Many people say religion is worthless, mere formality. As Alistair Begg explains, however, there is a form of religion that is acceptable to God: external conformity to a pattern that is a result of the inward working of grace. God has taken the initiative to save us through His Word, which results in a transformed life marked by a controlled tongue, a compassionate heart, and a clean life. This, James affirms, is authentic religion, pure and faultless.
We turn again this morning to James chapter 1. We’ve come to the final two verses. I’ll read them, and we’ll pray, and then we’ll seek to study them. James writes:
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 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.”
Father, with our Bibles open before us, we come to humbly ask that you will teach us by the Holy Spirit. Help us not to hide from you—as if we even could—but lay our lives open to your truth, we pray. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Depending on what age you are, you will have grown up being told by your mother or your father that if you are going to engage in polite conversation, there are two subjects which are absolutely taboo. One of those is politics, and the other is religion. If you are going to be successful in business, if you’re going to not be a dreadful problem at the average wedding reception, then make sure, we’ve been told, that you steer away from either of those two taboo subjects.
I’m not so sure that that is true amongst a younger generation. I’m not sure if those who were born since, let’s say, 1983, 1985, have any kind of concern about that at all. Because when you listen to people in conversation today, it doesn’t appear, at least on the surface, that there are any subjects that are taboo. In fact, the absence of polite conversation is right up there with the absence of the handwritten note. And we find ourselves in a world that is shifting on us dramatically.
If I’m right, though, in the observation that really it doesn’t matter if you talk about religion, then that is helpful, because here in verses 26 and 27, James introduces us to one of the two formerly taboo topics—namely, religion itself. “If anyone,” he begins, “considers himself religious,” and then in verse 27 he begins with the noun “Religion that God our Father accepts … is…” and so on.
Now, we will be helped immediately by defining our terms. Let us use, as a simple working definition, James’s use of “religion” in terms of the outward expressions of one’s faith. The outward expressions of one’s faith—so that when he’s talking about religion here, he’s talking about that which emerges from an internal reality; an external conformity to a pattern that is as a result of the inward working of grace.
Now, you will see that, as before, in verse 22, where he was concerned about self-deception—a deception that would be revealed in an approach to the Bible which just listened to it but didn’t obey it—he comes again, in verse 26, to the possibility of self-deception. And the deception about which he is concerned here is not familiar to many of us. Because what he is addressing is the possibility of maintaining a scrupulous commitment to an external frame of existence—to forms and to structures, to rituals and to routines—and despite the fastidious commitment to all of that, to discover that it is all absolutely worthless. Isn’t that what he says? Isn’t that the very word that he uses at the end of verse 26? “If anybody considers himself to be religious—if he thinks about himself and he says, ‘You know, I’m a very religious person’—and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he is self-deceived and his religion is worthless.”
Now, this is actually quite helpful, in this respect: that it is an uncommon week when we don’t run into somebody who suggests that religion is worthless. And they’ll say, “I have no interest in religion. I would like to be a spiritual person, but I don’t want to be a religious person at all. Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, more wars have been fought in the name of religion. I’m not interested in organized religion. Religion itself is just a worthless exercise.”
Well, when the skeptics begin that way, we can say, “In one sense, I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, what you’re saying,” we might say by way of response, “is actually written about in the Bible.” And we can turn them to James 1:26, and we can show them that the phrase is in the Bible, “Religion is worthless.” And the phrase is in the Bible, “Religion is worthless.” However, unless we put that phrase within the context of the preceding nouns and verbs and adjectives in the verse, then we can make it say whatever we want it to say.
But we can go quickly to their side of the table and say, “You know, there is, according to James, according to Jesus, an external display that bears no resemblance to reality and is, in fact, absolutely spurious and useless. However,” we can say, “there is also a form of religion that is acceptable to God.” So we might say, “I wonder, have you ever considered the possibility not of a spurious and worthless religion but of a religion that God regards as acceptable?” The person might say, then, “Well, what would that religion look like?” And then you would be able to say, “Well, it looks like a lot of things, but it definitely looks like these three things that I can show you. I have my New Testament with me, and I’d gladly just point them out to you. In fact, let me read this for you, if you’re not embarrassed or don’t mind.”
Now, I like this better than the sort of standard response of many, which is, “Oh, well, of course, I’m not remotely interested in religion. I’m into relationship, not religion.” I think it’s time to cut that one out. It is a relationship that is religious. It is a religious relationship. It is a relationship that is directly related to religion. So the idea of “I’m not religious, I’m into a relationship” doesn’t really fit the framework of the Bible. I understand why it is we say it, but I don’t think it’s the best thing to say. I think the best thing to say is “Well, actually, I agree with you that the idea of externalism and modes and forms and structures that bear no resemblance to reality is an outmoded and useless thing. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, any more than other things which are external have to be divorced from an internal motivation and reality.” So we can say to people, “Well, God actually is concerned that we would have a religious experience that he deems as being acceptable.”
Now, as soon as we go there, we confront an immediate danger. And there is a danger in these verses, particularly in verse 27. And I need to point the danger out to you so that we can avoid it at all costs. And the inherent danger is this: of using verse 27 to teach that we can reduce religion to charity and morality. That we can reduce religion to charity and morality.
Is that what James is saying here? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe that James here, as he closes out chapter 1, has any interest whatsoever, any intention, of seeking to reduce religion to a negative purity of conduct—which is the final phrase of verse 27, keeping oneself “unspotted from the world”—to a negative purity of conduct combined with a form of generosity and benevolence. James is not suggesting that acceptance with God is to be found by those who are honest and who are kind. James has already pointed out—and I’ll show you this in just a moment—that it is by his grace, through his Word, that he has made us his own people in order that we might bear the family likeness.
Now, the reason this is dangerous is because rationalists are very happy with this. And many of our friends are rationalists. And so, although they are not remotely interested in what we’re doing here on a Sunday, they are benevolent people, they are thinking people, and they want at the same time, within the standard of their own framework, to make sure that they’re keeping their own rules. And so, if they can reduce Christianity to that which fits their rationalistic perspective, then they have made a great gain. So they might say, “Well, as long as you keep the rules, as long as you do unto others as you would have them do to you, then really, that’s all that matters.”
Well, is that what James is saying? How can we determine whether it’s what James is saying? Well, not by a constant reading of verse 27, but by us standing back from the picture, as it were—as we’ve said to one another on previous occasions—standing back from the panorama of the whole of chapter 1 and saying, “Where are the high spots in this picture that he has painted, in this word picture that he has given us? Where, if you like, are the pivotal pieces? Where does it turn?” And your sight line will go very quickly to verse 18. In fact, the longer I’ve studied chapter 1, the more convinced I am that verse 18 may not actually simply be the key to chapter 1, but it may be the key to the whole of the book of James.
What does he say in verse 18 that God has done? He has chosen “to give us birth”—that’s his initiative—“through the word of truth”—that’s the instrument that he has used—so “that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created”—that’s the intention that he has. Right? He has taken the initiative, he has employed the instrument of his Word, and he has made clear his intention. And the new life which is there is verse 18 is then expounded in 19–25, in the lifestyle that flows from it: birth in 18, life in 19–25, and then these characteristics of that life in verses 26 and 27.
It is imperative that we understand that what James is addressing here in these closing verses is that which is consequential. What he describes here are consequences of the work of God within a life. What he is providing us with here is essentially evidences of family membership. What he is saying here, and will come back to say again and again, is simply this: that to profess to have the life of God and to be unchanged is unthinkable. To profess to have the life of God and to be unchanged is unthinkable. Therefore, we have to beware of reducing Christian living to charity plus morality.
And at the same time, we must beware of a correlative danger, which is of suggesting that here in verses 26 and 27, James is providing a comprehensive summary of acceptable religion. He can’t be! Think of how much is missing. There’s no mention of the reading of the Bible, no mention of the fellowship of God’s people, no mention of sacraments, no mention of a righteousness that is fastidious in relationship to the keeping of the law, and so on. No, he’s no more giving us a comprehensive summary here than is Micah 6:8. Remember, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s a pretty good framework, but it isn’t comprehensive. It is illustrative.
And what James does here is much along the same lines. James is teaching us what religion is, but he is not, I suggest, trying to tell us all that religion is. You see how, again, how if you go there, then you fall foul of this. The people say, “Well, we don’t have any interest in coming and singing ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’ or whatever it is, or coming to a Good Friday service, or anything like that. We are very religious people. We’re very rational about it, we’re very religious about it, and we are the ones who are involved in acceptable religion. That is why we’re doing what we’re doing with widows, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing with orphans. And if you do what you’re supposed to do with widows and orphans, and you by and large try and live by the moral law, then in actual fact, as it says in James 1:27, that’s the only thing that matters if you want to be a religious person at all.”
Now, unless you know your Bible, they will have you hamstrung in an instant. They’ll have you over a barrel. You won’t know what to say next. That’s why you have to say verse 26 and 27 comes after all of the preceding twenty-five verses. Birth in 18; life in 19–25; characteristics, but not all the characteristics, in 26 and 27.
If James is not providing us a comprehensive summary, he is, at the same time, however, setting us with a sufficient test. Here’s a sufficient test—not the only test, but a good test, to discover whether our professed faith is authentic or not. How will we be able to determine that? “Well,” he says, “I’m going to give you three marks of genuine Christianity: number one is a controlled tongue, number two is a compassionate heart, and number three is a clean life.” A controlled tongue, a compassionate heart, and a clean life. These are the tests.
So, we have to take the test. This is not an easy test. I’ve been taking it all week, and I would very happily have jumped somewhere else, but I couldn’t find anywhere else to jump in the whole book of James. It’s just one uncomfortable experience after another.
First of all, then, a controlled tongue. “If anyone considers himself,” or herself, for that matter, “religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he,” or she, “deceives himself,” or herself, “and [their] religion is [absolutely] worthless.” And James is going to come back to this tongue business in chapter 3, and you might want to go and visit your Aunt Mabel when you figure out when that’s going to be, because it’s one of the most uncomfortable experiences you could ever imagine when we get to chapter 3: “The tongue … is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell … a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” He’s just giving us a little foretaste here, a little hors d’oeuvre, before he actually comes back to it and drives it home, like a gigantic pile driver, into our hearts. But the danger that he addresses is clear: the danger of being precise and orthodox in our expressions of praise, in our preaching, and yet at the same time to be guilty of thoughtless tongue wagging. That’s the danger. That’s the test.
Here’s the individual who considers himself to be very religious, because he always attends on such and such a day, he always does these things that he’s been told he ought to do, and on account of that, that is sufficient for him. But now he comes before this test and discovers, though, that’s not sufficient at all.
Now, the call is not for a silent tongue. The call is not to silence, but the call is to a bridled tongue. At least that gives some of us a little bit of hope. Calvin, commenting on this says, “He who … seems brilliant with some outward shew of sanctity, will set himself off by defaming others, and this under the pretence of zeal, but really through the lust of [slander].” Slander.
So, here I am, and I love to sing—but I have a slandering tongue. Here I am, and I love to read the Bible very carefully, and I love it when they have the responsive readings, because I get to sound out in the congregation as well—but I also love gossiping as soon as it’s over and telling other people about what other people are doing in a way that just is harmful rather than helpful. Here I am, and I like to preach sermons, put sentences together that would build people up and encourage them—and then, at the same time, find myself able to use the same tongue to put people down and to despise them.
First part of the test. It’s challenging, isn’t it? That’s why someone said,
If your lips would keep from slips,
Three things observe with care:
Of whom you speak, and how you speak;
And why, and when, and where.
Which pretty well covers the whole gamut, right?
And don’t try and sneak slander and gossip under the foliage of its truthfulness. Because something is true, it does not demand to be stated. William Blake in the eighteenth century, the poet, said, “A Truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the Lies you can invent.” “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” “I’m only telling you this,” she said, “because it’s true.” That does not legitimize what is about to come out of your mouth.
“If anybody considers themselves to be religious and does not bridle their tongue, that person is self-deceived, and their religion is useless.” How uncomfortable is this? Who can evade this?
The antidote to this is to retreat always to the Scriptures, to be returned always to Jesus, to be reminded always that our acceptance and our standing with God is on the basis of the work and word of Jesus Christ—so that I don’t look at this and say, “I’m gonna have to try and fix this myself.” Because what James is describing here is fruit. Fruit. He’s not describing plastic ornamentation. He’s not describing something that is handed out in the hallways and that we’re supposed to attach to ourselves. No, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, remember, is love, and joy, and peace, and kindness, and goodness, and gentleness, and I can never remember them all in order, but I know it finishes up with self-control. And where is it most obvious, my absence of self-control? With your mouth. Your mouth.
Do you feel the penetrating gaze of God’s Word? You know, you talk about looking into the Bible; the Bible’s looking into us! It’s like a CAT scan. I don’t know why I was thinking about it—maybe this was what was on my mind—but I fell asleep last night, I think one of the last things I said to Sue before I fell asleep was “I can never, ever have one of those MRIs.” I don’t know why that was on my mind. Maybe I was thinking about the searching gaze of something—the searching gaze of God’s Word. And then that made me think about that horrible tube, and then about being claustrophobic, and then about “Oh, I’m never going in one of those things. I’ll die first.” A great way to go to sleep, don’t you think? But I guess when you have it, it shows up everything. And when you come here to James 1:26, there’s really no place to hide.
And for those of you who are quiet people, temperamentally quiet, don’t talk very much—won’t say boo to a goose—who are sitting there going, “Oh, this is terrific! This is wonderful! I love this, it’s all about the tongue”—no, well, I got news for you: you will be judged for the thoughts. You’ll be judged for your thoughts! Just ’cause you didn’t have the guts to actually say what you were thinking, you’re not gonna get out of it that easy! And furthermore, you’ll be judged for the motives that gave rise to the thoughts that gave rise to the words. Why would I even feel the way I feel in order to think what I thought and so that I might say what I said? There’s no way out of this. None at all.
Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” In other words, they had the externals down. I mean, there was a great crowd on Palm Sunday giving the welcome, the Songs of Ascent: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” It didn’t take very long for many of it to change to “Crucify him!” “We will not have this man to reign over us.” Eventually our lips will declare the reality of what’s in our hearts. That’s what makes this so devastating.
Have you been struck by the fact that when Isaiah, the prophet of God, is confronted by God in Isaiah chapter 6, when he sees this amazing manifestation of God and he falls down before God and he cries out, are you struck by what it is he cries? “Depart from me, O Lord, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in a whole company of people who also have unclean lips.” Somebody outside of that looking on will say, “Wait a minute. What do you mean you have unclean lips? Your lips have become the mouthpiece of God. Your lips are the lips that convey the good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind. Those are your lips!” “Yes,” says Isaiah, “but before the searching gaze of God, I know what I’m really like.”
Alexander Whyte, in the nineteenth century, was a famous minister in Edinburgh—and with this I’ll stop, ’cause our time is gone, so we’ll come to the next one this evening. He was the minister at Free St George’s, which is a building that is still there down the west end of Princes Street. And he was known as being a monomaniac about sin. It was Alexander Whyte who, when somebody asked him on one occasion when they would get out of Romans 7 and into Romans 8… He wasn’t talking about the progression of preaching, but just sort of attitudinally. Romans 7 is “O what a wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Romans 8 begins “There is now therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And so someone came to talk to him after the service and says, “When will we get out of 7 and into 8?” And he replied, “Never, as long as I’m your minister.” “Never, as long as I’m your minister.”
And, of course, he was absolutely right! Because 7 and 8 are simultaneous. And the south side of the house is sunny and warm; we run into the acceptance that is ours on account of what Jesus has done. The north side of our house is stony and cold, where we’re aware of the fact that we sin and mess it up absolutely horribly. And when we’re over there on the cold side, we have to make a run for the south side, running into the arms of Jesus. But anyway, that was him. They asked him about Darwin and why Darwin said the things he said, and Alexander Whyte said, “Because he does nae ken very much about sin.” “He doesn’t ken very much about sin.” That was his approach.
So a man comes to him one day in his vestry and tells him that there is a visiting evangelist who has come to the city of Edinburgh, and in a public meeting just a couple of nights before, he has been criticizing a number of the ministers in the city. And the man tells Alexander Whyte that the visitor had publicly said that the Reverend Doctor James Hood Wilson of the Barclay Church was not a converted man. Alexander Whyte, the biographer says, jumped up out of his seat, angry and indignant, saying, “The rascal, the rascal, suggesting that Dr. Wilson is not a converted man.” “That wasn’t all,” the man continued, “He said, Dr. Whyte, that you’re not a converted man either.” And Whyte stopped short, sat back in his chair, and for a long minute said nothing. And then, with awful earnestness, he told his visitor, “Leave me, friend. Leave me. I must examine my heart.”
It’s no surprise that on a subsequent occasion Alexander Whyte, somewhat playfully but nevertheless honestly, taking a leaf, as it were, from the book of Murray M’Cheyne in an earlier era, told his congregation that he had discovered the name of the wickedest man in Edinburgh— “And his name,” he told them, in whispered tones, “is Alexander Whyte.”
We’ll come back to this tonight.
Father, we thank you that you haven’t left us without your Word of Truth, to which we can turn, as uncomfortable as it is, to face this test. We hear the words of Paul: “Let a man examine himself to see whether he is of the faith.” So look into our lives, O God, we pray, and change us for your glory and for our good. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and always. Amen.
 James 1:27 (KJV).
 See Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31.
 Micah 6:8 (paraphrased).
 James 3:6, 8 (NIV 1984).
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. and ed. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 298.
 William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.”
 See Galatians 5:22–23.
 Matthew 15:8 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 21:9 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 27:22–23; Mark 15:13–14; Luke 23:21 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 6:5 (paraphrased).
 Romans 7:24 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:1 (paraphrased).
 G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte, D.D. (New York: George H. Doran, n.d.), 316. Paraphrased.
 2 Corinthians 13:5 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.