Real Religion

February 25, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Scripture: James 1:19–27

 

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

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.

There’s a coffee shop in our city that opened nearly 20 years ago, designed to provide a place for vulnerable people and people in recovery to hang out and find community. Opened as a “grand experiment” by a former Christian missionary, the idea was “to put into practice Jesus’s admonitions to demonstrate love and acceptance to ‘the least of these.’” [1]

Sounds like somebody is taking this passage in James seriously. But the owner says she has lost her religion and does not “ascribe to any religious set of beliefs or prescribed practices.” Still, she says she sees value in the teaching and practice of love that Jesus, as well as other religious and social leaders throughout history have taught, believing that these “are the only thing that saves us as human beings.”

This dear woman may say she lost her religion, and we would no doubt be quick to judge her for this. But, she could probably say, in light of our text this morning, that she has a much more “real religion” than many of us.

Religion. That word may be slippery in our day, but it is the word James uses in verses 26-27. The word James uses is a general term, basically describing any kind of worship.[2] When James says, in verse 26, “if anyone thinks he is religious,” he does not have in mind that some people may think themselves as irreligious, of having no faith at all. The problem is that the word religion has come to refer to the belief in the divine and one’s private, personal beliefs about the supernatural. That’s primarily a development in the meaning of the term since the time of the Protestant Reformation. What the word means for James, and what the word has historically meant, is much more like the word worldview.[3] Everyone has a worldview, a religion, if you will; and James is eager for Christians to practice their religion completely and consistently.

Why? Not only, of course, because he believes it is true, but also because he believes it is valuable. The Christian religion is real religion, and when it is practiced rightly, consistently, completely, it brings real value to the world.‌ In this passage James contends that “real religion” promotes the justice of God, brings into the world the blessing of God, and demonstrates the salvation of God.

‌The Justice of God

‌First, Christians should completely and consistently practice their faith because in doing so we promote the justice of God for the world. In verse 19, James offers a memorable proverb: “be quick to her, slow to speak, slow to anger.” But in verse 20, he gives a reason for Christians to live by this proverb: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” The word righteousness may also be translated justice. So, James says that when Christians live by this Christian proverb, they promote the justice of God into the world, into a world that is plagued by all kinds of injustice.

‌Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak

‌The proverb we find in verse 19 is paralleled by what we find in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” It is good and wise to learn to be a good listener and to speak only after listening carefully. Some of us are better at it than others, but this is something that I think most people would see as common sense. So also is Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Here the connection is made between our words and human anger. And James, demonstrating his own sagely abilities, puts it all together. When we concentrate on listening more and speaking less, we don’t just show common sense, we bring a sense of God’s justice into a world of injustice.

‌What Human Anger Can’t Do

‌You see, the human impulse is to respond to injustice with anger. We get angry because we are displeased; we see some injustice, and we want to fix it. There is something good and right about that. Something is wrong if we stare straight at bald injustice and are not moved by it.

Jesus was. When a diseased man came to Jesus for healing on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees took the opportunity to accuse him of violating God’s law. Jesus asked which is the more lawful behavior to do on the Sabbath, “to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” The answer is obvious, but the silence of the Pharisees proved their carelessness about the diseased man. And Mark 3:5 says that Jesus looked at them “with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.”

So, it is right to want “the righteousness of God,” to desire the justice that God wants done in his world.[4] Anger may be a sign that that is exactly what we want. But the reason James has given us this proverb, urging us to be slow to anger, is because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” If you want justice, God’s justice, then human anger, your anger and mine, is not going to be the way to it.

‌Angry Christians

‌But what about “righteous” anger? There is, of course, such a thing. The psalmist says that because “God is a righteous judge” he “feels indignation every day” (Psa 7:11). Feeling indignation at injustice is an indication that we are God’s image bearers. It is an indication that we, like God, care that his world is ordered by justice.

The problem is that only God can have an anger that is righteous all the time. As any honest human will admit, if we were to let our anger be the determinative factor of what is right and just, we would only add problem to problem. It’s one of the reasons why, when the Bible speaks of God’s anger or God’s wrath, we find it disconcerting. We know all too well how unjust and unrighteous our anger often is. The difference is that for God, anger is not one of his attributes. He is not an “angry” God in the way you and I know anger. His anger is his righteous judgment on sin.[5]

And so, for God, his wrath is always an expression of perfect love. The cross of Jesus is the prime example of this glorious reality. Yes, the cross is a display of God’s awesome wrath. But it is, at the same time, a glorious display of his awesome love.

Christians, then, must live by James’s wisdom. As those who are called to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” we must confront our anger. “Feeling angry” is one thing; but using our anger as a tool to effect God’s justice in the world will never work. The world is not well served by angry Christians.

But these two verses have a positive side to them. The world is well served by Christians who are quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. The world is well served by Christians who put their effort into living peaceably with all, leaving vengeance to God, and overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:18-21).

‌The Blessing of God

‌You see, for Christians, for those practicing “real religion,” the issue is never about staying away from bad things. Real Christianity is positive, hopeful, and redemptive. It is not negative, pessimistic, and judgmental. Insofar as that is how the world sees us, we have some work to do.

Essentially, as James now tells us in verses 21-25, we need to get busy doing. We need to be “doers of the word.” The one who is “no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts,” verse 25 says, will “be blessed in his doing.”‌ The practice of real religion will bring the blessing of God into the world.

Put Off, Put On

‌Verse 21 is James’s version of Paul’s “put off” and “put on” language in Ephesians 4. What both apostles mean is that Christians are to now live like Christians. One of the meanings of baptism, the Christian initiation sacrament, is that we have been made new, called into a new way of life.[6] We who call ourselves Christians must leave behind the filthy garments of being slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger and we must put on the new clothing by receiving “with meekness the implanted word.”

‌This issue of Christian living, of Christian ethics and morality and behavior, is no doubt controversial—even among Christians! Hypocrites and legalists in our midst make us wary of talking about these things.

But, brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus is not simply the answer to the question of your destiny after you die. When we make it only about that, we become quite confused about exactly where the issues of Christian character and conduct fit into the picture. We must see that the gospel of Jesus is not simply about whether or not we are counted as part of God’s family, but also about what it now means for those of us who are in that family. Getting this straight is so important to understanding the NT, and it is certainly critical to understanding James.

God has work for us to do. “The implanted word” is a reference to the promise of the new covenant, when God said he would put his law within his people, and write it on their hearts (Jer 31:33). That’s the day we who believe in Jesus believe we have now entered. Assured that our exile is over, that our sins are remembered no more, as Jeremiah 31:34 promised, the issue is now about the new way of living that we must take up now that we are God’s new covenant people.

‌Do the Word

‌What this new way of life looks like is what James mentions next, when he urges Christians to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Instead of telling us precisely what kinds of behaviors Christians need to take up, and even which kinds we need to put off, he focuses on the Christian’s relationship to the word of God which is what will produce the outward Christian form that is to be expected.[7] What will lead us to the right behaviors and actions that bring the blessing of God? The word of God, implanted in our hearts.

‌But, James warns, we must not only be “hearers” of the word. Of course, faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17), and James leaves no room for the false dichotomy that asks whether it is hearing or doing the word of God that matters. They both matter. But here James targets those who would be content with hearing the word only. This is the particular danger that Christians can give in to.

‌A person who does that might look like they are committed Christians, but their religion would be worthless, a false religion, and just another form of idolatry. James says they are like those who look in a mirror and then go away forgetting what they saw. The contrast he sets up here in a vivid way is the contrast between those who interact with the Christian faith in a superficial way over against those who ponder the acts of God recorded in the Scriptures so that they make a lasting impact on one’s life.[8]

‌It is not always obvious how the word of God is supposed to impact our lives. Being a “doer” of the word is not as simple as following a set of directions. Some Christians, eager to not be “hearers only,” pursue a certain kind of “holiness” which comes off like self-righteous judgmentalism. Usually they no longer have any questions about any biblical text. They can tell you what Christians ought to do in every situation.

For many other Christians, the problem is not that they are flippant about the word, content with being a hearer only, refusing to “do”; many simply don’t know what the Bible is telling them to do. That’s ok, because verse 25 reminds us that “the doer” is one who looks and keeps on looking. The “doer” of the word must persevere in looking at the word. This is the path to being a “doer who acts” rather than a “hearer who forgets.”

‌Blessed in His Doing

‌But make no mistake! The reason for “doing” the word is because it carries with it the promise of God’s blessing. The doer who acts “will be blessed in his doing.” That’s what Jesus said, too. “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:28).

‌The word blessed is the word we find in the beatitudes. In New Testament terms, it signifies the reversal that has come upon the world through Jesus and the arrival of the kingdom of God. For the Christian, “real religion” is to begin to live right now in anticipation of how the world will one day be. The blessing of verse 25, then, is not something that comes in the future. The blessing here is “not because of the ‘doing’ but in the ‘doing.’”[9] The blessing comes now.

‌Christians who practice real religion experience the blessing of God as they do it. You see, the Christian religion is all about God’s intentions for his world and our place within it. We do not read the Scriptures then only to find out how bad we are and what can be done about that moral problem. That’s part of the story, of course. But notice that “the word” here is called “the perfect law” and “the law of liberty” in verse 25. The word apart from Christ could only condemn us. But the word that comes to us first through Christ is now able to do what it was designed to do.

Get this now. Romans 8:3 tells us that by sending his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” God “condemned sin in the flesh.” But that is not the end of the story. He did this, verse 4 says, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” It is this life of liberty lived in step with God’s own Holy Spirit and through his word that is sure to bring with it the blessing of God.

After all, this is the word that no longer serves to condemn. It is the word that is “able to save your souls,” as verse 21 said. Souls here simply means life, and salvation is not about disembodied existence but about the whole person.[10] This word is able to save your life because the life you live now will not end. Resurrection is what we look forward to.

‌And this, brothers and sisters, is not just good news for you and me. It is good news for the world.

‌The Salvation of God

‌You see, as Christians practice real religion, they demonstrate to the world the salvation of God. They reflect the real image of God into the world, showing the world what God is like, and what God’s intentions for the world are all about. What are God’s intentions? Not to condemn the world but to save it. That’s what Jesus said. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). So, our calling, says James, is to demonstrate to the world, in word and in deed, that this is what the Christian religion is all about. It’s not about escaping from the world by getting into heaven just in time before God burns it all up. Salvation, in biblical terms, is not about souls in heaven but about bodies, fully awake, fully alive, in God’s new creation.

Worthless Religion

Here, in verses 26-27, James sets up a contrast that we Christians really need to take seriously. If a person “thinks he is religious” but “does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James is not analyzing all religions; his interest is in the Christian one. So, we could paraphrase verse 26 this way: “If a person thinks he is a Christian but can’t control his tongue, he has deceived himself: his “Christianity” is worthless.

Because real religion is not worthless, what this person thinks he has is not the real deal. He is deceived. He has, stunningly, thought he was practicing Christianity but in fact he is just practicing some other idolatrous faith that does no good. Oh yes, it might do him some good. He may get a lot out of it. It may give him value. But it is “worthless” because it brings no blessing. It gives no hope to the world. It is not the religion that saves the world.

Impactful Religion

‌What James is saying here is that a person’s “religion” is determined by their practice, the tangible evidence of a person’s faith.[11] James could have used some other indicator, but the saving or condemning power of the tongue makes it a good example of the point he is making. He will return to this topic in chapter 3 where he will point out that the power of blessing and cursing is the power that comes from our mouths.

Here, in verse 27, he quickly pivots from “worthless” religion to “pure” religion, to “undefiled” religion. The kind of “religion” that offers something of real value to the world. Orphans and widows were two of the most vulnerable groups of people, and still are in many parts of the world. God’s people in the Old Testament were to be characterized as those who cared for the vulnerable (Exod 22:22), and James says this is what is also to characterize God’s people in the new covenant era as well. Since God cares for the destitute, God’s people must do the same.

This is about as practical as it gets, and certainly would include the call to care for immigrants, the disabled, the homeless, as well as caring for the poor in impoverished places even outside our own community.[12]

Look, James is not saying that if you want to be a Christian, you have to first put in your volunteer service time. Faith in Christ is what makes you a Christian, but as James will argue in chapter 2, genuine faith in Christ is not only about your own spiritual condition but about the whole-life condition of all God’s image bearers. Faith by itself, without real-world impactful works of faith, is dead (Jas 2:17). It is worthless.

But real religion is not worthless, and history tells that tale. The Christian gospel spawned a revolution that remade the world, as honest historians must admit.[13] It is not secularism that gave us hospitals, that inspired people to stay with the sick during the plague, that made the education of all children a calling rather than a source of a lucrative vocation. It was Christianity. What might our risen, living Lord, Jesus, have for us to do in our day to bring the hope of his salvation to the world? If the kingdom of God has come with Jesus, and if we believe that, then we must also believe that God has given us work to do that can be “real progress against evil and injustice.”[14]

Unblemished Religion

Real religion also involves keeping “oneself unstained from the world.” We can’t bring salvation to the world if we become just like the world. Faith in Christ, the worship of Christ, is indispensable.

We will not bring about real progress for God’s kingdom if we do this in our own power. In the face of so much worthless religion, that will be a tempting proposition, as the owner of the coffee shop in our city shows us. But real religion can only be practiced by whole Christians who, as James says in the next verse “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1) and then act accordingly.

Faith and works of faith that change the world. That, and that alone, is real religion. And that is what Christianity is all about.

_____

[1] This paragraph and the next, including its citations and emphases, are taken from Warren Vieth, “Jamie Zumwalt’s ‘grand experiment’ provides sense of community and a good cup of joe,” Nondoc, February 17, 2024, available at www.nondoc.com/2024/02/17/jamie-zumwalts-grand-experiment-provides-sense-of-community-and-a-good-cup-of-joe.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 125.

[3] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, First trade paperback edition (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 416.

[4] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 138–39.

[5] W. Pesch, “ὀργή,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 2:530.

[6] W. Elliger, “ἔμφυτος,” ibid.,  Balz and Schneider, 1:447.

[7] Moo, The Letter of James, 114.

[8] Ibid., 122.

[9] McKnight, The Letter of James, 161.

[10] Moo, The Letter of James, 116.

[11] McKnight, The Letter of James, 164.

[12] Moo, The Letter of James, 127.

[13] Again, see Tom Holland’s book (Dominion), for plenty of examples of this from the past two millennia.

[14] Timothy Keller (Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter [New York: Viking, 2021], 56), citing from Geerhardus Vos, Kingdom of God and the Church (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 89.

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