Please turn with me in your copy of God’s word to James 1:26 -27. When we first started this class and found out we would be preaching a sermon, I was excited. However, when I found it was to be on a passage in James my excitement turned into dread. The epistle of James has always been a difficult book for me. I’ve struggled with understanding how James’ teachings are compatible with Paul’s teaching on grace. I would not go as far as calling it an “epistle of straw” as Martin Luther did but never the less I still struggled with the book. Thankfully through studying for this sermon I have come to a greater appreciation for James. I think it helps to examine the context into which James writes and to examine the intended recipients of this letter. James was writing early in Christian history to Jewish Christians. Because his audience were Christians, James was not writing to expound the theological significance of the Gospel but instead was writing to explain the practical implications of the Gospel. James is not primarily concerned with the “how” of salvation but with the results of salvation. Some including myself in the past have been critical of James perceived lack of theology and in particular a perceived lack of Christology. Douglas Moo rightfully argues though “Appeal to God’s person, the values taught in his Word, and his purposes in history under-girds virtually everything in this letter. And while Jesus’ person and work might be generally absent, his teaching is not.” Much of James comes straight from the mouth of Jesus. James then is concerned not with how one’s heart is changed through salvation but his primary concern is with the symptoms of a changed heart.
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:26-27
There was once a young boy who went to spend the week with his grandfather on the farm. While walking around he noticed the chickens, they were scratching and playing around. The little boy said, “They ain’t got it”. Next he saw a colt in the field playing and kicking up its heel’s to which he replied, “He ain’t got it”. After examining all of the animals on his grandfather’s farm and seeing that none of them had “it”, this boy finally found the old donkey in the barn. When he saw the donkey’s long, frowning face and the way that the donkey just stood there he screamed for his grandfather to come quick. “I found it, I found it” the boy kept yelling. When his grandfather asked what he had found he said, “Pawpaw, I found an animal that has the same kind of religion that you have.”
That boy may have not known much about his grandpa’s religion but his simple insight shows how important outward manifestations are to identifying religion. James too is concerned with how our faith is lived out. In fact the primary concern of James is how one’s faith is shown. In our particular passage James is talking about how our actions identify our worship. James uses a word in this passage that is only found four times in the Bible. Two of those usages are in this passage. That word is “religion.” In Greek it is θρησκεία which means religious worship. It is slightly different then what we may use the word “religion” for. Today when one uses the word “religion” they are using it to identify the beliefs and teachings of a particular faith. John MacArthur says this Greek word “has to do with ceremonial public worship. It is so used, for example, by Josephus when he writes about the worship of the temple. It has to do with the outward ceremony. Paul uses it in Acts 26:5 in the adjective…in the noun form of the ceremonial worship of a Pharisee. So the word “religious” here has the idea of external trappings, religious ceremonies, rituals, routines, liturgies, rites, external forms.” James’ Jewish Christian audience would have been familiar with this word. It is interesting then that James uses it to describe things that we do not usually associate with the ceremony of worship. I think then it is incredibly helpful to look at this passage as primarily explaining what true worshipers will look like. This is particularly valuable when looked at from the perspective of the so called “worship wars.” James is calling us not to look at what kind of music we will use or what liturgy but instead he is calling us to look at something completely different.
While in this passage, James is talking about worship he is also concerned with the heart. We see that it is those who think they know how to worship and think that they are religious but don’t exhibit the outward manifestations of a changed heart that deceive themselves. They are revealing a heart that has not been changed. This is important because when viewing James we have a tendency to look at everything as works and human effort but James is saying that it really is a heart issue. The heart must be first changed before one can begin worship. It is only a heart that has been transformed by the Gospel that can exhibit true worship. Once that heart has been changed then it will show signs of God honoring worship. Worship that is pure and blameless will manifest itself from the heart outward. James then is now like a doctor looking at a patient. In this passage, he is going to give us a check-up. We are going to see three symptoms of a heart that has been changed, three symptoms of a heart of worship.
The first symptom of a heart of worship is the Taming of the Tongue:
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. – James 1:26
A very important topic in the book of James is bridling the tongue. The tongue is such a small part of our body yet takes such a large role in our lives. Various studies have been done on the amount of words we speak in a day. In one such study, Dr. Louann Brizendine, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco states that “A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000.” Another study puts average word use at around 16,000 for both men and women. Even if you are on the low side, we all spend an overwhelming portion of our lives talking. Words are powerful. The bible is full examples on the power of speech. Words have the power to create. God created the entire universe with His words. Words have the power to tear down. Satan used words to deceive Eve into sin. Jesus said that it is not what goes in us that makes us unclean but what comes out of us. Our speech can be like the smooth rock that David used to defeat Goliath or it can be like the first crack in the walls of Jericho. As seminary students preparing for ministry we know and appreciate the power of words.
I may not look like it now but I was once in the US Army. At basic training, I had a certain Drill Sergeant who used to every day joke about how he hated us privates. He once said that he had to hold a gun to his head to keep from cutting his throat while shaving because he was thinking about us. He would say this with a laugh but when it came down to difficult training situations he was one of the best users of words. With his use of colorful language, he could motivate a cat to go swimming. It was on the last day of training that I really felt the power of his words. He came up to each private and said that it was an honor training us and that he would gladly serve in a foxhole with any of us. I can remember beaming with respect and honor after that.
Words also can reveal our heart. Jesus who is the master of words once said, ““You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” – Matthew 12:34 And in Luke, he said, ““The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” James echoes that here. A person who thinks he is religious but doesn’t bridle his tongue deceives his very own heart.
After I graduated basic training, I went to what is called AIT. This is where a soldier learns his particular job that he will be doing for the military. At this AIT we had drill sergeants as well. One particular drill sergeant used to brag about how she was always looking out for the best interest of us. Yet there came one day when a general was scheduled to visit. We spent the entire morning cleaning the barracks to make them spotless. However someone accidentally spilled some kind of yellow clothing detergent on the floor right as another private happened to be buffing the floor. Needless to say the floor was shining with a bright yellow stain waxed in. The drill sergeant was livid but it was what she said that undermined everything she had said before about looking out for our best interest. She said, “ I -expletive- hate all you privates and could care less if you all died in battle.” She then went on to say that she never wanted to be a drill sergeant and that we were going to cause her promotion to be lost. It was only a few brief words but none of us privates ever looked at that drill sergeant the same. In just a few words she had revealed that she was not motivated by a desire to train us but a desire to be promoted.
Words can reveal our hearts but so can our actions. It is to some of these actions that we turn. The second symptom of a heart of worship is Taking Care of Others.
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress. James 1:27 a
. Earlier in James, he talks about looking at ourselves in the perfect mirror of the law. Warren W. Wiersbe says that “After we have seen ourselves and Christ in the mirror of the Word, we must see others and their needs.” John Calvin in his commentary says, ““James does not define generally what religion is, but reminds us that religion without the things he mentioned is nothing.” James then is not saying in comprehensive detail what all of worship entails but he does give us some very practical things. These practical things are specifically to visit orphans and widows in their distress.
A heart of worship will be a heart that cares about what God cares about. The Bible is full of exhortations then to love those who are less fortunate. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.” God has a special place for those who have no family. Deut 14:29 says “The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” Isaiah 1:10-17 says that our sacrifices, our worship is no good God because of the injustice we do to those around us. In verse 17 it says, Learn to do good;
Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.” Jesus later sums up this entire approach in this way “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus did not say that by our music all men will know. He did not say that by our nice church buildings they will know you are His disciple . He did not say that by even our theology but by how we love each other.
In America, the church has given over much of its God given responsibilities to the state. We now rely on the government to take care of the elderly, the poor and the orphaned. While I do not have time here to go into the proper role of the government, it needs to be said that these things are not the responsibility of the government but of us the church. When we hand over our roll to the government then we also diminish our impact in the world. As the government has grown, the importance of church in influencing our society has diminished. It is time again that we future pastors, church leaders, seminary professors, and missionaries reclaim that responsibility for the Church. This is a worship issue. If we are going to be a worshiping Church then we have to be a Church that takes care of the needy. Great preachers and men of God in the past have understood this. One of the greatest legacies of Charles Spurgeon is the orphanages that he built. This seems to be something that our catholic friends understand more than us. I challenge each of us then as future leaders to encourage our churches to take care of the needy. The book of acts gives us a model. Those who had much sold what they had to provide for those who had nothing.
A heart of worship must tame its tongue and take care of the needy. The third symptom of a heart of worship is to Turn from the World.
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27
Douglas Moo in his commentary says that “The third mark of true religion is more general than the other two and less concrete: to keep oneself from being polluted by the world… The “world” is a common biblical way of referring to the ungodly worldview and lifestyle that characterize human life in its estrangement from the creator.” Charles Spurgeon puts it this way,
“If I had a brother who had been murdered, what would you think of me if I …daily consorted with the assassin who drove the dagger into my brother’s heart; surely I too must be an accomplice in the crime. Sin murdered Christ; will you be a friend to it? Sin pierced the heart of the Incarnate God; can you love it?”
A true picture of a worshiping heart, a regenerate heart then is that it will not go back to what it once was. We were once estranged to God but by His Son, He reconciled us back to Him. Christians who have ended the estrangement by accepting the reconciling work of God in Christ must constantly work to distance themselves from the way of life that caused the estrangement which surrounds us on every side. We live in a materialistic society where advertisements and temptations to join in with the world bombard us daily. Are we caught up in the concerns of this world or are our concerns set on Jesus? How do we spend our time, money, and energy? The answers to these questions and more will reveal how friendly we have become with the world.
On the surface, it may appear that the book of James is only concerned with works. We do not believe in a works based salvation but as James says our faith will be made manifest. Our heart will reveal itself. The symptoms of a heart dedicated in worship to Jesus are the Taming of the Tongue, the Taking Care of Others, and the Turning from the World. Will we be people of God who use our words to lift up others, speak the truth, and honor God or will we be like the one who thinks he is religious yet uses his tongue to speak ill of others. Will we be a Church and people who take personal responsibility to take care of others? Will we be friends with the world and enemies of God or friends with God and enemies to the world? Do you have the symptoms of a heart of worship? I ask along with James, how’s your heart?