There are many ways of tackling the question of true religion. Many people, when asked about religion, will respond along the lines of, “…as long as it is sincere, true to someone, or brings peace or happiness, then it is acceptable religion”. This is clearly not the biblical answer to this question. As Christians, we must seek to answer this question right, especially in our world today, where people believe that any religion is right as long as the above criteria are met.
Scripture teaches us in James 1:27 that “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.” This is a critical verse worth looking into to answer our question about what true religion is. When we look at the context of the verse, we learn that James is stressing what it means to be a “doer of the word” (James 1:25); he then explains what a doer of the Word looks like (James 1:26-27). A doer of the Word practices their religion outwardly. However, we must be careful since there is a “deceptive” way of practicing religion that is “worthless” (James 1:26). There is also a way of outwardly practicing religion that is “pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27). So, how should we be doers of the Word as we practice of our Christian religion in such a way that it is “pure and undefiled” (James 1:27) as opposed to “deceptive” and “worthless” (James 1:26)?
Is Christianity a Religion?
It is essential for us to pause for a moment and investigate if, indeed, Christianity is a religion. A religion, generally, is more about appeasing a god to gain their approval on the day of judgment. In Christianity, however, we gain approval from God immediately upon belief in Jesus (Titus 3:4-6, Romans 4:2-5, 5:1-2, 5:9-11). Since we gain immediate acceptance and access to God, Christianity would not exactly suit the ‘religion’ description. Once we have believed in Christ, we acquire a new identity and are immediately free to know God and enjoy him forever (1 Peter 3:18, Romans 5:1-2, 5:8-11). This is the goal of the gospel (Philippians 3:8-10, John 17:3).
Religion is also defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs” according to dictionary.com. Here, Christianity fits the bill since there are rituals, observances, and a moral code to be upheld and practised. For example, Christians ritually practice attending church, praying, reading the Bible, taking communion, baptizing new believers, and even tithing. We also have a set of morals to be upheld and practised. Examples of these morals are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). However, our identity as Christians leans more on our union with Jesus Christ as opposed to our deeds or moral standing.
Going back to James 1:27, we see that the book of James refers to Christianity as a religion. However, we must qualify that it is a religion founded on the basis that one is in a relationship with Jesus Christ, as highlighted in James 1:16-18. The word “religion,” as used by James, does not refer to religious rituals or attempting to please God to receive grace on the day of judgment; it refers to the sense of outward acts of worship. Hence, true religion acceptable before God is shown through outward acts of worship that are pure and undefiled. What are these acts?
James says that social responsibility and moral purity are acts of worship that are pure and undefiled (James 1:27). The social responsibility that James addresses specifically is “to visit widows and orphans in their affliction” (James 1:27). In other words, true religion involves helping the helpless in our world. Orphans and widows are among the most vulnerable in our society; other groups include people with disabilities or those who are chronically ill. Visiting and helping the vulnerable in their affliction is an act of worship in God’s eyes. God himself takes care of the oppressed, hungry, fatherless, imprisoned, blind, sojourner, and the “bent down,” according to Psalm 146:7-9. Jesus says that when he returns, those who visited the sick and prisoners, dressed the naked, and welcomed strangers will receive eternal life (Matthew 25:36, 43). Jeremiah 7:1-8 warns that placing our trust in simply going to church while neglecting or oppressing the poor is practicing a “deceptive” or “worthless” religion before our Lord. What does your religion look like?
As a point of application, are you paying your employees enough money? Are you taking good care of your house help, nanny, security guard, vulnerable family members, or any sick relative near you? Let us not oppress them or cause them harm when it is in our power to do good to them (James 2:14-16). A lot of people cry out because they have not been paid a proper salary or are being neglected by their family members. The religion that God accepts is the religion that does not neglect social responsibility.
It must be noted that it is not just social responsibility that God seeks but also moral purity. James 1:27 adds that Christians are to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” The term “unstained” means “without blemish” or “spotless.” 1 Peter 1:19 says that Jesus was a lamb without blemish. 2 Peter 3:14 says Christians should strive to be spotless in their walk with God, publicly and privately. James encourages his readers to persevere in faith under trial so that they “may be perfect, complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). A Christian aiming for moral purity perseveres through trials, knowing that the Lord is with them. They also don’t let their anger go out of control (James 1:19), put away all filthiness and wickedness (James 1:21), practise obedience to God’s Word (James 1:22-25), don’t show partiality to the rich (James 2:1-7), tame their tongue (James 3:1-11), trust in God’s sovereignty as opposed to their wealth (James 4:13-17), confess their sins regularly (James 5:16), and make a practice of praying and giving praise to God (James 5:13). There are many other examples of how to keep ourselves unstained from the world, but these are some of the things that James had in mind when he talked about religion that honors God. We must note that it is not possible to practice our Christian religion with moral purity without the salvation (James 1:16-18) or wisdom of God (James 1:5). To try and be morally pure without the power of God is to have a form of godliness, but denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5). God has given us all the power we need for moral purity (2 Peter 1:3-4). He empowers us by his grace to obey his standards (Titus 2:11-12).
The popular narrative in the world purports that God will be pleased with whatever we do because we practice whatever religion out of sincerity. However, we have established that true religion is birthed through having a relationship with Jesus Christ, who then gives us access to wisdom and grace to obey God’s commands (James 1:5, James 1:16-18, Hebrews 4:16). May we be found faithful, even as we show a lost world the meaning of true, unadulterated religion.