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Pure and Undefiled Religion

James 1:26-27

by
Greg McPherson

“Pure and undefiled religion,” taken directly from our text, goes hand in hand with restoring New Testament Christianity.  We might think of that great movement of the eighteen hundreds till the present day which has focused on restoring the church to its original purity.  Thousands of men and women have come together, having thrown off the shackles of denomination trappings and human creeds, to restore the “pure, undefiled religion” of Christ.  What could be more pure and undefiled than the original?  Christianity was never meant to evolve with the times.  Its purity is seen only in its primitive form, as established by Christ, directed by Christ who is its head, and as practiced faithfully by the first century Christians (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22,23; Jude 3).  God’s Word is the only standard by which we can fulfil this noble cause (Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 15:2; John 17:21). 

One vital area of restoration is individual living: how we conduct ourselves in the world, how we spend our time, how we treat others, which attitudes to foster and how to communicate.  This is the aspect of religion that James writes about.  Someone said that: “every time he read the book of James, he had the uneasy feeling that James had been reading his mail” (in David Roper Practical Christianity).  James does get personal. 

The Pharisees did not practice pure religion.  Outwardly, they had a superficial show of piety and appeared righteous to men but inwardly they were defiled. They were like beautiful whitewashed tombs on the outside but inwardly full of dead men’s bones – i.e., full of uncleanness, hypocrisy and iniquity.  They omitted such qualities as judgment, mercy and faith, all of which were weighty matters even in the Law of Moses. 

Micah 2:10 “He hath shown thee oh man what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Walking with God in truth involves these things. Some things have always complemented truth; eg. mercy:  “Truth and mercy have met” (Psalm 85:10); sincerity: “serve Him in sincerity and truth” (Joshua 24:14) and purity of heart: “Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6 see also Matthew 5:4; Psalm 24: 3-4; 51:17).  

A vital part of restoring New Testament Christianity, therefore, is in the area of personal living.   It is not enough to restore church organization if we fail to restore purity of lives.  It is not enough to engage in outward religious acts of devotion like church attendance and prayer if we are not sincere within.  So while “religion” in our text refers to outward acts, God also desires purity of heart, mercy and holiness, as our text also implies.  James lists three things, each of which can be viewed as distinctive pleas in the restoration of personal, practical living; i.e., the need to bridle our tongue, to care for the fatherless and widows and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

We have a plea to bridle the tongue (James 1:26).  James teaches us that those who seem to be religious yet lack in this area, their religion is vain and they are deceiving themselves.  Does this not teach a valuable lesson, that it is actually possible to be deceived religiously; and that it is possible to practice vain religion?  Unless our religion meets certain criteria that God has stipulated (such as that which the inspired James mentions), our religion is of no redeeming value in the end.  Along this line James mentions the tongue.  In reality, any sinful word spoken is due to an unbridled tongue: gossiping, slandering, lying, cursing, blasphemy.  How often we wish we could have bridled our words.  In a moment of “reckless folly”, as one song puts it, angry words desolate and mar sacred friendships.  They can wreak havoc like a wild horse.  So we are to bridle it, restrain it and rein it in as it were (cf. James 3:3). 

False teaching is a classic example because, simply put, these teachers have not bridled their tongue into subjection to the Word, which is the only standard for doctrine, and that which is “able to save your souls” (1 Peter 4:11; 2 Timothy 3:16; James 1:21).  And false teachers can do much harm. 

The cure, therefore, is to first subject the tongue to God’s standard.  Hundreds of years of speaking lies against the Scriptures have paid a heavy toll on religious speech.  A common slogan of restoration has been to call Bible things by Bible names and where the Bible speaks, we speak.  These are designed to bring attention back to the Holy Scriptures.  We may think of them as helping people to bridle their tongues into harmony with God’s Word. 

“We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words, because we are always suspicious that if a word is not in the Bible, the idea which it represents is not there, and always confident that the things taught by God are better taught by words under the names which the Holy Spirit has chosen and appropriated than the words which man’s wisdom teaches.”  (Christianity Restored in The Cause We Plead).  (Alexander Campbell)

While it is true that some words such as trinity, which are not found in the Bible, do represent scriptural concepts, many do not.  Even trinity has a scriptural equivalent “the Godhead” to which we can refer.  But I ask, where is “pope” or “Lutheran” or “archbishop” to be found?  Where is their equivalent?  They are not in the Holy Scriptures, friends, and it should not come as any surprise, neither are the concepts that they represent. 

The second cure for an unbridled tongue is found in the words of Jesus: “…those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile a man” (Matthew 15:18).  There it is.  Speech is actually a heart issue.  To bridle the tongue is to bridle the heart.  Our heart, if you like, checks our words so that we do not sin.  And God’s Word checks our heart (Psalm 119:11).  Horatio R Palmer wrote:

Angry Words! O let them never
From the tongue unbridled slip
May the heart’s best impulse ever
Check them ere they soil the lip

We have a plea to help those in need (James 1:27a}.  It is very easy to get caught up in our own troubles of life that we fail to look to the needs of others.  And not only may we fail to look for them but when they arise we might even fail to act.  Perhaps we even become hardened to their plight.  God forbid that we should even take advantage of the less fortunate as the scribes and Pharisees did in devouring widows’ houses (Matthew 23:13; cf. Mark 12:40):  “These scribes devoured the families of widows or the means of supporting their  families.  What means they used to accomplish this evil work, we may not fully know.  Probably they did it under the pretence of counselling them in the knowledge of law in the management of their estates.  In some way they took advantage of these poor women and robbed them of their means of support.” (CEW Dorris Gospel Advocate Commentary)         

It may be hard to believe but false religion can actually dull our sense of compassion.  For instance, when the Pharisees saw Jesus healing on the Sabbath, instead of praising God for his great act of mercy, they accused him that it was not lawful to do such.  They would help an animal from a ditch on that day but accused Jesus for helping a human.  Jesus said: “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:10-13; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-10).  Christ had broken no such law.  It has been said: “when our interpretation of the letter causes us to brutalize, manipulate, or abuse people, we have misunderstood the intent of the message”  (Norman L Bales How Do I Know I’m Saved). 

That was a problem of the Pharisees.  I find it hard to believe, however, that the devouring of widows’ houses was based on any misinterpretation of the law.  James mentions two classes of people in need of help: the fatherless and the widows. 

The fatherless (orphans) are those “bereft of parents,” whether because of death, disease, divorce, desertion, or delinquency”’ (Guy N Woods Gospel Advocate Commentary).  The afflictions of the fatherless are obvious and we need to genuinely feel for them.  It is truly a desperate, unfortunate situation when children are born into this old world without family?  Widows, too, need help in different ways.  They can become lonely and need company and encouragement to live, especially the elderly. 

A general principle of course is for us to put on hearts of compassion to the needy; to others who might be less fortunate in their station in life, and to those with heavy loads to bear.  Indeed,  “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who honors Him has mercy on the needy” (Proverbs 14:31).  James says to “visit” them.  This means more than dropping around for a cup of tea or coffee, though this alone may fulfill a need amply.  Visit, actually means to take care of.  The application here is boundless.  It may be applied on an individual level in some way or such as we see in the book of Timothy, where a church program was specifically set up to assist widows (1 Timothy 5:1 ff; Acts 6:1-3).  It is a shame that some brethren believe there is no authorization to assist non-believing widows and orphan homes if it is taken from the church treasury.  They say James is talking to individuals only.  How tragic, in light of our discussion on the principle of mercy.  Cannot the church also practice mercy?  They might ask: “is it lawful to help them from church’s funds?”  We might respond: “is it lawful to do good from church funds?”  That is the real question.  The book of Galatians, which was written to the “churches” (1:2), instructs us: “… as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Examples in scripture of where the church assisted others, as well as the principles we have discussed, establishes authorization for the church to provide benevolence to ANYONE in need without first having to ask: “Are you a member of the church?” It was indeed a blessing to see that the funds from the Sunday collection at a recent camp I attended, went directly to an orphan home in India.  At any rate, this is another avenue open to us as to where the Lord’s funds can be well spent, and especially as this is directly linked to “pure, undefiled religion” perhaps we in Australia can give it serious thought as to establishing a more substantial co-operative effort in this country. 

We also have a plea to live a holy life, (James 1:27b).  Have you ever heard of  “Arms-length Christianity?”  That is when we don’t want to be spotted or tainted by the world but we still don’t want to let go so we hold on to the world and keep it at arms-length distance.  The problem is, of course, that as the world’s standards fluctuate and sink ever lower, so do ours until suddenly we find that our “Christian” standards of today were the world’s standards of yesteryear.  We could apply this to dress standards, our attitude to adultery, de facto relationships, entertainment and so on.  But the world has never set the standard for righteous living.  It is constantly changing.  What seems good to the world today will be evil tomorrow, and vice versa.  Even if it society does determine our sense of morality, to which age shall we conform? Is it to the world of today or to the world a hundred years ago?  If today, which culture shall be our guide?  Thailand?  Holland? Australia?  The truth is, that keeping up with the times or trends means nothing in the scheme of human existence, only that we might feel comfortable about our sin.    The only changeless standard on which we can live is God’s Word (1 Peter 1:23; 2 Timothy 3:16).  It is like a thread weaving itself through time and culture, constant and unwavering.  This is truly a major plea in the restoration.  It does not matter in which era we live, the culture of which we are a part or how sinful those around are: the seed of God’s Word will always produce the same results.  And if that clashes with our modern, sophisticated and enlightened age then our age must be brought into line with God’s standard, not the other way round.  However it can be difficult to step back and look at the big picture when we are faced with the bombardment of the world that we know.  After all, mostly what we know about living is what we are faced with NOW, how society lives NOW, and how we have been brought up NOW.  We are all products, to a degree, of our own culture and background. It takes a conscious effort to be unaffected by these huge influences on our lives when seeking guidance from scripture about how God wants us to live.  We have to make decisions that clash with current culture and that run the risk us of us being seen as out of touch with the times: how we dress, how we speak, where we go, and what are our moral convictions.  But that’s okay.  Christian standards are always going to be set apart from the world no matter what age we are in.  And we are not to be conformed to this world, says Paul (Romans 12:2).  That means your world and my world.  That means the world today or anytime. This idea of being holy, as Paul uses it here, is a word closely knit with the idea of being unspotted by the world:   Hagios; holy, set apart, sanctified, consecrated… Its fundamental ideas are separation, consecration, devotion to God, and sharing in God’s purity, and abstaining from earths defilement (Luke 9:26; 2 Pet. 1:18) The Complete Word Study New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates.

Is there any better word that sums up the life of a child of God? That is what Christian living is all about.  Holiness covers the entire theme of this lesson for holiness starts from within, from a renewal of the mind, and it is seen also in our outward service to God.  To be holy is to be separate and set apart from the world in which we live, not because we keep it at arms-length, but because God’s changeless standards are always going to be superior and will set the Christian apart from worldliness.   In conclusion, to restore Christianity to its original purity is a process that involves our entire being. We may think of it as a plea to restore the “pure, undefiled religion” of Christ.  This involves church organization as well as individual living.  James focuses on speech, benevolence and holy living as each being integrally linked to pure, undefiled religion.  So we know these are vital in our plea of restoration. Under the chapter “What is the Restoration Movement” in the book, The Cause We Plead, J. M. Powell characterizes the restoration movement under the following areas: It is a plea for the Book of Christ: The Bible; for the church of Christ; for the name of Christ; for the authority of Christ; for the creed of Christ; for the ordinances of Christ; for terms and admission into Christ; for the worship established by Christ, and also for a life that honours Christ. 

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