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).
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.