true religion

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. James 1:27
The word “religion” appears only a handful of times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to Judaism, and often with the negative connotation of being composed of merely man-made rules (e.g. Colossians 2:23, Acts 26:5). In no other verse besides this one from James is the word used to describe the Christian faith.
James 1:27, in a unique way, asks and answers the question: what is true religion? James answers this question as every biblical author answers it, though in every other case without the actual word “religion”: true religion is attending to the afflicted, helping the helpless, defending the weak.

Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ – who he is and what he has done – the heart of Christian practice is the imitation of Jesus and the living out of the Bible’s teachings. Therefore, any person convinced of the power and grace of Jesus is compelled to ask: how did Jesus live and what did he value? How does the Bible depict love for him in action? What is true religion for a follower of Jesus?

The Bible’s resounding answer from start to finish is summed up in something Jesus said when he quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice” here refers to the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem temple for the atonement of sin and thanksgiving to God, a practice constantly being perverted by legalistic Jews who tried to use it to earn God’s grace (which is a contradiction in terms) and to impress fellow religious people, all at the cost of the kind of “sacrifice” God wanted most from his people: mercy to the needy.

Perhaps Jesus had Isaiah chapter 58 in the back of his mind when he quoted this verse from Hosea. Isaiah 58 is another passage of the Bible which highlights the difference between showy religion and true service to God. It is a lyrical and powerful chapter, and I encourage you to read the entire thing.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6-7
What good is fasting if it just a day for “a man to bow his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him” (Isaiah 58:5) – and nothing else?
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. 58:3-4
Impure, defiled religion fasts occasionally, says “why don’t you notice everything I do for you, God?” (58:3), then goes on to do what it wants and maintain the status quo. Perverted religion obsesses itself with religion’s trappings and never asks, “Is this what you really want from me, God?”
Pure, beautiful, Christ-like “religion” overflows with compassion. It cares less and less about its own possessions and rights, and more and more about easing the suffering of others. Pure religion values mercy above “sacrifice,” serving God above “looking Christian,” helping others above satisfying its own desires.
You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
We ought to consider our lives, and our churches, soberly. Are our lives typical, affluent, American lives and our churches typical, affluent, American churches? In our churches’ budgets, what gets more attention: the air conditioning and pastors’ salaries, or the addicts, victims, and homeless of the community? What do our own budgets show about our hearts? Where is our true treasure (Matthew 6:21)?
True religion means not only giving money, but giving time, and entering the dark corners of our world, and the dark corners of people’s lives, with hands-on love. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.
Jesus said that whatever is done for suffering people in his name is done for him. This was his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2

5 thoughts on “true religion

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  3. well said. it amazes me how well you are able to expound upon biblical truth. God has truly given you a great gift.

    I really appreciate your focus, not just on loving others, but on the reason for this focus: “Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ”.

    So many post-modern Christians focus too much on deeds and not enough on the motivation behind those deeds.

    It is true that we need to be loving those around us, giving up ourselves for the good of others. Christ first gave himself up for us, and we are to imitate our Savior through the power of the Holy Spirit.

    As you said, “Pure religion values mercy above “sacrifice,” serving God above “looking Christian,” helping others above satisfying its own desires.”

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Indeed. At the same time, dwelling exclusively on motives to the neglect of action (which is admittedly hard to do) misses the whole point as well. “If anyone see his brother in need but closes his heart to him, how can God’s love be in him?” (paraphrasing 1 John 3:17). Our wicked, hurting world so desperately needs truly merciful Christians, who love tangibly.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Allison, I appreciate your thoughts. 🙂

  4. Once again, you brought tears to my eyes. I am humbled. Yes, we need to look at where our priorities are and do more to help others. There are so many in need.

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