Pure and Undefiled Religion

James 1:27a


From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this" (James 1:27a).

We now come to the last verse of James 1. Very few verses admittedlyare as controversial as this, and I believe mainly because the true meaning of it is not fully understood. That is what we shall endeavor to discover by the grace of God.

The first word with which our verse starts in the Greek is thrēskeia,translated "religion," which, as we said in our previous study, means the ceremonial service of religion, those external things which one performs mostly from a motive of fear and dread of God. Actually James is not speaking of religion as commonly understood today, that is, the totality of one's relationship with God.

Here the relationship is presupposed; the reconciliation between man and God has already been established; and so "religion," or rather the original Greek word used by James, has absolutely nothing to do with salvation, with regeneration, with the new birth, which is byfaith alone. Let us say from the very outset that James under no circumstances declares that all God requires of man to get to heaven is for him to visit the orphans and widows and to live a good, clean life. He speaks of the service, the external service, which the child of God is to render after his salvation, after the reestablishment of the lost relationship between him and God as his heavenly Father. Religion, therefore, in its original word thrēskeia, refers to the outcome of the already existing inner relationship between man and his God. It means religious service.

It would appear, however, that there are two kinds of such service: religious service which is vain, such as James spoke of in the previous verse, and religious service which is pure and undefiled. As we have already seen in our last study, God's aim in demanding our service to Him and to our fellow beings is our own happiness and His glory. There is blessedness, happiness, in the doing of the Word of God. But James makes it also very clear that we can perform great religious services, and be great philanthropists and great benefactors and still be unhappy and not please and glorify God. If there is a pure and undefiled religion, there must be the opposite also. We speak of white in contrast to black. There is much impure and defiled religious service nowadays among men, in which God is not in the least interested. We may do a great deal of good, but that does not mean that we are good in the sight of God. We may even lead others to the road to heaven and yet not be on it ourselves.

I have personally known people who have built orphanages and hospitals in the hope of winning heaven. But they never will arrive there merely because of these deeds. These same men were known to have made their money in crooked and unethical ways. We must understand once and for all that no man can ever buy off God. The grace of God and forgiveness for human sin are not for sale; they are the free gift of God to those who believe that He can transform their inner being. Then, and only then, will our religious service be acceptable before God, as an outcome of our gratitude to God for what He has done for us. First He must do for us, and then what we do for Him is well pleasing in His sight.

This service of religion, the Apostle James says, must be pure and undefiled. Is this mere verbosity? Do these two terms mean one and the same thing, one stating the case positively and the other negatively? Not exactly. Each one has a special significance. The word "pure," kathar, in its moral sense refers in this context to something that was once impure and polluted and has been cleansed. We may have been performing good works before our salvation, but they are nothing in the sight of God; that is impure religion. The purity of our religion depends on the motivation of our good works. If we do good for the purpose of gaining acceptance before God, our religion is impure, but if our good works are the outcome of our acceptance before God, then our religion is pure. Thus we have here the purification of our service of religion. Again, James stresses the importance, not of what we actually do, but of why we do it. The why of our actions determines the purity or impurity of our Christian service, or "religion," as the English translation of our verse has it.

The next word which the Apostle uses to characterize our Christian service is "undefiled," or amantos in the original Greek. This adjective comes from the verb miainō, which means "to stain as with color." It does not mean "to besmear," which is indicated by another Greek word, molunō. What is the message conveyed by this word? It is not enough for our Christian service to be purified as to its motive, but it is necessary for us to be very careful lest our purity become stained on the surface, spotted with selfishness in doing good to others and serving the Lord.

One of the greatest efforts of Satan is to stain our Christian service. What is the real reason that a person seeks to become a deacon, for instance, or an elder in the church, or perhaps a Sunday school teacher? Is it because he is anxious to lead souls to Christ and edify the saints, or because of a desire for recognition and the puffing up of self? The president of a men's Bible class ceases his service in a lesser capacity simply because he has not been re-elected president for a second year. That is staining one's service, one's religion. Surely, in the main such a person is pure, but there are eruptions of his Adamic nature which stain his Christian character. It is so easy to fall into the condition, when one is doing something for others, of consciously or unconsciously doing it for some personal benefit. For instance, I have heard of a Christian businessman who tried to sell some product to a missionary or religious organization and promised that all the commission or profit, or part of it, would surely come to the treasury of the mission as a contribution. The business deal was concluded, but the contribution is still to come from that particular businessman. That is what James calls staining of one's Christian service. It is the little inconsistencies that creep into our lives.

Who is the judge as to whether this religious service is pure and undefiled? Not our neighbors, not the preacher, not our relatives, but God Himself. One time Ian MacLaren, that great preacher of the Word of God, went to a certain house and saw an old Scotch woman standing in her kitchen, weeping. She wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron, and when the minister asked her what was the matter, she confessed, "I have done so little." She further said, "I am so miserable and unhappy."

"Why?"

 "Because I have done so little for Jesus. When I was just a wee girl, the Lord spoke to my heart, and I did so much want to live for Him."

"Well, haven't you?" asked the minister.

"Yes, I have lived for Him, but I have done so little. I want to be of some use in His service."

"What have you done?"

"I will tell you. I have washed dishes, cooked three meals a day, taken care of the children, mopped the floor, and mended the clothes. That is all I have done all my life, and I wanted to do something for Jesus."

The preacher, sitting back in the armchair, looked at her and smiled. "Where are your boys?" he inquired. She had four sons and had named them after Bible characters.

"Oh, my boys? You know where Mark is. You ordained him yourself before he went to China. Why are you asking? There he is preaching for the Lord."

"Where is Luke?" questioned the minister.

"Luke? He went out from your own church. Didn't you send him out? I had a letter from him the other day." And then she became happy and excited as she continued, "A revival has broken out on the mission station, and he said they were having a wonderful time in the service of the Lord!"

"Where is Matthew?"

 "He is with his brother in China. And isn't it fine that the two boys can be working together? I am so happy about that. And John came to me the other night-he is my baby and is only nineteen, but he is a great boy. He said, "Mother, I have been praying and, tonight in my room, the Lord spoke to my heart and what do you suppose He told me? I have to go to my brother in Africa! But don't you cry, Mother. The Lord told me I was to stay here and look after you until you go home to glory."

The minister looked at her: "And you say your life has been wasted in mopping floors, darning socks, washing dishes, and doing the trivial tasks. I'd like to have your mansion when we are called home! It will be very near the throne." This dear, faithful mother thought that her service was small and unworthy, but in the sight of God it was pure and undefiled; for what the Lord gave her to do she was perfectly willing to do well.

Yes, God is the Judge, and we should not mind in the least what others think and say about our religion, our service. God's eye is what counts. Our verse says, however, that our service is "before our God and Father." There is a reason why James characterizes God as a Father in this instance. He knows that our service is to be pure and undefiled, but he knows that as long as we are within this frail, weak, human body of unlimited limitations our service cannot be perfect and therefore God has to judge it as a kind and longsuffering Father. There are far too many who will not do anything for God for fear that their religion, their service, will not be acceptable because of its imperfections.

It is good to remember that we are just children and that God judges as a Father, loving, kind, forgiving, and tolerant. But as a Father He has the full right to correct and chasten us sometimes.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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