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James 1:26-27 - Authentic Faith

"Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

James has previously maintained that those who put their faith in God are both hearers and doers of His Word.  They look into the perfect law that gives freedom and are obedient to it. Continuing his theme on obedience, James now introduces the subject of authentic religion by distinguishing between that which is pure and faultless and that which is not.


Religion is defined as “the outward expression of worship in ritual, liturgy, and ceremony.” While many Christians today tend to shy away from that word, as it tends to be associated with following some sort of action to earn some divine favor, we certainly still embrace the concept James is speaking of here.  James’s use of “religion” in these passages is in terms of the outward expressions of one’s inner faith.  “He is talking about that which emerges from an internal reality; an external conformity to a pattern that is as a result of the inward working of grace (A. Begg).


James emphasizes that these outward religious expressions are deemed worthless without the proper inner motives and beliefs.  Jesus taught something very similar, as we are reminded in Matthew 15:8-9, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” 


This would have been easily visible with the Pharisees, for example, who practiced outward displays of religion without any inward spiritual change.  Fast forward some 2000 years, and we still see the same lack of commitment to an inner change in many self-proclaimed believers today.  Christians may have different religious rituals like reading the Bible, praying, going to church, etc., but these rituals can be just as worthless as the rituals of the Pharisees without the proper inner response.  


As James reiterates the teaching of Jesus in his own letter, he adds the warning that we can simply be deceiving our own hearts if we think we are religious when we are indeed not.  James is, once again, warning us not to be deceived.  He has already warned us a couple of times about deception in Chapter 1, and James’ teaching here must be taken within the context of his previous teachings.  If we are not properly prepared to receive the word and are not actively living it out in genuine faith, we will find it easy to fall into a life of self-deception, where our own estimation of ourselves is completely off-par. 


Living in the light of the truth of God’s Word requires more than a quick glance in the mirror; we need to, instead, look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom through the cross of Jesus Christ.  We need to measure ourselves through God’s standards, with the goal of becoming more and more like His Son.  Pure and faultless religion, James reminds us, is not based upon deception or mere outward signs of religion but instead on a heart surrendered to the Will of the One to Whom all things belong.

In his closing verses of chapter 1, James offers examples that serve as evidence of pure and faultless religion.  First, he maintains, a person with pure and faultless religion refuses self-deception and “keeps a tight rein” on his speech.  That is, if we cannot control our words, we are lying to ourselves about being religious people.  “For the mouth speaks,” we are reminded in Luke 6:45, “what the heart is full of.”

Our second piece of evidence of a pure and faultless religion before God is to show mercy and love to others; namely, James mentions “orphans and widows (v. 27).” Orphans and widows were those in most need in the ancient world and, without the proper support, were typically rejected and neglected.  For James, true faith included showing care and compassion to those in need.

Third, James says religion that is pure and faultless keeps oneself unstained by the world.  We are to keep ourselves “from being polluted” by the evil and wickedness that is so prevalent in the world (v. 27).  True faith changes one from the inside out.  As our hearts turn more and more toward Jesus on the inside, we should look and act less and less like the world on the outside.  If our inside relationship with Christ has not changed our outside relationship with the world, has our eternal destiny changed at all?  James says no, it does not.


As I close, I think it is important to clarify two important points.  First, it is crucial that we understand that James is not saying that we can save ourselves by taming our tongue, looking after orphans and widows, and foregoing the things of the world.  What he is describing in these verses are consequences of the work of God within the life of someone with true faith.  He provides us with evidences of a life truly surrendered to Christ.  What James is describing here is fruit.  To profess to have a relationship with Christ and be unchanged is unimaginable.

Finally, it is important that we do not use these two verses as a comprehensive list of evidences for true religion/faith.  This is not an all-inclusive list, and these are not necessarily the most important.  The New Testament mentions many different fruits that come from a transformed life, and we will see James mention more as we continue our study of his letter.

Although not a comprehensive list of evidences of genuine faith, these verses do set for us a significant starting point and a sufficient test to discover whether our professed faith is authentic or not.  James gives us three marks of Christianity: number one is a controlled tongue, number two is a compassionate heart, and number three is a clean life.  How does your faith stand against the test?

It's important to note that none of us are perfect. We ALL fall short time and time again. It's how we get up and keep learning and keep trying that matters. The remedy, remember, is not found in our own ability to do better.  We cannot fix ourselves on our own.  The key is to retreat always to the Scriptures, to be returned always to Jesus, and to be reminded always that our acceptance and our standing with God is on the basis of His Word and the work already completed by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.


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