The Right Kind Of Religion

James 1:19-27 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 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.


“I’m not very religious, I’m more spiritual.”

“I’m into Jesus, not religion.”

“You don’t have to be religious to be a Christian.”

Have you ever heard someone talk that way? Have you ever talked that way?

This type of language has become increasingly common over the past several years. Of course, different people mean different things by it, and there might be something true in what they’re trying to say, but this is not how the Bible talks. There is a kind of religion that is “worthless” (as the above quotes imply), but there is also a kind that pleases God. Religion is good or bad, James tells us, based on its content and output.

In his letter, James was mostly concerned with the kind of religious output (rather than content) that is pleasing to God. Our passage for this morning is no exception. In it, we are given three more charges (one negative and two positive) concerning the kinds of things good religion does—it does not allow for an unbridled tongue, but it does lead to caring for those in society who are most vulnerable and striving for holiness.

To be clear, however, James has in mind the right kind of religion in the eyes of God. He says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…,” not “Religion that the world (or even the Church) recognizes as pure and undefiled.” This is an important distinction for this sermon and for all of life. Our aim must always be to honor the One who made us, according to His terms. Sometimes those terms will be well-received and sometimes they will be despised. Either way, God alone defines worthy religion.

Let’s pray for God’s help to have the right kind of religion; the kind that hopes wholly in Jesus and works itself out increasingly in the ways God has commanded.


The main question James answers in our passage for this morning is not whether religion is good or bad but, what makes up the right kind of religion. And his answer, once again, is a religion’s content and output. As I mentioned in the introduction, James’s letter is primarily focused on the kind of outworking of religion that pleases God, rather than the specific tenants of that religion. That isn’t to say that James’s is entirely without doctrine, much less that he is unconcerned with it. It is only to say, rather, that sound doctrine is mostly assumed by James.

For instance, James charged his readers to believe that God uses their every trial to sanctify them (1:4), that God will give the crown of life to all who love Him (1:12), that God always, only gives good gifts to His people (1:17), that Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, is the ultimate object of faith (2:1), that salvation cannot come from obedience to the law (2:10), but that genuine faith always produces obedience (2:14-26), that there is only one true God who is holy and entirely above temptation, compassionate and merciful (2:19, 13; 5:11), that saving faith is incompatible with friendship with the world (4:4), that salvation is entirely the result of God’s grace, which He gives only to the humble of heart (4:6), that salvation means fellowship with God (4:8), that the opposite of salvation is judgment and destruction (4:12), and that Jesus will return (5:7, 8).

What, then, is the basic content of the right kind of religion? Ultimately, it is the gospel. In his own words, James says this in 1:18, “Of His own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth.” What is the “word of truth”? In short, it is the good news of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, salvation, and power, graciously given to God’s people through faith.

Do you want to have the right kind of religion, the kind that pleases God? If so, you must begin with the right content. And the right content, according to James, is the gospel of Jesus. Grace, do not miss this: Every religion that has different content is “worthless”. This means that without the right religious content, every religious output is worthless. This is the constant theme of the Bible.

Isaiah 1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

Psalm 50:8-11 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. 9 I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.

Hosea 6:6 I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hebrews 10:5-6 when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

We must learn this, Grace. It has very serious implications. Apart from genuine hope in the gospel, you cannot please God no matter how many times you pray or come to church or obey your parents or sing Christian songs or help the poor or read your Bible or share the gospel or go on a mission trip. Apart from trust in Jesus, our greatest religious feats are utter refuse to God. In fact, they’re worse than refuse. They make an outright mockery of God.

Imagine having a friend who allowed you to use their multi-million dollar home in Lake Tahoe for a vacation. Imagine inadvertently knocking over their grill and burning the whole place down. Now imagine trying to make up for your actions by offering them a pile of scrap lumber or a box of nails or a tool belt—or even all three. Not only would your offerings fall several million dollars short of actually accounting for your error, but the fact you offered them at all either meant you had no idea what the house was worth or didn’t really care.

If you can see how foolish and futile your actions were in that scenario, you can begin to understand why our greatest efforts to try to make up for our sins against God are infinitely more foolish and futile. Because of the staggering cost of our sin (eternal death), we can never hope to pay them on our own. Our only hope, therefore, is that God would provide a suitable payment for us. The right kind of religion does not try to provide for ourselves. Instead, it humbly receives the perfect provision God already provided for us—Jesus Christ.

The right kind of religion always begins with the right content. Without it, nothing we do will please God. And yet, that is not to say that the right kind of religion is concerned with content only; it is also, as James increasingly insists on, concerned with output. So…what kind of faith-in-the-gospel-driven output marks worthy religion?


The answer to that question is, once again, James’s main point of emphasis in his letter—true faith, the right religious content, always, eagerly, and continually works itself out in loving and sacrificial ways.

So far, James has mentioned joyful faithfulness through trials (1:2-3, 12), confidently seeking wisdom from God (1:5-8), celebrating humility (1:9-10), continually fighting sin (1:13-15, 21), steady trust in the goodness of God (1:16-17), being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (1:19), and doing what God says, not merely hearing it (1:22).

He will go on to mention many more examples of the kind of attitudes and actions the right kind of religion produces (like impartiality, care for the poor and hurting, meekness, selflessness, peace-making, encouragement, generosity, modesty, patience, integrity, prayerfulness, participation in the church, and an eagerness to confess and forgive sins).

Here, in vs.26-27, James mentions three more specific outworkings of the right kind of religion: (1) A bridled tongue, (2) Care for the vulnerable, and (3) Holiness. We’ll consider each.

Bridled Tongue

I asked the scripture reader to read 19-27, because I wanted you all to see that 26-27 is a continuation of a larger charge. Mainly, it is a continuation of the charge to be a doer of the word on not a hearer only. But it is also a continuation of the charge to live out our faith by carefully guarding our mouths.

In v.19 James commanded his readers to ” let every person be… slow to speak”. He’ll return to this theme in significant depth in the first twelve verses of chapter three. And in our passage James simply, but emphatically states, “26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Clearly this is an important theme for James and a key aspect of the right kind of religion.

If we are to faithfully obey this charge (or any charge), we need to make sure we’ve rightly heard it; that we truly understand it. What did James mean by bridling our tongues? And, why does the failure to do so indicate that our claims of religion are worthless?

I wonder how many of you have spent a good deal of time around a horse. If you have, you know how unbelievably strong/powerful they are. Everyone I know who has horses has felt that power at some point in the form of a kick or by being tossed off while riding.

One time, many years ago, I was riding horses in the mountains with my family and our guide’s horse got spooked, bucked him off, and took off running with our guide’s foot caught in the stirrup. He was a big, strong man as I recall, but he was utterly powerless to stop this horse once it set its mind to running. Fortunately, the horse calmed down after about 100′, but it wasn’t because the man had anything to do with it.

For those who don’t know, a bridle is tool used to control that power. It usually contains a harness that goes over a horse’s head, a bit that goes in its mouth, and reigns that the rider holds on to. All three pieces combined are really small compared to the horse and even the rider. And yet, rightly wielded it is more powerful than both. With a bridle, with even a small amount of pressure, a well-trained rider can make the horse go wherever he or she wants in a way that is much, much harder to do on their own.

The Bible’s consistent picture of the tongue is as more powerful and unwieldy than the most powerful and unbroken horse. In chapter 3, James likens it to a ship’s rudder and a small fire that sets an entire forest ablaze. His point is that our speech (like a rudder and small fire) are able to do far more damage than their small size suggests. For those reasons, the tongue needs to be bridled to keep its power from causing significant harm. Who among us hasn’t been deeply wounded by an unbridled tongue? Who among us hasn’t deeply wounded by our own unbridled tongue?

The Bible lists many types of speech that flow out of the mouths of those who refuse to harness them. Among them are:

  1. Blasphemy (Jude 1:8)
  2. Evil (1 Peter 3:10)
  3. Gossip (2 Corinthians 12:20)
  4. Anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscenity (Colossians 3:8)
  5. Lying (1 Peter 3:10)
  6. Defiling (Matthew 15:11)
  7. Corrupting (Ephesians 4:29)
  8. Harshness (Proverbs 15:1)
  9. Foolishness (Proverbs 15:2)
  10. Filthiness and crude joking (Ephesians 5:4)
  11. Death-producing (Proverbs 18:21)
  12. Careless, rash, hasty, irreverent babble (Matthew 12:36; Ecclesiastes 5:2; 2 Timothy 2:16)

James doesn’t say much at all about how we might bridle our tongues; about how we might keep ourselves from this kind of talk. His main point is simply that people who consistently speak in these ways while claiming to be religous, deceive themselves. Far from being worthy, their “religion is worthless.” That’s a pretty severe assessment. It is good to ask, why or how this is the case.

Simply, as Puritan pastor Thomas Manton has written, it is because “there is such a quick interchange between the tongue and heart…” (Manton, James, 108). In other words, as Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). A person with worthy religion (with a heart captured by God) will not long-tolerate the kind of heart that produces this kind of speech. They will quickly seek to bridle it.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, then, a godly man and woman will fit themselves with harness, bit, and reigns. They will seek partnership and accountability from brothers and sisters in Christ. They will carefully meditate on the Word of God as it speaks to the words of men. And they will steer their hearts and words toward speech that is…

  1. Praise and worship (Psalm 148)
  2. Prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
  3. Thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:4)
  4. Blessing (1 Peter 3:9)
  5. Evangelism (1 Peter 3:15)
  6. Building up, fitting, gracious (Ephesians 4:29)
  7. Salty (Colossians 4:6)
  8. Life-giving and healing (Proverbs 18:21; Proverbs 12:18)
  9. Knowledge commending (Proverbs 15:2)
  10. True and loving (Ephesians 4:32)

And so we must ask ourselves which set of words most characterizes our speech, and what does that say about our religion. Whatever your answer, your next steps are the same. Whether you are not a Christian, are a Christian who is struggling with your speech, or are a Christian who speaks in mostly God-honoring ways: 1) Trust in Jesus, and 2) Bridle your tongue, James says.

Care for Orphans and Widows

If an unbridled tongue marks worthless religion, James’s second and third charges mark worthy religion. We must not content ourselves with merely avoiding that which God has prohibited. We must also do that which He has commanded. James’s second mark of worthy religion is, once again, deep care for the most vulnerable among us.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…

Some time ago I preached on this passage for Orphan Sunday. In that sermon I presented a simple argument concerning the way in which God’s Word presents care for the vulnerable. I still believe it with all my heart.

  1. God is great beyond measure.
  2. All of God’s greatness is directed toward the cause of the widow and fatherless—the vulnerable.
  3. God commands His people to join Him in fighting for the vulnerable.
  4. God’s greatness is directed toward the cause of the vulnerable and He commands His people to join Him in that cause ultimately because it provides the world with a living picture of the gospel.

It is a picture of the gospel in that what each of these points highlights in the physical realm is even more fully true in the spiritual realm. God is great beyond measure. All of His greatness is directed toward sinners who are even more vulnerable spiritually than anyone has ever been physically. And that is why He sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for the sins of all who would receive Him.

The remarkableness of this biblical argument is impossible to overstate. James’s main point here is that truly godly people, genuine Christians, those whose religion is worthy, are those who have come to recognize that they were once spiritual orphans and widows, rescued only by the grace of God. And having recognized their own undeserving rescue, they are eager to give themselves to the rescue of others—both physically and spiritually. To fail to do so is to have a religion that believes you deserved to be saved by God. And that is a worthless religion indeed.

And so, Grace Church, in the name of Jesus, let us give ourselves to the cause of the vulnerable in light of the fact that we have been rescued by God from a far greater vulnerability. Let us love and serve the most helpless as God loves and serves us in our spiritual helplessness.

Ask our Together for Good coordinators to give you one specific way to help care for a vulnerable family. Ask Jen Blevins to give you one way to practically care for the kids in Haiti. Ask our deacons if they know of an older woman or struggling family who could use help. Let us be doers of the Word of God in this and every area.


Finally, James describes a third aspect of worthy religion.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this…to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Like worthy religion in general, it is not up us to decide what it means to be unstained from the world (holy). That is for God alone to determine. Therefore, if we are to know what genuine holiness looks like, it will be because we are familiar with what the rest of James and the rest of the Bible have to say (that is to say, all of what God has said) on the matter.

In short, being “unstained from the world” (or holy) means being conformed to certain aspects of the nature of God. God is Truth, so holiness speaks that which is true and does not lie. God is life, so holiness seeks to make things flourish and does not murder. God is good, so holiness always walks in the light and flees the darkness. God is love, so holiness is in a continual pursuit of that which is best and does not hate. God is beautiful, so holiness is drawn to true beauty and despises charm and immodesty.

The world, in the sense James uses it here, is short-hand for every view of life that is opposed to the nature of God. It does not mean that physical things are bad or that everything we encounter outside of the Church is evil. But it does mean that we must be careful to develop a truly comprehensive Christian view of the world—both in order to know how to think and feel and live rightly, and also to be able to quickly recognize thoughts, feelings, and actions that are not right.

Wrongly understood, this might seem as if James is demanding immediate perfection from all true Christians. This view has led some to go after holiness in a manner that is utterly exhausting since it can never be fully attained. And it has led others to refuse to try at all since they know they will always fall short.

Rightly understood, it is a call to acknowledge the right standard of holiness, a call to pursue it at all times in the power that God provides, a call to recognize that by God’s design we won’t fully achieve holiness until death or the return of Jesus, and it is a call to sing amazing grace in light of the fact that lacking our own, we are forgiven by God on the basis of Jesus’ imputed righteousness.

One commentator I read this week says it better than I can, “It is not our perfection that proves our salvation but rather our hating our imperfections and seeking, with God’s help and power, to correct them. In his inmost heart, the genuine Christian longs to speak and do only those things that are holy, pure, loving, honest, truthful, and upright…” (MacArthur, James, 92).

Practically, study God’s Word on your own and with God’s people. Come to Berea and Sunday school. Lean way in to the sermon. Memorize large chunks of the Bible. Hide the nature and promises of God in your heart. Learn from God who He is, what He has called you to, and what He’s done for you. Surround yourself with people who are doing the same. Regularly ask those people to help you see where you are walking in holiness and where you are not. Pray earnestly and solicit others to pray with you for the Holy Spirit of God to shine the Word of God and the counsel of other Christians brightly on your soul that you might see where you continue to sin and fall short of God’s glory. Where you find sin, turn from it with God’s help.

Pure religion bridals the tongue, cares for the vulnerable, and pursues holiness.


In conclusion, I invite you to notice the subtle phrase, “before God the Father”. There are two aspects of this that we would do well to consider as we close. First, everything we do—whether religious or not, whether worthy or worthless, whether in public or private, whether outwardly or inwardly—is done before God. Everything about us is always seen by God. This means that there is no faking it when it comes to our religion. We might be able to put on a convincing show for other people, but God always knows.

And yet, while this is a very serious matter, it is not meant to lead us to a constant sense of nervousness. It is, rather, meant to help us see the seriousness of godly living and remind us of the glory of the gospel. Since God knows all of that, it is right to be ever-vigilant. But since God knows all of that but still loves me in Jesus, it is right to walk in light of the acceptance and freedom the gospel provides.

The second thing to consider in closing is that for those whose hope is in Jesus, God’s main disposition toward us as we work out our religion, is that of a Father. God’s people are meant to pursue godliness in the knowledge that they are doing so alongside a loving, helping, good, strong, merciful, and gracious Father. This is sweet news indeed. Go after the right kind of religion, but do so in the kind of rest, protection, and strength a good Father alone can provide.

So… we’re called here to be religious people, but not just any religion will do. The only kind that is pleasing to God is rooted in the gospel (right content) and continually works out in obedience to God (right output). In particular, in this passage, James described three specific religious outputs that he intended his readers to focus on in light of their salvation in Jesus: bridled tongues, care for widows and orphans, and holiness. May we hear these charges clearly and obey them swiftly, in light of the gospel, with the Spirit’s power, and for the glory of God, the good of our souls and church, and for the blessing of the nations.