By Pastor Glenn Pease
An anthropologist once visited a Bantu village in South Africa to study the customs of the very primitive people who lived there. When he returned to the U.S. he sent back a sun dial to those people to express his thanks for their cooperation. The natives were delighted with their gift, and they were concerned that nothing happen to it, and so they immediately built a thatched roof over it to protect it. In so doing, however, they made it of no practical value. The foolishness of this is obvious to us all, but James says the foolishness is not always obvious to Christian people when they do the same thing with their religion. They take it home after church on Sunday, and they hang it in the closet with their Sunday clothes, and there is stays until the next week. It is as worthless as a sun dial under a roof.
James warns us that if our Christianity is not practical, and we only hear and do not do, then we are deceiving ourselves. A Christianity that is not practical is not a real Christianity. If it does not control your conduct, and change your character, and make you more sensitive to the will of God and the world's need, then you better stop and ask some questions about the reality of your religion. In these last two verses of chapter 1 James has a lesson for us on how to test the reality of our religion. If your religion does not change you, you had better change your religion. James implies that there are three questions that we must be able to answer with a definite yes if we are to be confident that our religion is not vain, but of real value to God, to the world, and to ourselves. The first question that grows out of what James says is-
I. AM I PRUDENT IN MY SPEECH? 26.
James is saying in a different way what Jesus said when He made the statement, "It is not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that defiles him." Jesus was referring to the tongue just as James is. The Bible makes it quite clear that one of the greatest responsibilities that men have is the wise use of their tongue. Jesus said, "By your words you shall be justified and by your words you shall be condemned." A real Christian is one who does not say, "I have freedom of speech, and so I can use my tongue as I please." He is one who presents his body a living sacrifice unto God, and that includes his tongue. He is one who is truthful with his tongue, and wise with his words.
A man who can go to church on Sunday and then curse, and tell dirty stories at the office or plant on Monday is only deceiving himself, "for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." I that is what comes out of his mouth, we know his heart is filled with the language of the world and not that of the Word of God. James is saying that the man's religion is vain, and it has no real value to anyone. He is a double minded man who will receive nothing from the Lord.
It is amazing how many people are deceived at this point. Out of the same mouth comes both sweet and bitter. I have known men who could talk about their church work, and of how they help the church in so many ways, and then a few minutes later hear them using filthy language, and do so with no respect for others in their presence. He thinks he is very religious, but James would say that because he cannot bridle his tongue he fails the test of real religion. A foul and filthy tongue characterized the ancient world, and the Christians who were won out from this type of society had a difficult time in keeping their tongues committed to the glory of Christ. The same problem exists today, where foul language is even very common in the public schools; in modern movies, as well as the workplace. It is easy for the Christian to get caught up in the common expressions of the world and thereby cease to be different from the world. This can totally ruin your witness and make your religious commitment of no value.
Paul was concerned about this problem also, and he wrote to the Colossians and said in 3:8-10, "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: Anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator."This brings us to the basic idea that James is getting at. It has to do with the use of our tongue in relationship to other Christians. When Paul says we are to put away anger , wrath, malice, and lie not to one another, he is saying what James means when he says we must bridle our tongue. William Penn put it this way: "Men who fight about religion have no religion to fight about."
We mentioned before that the Christians to whom James is writing were caught up in a great deal of religious controversy. And unbridle tongue could cause much damage. A tongue not under the control of reason and the Holy Spirit will race wildly across the field of a man's character, kicking, bucking, and trampling it without pity, and the result will be a victory for Satan. Most all great men of God suffer much sorrow because of the severe criticism they receive from Christians. The speed with which Christians are ready to blast out at other Christians is the speed by which they make themselves useless to God, the world, and themselves. All the good a person may do vanishes rapidly when the tongue is filled with malice and contempt for a brother or sister in Christ.
A critical and malicious tongue is a sign of self-righteousness. When a Christian becomes satisfied with his own attainment he tends to become critical of others. He feels that if only others could be as wonderful as he is the church could get somewhere. So he builds a fence around his religion to protect it. He becomes narrow and bigoted, and he sets out to straighten the world according to his standard. The end result is that he does more harm than good, and his religion is as worthless as a sun dial without the sun. He is trying to be a Christian without the spirit of Christ.
There are many more areas where the unbridled tongue is a curse, but we will come to that subject again in our study of James. It is clear what James is getting at, and we must be able to say that we are aware of the power of the tongue, and that we will strive to use its power according to the will of God. If we cannot say that, we had better ask God to forgive us and help us to gain the victory in this area, or our life will count for nothing in the kingdom of God. We may still be saved by faith in Christ, but it will be sad that all of our works will consumed by fire, for they will not stand the test. The second question is-
II. AM I PRACTICAL IN MY SERVICE? v. 27
Before we can answer this question we must understand what James means by religion. This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible. Many have used it to deny the basic truths of Christianity itself. They say that religion is good works, and so we can start an orphans home, or do social work for the needy and widows, and we will get to heaven according to the Bible. But though this seems to be logically based on this verse, we know it contradicts the rest of the Bible, and the rest of the letter of James itself.
There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. James knows that, and in 2:1 he speaks of the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. In 1:1 he is the servant, and all through the chapter he stresses prayer and the Word of God which is able to save souls. Why is all this left out when he tells us what pure religion is? We would expect him to include all these fundamental truths. The problem is not with James, but with our language. The word that James used meant "The external service of God, and not ones inner state before God. James is referring to the result of our faith in Christ, prayer, and fellowship with Christ. He is saying that if these things are real, we will be able to know it because it will show itself in practical service. True religion is not seen in ritual observance, but is practical obedience to the Word of God.
What James is saying can be illustrated by saying the same thing about a mother's love. If I said, "Pure motherly love and undefiled before God is to wash and feed her child." I would not mean by this that love is merely a matter of keeping a child clean and fed. I would mean that if the love of a mother is real it would show itself in a practical way in her care for her child's basic need. This is not the whole of love, but it is the practical result that proves the love is real. So to have a sympathetic concern for human need is not the whole of being a Christian, but it is the practical result that must be seen to know that the vital factor of faith in Christ is real. In other words, being good will show itself in doing good. As John said, if you can see a brother in need and have no compassion, how does the love of God dwell in you?
The world was filled with impractical religion then, and it always has been. Christianity is the only pure and undefiled religion, for if God's Word is obeyed and put into practice it will lead to the compassion of God, which, in turn, leads to vital service that makes a difference in this world of endless needs. People can come to a temple offer sacrifices, burn incense, bow and pray, and lay in submission before God, or go through any number of practices of ritualistic religion, but if they do not go out and serve God in a practical manner, all of this is vain and worthless. Masses of people think they are religious because of their ritual before God, but they never show the compassion of God in the world. James says that if there is no practical service that grows out of one's religion, it is not the Christian religion, but a cheap imitation.
The particular examples that James used to illustrate Christian service are the two that are used all through the Bible. In the ancient world the orphans and widows were the subjects of great injustice. There were no orphan homes, and no social security to help widows. They were often at the mercy of any who sought to do them harm, or take their property. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees who thought of themselves as the most religious of persons. He said, "Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows houses, and for a pretense make long prayers." (Matt. 23:14). This was a long time practice, and they were blind to how inconsistent it was with the nature of God.
It is amazing how often people in the Old Testament had to be commanded not to oppress the widows and the fatherless. They were constant victims of an ungodly world. One of the characteristics that God proclaims of Himself over and over is His concern for the orphans and widows. In Deut. 10:17-18, "For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow...." Keep in mind that James was the brother of Jesus, and his mother Mary was a widow. Joseph died leaving her to raise her family as a single parent.
James was using the most common examples of human need in the world of his day. He does not limit Christian compassion to these examples, but he uses them to illustrate that a religion that does nothing to help the needs of those who are in need of help is not a religion but can be called Christian. Real Christians have been the greatest source of compassion in history. Orphanages are the product of Christian compassion. The first hospital for the insane was started by a Christian. Hospitals, prison reform, and servants of the poor such as the Salvation Army are all the products of Christian compassion. These are not works that earn salvation, but they are works that reveal the reality of salvation. Practical service the fruit of true personal salvation.
It was a very practical matter to see that widows were supplied with their needs. This need led to the election of the first deacons in the early church. Tertullian, the famous leader of the church in North Africa in the second century describes the practice of the church in his day. "Each man deposits a small amount on a certain day of the month or whenever he wishes, and only on condition that he is willing and able to do so. No one is forced. Each man makes his contribution voluntarily. These are, so to speak, the deposits of piety. The money therefrom is spent not for banquets or drinking parties or good for nothing eating houses, but for the support and burial of the poor, for children who are without their parents and means of subsistence, for aged men who are confined to the house, likewise for shipwrecked sailors, and for any in the mines, or islands, or in prisons." They took seriously what Jesus said when He taught that what we do unto the least of his brothers, we do to Him.
Tertullian went on to say, "The practice of such a special love brands us in the eyes of some. 'See,' they say, 'how they love one another....' This is the response that real religion should bring forth from the real world. It is true that men can be deceived, and think that all that is necessary is the social gospel, and forget the basic need of salvation from sin and new life in Christ, but that danger is no excuse for Christians to refrain from being practical in their service in meeting social needs. If we keep our Christianity a matter of theology, feelings, and ideas, and never get practical, we are not spiritual from God's point of view. We have looked at two test questions: Are we prudent in our speech, and are we practical in our service. If we can say yes to the first, but not to the second, our religion is not realistic enough to please God. And if we can say yes to both, but not to the third, we are still falling short of the glory of God, and the third is this-
III. AM I PURE IN MYSELF? v. 27.
To make our religion practical we have to get out into the world to meet its needs, but James wants to make it clear that we must be in the world but not of it. In other words, don't become contaminated by the world as you seek to lift it. This means we need a constant reliance upon God. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were to be without spot, and so in the New Testament we are to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God. The only way we can keep from being spotted by the world is by a careful walk and constant confession.
It is possible to become a world spotted Christian, and to be more influenced by the world's standards than God's. Hugh Macmillan tells of how in the British Museum there is a splendid hall in which the Elgin Marbles are shown. They are statues and figures craved by the greatest sculptors that have ever lived. They have been the admiration of the artistic world for over 2000 years. They are kept with the greatest care to preserve them without spot. Night and day the air is warmed to keep it dry and free from all dampness. Plate glass is over delicate areas, and larger areas are gently cleaned every morning by a pair of bellows which blow away any particle of dust. Every 2 or 3 years they are gone over with a fine sponge in lukewarm water, and then wiped with a dry sponge. Only skilled men working inch by inch over a period of days are allowed to do this. Macmillan says, "No crown jewels in the world are treated with such care." Why? It is because they cannot be replaced.
How much more ought a Christian to take care of the greatest work of the divine sculptor? It is his own body in which resides his eternal soul. The Christian who is careless about the purity of his life has not quite understood the price that was paid to redeem him from the present evil world. There is a lack of realism in his religion, and it does not ring true. The only one who can ever lift the world is the one who is above it. This does not mean to shut self off from the world, but, like Christ, to be so busy doing good there is no time to get involved with the world on its level of corruption. As Phillips Brooks said, "The life of Christ was like an open stream that keeps the sea from flowing up into it by the eager force with which it flows down into the sea." What a picture of what the Christian life should be-a stream of practical activity flowing into the ocean of the world's need with none of the ocean getting into the stream.
True purity is gained by being positive, and not by doing nothing so as to avoid doing wrong. He who stays pure by doing nothing is evil, nonetheless, for he is a hearer and not a doer, and only deceives himself if he thinks he pleases God. God demands a positive and practical purity.
We have asked three questions: Am I prudent in my speech? Am I practical in my service? Am I pure in myself? These questions test the reality of our religion. If we pass this test it means we represent the only religion that is from above. God does not lower his standard to fit man. He promises His grace and power to help them grow to His standard if they hunger and thirst after His righteousness. We could never fully reach that standard. Christ was the only perfect Christian. Paul never attained it, but he kept pressing on. All of us are imperfect Christians, but if our life is a constant striving to be able to say yes to the three questions we have looked at, we are real Christians, and our religion is pleasing to our Lord.
What does this word religion mean? Words change with time and become richer or poorer. Religion is a word that was once rich, but then became poor. But it is beginning to come back and at least be respectable. When I was in college it was a sign of advanced thinking to declare that Christianity is not a religion. It was explained that religion was man search for God, but that Christianity was the good news that God has found man. This is not just clever, but it is also true. It fails to follow through, however, with the fact that once we recognize we are found by God, we want to serve Him, worship Him, praise Him, pray to Him, and be channels of his grace in this lost world by works of love that help turn others to Him to receive His grace, and all of this is religion. What we should say is that Christianity does not start with religion, but it becomes a religion after one is saved by grace.
Religion that is mere external observance and ceremony is vain if it does not make the life of the person pleasing to God and beneficial to man. The religious person who is biblically religious will be a person who is a blessing to all who know them. Your religion is not only seen in church, but in your daily life. We say a man is religious if he is always at every service, reads his Bible, and prays, but the fact is, that can all be of no value if it does not lead to practical living that is a blessing to others.
Tis worth a wise man's best of life,
Tis worth a thousand years of strife,
If thou canst lessen but by one
The countless ills beneath the sun. Author Unknown
The Christian is one who should always be for the underdog, the oppressed, the helpless, and the needy. In our day the orphan and widow may be well cared for, but in Bible times they represented the most needy class of people. In our day it may be the homeless, the unemployed, the handicapped, and just lonely people who have the greatest need for our service and encouragement.
If we took a survey among evangelicals, and had a list of things like belief in the trinity and atonement, and read the Bible and pray, and go to Sunday School and mid week service, we would see the majority choosing these as the key to being truly religious. Visiting orphans and widows would be far down the list of priorities. Leave such things as this, and being an encourager to all the others we have mentioned to the do-gooders would be a common conclusion. But James is saying those who get practical and do good to others who need it are the ones who understand what true religion is all about. If you stop short and keep your religion limited to things you do in church, you have a sub- Christian religion. It is only when your religion moves you to, like Christ, give yourself to meet the needs of others that you have a biblical,true, and real religion.