How Pure Is Your Religion?

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Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  (James 1:27  NIV)

In 2007, Pew Research published a survey on religion in America. It was an extensive survey and paints a picture of a dysfunctional America. I say “dysfunctional” because according to the survey, 78.4% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian.” Think about that. Over three-quarters of the population of the United States of America are “Christian.” If that’s truly the case, how do you explain the outrageous number of abortions performed every year? Why do over half of all marriages end in divorce? Why are there three, four, or more sexes? Why is there still poverty? How come so many churches are half empty on any given Sunday morning? Surely if three-quarters of Americans are Christians, then three-quarters of Americans would be in church. Right? Something is wrong in America. Specifically, something is wrong with Christianity in America. It all comes down the purity of religion.

In chapter one of James, the writer discusses what pure religion looks like. The writer identifies himself this way:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. (James 1:1 TLB)

Most Bible scholars believe the author was James, head of the church in Jerusalem. Paul refers to him as “James, the Lord’s brother.” He wasn’t a follower of Jesus until after the Resurrection, but he was one of 120 who gathered in the Upper Room to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. When you read his letter, it’s easy to see his passion about pure faith or pure religion.

To Jewish Christians scattered everywhere. (James 1:2 TLB)

He wrote to Christians all over the known-world to encourage them to remain faithful to the teachings of Christ but also to practice their faith. It’s not enough to simply know the Word of God, Christians must “live” the Word of God, too. James’ letter is chock-full of practical advice for practical Christian living. Maybe the key verse in the letter is this one:

So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. You must also do good to prove that you have it. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good works is no faith at all—it is dead and useless. (James 2:17 TLB)

In chapter 1, James warns his readers no less than four times about the danger of self-deceit. As difficult as it may be to comprehend, it is possible for a person to think he is a Christian but be wrong. Our Lord put it this way:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21 NIV)

Yes, there are people who call themselves Christians, who think they are Christians, and who are members of a local church, who have deluded themselves. They are superficial believers at best, non-believers at worst, and they will be shocked on judgment day when discover how wrong they were. The essence of pure Christianity is not your confession of faith or your baptismal certificate or your membership in a local church, but rather it is a life that manifests itself as being completely surrendered to the will of God and to the good of others.

Pure religion is centered on God

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 NIV)

This single sentence might be the most profound piece of theology in the Bible. James declares that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” In other words, God is the source of all the good things in our lives. That source is not your employer. It’s not the government. It’s not the lottery. Any good thing in your life came from God. Genuine religion has God at it’s core and center.

The context of verse 17 is Christians who experience trials and tribulations. James tells these believers:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (James 1:16 NIV)

Christians shouldn’t run around accusing God of causing bad things to happen to them. God doesn’t have any evil intentions toward anybody. Far from it; God is the source of all good. James doesn’t want any of his readers to be deceived into believing God is causing their problems. It’s easy for Christians to be “led astray,” especially when they are having problems. It’s easy to get the wrong idea about God especially if one is ignorant about Him.

Pure religion sees God for what and who He is. God doesn’t trick us into sinning. He doesn’t tempt us to do wrong. Pure religion acknowledges God as a good God – all good, all the time. And a practitioner of pure faith always has God on his mind, ready to thank Him for the good that comes his way.

Pure religion means that we are teachable

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19 – 20 NIV)

Christians should be “quick to listen.” Pure religion or genuine faith will manifest itself by an intense desire to hear and understand the truth of God’s Word. Does that describe you? Are you looking forward to being in church on Sunday morning or a Wednesday night? Do you and your spouse talk about spiritual things when you’re at home? If you want to be a Christian then wanting to be taught the Word of God must be a regular pursuit of your life. An open and receptive spirit to God’s Word and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the only way to grow in your faith and mature as a Christian. A rebellious, fighting or disinterested spirit does not mark the faith of a true believer. James’ advice is close to what the Teacher wrote:

Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues. (Proverbs 10:19 NIV)

Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:32 NIV)

There are many proverbs like these, but the idea is obvious: be quiet and be willing to be taught the truth of God’s Word. Listening is the first duty of any true believer.

Pure religion tries to eliminate sin from the heart

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (James 1:21 NIV)

James wasn’t the only New Testament letter writer to encourage true believers to clean up their lives. The writer to the Hebrews told his readers to the same thing:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us… (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)

It would be nice that if along with the forgiveness of sins, God also gifted His people with a repulsion of sin. That would make living a righteous life a whole lot easier! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. God forgives our sins, but it’s up to us to stop the sinning. We all have a sinful nature that induces us to compromise our faith with every conceivable sin. Both James and the writer of Hebrews urged their readers to “get rid of” the sin in their lives because it “so easily entangles” them. In other words, the distraction of sin can quickly trip you up in your walk of faith.

Salvation is what happens when the Word of God is implanted in our hearts; it alone is able to save a soul, and through the Word’s power, regeneration takes place. Having received the Word is just the beginning. Now we believers are obliged to obey it. The very least bit of obedience is to stop sinning. Our Lord once said,

Blessed are those who hear the word of God, and obey it. (Luke 11:28 NIV)

Pure religion is evident in how you act

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22 – 25 NIV)

Listening to the Word is an essential component of Christianity. But action must follow listening; doing is the result of listening to the Word. Or at least it ought to be. Pure religion is far more than ritual and ceremony. It is far more than saying grace and occasionally deigning to show up at church. To help His followers understand the importance of doing what the Word says, Jesus told a parable about the two foundations.

“All who listen to my instructions and follow them are wise, like a man who builds his house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents, and the floods rise and the storm winds beat against his house, it won’t collapse, for it is built on rock. “But those who hear my instructions and ignore them are foolish, like a man who builds his house on sand. For when the rains and floods come, and storm winds beat against his house, it will fall with a mighty crash.” (Matthew 7:24 – 27 TLB)

You have to admit, building a house on shifting sand is pretty foolish. Just as foolish as a man who looks at himself in a mirror then turns around and forgets what he looks like! The whole purpose of a mirror is to show us what we are – to show us where to shave or wash our faces. It becomes clear as crystal why James used the metaphor of a mirror. From the New International Commentary on the New Testament:

The mirror of the Word of God reveals man to himself; it shows him that there is something seriously wrong with the nature which he brought into the world with him.

We chuckle at the thought of a man forgetting what he looks like, but there is a darker, tragic side to the story. In verse 24, the Greek wording indicates that the forgetful man turns away from the mirror, never to return. If a Christian doesn’t make use of the Word he has, he stands to lose it.

Of course, James isn’t giving an encyclopedia of how to live the Christian life. He’s concerned about those whose faith is shallow; a faith that is all about ritual but lacking in holiness and practical application. That probably describes the majority of that 78.4% of America that calls itself “Christian.” You don’t have to be part of that sorry majority, though. It is possible for you to practice pure religion. All you have to do is dedicate yourself completely to listening to the Word of God then putting into practice what you’ve heard. You will discover joy and happiness in your own heart and you’ll make others joyful and happy, too. Pure religion is contagious.

 

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