Tonight in our church service our topic was true religion as described in James 1:22-27, which might seem to be a strange topic for those participating in a church service. Yet it is possible to go to an orthodox service and not engage in true religion before, during and after the service.
James is pastoring believers who have lost a great deal for following Christ closely – they have undergone opposition and probably persecution. We might imagine that since they had experienced trouble because of their faith he would advise them to keep a low profile. Instead, he urges them to engage in active Christianity based on the Word of God.
Believers, says James, are to be doers of the Word, which implies that it is straightforward to understand. Yet James knows that it is possible to know what the Bible says and yet not practice it. His illustration of a man looking in a mirror and then forgetting what he saw tells us this. But if we obey the commandments of God in the Bible, James says that we will discover the meaning of true freedom. The fact is, we have to serve somebody. Serve God and find freedom; serve yourself or the sinful world and you will remain enslaved.
James then gives two examples of obedience to God’s commandments. One is social and the other is concerned with inner holiness. A knower of the Word will know that he should care for orphans and widows, but a doer of the Word will show his concern. A knower of the Word will know that he should be holy, but a doer of the Word will keep himself unspotted from the world.
It may have been the case that in the time of persecution the number of widows and orphans increased. But James’ requirement cannot be limited to such periods. He expects other Christians to visit those in need in order to help them. If they don’t visit, they are not doers of the Word and are not practising true religion.
How does one ‘keep oneself unstained from the world’. This may seem like a daunting target and impossible to attain. Yet in an outward sense, it is not difficult – it can be avoided by simply saying no to external temptations. Doing so in an inward sense is much more difficult. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Accept the fact that we will never be sinless in heart and mind while we are in this world. (2) Do from the heart what the Bible says instead of ignoring what it commands. (3) Pray for cleansing constantly by the blood of Jesus. (4) Ask God for the Spirit’s power to work in our hearts when we sense the drawing power of the world. (5) Encourage one another by mentioning spiritual things to one another.
According to James, true religion is social (helping others) and sacred (conscious of the eyes of God), or as put elsewhere it involves love for our neighbour and love for God. Moreover, true religion can be practised in any set of circumstances, whether in times of persecution or in times of peace. And I think James would want us to ask ourselves repeatedly if we have true religion.