Pure religion (James 1:27)

Refugee Women

Religion is bad. By definition, religion is a kind of bondage, which means there’s no such thing as good religion. But what about James who said this:

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (Jas 1:27, KJV)

There are two ways to read James’s words:

1. Religion is good

Forget grace, forget the cross, forget the blood of Jesus – what really impresses the Lord is visiting the fatherless and widows. And if you really want to impress him, keep yourself unblemished from the world. Don’t drink, don’t overeat, don’t hang out with sinners. In short, don’t do half the things that Jesus did.

As the fatherless son of a widow, I have no problem with James’ exhortation to help out the fatherless and the widow. And in the old covenant, this was something that earned you points with God (Deu 24:19-21). James is Jewish so he understands this, and he’s writing to Jewish people who are familiar with the law of Moses.

But is James preaching law? Is he selling the free favor of God?

Not a chance! James has just told us about a God “who gives generously” (v.5), who provides us with “every good and perfect gift” (v.17), including the living Word of his Son (v.20-22).

James draws a big fat line between the law of Moses that binds and the perfect law of liberty that makes us free (v.25).

Contrary to what you may have heard, James was not confused about the gospel of grace, and he did not preach a different gospel. However, he did have a different audience.

Paul preached to Gentiles; James preached to Jews. Paul preached to people who never had the law; James preached to those who took pride in keeping it. This is why he says:

If anyone among you thinks he is religious… (Jas 1:26)

In other words, “Religion counts for nothing, however, if you insist on thinking of yourself as religious, perhaps because you’ve been raised on a diet of law, then here’s how to be religious.”

2. Nope, religion is bad, but if you must play that game here are the rules

And what form does James’ religion take? Do we get the Ten Commandments? Nope. Do we get all 613 ceremonial observances? No. All we get are two instructions.

First, take care of the fatherless and widows, not because this supersedes the work of Jesus, but because they are dying. Jerusalem was in a famine (Acts 11:28). You’ve probably never experienced a famine, but in those days a famine meant there was no food, which meant you were going to die slowly and painfully. And the first to die would be those without breadwinners, namely, the fatherless and the widows.

Paul travelled the world raising money to feed the starving saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:25-26), yet no one calls him religious. Nor is James being religious here. He is simply dealing with the number one need of his church. “You guys who pride yourself on being religious, help the starving poor!” Amen.

Second, keep yourself unspotted from the world, not in a Pharisaical sense of withdrawing into religious cliques, but in a Christlike sense of being in the world but not of it. James is saying the same thing Jesus said in Matthew 16:26 (“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul”), and Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 (“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers… come out and be separate….”).

It is the way of the world to advance yourself through self-improvement. You may call it religion or careerism or whatever label you like, but it’s all a flesh-trip. “Don’t buy into anything that promotes self-trust,” says James. “Don’t cheat on Jesus by embracing worldly religion.”

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

I’d rather be a friend of God and an enemy of religion, wouldn’t you?

Religion enslaves, but Jesus died to set you free from religious bonds. So be free and use your freedom to serve others in love – especially the fatherless and the widow or whoever you know who is going through tough times.


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40 Comments on Pure religion (James 1:27)

  1. James should have put quotation mark around the word religion!

    • I have often thought that too. He probably would have if he could have.

      • So, it’s not religion pursa that is the problem. In some places it’s very good. but we make it bad, and so as to save we attack with the Lord’s command, Robert Capon explains in Parables of Grace.

        I know that Max Lucado grew up with a sense of never saying the right thing at the right time, but he wrote down what he wanted to say. I am thankful that writing is one option we have when we can’t let go and need to grow. God is faithful. Even when we’re faithless.

  2. I’ve got to know that the greatest gift to give to someone is the gospel of grace. Thank you Paul.

  3. In “The Naked Gospel” Andrew Farley defines RELIGION as back to bondage. Anyone agree?

  4. Paul, thank you for your blogs. James has long been a bit of a thorn to grace – if one doesn’t understand his perspective, and I think you captured it. There are some who say a new believer should read James first, but I disagree. There was a time when I was struggling hard in so many areas and I would go to the book of James to “get my perspective back” but I now see that what I was doing was strengthening myself in my own resolve, employing my own abilities. The flesh loves something that it must DO! I’m so so grateful to have discovered the freedom found in not my own doing, but Christ’s which then works through me “to will and THEN to do” by his strength. The life lived then may look the same from the outside but it’s eons apart! Blessings!

  5. It’s so awesome that people all over the world can read these posts and be changed by discovering the true nature of our graceful, loving Father.

  6. brockingtoncharles // January 28, 2016 at 4:16 am // Reply

    Great message. I truest like the way you explain this passage.

  7. Thanks for this Paul, I noticed there might be a typo. “Nor is James is being religious here”, its right after you put the Rom 15:25-26 reference.

    Heres some other translations for James 1:27 I looked up..

    Weymouth New Testament
    The religious service which is pure and stainless in the sight of our God and Father is to visit fatherless children and widowed women in their time of trouble, and to keep one’s own self unspotted from the world.

    Aramaic Bible in Plain English
    For pure and holy ministry before God The Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction, and for a man to keep his soul without defilement from the world.

    I forgot that they were going through a famine as well, it makes a big difference when reading that scripture, thanks for the article.

  8. Paul, I believe that the parable which best describes true religion is exampled through John 4; this is a reflection and truth of the first 2 commandments given to Moses, summed up through the parable in which Jesus gave to His disciples concerning The Commandment to love one another(John 13:34).

  9. Thanks for this! I always wondered about this with no explanation. I would see news letters supporting orphanages using these verses. But that’s about it.
    But ever since I have been saved that word religion it sounds nasty to me as bad as the F word to me! Not because of some theological belief it just always made me uneasy inside with no particular explanation.
    In fact when my pastor died, and the new guy took over he changed the web site of the church saying their mission was to spread Christianity as a religion. Makes me want to puke.
    Anyway I will read this many times. I will have to save it to get it through my thick head.
    But It makes sense now. He was Jesus half brother and that’s what Jesus did!
    I always kind of thought James was proud because he was Jesus brother and jealous of Paul for his revelation so he was starting trouble with the other churches. I understand a little more now! Thanks!

  10. Paul, congrats for the courage to intently pick “hard” passages and “nail”(I say it with reverence)them or connect them to the cross, from where their perfect perspective and true interpretation come. I`ve always wondered what James means with the term law of liberty mentioned twice in his letter: “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and “as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty”(James 2:12). I checked your link to one of your previous posts “What is the Law Written on Our Hearts?” where you touch a little bit more on the topic. But I still don`t find more about James 2:12 in the light of grace. Could you propose me some link to previous post, or some resource on the net or your personal interpretation on 2:12 and the connection to 1:25. Thanks a lot for sharing your background – it is immensely encouraging! You are abundantly blessed!Keep on digging out treasures for us – it helps me also start digging out for myself and maybe for others too!

  11. I did not know there was a famine going on and he was literally talking about supplying needs.

    I got all spiritual about it and thought God was talking about the fatherless…orphans … people that don’t know God, don’t know there is a Father, don’t know they can choose to have a Father

    Widows I though he was talking about people who had known God, but had wandered away from who they were, remind them again they have a husband and they are not alone and remind them who they are and what God had done for them.

    There is a grittiness and realness to the Word that I often overlook.


    • Is this a spin? I was honestly as lost at one time in another direction. But you have to understand that it’s probably not your theology that is wrong but just your approach. Are you serious?

  12. Hey love it thank you got my wheels turning!

  13. Always a sure thing when the good-better-best of anything is shown by Yashuah (Jesus) to be holy, noble, just & good. Religion outside of this, is a man-made construct; followers of whom are part of an elaborate destabilization process around the globe.

    Presently, the RCC/s [Vatican] Pope Francis is holding meetings with some of the most influential Evangelical & Protestant leaders. Inviting them to ‘come back to the fold’…what does the inspired word in Revelation have to say here in context?

    ‘Come out of her my people…”. Might the context here be pointing to a global system based in [the traditions of men] religion. Surely Yashua Followers will hear + listen + do what they see the Father doing__the man of peace will come to sit (an abomination) in a seat in Jerusalem…

  14. I do not think it fair to blanket religion as bad because the word may carry different meanings to different people. Even for a person who lives by faith in the grace of God, to an observer he/she can be refereed to as a religious person simply by their confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I think James was simply differentiating pure religion from bad religion, the pure being the inside out one, and the bad that trusts in the good works for the persons acceptance. One who has pure religion will act compassionately towards the widows and the fatherless while bad religion may act out of duty or for recognition.

    • Patrick Maina – Dear Sir,

      There is no intention on my part to admonish people here. The comment: to your point, was to say religion isn’t about being bad or good. It’s a man-made construct, which might better be ignored by the believer. In my first sentence, I was concurring with the article message.

      “…blanketing religion as bad…”__James took over the leadership of the local [west] people (after Jesus’ death) in the area of Judah. When James 1:27 was spoken, he wasn’t eluding types ‘religion’ to be practiced.

      Paul Ellis’s inference incapsulates what true worship can look like in part. For Yashuah (Jesus) Followers there’s only one worship He looks for, ‘in spirit & in Truth. This is His point to us: we hear + listen, then do. we are not to ‘do’ religion.

      The word ‘religion’, as was translated from the original word ‘worship’, into early/mid/modern [Greek 2 Latin 2 English] bibles; was unknown in Jesus day. James 1:27; [org. quote] ‘For the worship that is pure & Set Apart [is pro-noun personal, pointing to the Yashuah (Jesus) Follower, denoted by the succeeding word ‘before’ – a verb meaning ‘actively’] before The Creator Almighty…is this: to visit the fatherless & widows in their affliction…’. Worship is not about constructing religion[s]; it’s a personal obedience to the Father.

      Yashuah (Jesus) was adamant, concerning the way in which ‘Jewish oral traditions’ [man-law] were affecting the people [Jews & Gentiles]. He told them (Jewish leaders), they were keeping the people He came to ‘save’, away from Him. They were [acting] being ‘religious’.

      The (natural realm) reality of Jesus’ death, was in part due to the Jewish leaders hating Jesus – for what; the people were turning away from (Jewish oral traditions – 613 laws) & to Jesus.

      The same today is true; of a form of Church – call it ‘Churchianity’. Jesus never directed [for after his death/resurrection] anyone to build on a foundation – other than Himself. Yet today similar [religions – traditions of men] templates are in place almost everywhere…how can it be?

  15. Warren (South Carolina, USA) // January 29, 2016 at 4:45 am // Reply

    I hate religion. Saint Paul believes religion is bad/bondage (I agree). I wonder if religion is “evil” as we are to “hate evil” . . . . just pondering.
    Thanks for the Post Saint Paul.
    Warren ( South Carolina, USA)

  16. For Christians in the U.K. one of the most pressing issues is defining the relevance of the faith with regard to an increasing ,exceedingly legalistic faith i.e. Islam. The emphasis on grace as opposed to the ‘bondage of religion’ could be a way of reaching out. Thanks v. much.

  17. Leslie Snell // February 1, 2016 at 4:19 am // Reply

    Good explanation. I have always tried to compliment that scripture with grace but forgot who James was talking to. I need to remember that context is everything.
    Thanks Paul,

  18. Unless I’m reading it wrong, in Acts (21) it seems James had no problem with Jewish believers being “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20+). I’m puzzled that he does not condemn this, puzzled that (especially in light of Galatians) the Apostle Paul does not take the opportunity to rebuke these brothers for their religiousness. In fact, James forms a plan to appease these believers, and Paul goes along with James’ plan (ha ha, which ultimately fails anyway!).

    The guidelines formed by the Jerusalem council in (earlier, in Acts 15) also seems to be a concession, to keep new gentile believers from offending their Jewish brothers, still preoccupied as they were with the requirements (dietary and others) of the law.

    Am I making your point stronger, or disagreeing with it? Is James not somehow still propping up the Law?

    • I talk about James’ letter in Acts 21 in this post.

    • James was merely pointing out to Paul these zealots in order to warn him. These were for circumcision, Paul was against circumcision, a deadly difference. They feared the “zealous for the law” for a good reason! So, James devised a, though failed, scheme to try to make Paul look the Jewish part. Paul was pure already by faith in the purifier (Christ). He had no business in the Temple, a Temple which no longer housed the Spirit of God.
      James is not saying there is anything wrong with religion, as religion defined is merely , “the love relationship between the creator God and created man”. “… for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” 1 John 4:20. So, continuing in Patricks thought, If religion can be ‘pure’ by doing those things pleasing to God, then conversely, religion can be ‘impure’ by the obvious lack. Don’t throw baby out with the bath water! James point is, don’t be so heavenly minded you are then no earthly good.
      This is the dividing point, as we know that faith pleases God, so he went on to say “faith without works is dead”, and “I will show you my faith by my works”. This also goes along with John, when he said, “He that does righteousness is righteous…”. Corresponding works show purity of heart of one professing, purity of religion.

      • Tom, Would you mind sharing where that definition of religion came from? It seems self contradictory to me. If it’s about a love relationship between God and man, then there is no need for religion, just the relationship. I would totally agree that it’s about the relationship. My view of religion is that it tries to define what the relationship needs to be like to the point that it becomes mechanical. A healthy, loving, and living relationship does not require a statement that tells you what is allowed and not allowed. Thanks

  19. LJP; Definition of religion comes from summarizing the true meaning of Matthew 22:37-40, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” This we should do, religiously.
    But that is just the point of James. He is speaking of pure religion, pure love relation between God and man, via (through) mans relation to man. Thus my use of the scripture; 1 John 4:20. One can take James saying, visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep yourself unspotted from the world, as a suggestion, but, I believe it along the lines of Paul saying, “Awake to righteousness and sin not”, 1 Corinthians 15:34. Not to mention 1 John 2:1, “ that you sin not”. Do we also, not need such sayings either, to avoid a mechanical relation? I believe these are part and partial of the instruction’s in righteousness, taught by the grace of God, Titus 2:11-13. Thanks bro.

    • So you are equating religion with the law. Some folks who have commented here seemed to have an issue with that, but I would agree with you on that point. Where I think we differ is on “how” good fruit is produced in a person’s life. I hope you have had the time to take a look at Paul’s latest post which discusses that topic. Thank you, Tom

      • Notice everything I shared is in the Epistles. Where do you see the law mentioned? Now, you got me for mentioning the whole scripture out of the gospels, as, you are right, only ‘half of it’ is mentioned in the Epistles (Galatians 5:14). But hay, tell me how one is going to love his neighbor without first, loving God! See, the “L” which stands for “love” tells us of both the vertical and horizontal relations. Can’t have one without the other. This goes right back to what James is getting at. As far a fruit goes, it goes (grows) with the Spirit. Ephesians 5:18. PTL

      • I got it from Jesus, bro. I thought you did too. Mt. 22:36,37

    • Tom, 1 John 4:20 alone seems to put the burden on us to produce love, but 1 John 4:19 says love is produced in us by receiving God’s love for us. We love Him because He first loved us. When I was a law based person even the Epistles seemed like law to me because I was interpreting what I read through my law based heart. When we awake to His righteousness, received as a gift and the only true righteousness, the whole Bible takes on a new and deeper meaning. We no longer read it as if it’s all about me and what I must do, we see it as being all about what He has done for us. He becomes the source then good, unforced fruit is produced out of our union with Him.

      • LJP, 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” . “ That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Here Paul equates righteousness and work, and this comes by or from, “instruction”. Just as Christ showed himself to be righteous as man, by doing good, so believers in him, by imitating him (1 Peter 2:21,22), and walking as he walked, show themselves to be good and righteous, like, though not equal to him; for as a tree is known by its fruits, so is a good man by his good works, and a righteous man by doing righteousness (1 John 3:7); and as good fruit does not make a good tree, but shows it to be good, so good works do not make a good man, nor a man’s own righteousness make him a righteous man, but ‘show him to be so’.
        Some get these two confused! This “show him to be so” makes for (as you say) “what I must do”, which is derived from what He has done (True), out of our union with Him (Right)! I just see it is, ‘through’ instruction in righteousness. “All scripture” means all, old and new.

  20. I live in a diverse housing division in a city called Pearland. We were feeding the world. But today. Having woken up a bit to the cost of our misfortunes, we are the widows and orphans.

  21. Jared Westendorp // May 19, 2019 at 12:32 am // Reply

    I like the saying of “once you know the context it puts a whole new light on things”. That is why I am writing about it being said this letter was written to the Jews in Jerusalem. James begins letter to the Jews of the dispersion. Or however each translation says it but you get the point. I was figuring this letter was meant for multiple synagogues or multiple “scattered from their home place” Jews. Could it be that it was a common problem among them that James was addressing here? The problem between Jews who believed in Jesus and traditional Jews relating more civil like. They need each other after being scattered and their conflicts and divisions would harm them both. I don’t think I reach a different conclusion about the word “religion” being used but wanted to point out the possible reason for a larger audience.

  22. Thanks for the clarification. It means a lot to not only read the word, but to also understand it.

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