What is the “pure religion” that James wrote about? How can we practice it?
Religious or Relationship?
I don’t believe God wants any more religious people. He is seeking to have a personal relationship, not a religious one. Christianity shouldn’t be a religion but a relationship and first of all, a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. If there’s no repentance and faith, then there’s no way to have a relationship with God. All they have at that point is the wrath of God which is being stored up against the Day of Judgment (Rom 2:6-9). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees once, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt 23:2-3), and “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt 23:4), so instead of making it easy to know the One, True God, they make it impossible to be “religious” enough to enter the kingdom, and that’s what Jesus was rebuking them for, saying “you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt 23:13-14), and only “do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt 23:5a). That is not pure religion. That is hypocrisy (Matt 23:15), and God will not accept worship that’s not in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
Orphans and Widows
God has always been a protector and defender of the poor, and very often, the poor are the orphans and widows, who have no means of support. God is angered by those who take advantage of these people. It is an offense against Him, not only against them. The Bible tells us God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Psalm 68:4). God made sure that the widows and orphans (fatherless) were taken care of, and so He commanded that “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled” (Deut 26:12). God will bless those who provide for the fatherless and widows, but for those who neglect the widows and orphans, especially from their one family, God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18). Jesus said the “religious” Jews were those “who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47). They knew the law (Deut 26:13) but broke it anyway. They looked religious to the crowd, but Jesus knew “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matt 23:27c). They went to the trouble of tithing “mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). God hates that “religion” of looking good on the outside but neglecting the matters of mercy (James 1:27), justice (Deut 26:13), and faithfulness (Matt 25:40). After the process of being “proselytized,” you end up with a lot of self-righteous people.
True religion, as we have seen, is not about an outward form or appearance, but about showing mercy, doing justice, and being faithful to God’s commands to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Part of what the Bible says about religion that God accepts is given by Jesus’ half-brother, James, who wrote that we are “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27b), and that’s important, because doing good for others is useless unless the person has a saving relationship with God and can come before God with clean hands and a pure heart, or a clear conscience and have no unconfessed sin (Psalm 24:4). Otherwise, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place” (Psalm 24:3)? We can only stand before God because of Christ, not being saved by works (Eph 2:8-9), but for works (Eph 2:10). Here is what James calls pure religion: (James 1:27). This might mean helping to fix something at the widow’s house or helping to start a single mother’s care. There are orphans and widows all over the place, if we will only look. To “visit” the orphans and widows does not mean we just email them or in church, ask them how they’re doing. Those things are good, but they are not “pure religion.” The word “visit” is Greek (“episkeptomai”) and means “to look upon, to inspect,” or “to examine with the eyes,” so this is not home visit or inquiry about how they’re doing. It’s examining the needs of the orphans and widows. It’s looking upon to see which needs are not being met. And it’s closely inspecting things in their lives where some attention might need to be given. One Sunday, our deacon ended up with his back on the driveway, trying to find where the oil leak was coming from. He was helping a single mother. He was inspecting her car, examining the oil leak, and looking over this single mother and her children, as she was, practically speaking, a widow with orphans.
Part of the problem with being religious is that we can place too high a value on ourselves and less on others, when we are to do the very opposite (Phil 2:1-8). I don’t want to be “religious” in the world’s eyes. I want to be transparent about my fault. I don’t want to do what the Pharisees did and set impossibly high standards for being a Christian. If someone tells us that they are waiting to clean up their lives before coming to God, I tell them that Jesus is the way to holiness, not holiness the way to Jesus. We can’t do anything without Christ (John 15:5) and only anything is done because of Christ’s strength (Phil 4:13), so it’s not how hard we try but Who we trust in. James, in writing about religion, asks us all a very convicting question: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Yes, religion that is pure or acceptable before God is visiting the orphans and the widows in their times of affliction (which could be many), keeping oneself from sinful, worldly practices, and bridling the tongue. The tongue has killed far more people than sticks and stones.
Read more about James chapter 1: How to Face Trials
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible : English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.