If I were to mention the word “religion,” what would be your reaction? For a lot of Christians, especially those who call themselves Evangelicals, it really has a bad connotation. One of the common aphorisms heard among us is that “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
What do we mean by saying this? My understanding is that it’s referring to the fact that performing the outward “trappings” of religion, such as observing the holy days, giving money to the church and to those in need, praying in public, etc., don't mean anything by themselves. You have to have a personal relationship with the Lord, and the only way to initiate this relationship is by placing your faith in Christ. This paradigm assumes that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to get into favor with him except by believing in Jesus (which also assumes repentance). Therefore, we don’t like to call what we have a "religion."
And that’s understandable. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. There’s no outward ceremony like baptism that can make you right with God, nor does the Bible teach that any ceremony or work or ritual is necessary to receive salvation.
But does that mean that there’s no place for outward ceremony or ritual in the Christian life? Of course not. What is baptism? Isn't it a ceremony/ritual that we perform publicly at the beginning of a person’s walk with Christ? And giving to the poor is considered a given among followers of Jesus. In the Ephesian passage I cited in the last paragraph, if you keep reading, you’ll see that Paul tells us that we’re saved by grace through faith for good works.
And then there’s the fact that James in today’s passage talks about both bad religion and good religion. In case you’re wondering, the word “religion” in the NIV and other translations is a perfectly good one. The word is threskos, and the Online Interlinear Bible renders it literally as “ritual.” So what James is talking about in these verses is outward rituals or good works or public acts done in the name of our Savior. This isn’t in opposition to our inward relationship with Christ, but there’s a distinction to be made here.
So what’s bad religion, according to James? Well, as best as I can tell, bad religion is performing the right rituals and ceremonies without making an inward change. The picture in verse 26 is that of a man who’s a church-goer, a tither, a leader in the church maybe, but he doesn’t keep a “tight rein” on his tongue. In other words, he has no self-discipline. There’s no real change in his personal conduct. If you think that going through the outward motions makes up for a lack of change in how you treat the individual people around you, then you’re literally fooling yourself. All the public works you’re performing are just a waste of time. You might as well stayed home and slept in on Sunday morning if all you’re doing is putting on a public show.
So what’s good religion? Just to avoid confusion, let’s review some basics. The biblical pattern is that we place our faith in Christ (submitting our lives to him), then he begins to work on us from the inside-out. He begins to change the way we see things and the way we think. That’ll eventually work itself out into personal righteousness, one of the main aspects of which is how we treat other people.
In a way, James is working backwards here. He says that two types of works are acceptable before God: helping those in need and keeping yourself from being “polluted by the world.” That’s personal righteousness. As we’ll see in the next chapter, if you don’t see personal righteousness in your life, a change in the way you talk and act, then something’s really wrong. It’s possible or even probable that there was never a real encounter with the living Christ to being with.
Now that we’ve got the theologically thorny questions out of the way, let’s get to the main point that James is making: You need to demonstrate your faith in Christ by keeping yourself from being polluted by the evil world system around you, and by reaching out to practically help those in need. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. Let your thoughts and words and actions be guided by Scripture, not by what’s popular. And when you see someone in front of you who’s in need, step forward to help them in practical ways.
You want God’s smile? That’s how to do it.
Father God, I desperately need your empowering grace to change me from the inside-out. You loved me first, so I need to show love to you and then to others. Please.