Main Idea: True and acceptable religion must include controlled speech, sacrificial care for the needy, and clear separation from the world, all as a manifestation of faith expressing itself through love.
- The Marks of True and Acceptable Religion
- Controlled speech that displays a changed heart (1:26)
- Sacrificial care for those in need (1:27)
- They are helpless.
- We must be selfless.
- Clear separation from the ways of the world (1:27-2:13)
- We are captivated by the glory of Christ.
- We are gripped by the grace of Christ.
- We are devoted to the law of Christ.
- We are cognizant of the judgment of Christ.
- We are a reflection of the mercy of Christ.
- The Manifestation of True and Acceptable Religion
Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher and theologian, once said, "The human race in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament" (Attack, 39).
I agree with Kierkegaard in that we try at every turn to define Christianity on our terms instead of on the terms of God outlined in the New Testament. I am convinced the deep, dark secret of our religious subculture in the southern United States is that we want Christianity and we want church on our terms, according to our preferences, aligning with our lifestyles. We are a people happy to go to church just so long as nothing in our lives has to change. We are a people glad to be Christians just so long as we can define Christianity according to what accommodates us. The only problem is that in order for the religion of Christianity to be authentic, true, and actually acceptable before God, we have to let Him define what it looks like. And His definition of religion, His definition of true Christianity, is radically different from ours.
27In this section of James, we are going to see a New Testament explanation of faith and religion—the kind of religion that honors and is acceptable to God—and we are going to be faced with a choice. Are we going to define religion on our terms and settle for a Christianity that appeals to our lifestyles? Or are we going to submit to God's terms for what faith, religion, and Christianity look like in our lives, in our families, and in our churches? Be careful how you answer. Martin Luther said, "A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing." James 1-2 may turn your idea of Christianity upside down.
The Marks of True and Acceptable Religion
The Marks of True and Acceptable Religion
The word religion doesn't have a positive connotation in many circles, and it really isn't used all that often in the New Testament. But James is introducing a section here where he's going to show us that true religion is characterized by a lifestyle of obedience to God. In the last two verses of chapter 1, he gives us a picture of three marks of true and acceptable religion, and then he expands on the third mark in chapter 2. We need to think about our lives and our faith in terms of these three marks.
Controlled Speech That Displays a Changed Heart (1:26)
The first mark of true and acceptable religion is controlled speech that displays a changed heart. James makes this point in 1:26, one of many times he talks about our speech (see especially 3:1-12). Keep in mind that James leans heavily on what Jesus taught in the Gospels. Jesus clearly taught that what we speak is a reflection of what is in our heart: "For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart" (Matt 12:34; see also Matt 15:18; Luke 6:45). Our speech is a reflection of what is inside of us such that if our speech is not controlled, James says our religion is a sham—worthless, vain, and meaningless.
Oh, Christian brother or sister, be warned here! Don't deceive yourself: when you speak, you tell the truth about your heart. The way men speak to and about their wives tells the truth about their hearts. Likewise, the way women speak to and about their husbands tells the truth about their hearts. The way you speak to your friends, the way you speak to your family, the way you speak about others—all of these things are indicators of whether or not your faith is real. If you are engaging in gossip, if your words are biting, if they are cursing, if they are angry, even 28if they are just plain inundated with trivialities, then be careful; you are showing that your religion is worthless.
James is saying that the tongue is the test of true religion. I want to be careful here because the tongue—what we say—is not the only indicator of our hearts. And we can oftentimes make professions with our lips that are not backed up by our lives. But I believe there is a word of application here for us. In a day of text-messaging, e-mail, cell phones, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc., we need to be careful. We've created an entire culture that says if you have a thought, then you should immediately share it with the rest of the world. But follower of Christ, don't buy that line of thinking. Keep a tight rein on your tongue, and speak in a way that shows your faith is real and the core of your heart belongs to God.
Sacrificial Care for Those in Need (1:27)
Next James says, "Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Here we see both practical compassion and personal purity. Whether in religion or in politics, we often avoid one of these. In politics we can jump on a right-wing, conservative platform and talk about how we need to protect our morals and the sanctity of marriage and life. Or we can jump on a left-wing, liberal platform and talk about how we need to be concerned socially about the poor, the weak, the downcast, and the oppressed. And James says yes to both. Now, I'm not saying James was a Republican or a Democrat; it doesn't really matter here. But James was passionate about saying that Christianity is radically concerned with personal purity (don't be polluted by this world) and with practical, public compassion (care for the people no one else cares about). True Christianity is marked by both personal life and public life that demonstrate religion God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.
The second mark of true and acceptable religion is sacrificial care for those in need. We are to "look after" orphans and widows. That word literally means to "to seek out someone" or to "visit" them, and the implication is that you go to them in order to care for them. This is such a potent word in the New Testament. God uses it to describe how He visits His people to help them, to strengthen them, to encourage them (Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16; Acts 15:14).3 When James wrote this letter, 29there was no life insurance a husband or father would leave to a widow or his children, nor were there government-run programs to provide for them. As the Old Testament story of Ruth shows us, widows and orphans were desolate and destitute. James tells us that true religion consists in looking after the neediest people in your community. He's not just saying that if you are a Christian, this is one way you might help someone else. No, he's saying that if you are a Christian, you are obligated to look after orphans and widows, and if you don't, your religion is not acceptable before God.
We are to help orphans and widows because they are helpless. For the widow or the widower, the deceased spouse creates a void. God is the defender, sustainer, strength, and provider for such people, and His provision comes through the hearts and lives of His people.
Moreover, millions of children lack a parent to wake them up, to play with them, to read to them, and to tuck them in at night. And they are not just on the other side of the world; they are in our community right around us as well. There are 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, over 100,000 of whom are waiting for and wanting a parent to adopt them (AFCARS). James is saying what God says throughout Scripture: we must be selfless, we must not neglect them. Remember, this is religion God our Father accepts. He is Father to the fatherless, and He shows it through His people. Looking after orphans and widows is not an option for the church; it is an obligation for the church.
Clear Separation from the Ways of the World (1:27-2:13)
Many people think James is simply speaking of being morally pure, but I'm convinced there's a key link here between the end of James 1:27 and the beginning of James 2. James mentions the "world" three other times in this letter (2:5; 3:6; 4:4), and each time he is referring to the fallen world system that runs contrary to the ways of God. The implication here at the end of James 1:27 is that we are supposed to be holy, but James defines holiness as going against the grain of the world, not living according to the system of this world. James immediately applies this truth in 1:27 to the issue of favoritism in chapter 2.
Favoritism is a common way the church (then and now) slides into worldliness. The world loves to honor the rich and neglect the poor, and James is saying that the church, if it's not careful, will honor the rich and neglect the poor as well. He says not to show favoritism in 2:1, for faith and favoritism are completely incompatible. He begins this illustration 30by talking about how the church was favoring the rich above the poor, the very thing the world does. In the world's system you honor, respect, and treat well the person who can benefit you the most. Is that what we're doing as followers of Christ today?
At this point we could consider churches we've been a part of where leadership was determined by how much money someone made. If someone had a lot of money, they had a lot of influence in the church. This is sad, and there is no room for it in the church. But have we stopped to consider why we spend what we do on nice buildings and elaborate programs? Is it to appeal to the poor? No, we have designed our buildings and created our programs (maybe unknowingly, but ultimately) to appeal to the rich. People who are rich expect excellence, nice things, and comfort. They expect to feel good, and we have spent God's resources trying to appeal to them. We have not had the poor on our minds at all. It's almost as if we have said to the poor, "Sit at our feet and we will throw you our scraps." We are guilty of favoritism, and in this way we are virtually indistinguishable from the system of the world. We need to repent. But how?
Showing favoritism is ingrained in us. It's so natural for us to want to attract those who will most benefit us. This is where we see five glorious reminders James gave the church in his day that we must remember as the church in our day.
We are captivated by the glory of Christ. James says in 2:1, "My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ." This is only the second time James refers to Jesus directly in this letter (though the teachings of Christ are throughout this book).4 There are some slight differences in how to translate the phrase "glorious Lord Jesus Christ,"5 but the emphasis here is on the glory of God being embodied in the person of Christ, that is, Christ's splendor, majesty, and supremacy over and above all. If we are captivated by this, then we will not show favoritism for at least two reasons.
We will not show favoritism when we see Christ's supremacy over the wealthy. The church in James was giving honor where honor was not due. You don't honor the wealthy because they are rich in money; you honor Christ because He is rich in glory. Only Christ is supreme,31 so we focus our eyes on Him. We will also put aside favoritism when we remember His sacrifice for the needy. Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, came down to the lowly and despised, sinners like you and me; and He gave His life for the poorest of the poor in order that we might be rich in him. Second Corinthians 8:9 says it like this: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich." You can't show favoritism when you know this Christ, when you are captivated by the Lord of glory who gave His everything so that you might be rich in Him. You don't attribute too much to the wealthy, and the last thing you do is look down on the poor because this is exactly who Christ came for—you in all your poverty. See how the gospel transforms the way we live!
We are gripped by the grace of Christ. After he finishes the illustration about the rich and the poor entering the church's meeting in verses 1-4, James says that God chose the poor to be "rich in faith" (v. 5). God, by His grace, throughout redemptive history has delighted in showing His grace to the poor of this world. This truth abounds in every part of the Old and New Testaments. Consider just two representative examples regarding the physically poor:
God, You provided for the poor by Your goodness. (Ps 68:10)
They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do. (Gal 2:10)
These words concerning the physical poor are accompanied throughout Scripture by mention of the spiritually poor. Take for example this famous quote from the Sermon on the Mount:
The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matt 5:3)
This is the testimony of Scripture: God has chosen to show His grace greatly to the poor—to those who suffer with physical needs, and most importantly to those who acknowledge their spiritual need. So similarly here, James says that by neglecting the poor we are negating the grace that lies at the heart of God.
And this is where we remember that Christ reverses our status in this world. This is a summary of much of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels: "He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53). This is also the story of Paul's letters:
32Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. (1 Cor 1:26-29)
Those who are poor in spirit and neglected in this world can find in Christ a richness of spirit that leads to glory in the world to come.
Not only does Christ reverse our status in this world, but also Christ transforms our standards in this world. James is asking, "Do you realize whom you are honoring?" These believers were honoring those who were oppressing and taking advantage of God's people. They wanted the favor of those who were far from God. Now, I want to be careful not to imply that poverty is equated with righteousness and wealth with wickedness. We're not sure about the exact cultural situation James is addressing, but the point is clear. When we look at a man, we look at the outward appearance—the car he drives, the clothes he wears, the house he lives in, the lifestyle he leads—and we often honor him based on these things. But Scripture turns all of that upside down and tells us to look at men through the lens of the grace of God in Christ. This is key in terms of how we view and treat others. We ought to see everyone through the eyes of Christ. We ought to look at brothers and sisters around us, regardless of wealth or socioeconomic status, as those who, like us, are united to Christ, for Christ lives in them. We also need to see men and women around us who are not Christians as those whom Christ created, as those whom He loves, as those He desires to know Him. Let's put aside the standards of this world and see one another through the eyes of the Word, in relation to Christ.
We are devoted to the law of Christ. In verse 8, James starts speaking about "the royal law prescribed in the Scripture." James is quoting here from Leviticus 19:18 when God says to love your neighbor as yourself. And when he speaks about the law, he's not talking about all the Levitical laws, moral codes, and dietary laws. He's talking about the law understood as the commands of God ultimately fulfilled in Christ and understood in light of Christ. This law is summed up in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:28-31; Deut 6:4). The context of this command in Leviticus 19 gives us a pretty strong sense 33of what James is getting at when he cites this Old Testament passage. Verses 15-18 read as follows:
You must not act unjustly when deciding a case. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly. You must not go about spreading slander among your people; you must not jeopardize your neighbor's life; I am Yahweh.
You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.
God said in Leviticus 19 to be just and not to show favoritism but instead to love your neighbor as yourself. Likewise Jesus said in the Gospels to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31).
Then James comes on the scene and says that if you keep this royal law, you are doing right, but if you show favoritism and thus disobey this law, then you are a lawbreaker. James is bringing home the reality that to show favoritism is sin. It is a violation of the law of love, the law of Christ; and when you show favoritism, you are guilty of breaking the law on two fronts.
First, favoritism disrespects man. The word favoritism in the original language of the NT literally means to "receive according to the face," or in other words, to make judgments about people based on external appearance (Moo, James, 102).6 To make such judgments is not in any way to love your neighbor as yourself. James deals with this issue in terms of rich and poor, and appropriately so in light of the context of this passage, but we show favoritism in other ways. Favoritism is present any time we are making judgments about people based on external appearance. This could be according to dress, general physical appearance, color of skin, or a host of other characteristics. As the people of God, we must be on guard against this sin because it is often subtle and almost unnoticed.
Favoritism often shows up, for example, on the basis of ethnicity.7 Imagine walking into a lunchroom by yourself, and you see two tables. 34One table has a group of people ethnically like you, and the other table has a group of people ethnically not like you. What do you instinctively do? You gravitate toward the people who are like you. But why? What is the mental impulse that leads us to make that decision? I don't want to oversimplify this, but it goes something like this, at the speed of thought: One group is not like me, and one group is like me. The group like me is safer, and therefore more comfortable, and more comfortable means there is more to gain. At the speed of thought, you are drawn instinctively toward those who are like you. The opposite thought process goes on when we think of the other table that is not like us. They are not like me and therefore not safe, which means they are not comfortable, and thus I have nothing to gain. James says not to think like this. Don't respond to one another according to the face, according to the outer appearance.
I'm guessing in our day we would embrace the idea that we should not show favoritism, but we have a long way to go in living out this reality. Consider how we talk: People say, "I met a Korean guy the other day," or "I was talking with a Hispanic guy." Why does it matter that he was Korean or Hispanic? Do you usually say, "I met a white guy the other day?" or "I was talking with a black guy?" Why do we feel the need to point out how people are different from us unnecessarily?
Favoritism disrespects man, and ultimately favoritism dishonors God Himself. James tells us that when you break one law, you are guilty of breaking all the law (2:10), and in the process you offend the One who gives the law. To show favoritism toward man is to dishonor God. This is a serious charge, which is what leads James to the next reminder.
We are cognizant of the judgment of Christ. In 2:12-13 James says, "Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn't shown mercy." Because favoritism is such a serious sin, James immediately takes us to an awareness of divine judgment and reminds us that we will be judged according to our consistency of speech and action.
In short, our words will be judged. In Matthew 12:36-37 Jesus says,
I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
That will make you think twice before texting, posting something on social media, or speaking.
35While words are a reflection of our heart, we shouldn't miss how our works relate to judgment, both for Jesus and for James. According to Scripture, our deeds (or lack thereof) will be judged. You might think, "This doesn't make sense in the New Testament—someone like Paul would never speak like this." However, consider what the apostle Paul says in Romans 2:6-11:
He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth but are obeying unrighteousness; affliction and distress for every human being who does evil, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. There is no favoritism with God.
We find a similar idea in 2 Corinthians 5:10, where Paul says, "For we must all appear before the tribunal of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or worthless." Like Paul, James is telling us not to play around with favoritism, with our words, or with our actions. We will be judged for how we respond to what God has said is important.
Remember what Jesus Himself said when he was speaking to those who didn't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or help the poor: "Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!" (Matt 25:41). You will stand before God to give an account for your words, your actions, or your lack of action when it comes to that which God has said is most important—to love your neighbor as yourself. So speak with love and act with love.
Now you might be thinking, "How can I speak and act well enough to be OK before God? I could never do that." And this is where you recognize that you could never do enough to stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and so you subsequently realize that you need Christ's mercy. That leads to our last reminder from James on this point.
We are a reflection of the mercy of Christ. The message of the gospel is that we all need mercy. We need mercy that "triumphs over judgment" (2:13). Praise God that He brings justice and mercy together in the cross, and you and I can be declared right before God based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ. James is saying that when you have experienced that kind of mercy, you clearly know how to show mercy to others. God's mercy in you overflows from you.
36As we have received mercy, so we extend mercy. Just as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, "For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive your as well. But if you don't forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing" (Matt 6:14-15). When you are forgiven of your sins, you are compelled to forgive others. As you have received mercy, you extend mercy. But the converse of this truth is particularly humbling and penetrating: if we do not extend mercy, we demonstrate that we have not received mercy. James says that judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (2:13). This is not saying we need to be merciful to others in order to earn mercy before God. You can't earn mercy; it's mercy because it can't be earned. No, this text is saying you can tell who has received mercy from God by the way they show mercy to others. If mercy is evident in someone's life, then clearly Christ by His mercy is dwelling in them. But if mercy is not evident in them, then there may be reason to wonder whether Christ by His mercy is dwelling in them.
The Manifestation of True and Acceptable Religion
The Manifestation of True and Acceptable Religion
This discussion of showing mercy brings us back to the idea we began with, namely that authentic religion, or faith, must be evident in our actions. If we do not keep a tight rein on our tongue, then our religion is worthless (1:26). If our words and works do not reflect the mercy of God, then we show that we do not have faith in Christ (2:12-13). Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (1:27). If we fail to do these things, then we show that we have not really been transformed by the life-giving mercy of Christ, and our religion is not acceptable before God. Christ produces mercy in His people, which changes the way they act and speak before others. That's the point of this text, for faith always expresses itself through love.
Reflect and Discuss37
Reflect and Discuss
- Name some specific ways in which our Christian culture has twisted the message of New Testament Christianity.
- Why is the term religion viewed so negatively among some Christians? How does James use the word?
- How can you set an example for other followers of Christ by your speech and conversation? What habits of speech do you need to repent of?
- What's the danger of separating personal holiness from compassion for those in need? Which one of these do you find yourself ignoring?
- What has your attitude been toward orphans and widows? What are some practical steps you could take to begin to care for those around you?
- What are some ways you have shown favoritism, maybe even unintentionally, to those in your circle of influence? How have you seen favoritism play out in your church?
- How should Christ's judgment on the last day affect your words and actions today? Does this contradict God's grace? Explain your answer.
- Why does showing mercy depend on receiving mercy, and how does the message of the gospel fit into this?
- How does care for the poor in our communities and around the world affect our gospel witness?
- List some ways in which James's teaching mirrors the ministry and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.
For definitions and uses of the word episkeptomai, see BDAG, 378.
The only other direct reference to Jesus in this letter occurs in the opening verse, where James refers to himself as a "servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ."
The ESV has "Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory."
Moo notes that the word here is plural so that it has "wide-ranging application" (James, 102).
I'm deliberately not using the term race here because of a theological understanding that we are all of the same race, the race of Adam, which is key to understanding our unity in Christ.