Is Your Religion True?

No one likes a braggart, but especially one who brags about things that they can’t back up. We use the expression “put your money where your mouth is” to goad the braggart into actually doing what he is saying. Now, this is a gambling phrase, which I do not endorse, but I think the expression helps us understand the importance of speech ethics. Say someone is betting on a horse race. Their friend is telling them they should bet on this particular horse, but they themselves haven’t put any money down. So the friend says, put your money where your mouth is. Speech is easy, but if not backed up by action, it is empty.

Scripture has a lot to say about our speech and, in particular, the interplay between what we say and what we do. James, in our text today is unpacking what it means to be slow to speak. This vital topic, James will return to in much more depth later on in chapter 3. But in our text, James is addressing the relationship between what we say and what we do. As we read this text today, I want you to keep this question in mind. “What is true religion?” We often think of religion or religious as pejorative terms. In particular, the millennial generation uses this expression to designate something they are not. They say something like I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. By that, they usually mean I don’t go to church or have any form of external worship, but I think there might be some “higher power,” and I connect to him/them in my own way. But James is not using religious in that way. Instead, he means positively. He is setting out some examples of what true religion is not and what it is, and as he does that we get an understanding of what he means by religious. We find that James gives a threefold answer. James teaches that true religion is a bridled tongue, care for the needy, and keeping unstained from the world. What we find is true religion is a matter of the heart and results in action.

James 1:26–27 (ESV)

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

True religion is a bridled tongue.

James in v. 26 says if any man thinks, or supposes, or what the old KJV says seems to be religious but, and it is always vital that we pay attention to the buts. But does not bridle his tongue that man’s religion is worthless. Our devotion to God doe does not consist only in the things that we say, but as James will go on to show must result in action. We have all encountered someone who calls themselves a Christian and may even sound pious in the way that they talk, but in reality, their heart is far from God. This is exactly what Jesus was warning the Pharisees about when he said:

11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Mt 15:11, ESV).

You see, Pharisees were all external, and they concerned themselves with their washings, cleanliness, and what they ate. They used this as the measure of your devotion to God. But Jesus comes along and does seem to care at all about their traditions. Instead, he is eating with tax collectors and sinners, and his disciples aren’t washing their hands. They are confused because he doesn’t meet their expectations of what true religion looks like. Jesus warns them that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out.

You see, our words are very, very powerful things. With words, God created the world out of nothing. Then at the fullness of time, he sent his Son, the divine Word of God, to be the redemption for lost sinners. Then, the Spirit gives life and sustains us in this poor fallen world by the Word of God. And that’s just some of the ways God uses words. James, in Chapter 3, cautions against us against the use of our tongue. You see, like many other gifts that God has given us, the tongue can be used for blessing, and it can be used for cursing. Often how you use your tongue will tell you an awful lot about the kind of person you are.

It takes the cooperation of 72 different muscles to produce speech. On average, 16,000 words come out of your mouth every day. That adds up to a whopping 860.3 million words in the average American lifetime. What do all the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and sentences say about your life and the condition of your heart?

We have all met the person who claims to be a Christian, and they are sure they are, but the way they talk gives you pause. There is a disconnect between who they say they are, and what they say. You know the type, the ones that you don’t say anything too that you don’t want everyone in the whole church to know. They always have an opinion about everything, and they will offer it unsolicited. They can pray rousing prayers that are very elegant, but behind closed doors, they turn that same eloquence into vitriol and spew hatred from their mouth. They are the kind of person that has convinced themselves that slander is not slander at all, but just them telling someone else the facts. You know their just truth-tellers. Ultimately they are characterized by their inability to be slow to speak. Remember, in the last days of Jesus, when he stood before the Sanhedrin, and ruling officials, they kept compelling him to speak, and he stood silent—like a lamb before the slaughter is silent. I used to often quote to my children proverbs 10:19: “In the multitude of words there is no lack of sin, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” That’s all James is saying. True religion is a bridled tongue. No one is more susceptible to this than preachers are, we make our living speaking, and so we are bound to show error in something we say sooner or later.

How do we express true religion, that is, what does devotion to God look like. Well, James says it looks like a bridled tongue. It looks like our ability to control something that James will later go on to tell us has never been tamed. Still, as Jesus taught, it is our hearts’ condition that will dictate what comes out of our mouth. When my children get older and are drawn to the world, one of the first things that are alluring is swearing. There seems to be a rush of excitement when they learn a new way to express bodily excrement or functions. But when they speak that way, I tell them to be intelligent. When I was in the military, as many of you were, many folks whole vocabulary consists of four-letter words, and these they can use as nouns, verbs, and direct objects. But I tell my children its one thing for someone who hasn’t been given a vocabulary to express themselves intelligently. Still, you are a Christian, and you have the word of God dwelling in you richly, so I expect your speech to be more intelligent. As we grow in grace and our hearts become more saturated with God’s word, we should expect that more of that will come out in the way we talk. Paul says as much in Col. 3:16-17

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:16–17, ESV).

It is a sobering thing that we will be judged by every idle word as Jesus says,

36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” (Mt 12:36, ESV).

So we are to strive for holiness in our speech, being slow to speak. But you can be sure that you will fail. You will say something at that meeting at work that you will regret. You will let slip that harsh word toward your spouse in your frustration. But the important thing is that you be continually repenting. Going to that person you know you might have used your words against, and asking forgiveness. As James will go onto show, holiness in speech is a difficult task, but one we must strive after every day. James shows that true religion is a bridled tongue.

True religion is care for the needy.

But a bridled tongue is not enough on its own to show a true religion. Else the quietest among us, would be the most devoted to God. But look with me at v. 27. James, after laying out for us what true religion is not, now begins to build a case for what true religion looks like. What we find is that true religion results in action. He gives two primary, very practical recommendations for what true religion consists of: visiting widows and orphans in their affliction—and keeping oneself unstained from the world. But before we look at these two characteristics notice what James says at the beginning of v. 27: true religion that is pure and undefiled before God, why does James say it like that? Scripture often connects purity and morality. As in Psalm 24:3-4, where the psalmist asks who may ascend the Lord’s hill? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. Which is exactly what we find him doing here as he shows that true religion consists both in outward expression, and inward piety. These cannot be separated, and when you do, you get things like liberalism with its emphasis on the social gospel, and a clear lack of holiness. Or you get a kind of pietism that has retreated from the world. It so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. We feel this tension always. But James shows that true religion consists of both, and each is mutually sustaining the other.

But for the sake of opening this text up, let’s look at each of these separately. First, James says true religion consists in visiting orphans and widows in their affliction. We have noticed that scripture often puts these two types of people together as we have been going through some of the psalms of lament on Wednesday evening. When scripture is referring to widows and orphans, it refers to the weakest in society, those with the least amount of power. These are members of our society who are helpless and need someone to advocate for them. In the OT, these are widows, the fatherless, the poor, and those who are sojourning in our midst.

In James’ first-century context, a widow or an orphan is in a much worse circumstance than here in America. But in that context, women did not have the freedoms they now enjoy, so finding work that would have helped elevate her station would have been very difficult and tiresome. What’s more, people who did offer help, often did so with strings attached. Often justice was denied to these types of people, usually because they could not pay a bribe. Similarly, children who grew up fatherless, lacked the protection, financial security, and the opportunities for apprenticeships and mentorship for their future vocations. Occupying these stations in society was a bleak prospect.

Into that context came the Christians. Whereas Rome had long practiced infanticide, and fathers had the right to put their wives and children to death for whatever they pleased, and the poor were used and subjugated for slavery. The Christian’s came with a message of hope, they took in the poor, and they adopted babies that had been exposed by the Romans.
Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, had this to say of Christians.

These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).

Not only are we called to devote ourselves to the poor, but it is also a winsome apologetic for the gospel. I am so delighted to see how charitable this church is, rising to the occasion to bless one another and care for each other’s needs. Also, many of you have adopted children, putting your faith in action to care and love those who are most vulnerable among us—children. I also know that this church has a passion for the life of unborn children, by serving, and supporting organizations like Options. All of these, we ought to be doing, and more as we are able. James is teaching that faith in action looks like caring for those who can’t take care of themselves. What better way to do that then through the mercy ministry of Hope Church. If you have ideas of ways that we as a church can better meet our community’s needs, please reach out to our Deacons. They would be delighted to come alongside you and help think about how best we can get involved to care for those who need us most. We are not a rich church, but I am always amazed at how God richly blesses us as we step out in faith. Our problem is not finances; our problem is lack of vision and the prayer that ungirded that vision. So dream big, and pray hard, and let us devote ourselves to visiting widows and orphans helping to relieve them of their afflictions. James shows us that true religion is care for the needy

True religion is keeping unstained from the world.

But as I mentioned earlier, action must always be coupled with a heart that is devoted to God. The second characteristic of true religion, James says, is keeping oneself unstained from the world. The question we ask first is what does James mean by the world. The word is used often in scripture, sometimes it refers basically to the creation or the entirety of the human race. But the NT authors will also use it to refer to the systems of this world that are contrary to God. Because of sin, man has fallen such that everything he is and does is corrupted by sin. In contrast with the systems of this present world is the system of God’s economy. These are at odds with one another, what James in 4:4 calls at enmity with God.

We are used to thinking of this in terms of worldview. Everyone has a worldview. These are a set of basic presuppositions, that help us make sense of the world around us. They help us answer the very basic questions that we all have, such as who we are, where we come from, what is wrong, and what is the solution? These are the most fundamental questions all humans ask. The stories that we tell to answer them then shape the way we view the world. For instance, a materialist worldview, ask where did I come from? In a strictly material way, so the story it tells of creation is one of evolution. That foundational creation story then has great significance for how the materialist looks out at the world. If you were to take the conclusions of a materialist worldview out to its logical end, you would have absolute anarchy and chaos, as the dominate species all vie for the position of supremacy. Thankfully in the case of unbelieving worldviews, they are rarely consistent but do often borrow from other worldviews, such as the Christian worldview, to help them make sense of the world around them. This helps illustrate one point that I would like to make concerning keeping oneself unstained by the world, and that is whose story you are listening too.

There was two young fish swimming past an older fish, and the older fish said to the two younger, hey guys, how’s the water? The two younger ones went on for a while, and then one said to the other, what the heck is water? We take for granted the world that we are swimming in every day. But the media we consume, the people that we listen to, and the books we read subtly shape the way that we view the world, or what we call our worldview. But because they are so prevalent around us, we sometimes don’t think about how they do that. They do that by shaping our desires by shaping what we love.

You see, our desires drive us; that’s not a bad thing, just how God has hard-wired us to be. But unfortunately, because of sin, our desires are corrupt. Part of our sanctification then is conforming our desires to the things of God. Throughout our lives, by the Spirit’s use of the ordinary means of grace, we are steadily being shaped to love what God loves and hate what God hates. But it’s not as if our sanctification is carried out in some neutral free zone. Instead, we live in a world of competing desires, all vying for your attention. We, therefore, are like Odysseus as he navigates home. He is warned by Circe when he passes the island of the beautiful sirens to stop his ears with beeswax so he cannot hear their lovely call. We have the siren call of the world inundating us every day. The call plays to our innate weakness, sometimes accusing us, sometimes accusing God. Sometimes we hear the world telling us you will never be good enough to be a Christian, you might as well join us. Or it will accuse God and say God is stingy and doesn’t want you to have fun, come with us, and we will show you fun, pleasure, happiness, etc. These calls are lies, like the peaceful meadows of the sirens that concealed beneath them the bones of men. The world offers satisfaction, but it can never satisfy.

So we need always to be reminded of the dangers of worldliness. One of the ways that we can avoid the siren call of worldliness is to make use of all the means of grace. One of those means is the preaching of the Word. One reason we always have preaching each Lord’s day is that it is the way that God uses to speak to us. So we hear God through his word tell us plainly the things that he loves and the things he hates. Does the world outmatch your input of the voice of God around us?

On average, Americans consume about two hours of Netflix a day, and about two hours of social media use. That’s 14 hours a week watching TV and 14 hours scrolling through a social media feed. Sunday morning worship, especially while we have been live-streaming, is one hour a week. Of the 48% of bible users in America, only 5% read every day, saying the bible has a significant impact on their lives. Only 36% of evangelicals say they pray every day, the rest may pray once a week, or month, or not at all. My point is not to guilt you out. These statistics are harrowing. The problem is our social planners have engineered a perfect environment to capture our attention. Social media service is making billions of dollars just by selling our attention to the highest bidders. There is this principle in scripture that you become like what you worship, and you worship what you love.

Bringing us back around then, what is true religion. True religion is keeping oneself unstained by the world. That whole process is just sanctification, the steady, sometimes slower than we would like process of making us more like Christ. You see, James, in our text today is teaching us that true religion is a matter of the heart and results in action. We found that true religion is a bridled tongue, care for the needy, and keeping oneself unstained by the world. By reducing true religion to these three things, James does not exclude others, like worship, orthodox doctrine. Still, James is writing to a particular church to exhort them to greater faithfulness. He has reminded them of these aspects for a reason—because they are areas that they need reminding of. True religion does not consist just in saying pious things, James is encouraging us to put our money where our mouth is. He will pick up this theme after a brief interlude on showing partiality in two weeks when he outlines for us what true faith looks like—its a matter of the heart, and always results in action.

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