and works. In the days of James, brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, there were two groups of extreme views regarding the Gospel: libertinism and legalism. While the libertines stretched the doctrine of grace and faith so far that moral responsibility was largely neglected, the legalists emphasized on salvation by following the laws of the Old Testament. Paul, in his epistles, fights off the false views of the legalists by showing how God justifies the sinner without the works of the law, because by the works of the law can no man be justified before God – the law is like a mirror that shows how dirty is the face, it can’t wash it (Rom.3:20; Gal.2:16). James, on the other hand, attacks the libertine view that since we are liberated from the law, we need not keep the law. James states one of the most important dictums of scripture: “Faith without works is dead”. The extremity of the legalist focused on the works of the law apart from the faith of God and produced dead works (Heb. 6:1); the extremity of the libertine, on the other hand, did away with the requirement of action on the excuse of faith, thus producing dead faith (James 2:17). He begins by saying in Chapter 1 that one must not only be a hearer of the Word but also the doer of the Word because hearing+doing=receiving (1:21-25). In other words, one is only saved by faith when the Word is implanted in one’s heart through doing what one has heard.

James highlights two main forms of external outworking of faith: the religion of words and the religion of works.

Words: “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. (v.26)
Works: “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” (v.27).

“To keep oneself unspotted from the world” certainly means that our vision and perception is not defiled by the views and ways of the world. The world values the rich and despises the poor. The rich are the powerful and respected citizens of this world. The Church of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, sees the world through the eyes of Jesus Who is the Head of the Church. It makes and sees no difference between the rich and the poor (James 2:1-13). That is the beginning point of charity.

Speech must match action; or else, speech is empty gonging. What does it profit if a man says to a brother or sister naked and destitute of daily food, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled”, but gives neither garment nor food to fill those needs? (James 2:16). Words emptied of works can fill no need. A religious character limited to words (no matter how theologically profound) is a theatric absurdity. I may sit here in my room and dream, write, speak, and even be applauded for my “love” for the downtrodden and despised people of the world; but, if my heart is not strong enough to drive me into their midst, to touch them in their infirmity and to embrace them with Christ’s love, my religion is still a vanity, my love unreal and vain. The Good Samaritan is more justified than the religious priest or the Levite. One who loves his neighbor ties his/her wounds and serves him/her in his/her need. This is the essence of pure and spotless religion.

© Domenic Marbaniang, August 2010

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One thought on “The Meaning of True Religion (James 1:27)

  1. “The Good Samaritan is more justified than the religious priest or the Levite. One who loves his neighbor ties his/her wounds and serves him/her in his/her need. This is the essence of pure and spotless religion.”

    Amen—the content of one’s “heart” is more important than superfluity of words. Love through service is more important than doctrine—in fact love in action is the ONLY doctrine GOD recognizes as true. God Bless You!

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