J. Gordon Duncan

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Family Devotion and Sermon Notes for James 1:26-27

Big Picture Question:  What is True Religion?

Big Idea:  Worship is never about just you and God

James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

  • Not matter what we think, Christianity is a religion.  Do you consider yourself religious?  If so, how and why?
  • What does James say must happen if you consider yourself religious?
  • Why is the bridling of the tongue necessary for being religious?
  • Why does the lack of bridling the tongue make one’s religion 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.

 What is the pure and undefiled religion that God accepts?

  • Why would God value visiting orphans and widows?
  • What do those acts of mercy have to do with keeping oneself unstained from the world?
  • Are there people in great need like orphans and widows that you know that you could specifically serve?
  • If you did, how would you have to keep yourself unstained from the world?

There is almost no more offensive word in the English language than religion.  Even among Christian circles, you’ll hear people avoid the word or distancing themselves from it.  They’ll say, “I have a relationship, not a religion.”  One of the reasons the word religion is hated is because it brings to mind either terrible images of misuse and abuse or it brings to mind dead, stoic worship.  Religion brings to mind things like terrorism, the Crusades, and concentration camps.  While at the same time causing many of us to think about things like cold, damp cathedrals full of statues and dudes in dresses.  At what I think is the absolute worst, the word religion brings to mind memories of harsh judgementalism and even abuse at the hand of supposed Godly men and women.

As Tim Keller wisely says in his book “The Reason for God” – “So many people’s problem with Christianity has far more to do with the church than with Jesus.”  But make no mistake; every single human being is religious in some way.  In some way, most people are living out a life that says, “God, help me find you.”   The difference in faith in Jesus as opposed to every other faith, we can cry, “God, come find me,” and have a hope that God will do just that.

So this week, we are going to look at what James calls “true religion” and I bet many of us are going to be surprised by the answer – even if we have heard it before.  So towards that end, let me offer this idea and this question to guide our way.  Big Picture Question:  What is True Religion?  Coupled with this Big Idea:  Worship is never about just you and God

James 1:26 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.

As always, we need to place the commands of James within its proper context.   Last week, we saw James make things incredibly plain for all of us who claim to be Christians.  He said, “Don’t be deceived:  Be a doer of God’s word and not a hearer only.  James goes on to explain that when we look into the scriptures what we see is our true self.  We understand our need because of sin.  We understand how our need is met through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We understand how to be forgiven.  And we understand how to live in light of all of those things.

But if we read the scriptures and don’t put all of those into practice through obedience then what we are really doing is looking into a mirror, seeing ourselves, and then walking away and forgetting what we looked like.  We concluded last week by talking about how the Spirit of God enables His children to obey.  Romans 8 explains that the very Spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead enables us now to obey.  And Ephesians 4 explains that what the Sprit does is He enables us to put off our old self of sin, put on the new self of Jesus and to display our renewed self to the world by telling our neighbor about these truths.

So with all of that, James moves into some pretty heavy, weighty, and controversial areas.  If we are going to obey the scriptures, what is that going to look like?  What is the religion of following Jesus, called Christianity, going to look like?  We begin to see that in verse 26.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

James is going to explain to us what it looks like to be a Christian.  Remember, he is not explaining what you do to become a Christian.  He is explaining what it looks like once you become a Christian.  And he swings for the fences.  One of the evidences to your heart and the world that you have faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins is that you know how to bridle your tongue.  If you don’t bridle your tongue, your religion is worthless and you are deceived.   So, if this is going to be this important, then we need to know what it means to bridle our tongue.

Well a bridle guides the animal, restrains the animal, and controls the animal.  Part of the bridle is the bit.  The bit goes into the horse’s mouth, and interestingly enough, the bit always sits on top of the tongue.  From my reading this week and according to some horse enthusiasts here, a bit under the tongue does no good at all.  You have to control the tongue to control the horse.  A gentle nudge to the left, and the horse goes left.  A gentle nudge to the right, and the horse goes right.  Pull back and the horse pulls up.

That is exactly the type of control you and I as professed followers of Jesus Christ are supposed to have on our tongue.  And if you are a non-believer sitting in the crowd and you hear this and think, “Christians don’t control their tongue,” I would say, “Yep, you’re right.  We rarely do.  If we don’t control our tongue, according to James, then we are deceived and our religious expression of worship of Jesus is worthless.  Oh, boy we are in trouble, aren’t’ we?

You are to exert the same manner of self-control over your tongue that a bridle and rider exerts over a horse.  Why?  Why is the tongue that important?   Why should the exercise of that be so important?  Well James answers that for us.  Later on in the book of James, he will tell us this:

James 3: 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James says that whatever is in your heart is what is going to come out.  Guys, I once worked a Christian bookstore.  It made me pretty jaded about the entire “Christian” industry.  Putting “Jesus loves you” stickers on yo-yos will do that for you.  I guess those yo-yo’s were more safe for kids to play with since they proclaimed Jesus – insert sarcasm here.  But what really was a struggle for me at the Christian bookstore was the temper and anger and language of my boss.  If I made a mistake, he would yell at me.  He would call me stupid.  His mother worked at store as the bookkeeper and he would yell at her and call her names that I cannot and will not repeat here.  One day, he got so mad, that while he was yelling at all of us, he put his fist through a class display case, shattering it to a million pieces.  As a young Christian, I thought, “Is this what we are called to?”

But fortunately, I also had the privilege of working with a staff worker at Intervarsity at ECU who was a very calm and Godly man.  And even though he and I disagreed a lot, he measured his words carefully, even when he was frustrated with me.  If I walked away mad, it wasn’t because of hurtful or guilt-inducing words.  I didn’t always like what he had to say but I wasn’t mad at the way he said it.  And notice, this passage is not say don’t speak.  Not speaking is a type of Godly self-control, but it is not the end game of controlling your speech.  This is speaking of a God given control of one’s speech where we do speak but we do with words of wisdom and grace.

Right now, we all need to reckon our words well because according to his passage, out of all of the communities in which we are involved, this group here at SK, should have the greatest amount of speech self-control.  And if we don’t we are deceived and our religion is worthless.  Honestly, take a look at your habits of speech right now.  Parents, children, siblings, coworkers, Christians.  Your words should be truthful, sprinkled with grace, devoid of anger, devoid of selfishness.  And as we saw a few weeks ago, our interactions with others should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  And for some you, the problem is you don’t speak.  You don’t say anything.

You think Grandma’s advice is biblical, “Well if you can’t say something nice then don’t say nothing at all.”  That’s not biblical.  That is not a bridled tongue.  That horse is still in the barn.  Just being quiet instead of speaking with a gracious controlled tongue is uncaring and displays a lack of faith.  Some of us need to speak less and a bunch of us need to speak more.  Either way, how you speak is evidence of whether your religion is worthless or not.

Now, what I hope is that we hear this and because we know Christ as our Savior, we respond with a desire not for a worthless religion but an exercise of faith that has great value, worth something.  And thankfully, James tells us.  He doesn’t just say, not bridling the tongue makes your faith worthless, he displays for us what a faith looks like that is not worthless.  And if you thought bridling the tongue was hard, wait till you get a look at what he says in verse 27.

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.

A pure reflection of heart worship to God is described by James in 3 ways:  Visiting orphans Visiting widows in their affliction And keeping oneself unstained from the world.  What?  Why these three?  I bet you could come up with at least 2 that are different than these?  Right?

What would the Presbyterian list look like?  My guess would be Subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Have family devotions every night, Don’t go out to eat on Sunday

What would the Baptist list look like?  Only baptisms after profession of faith.  Immersion only, baptize means immerse.

The hymn lovers would be Hymns only, no guitars, no drums.

The public school proponents would be Love your neighbor in the school system.

The homeschoolers list would be “Don’t send your kid to public school.”

The teetotalers would be “Never drink alcohol, never, ever.

The drinkers would be “Never drink bad alcohol, never, ever.

And you know?  For the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the hymn lovers, the public school proponents, the homeschoolers, the teetotalers, the drinkers, all of those convictions are fine and good.  But the authoritative James command says, “Pure, undefiled religion, the one that God accepts is visiting orphans, widows in their affliction, and keeping oneself unstained from the world.”  Let’s dig into that and make sure we understand it because apparently whether or not we obey this verse is going to demonstrate whether we are living out a life of faith that is acceptable to God or not.

Why do you think James mentions caring for orphans and widows while keeping oneself unstained from the world?  And I guess secondly, we should ask, “If I don’t know any widows and orphans, what should I do then?”  Essentially, James is telling us that a religion that is pure and undefiled before God is one where you actively live out a life of mercy to those in need, doing it in the context of a sinful world, and doing it without compromising Biblical convictions and commandments.  You see, visiting orphans and caring for widows was a commandment of the law and served as a euphemism for meeting the needs of anyone who was oppressed and standing in need.  This extension of mercy to those in need in the midst of a sinful world reflected the character of the heart of God.

Deuteronomy 10:17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him.

In Deuteronomy, we find God re-presenting the Law to the people of God.  In that, God is describing His character.  He executes justice for the fatherless, the widow, and the alien sojourner.  And as a direct consequence, God’s people were to reflect the character of God by caring for those in need in the exact same way.  In Jeremiah 7, we see God speaking of mercy to widows and orphans as an expression of His character and as something the people were to do as worship and honoring to that character.

Jeremiah 7:4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ 5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm,

God was saying, “Don’t call this place a temple of worship just because you show up and offer sacrifices here.  This is a place of worship acceptable to God if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, the widow, do not shed innocent blood, and don’t worship other Gods.  You see, the heart of God, there is a direct connection between what happens in these moments of worship here and what we do when we are not in these moments here.  Our worship of God is acceptable and pure here if we are actively caring for those who are oppressed and in need out there, all the while doing it without compromising Biblical convictions.

Let me show this one more time and this from the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 1:12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.  New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me;    I am weary of bearing them.

Now, hear what is going on in Isaiah.  The people are obeying in their acts of worship.  They are bringing offerings to God.  They are burning incense in their prayers.  They are observing both the New Moon festivals and resting on the Sabbath.  This is good biblical worship.  This is like us getting together and singing and praying and preaching and giving, doing the things that we see as Biblically instructed worship.  And then God says, “I can’t stand any of that stuff.”

In fact, the language of Isaiah from God is this.  You are trampling my courts.  Your offerings are in vain.  Your incense is an abomination which is the same word that God used when someone offered their child in sacrifice to some pagan deity.  God, “I hate your assemblies.”  I hate it when you guys get together and “worship”  God says His very soul hates their observing of their festivals and their feasts.  In fact, God says that their prayers are burdensome to Him.  “Those people, again?”  And God goes on in verse 15 to tell them what He was going to do in responses.

15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

As a result of God hating the worship that they were offering, God promised to hide his eyes from them.  God was not going to listen to the prayers they offered.  God tells them that they will do all the Biblical commands of worship, and when they get done, God will reject their worship and not hear their prayers.  Why?  Why is it that God hated it when His people were doing what God had commanded them to do?  Verses 15-17 tell us.

Your hands are full of blood.  16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless,  plead the widow’s cause.

God accuses the people of God of having bloody hands that need cleaning.  Were the people actively killing others and then coming to worship like they were not sinning?  No, their hands were full of blood because they didn’t seek justice and correct oppression by showing mercy to the fatherless and the widow.

Essentially, not being merciful to those in need, in God’s economy, is the same as the shedding of blood and that leads to unacceptable worship.  Not being merciful to those in need is oppressive and because they were not doing works of mercy and justice, God didn’t accept their worship.  Their worship was defiled, impure, and unacceptable before God.  In verse 18, we see God call them to repentance.

18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel,    you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

God says, “Listen, these sins of oppression and neglect are red before me.”  But in verse 18, we see that God Himself is going to make their sins white as snow and white as wool.  If the people repented and demonstrated the fruits of repentance by caring for those in need, then God was going to bless them.  If they refused to repent and refused to care for those in need around them, then God was going to punishment them.

These truths are the basis for James telling you and me that true worship that God accepts is caring for widows and orphans and doing it in such a way so as not to be stained by the sins of this world.  Now, you might hear this and think, “But Gordon, Isaiah and Jeremiah were OT.  I mean James is saying we should do acts of mercy, but that OT stuff is kind of harsh isn’t it?  Doesn’t Jesus change all of that?  Well let’s see.

Matthew 25: 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Okay we will start here.  When Jesus returns in His glory, He will sit on His glorious throne and every nation will be gathered before Him.  And He will divide every nation onto either onto His left and onto His right.  The left will be the goats, and the right will be the sheep.  To the sheep on the right, Jesus will say, “Come into the kingdom that God the Father has prepared for you from the very foundation of the world.”  And what characterizes these sheep who get to enter into the kingdom of God?  They served the king.  They served Jesus.  When Jesus was hungry, they gave Him food.  When Jesus was thirsty, they gave Him water.  When Jesus was a stranger they welcomed Him.  When Jesus was sick and in prison, they visited Him.  The sheep on the right wondered, “When did we do that?”  And the King responds with, “Whenever you served the least in this world, you served me.”  Whenever the sheep showed mercy in the midst of this sinful world, Jesus counted it as worship of Jesus.  You serve them, you are serving me, Jesus says.  To the goats on the left, the exact opposite happened.

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Jesus throws the goats on the left into eternal fire because Jesus was hungry and thirsty and a stranger and sick and in prison and they did not serve Him.  And just like the sheep, they ask, “When did all of this happen?  When did we neglect you?”  And Jesus responds, when you didn’t show mercy to those in need, you didn’t worship me.  Go to hell.  Pure undefiled religion that God accepts is caring for widows and orphans and doing it without being stained from this world.  Unfortunately, so much of the church today wants to hide from active involvement in the world so as to be unstained but they do it the neglect of showing mercy to those in need.  If we ask ourselves how we are doing here at SK, we might make the mistake of patting ourselves on the back.

I am thankful that any time we have thrown out the option to serve the EMS, the Police, and Hayes Place, you guys have responded.  But I don’t think we live these verses out every day as we should.  Yes, as a collective, we have been blessed with the privilege of serving those families in need, but are you actively going into this world, and serving those in need?  If not, your worship may very well be defiled and impure.

But ask yourself, “When was the last time you actively loved and served someone who could never repay the favor as an act of worship to God?”  How is that 100 yards from this building is an apartment complex where children are left alone, kids need tutoring, parents neglect their kids, folks are hungry, people can’t pay their bills, and we are not an active part of that mercy yet?  We should walk incredibly humbly before God right now.  We should think long and hard about what we are doing right now if we are given over to going into this world, protecting our hearts and yet serving those in need.

I don’t know, I’m no prophet, but maybe we haven’t grown as a church, maybe we haven’t seen God’s blessing in terms of new people coming to know Christ and being  able to pay our bills and other areas because our religion hasn’t been pure and undefiled.  I don’t know the mind of God in that area, but I do know that we should hear these verses from James and beg that God would make them true at SK.  True not only corporately when we undertake efforts of mercy but true for each and every one of you.  That attitude of worship is detailed for us in 2 Corinthians 1
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

God shows us mercy through Jesus Christ when we get this horribly wrong.  Without God’s mercy, we have no hope whatsoever to even attempt worship or mercy.  But we go to God in our need and God meets our need with His comfort.  And as we struggle and are afflicted in every single way, God comforts us then too.

But that comfort is not intended to stop merely in the meeting of your need.  Verse 4 tells us then that the redeemable purpose of your affliction, whatever it may be, is that you then take the comfort that you have received from God and offer it to others who are in need.  You worship God by extended mercy and comfort to others in this sinful world and you can do that because God has extended mercy and comfort to you in the midst of this sinful and hurtful world.

Some of you may wonder, “God, when is this miserable life of mine going to change,” and the answer might very well be, “You’ll see your life differently when you go begin to comfort others who are in need just like you.”


February 19, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

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