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James 1:26-27 by Robert Dean
Series:James (1998)
Duration:1 hr 15 mins 6 secs

The Practice of Doctrine
James 1:26-27

James 1:26 NASB "If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his {own} heart, this man's religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of {our} God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, {and} to keep oneself unstained by the world."

We now run into a little bit of confusion because of the vocabulary used by translators to communicate this in the English. We know that religion is one of those bad words that people react to because it has so many different connotations and means so many different things to so many different people. When you start asking people to define religion the definitions that you get are somewhat vague and nebulous. In fact, for most people when they hear the word religion what they think of is something that has to do with any combination of ritual, moral activity and do-goodism. We all know because of the study that we have had of the Scriptures that those concepts are antithetical to the message of James and to the Word of God. So what in the world is going on here in this text and why is this word translated "religious," and what does James mean?

Before we translate the word we have to have an understanding of what James has been telling us in this first chapter, because the context is very important for understanding translation. His basic theme throughout this epistle is to challenge every believer with the fact that in life we are going to face a myriad of tests. These are, as it were, examinations or evaluations to give us the opportunity to apply doctrine. If you don't have doctrine in your soul you are not going to pass those tests. If you don't pass those tests you won't advance spiritually, you won't grow spiritually, you won't ever achieve spiritual maturity. What we learn in this chapter that success in the spiritual life depends on absolute reliance and dependence upon God; exclusive dependence upon God, which is the faith-rest drill. God has provided for us ten different stress-busters or problem-solving devices. They are various spiritual skills which give us the ability to handle any problem, any difficulty, any heartache in life. Because God is omniscient and therefore has known about every situation we will ever face in life He made provision for it for us. The other thing that we have learned in this passage is that when we fail, when we refuse to trust God exclusively and we doubt Him (v. 6) that person is double-minded and unstable. What psychology calls neurosis and psychosis is really the result of failure to handle life's adversities on the basis of Bible doctrine. So James writes this epistle to teach believers how to handle adversity on the basis of doctrine and he organizes his teaching around three mandates which are given in verse 19: "But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak {and} slow to anger."

The second division in the epistle is "be quick to hear," and it is the subject of 1:21-2:26. This entire section deals with the fact that the highest priority in the believer's life is doctrine. If you are going to pass the evaluation testing that is going to come your way then you must make learning doctrine the highest priority in your life; you need to be quick to hear. In verses 21-27 that theme is developed under the concept of hearing the Word, which entails being in fellowship with God, living in dependence upon God, and transforming the thinking by listening to and learning doctrine. Hearing begins with confession of sin and it must have the attitude of genuine humility, authority orientation to God and dependence upon God, and that it is the Word of God alone that is able to give us life, i.e. to deliver us in the midst of trials. It is the Word of God that gives us the information we need and the skills we need to be able to handle adversity, whatever it might be. The prerequisite to doctrine is confession and dealing with sin in our life, and the prescription is to take in the Word of God on the basis of humility.

Then in v. 22 we learn about the priority of learning and applying doctrine, that if the believer is going to advance spiritually he must learn and apply the Word of God and not end up by deluding himself by accumulating just academic knowledge. Remember, spiritual maturity is result of the filling of the Holy Spirit plus understood and believed doctrine or EPIGNOSIS doctrine, it is not the result of just being able to regurgitate what you learn in Bible class or what some Bible teacher has said. Just because you know the vocabulary and can articulate it back in a test doesn't mean you understand the concepts.

Then in vv.23-25 James talks about the procedure of learning doctrine and he contrasts the self-deluded believer (vv. 23. 24) with the advancing believer (v. 25). Verses 23, 24 compare the deluded believer to the person who looks at himself in a mirror, and the Bible is the mirror that we have that gives us an objective evaluation of what is going on in our life and in our soul. What happens dynamically within the soul as we accumulate EPIGNOSIS doctrine is that we develop criteria for evaluation. In terms of analogy, what we have formed within our own soul is a mirror. That mirror is basically the doctrine that we have that gives us the objectivity to evaluate our thinking and our circumstances and situations so that we can then under the filling of the Holy Spirit draw upon the resources of doctrine stored in our soul and apply the right doctrine to those situations in life. What James is saying in vv. 22ff is that there are some people who are merely hearers of the Word. All they accumulate is a lot of GNOSIS, academic knowledge.

The believer that has EPIGNOSIS in the soul is the believer who is the true hearer. He is the one described in v. 25 as the one who has made doctrine the highest priority of his life. He looks intently, diligently, examines very closely, Bible doctrine. Doctrine is more real to him than any experience, any distraction, and anything else in life. He is not a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, and the result is that he is blessed. He has happiness.

What we have seen in this brief review is that James is talking about the application of doctrine in this context. He is comparing the one who just listens to the one who listens and makes it a part of his soul and applies it, practices it. That's what the word "doer" means, it doesn't mean to be involved in church activity, to teach Sunday school, to go out knocking on doors, all the various activities associated with religion such as ritual, etc. it is to focus on application, doing what you learn.

Secondly, James is not talking about religious expression as commonly understood. There is nothing in this context to talk about ritual, altruism, human good, or any of these other things that are commonly associated with religion. So we have to ask, what exactly does he mean? The Greek word gives us a little help, but not a lot. It is the adjective THRESKOS [qrhskoj]. The noun is THRESKEIA [qrhskeia]. In Arndt and Gingrich THRESKOS is described as religious. The noun is described as the worship of God, religion, but note" "especially as it expresses itself in religious service." What have we learned from that? Not a whole lot. It is still pretty vague. A term like "religion," and we have a lot of terms in the Scriptures that have come down through the fact that they are used in the Scripture and they have picked up a lot of religious baggage over the years. There are all kinds of concepts that have become attached to those words that take away from their meaning. For example, confession. For a lot of people when they hear the word confession they either think of emotion, feeling sorry for their sins, trying to go through some form of penance, going confessional at the church and confessing to a priest. All this baggage becomes associated with that word and so you have to take the time to explain that confession simply means to admit or acknowledge that you have done something. The same thing is true about "religion" which has picked up all sorts of baggage which has ideas about worshipping God and general rules of church activity. But the problem with religion is that this is a word that is applied to all kinds of activities, whether it is Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, New Age concepts, or any other kind of ism. All of this, along with Christianity, are lumped into this one word. That is the problem we have, because understanding the Bible we realize that Christianity is radically different from all of these other isms. What makes the difference? The difference is that religion—all of these other things from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, whatever it is—is a system of morality and altruism which is designed to impress God and to gain divine favor. So all of religions adherents are depending upon something they do to curry favour with God. Religion puts the emphasis on human activity—morals, works and human merit—in order to gain divine approbation. So religion, then, is man doing the work and then God is supposed to bless us. For that reason  we say Christianity is not a religion but Christianity is a relationship, a relationship based upon the fact that God did all the work and man simply receives it or accepts it. Man can do nothing to gain the favour of God. So Christianity is a relationship based upon the merit of someone else. It is a system that is exclusively based on the concept of grace. The trouble is that grace is another one of those words that has a lot of religious baggage. True biblical Christianity emphasises the exclusivity of God's work and if man tries to curry favour with God on the basis of asceticism, mysticism, legalism, works, morality or any form of ritual, then it absolutely destroys his relationship with God. 

Then we must come to another factor about religion, and that is that religion is Satan's greatest weapon in Satan's arsenal. He uses religion to distract people from the spiritual life, from salvation, and to put the emphasis on their own efforts. He has distracted millions from the true worship of God and he has been extremely effective throughout the church age in trying to transform Christianity into another religion. When the devil wanted to find a way to try to thwart the plan of God and try to upset God's plan for the human race he developed a concept of religion. Most people, when they think of the devil, they think of something very horrible, very ugly and very wicked. Unfortunately that has little to do with the devil. 2 Corinthians chapter eleven tells us that Satan and his angels go about as ministers of righteousness. Satan's greatest tool is human good, human morality. All of the violence, all of the hostility, all of the crime, ands wickedness in the world is totally against Satan's plan. Satan's plan is to show that he can be God, that he can run planet earth and he can produce a wonderful, peaceful, happy environment in which all the human race is achieving maximum prosperity and achieving their full potential. The problem is that he has 5-billion people on the planet with their own volition and they want to do it their way, not his way. The result of that is that there is violence, warfare, poverty, and all of these things, and that is really a testimony to the fact that everything is out of control. It is not in Satan's control, it is out of his control because he wants just the opposite. So Satan's greatest weapon is religion and human good in order to try to promote human ability.

What has happened in the history of Christianity to demonstrate how human good and religion has entered into Christian theology and thinking? Up to the Reformation the church is usually divided into two periods called the early church and the medieval church. The early church really begins about 100 AD in terms of plotting it out because the last apostle died just before the turn of the century. The apostle John died somewhere between 95 and 100 AD and after that there were no more apostles, no one left who had a direct connection to the inspirational ministry of God the Holy Spirit, all there was was their followers. It is interesting how quickly things declined. Very soon after that there were several developments that begin to bring in the whole concept of human works and human effort. First of all there was what is called the monarchical bishop (one person who rules). This was promoted by several people like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and several others between 130 and 175. They would go into a town where there might be four or five different churches and before long there was persecution and other problems and they developed the idea that one of these men ought to be elevated as the ruler of the others. So rather than having autonomous congregations they began to unite for various purposes under the authority of one bishop. Before long there was a bishop in Antioch, a bishop in Jerusalem, in Alexandria, one in Rome eventually but not for a while—Historical evidence doesn't even mention a bishop in Rome before the end of the second century—and one in Constantinople. During the first five centuries of Christianity there were a number of doctrinal controversies that came up. They had the New Testament but they didn't understand it like we understand it. For example, they didn't have a word for Trinity and it wasn't until the end of the third century that the word trinitos was coined for the doctrine of the Trinity, and they didn't even get a clear definition of the Trinity until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. So if you were living in the year 200 you'd never heard the word Trinity and didn't know what it meant. You believed Jesus was God and the Holy Spirit was God and the Father was God, and most people were thinking at such a naïve, simple level that they didn't even realize that they were having a contradiction when they said that they believed in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then they began to wrestle with the problem of what was the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and they began to articulate various doctrines. Various doctrinal problems became the subjects of various church councils from about AD 325 into the 6th century. At every stage along the way one of these guys picked the heretical side. The Bishop of Alexandria lines up wrong on one controversy and he is a heretic, and then the Bishop Antioch 30 years later lines up on another heretical side and he is a heretic, and then Jerusalem is falling apart by this time and that bishop lines up with the wrong crowd. Then the Bishop of Constantinople lines up with the Nestorians or one of the other heretical groups that came along in the Christological controversies, and throughout this whole period one bishop never got besmirched by heresy. That was the bishop in Rome. So now Rome has really taken off, and by 600 there was a bishop of Rome by the name of Gregory the Great. He did not want to be called the pope, but he acted like it. By this time Rome had fallen and the barbarians from the north were invading, so he pulled together an army and went out and defeated them. He organized the church, he was a wonderful administrator, and he developed a new style of music called Gregorian chant. Now there was religion developing under the guise of central authority figure. Along about the same time in the 3rd to 4th century there was the development of monasticism. Every generation has a major influence that is affecting the thinking of the church at that time period.

Today in our generation at the close of the century we have the influence of moral relativism, mysticism, and the New Age movement. These are the dominant ideas that are floating around in our culture. And if you go out there tomorrow and witness to the guy down the street and he suddenly says, 'You know, you are right. Jesus died for me, I believe that.' Well, lets say he is 35 years old. For 35 years he has been imbibing the culture and he thinks in a mystical, emotional framework. He has to change that, and it is hard to do. The same thing was true in the early part of the church age because the major thinking in the culture was called Neo-Platonism, it was very emotional and mystical. What matters is not what happens on the physical realm but what happens at a higher spiritual realm. So that produced a view of spirituality that we call asceticism. Let's get rid of everything we have, let's give it all up and impress God and go live out on the desert. There was the whole rise of the monastic movement. All of a sudden there was the introduction of human works under the guise of asceticism and monasticism to impress God with things.

Then there was a problem with people understanding grace. There was a major controversy in North Africa with Donatism in the 4th century. What happened was, at the end of the Roman empire in the late 290s there was a major empire-wide persecution, one of the worst ever, under Diocletian. So everybody was afraid of what might happen to them and there were many priests, pastors and bishops who just basically renounced Christianity because they wanted to live. After Diocletian died there was a new emperor in Rome by the name of Constantine. He was trying to pull together power and fight off the barbarians, and at a battle he had a vision of a cross in the sky and heard a voice that said, "By this time profit." So he converted to Christianity on the spot. He won the battle and so he said now that he had won the battle the whole empire was going to be Christian. So there were no more persecutions. So what was going to happen to all these ex-pastors and bishops out there who had renounced the faith? Now they are saying, No, no no, no, I never really renounced it, I want my old job back! Then there were all the legalists who were saying, You've lost your salvation, buddy; you are not saved any more, you can't come back, and there is no way that God can ever forgive you. And this, of course, brings in the whole issue of grace. Augustine who was the Bishop of Hippo took a stand for grace, that there was divine forgiveness.

But one of the major issues in this whole area is, what do you do with post-salvation sin? They had lost the concept of grace by this time and they realized that from the time we are born until the time we are saved all of those things are forgiven, but what do we do with those sins after you we are saved? They believed baptism also washed away sins, the physical water was important, so a lot of people would wait until they were pretty old and then get baptized, and maybe they wouldn't have too much to answer for! So there was this problem with post-salvation sins and two solutions came up, one of which was penance. At first they came up with penance and that you could only do it once in your life, and you had to go through this process of giving up a lot, going through asceticism with its deprivation. It didn't go too well because it could only happen once, and what happened if you screwed up again? So that concept of penance went out and then another concept was developed by the Irish and Scottish Christians. It was less severe and was the idea of just paying some money or going through certain religious activities, helping the poor, and if you did that you could have forgiveness. That is where the idea of the confessional came from and doing penance, saying Hail Marys, and prayer beads, etc. But what about the person who didn't have any penance and who didn't deal with those post-salvation sins and didn't get baptized. Well you couldn't say he was going to hell, but you couldn't let this poor sucker get into heaven either because he has these post-salvation sins that haven't been dealt with. The literature actually says that you have to add to the payment of Christ. So if they didn't go into the confessional they would end up in some holding area where they would have to work their way out, and you have the development of the whole concept of purgatory.

By the late Middle Ages there was the full development of Roman Catholic theology, and then on October 31st, 1517, a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 debating points on the local bulletin board, which was the front door of the church. The whole issue for him was that as he read through Romans and Galatians he realized that people were justified by faith alone in Christ alone. So he got it right as far as salvation was concerned. Then there were other reformers like John Calvin, Zwingli, and others, and every one of them followed in Luther's footsteps in the gospel. But just like the Roman Catholic church that emphasized morality, and confused morality with spirituality, they did the same things. Anything after 1900, forget it, because after that time most of these major denominations were so influenced by liberalism that they were not what they were the centuries before. By the time America comes along in the early 19th century there was the impact of revivalism and there was the Church of Christ and various other odd denominations. But even if they go it right at salvation for many of these groups the Christian life or sanctification always comes through works. There is the emphasis on ritual, the confusion of morality with spirituality. And then the 20th century comes along and with it the rise of liberal Protestant theology. At the very core of liberal Protestant theology is the rejection of the supernatural, the idea that God has actually intervened in human history and spoken to man objectively. So the fundamental bias in all liberal thought is an anti-supernaturalism. They operate almost exclusively on rationalism and empiricism or a combination thereof, and they reject total depravity, therefore man is not inherently bad, he is basically good. If man is not inherently a sinner then Christ doesn't need to die as a substitute for his sin. So Christ's death was not a substitutionary atonement anymore, it is giving an example. Then you have a rejection of the Bible. The Bible is man's record of his own experiences, his own religious experiences, and has nothing to do with the Bible being the revelation of God to man. So they reject the Bible as being the Word of God. There is a rejection of sin, condemnation and divine judgment. In fact, everything is just rosy and we are going to be very optimistic about the future. So whether you were a believer or an unbeliever you were basically buying into a view of history that was post-millennial, that man because he is basically good is going to follow this example of Jesus in solving social problems—like the abolition of slavery and child labor, prohibition of alcohol, and all of these social sins, that were eventually going to get rid of the ills of society and bring in a perfect government, perfect country, and so there was the influence also of socialism—and he is going to bring in the kingdom.

All of this is to say that the modern concept of religion is this: it is do-goodism. If we are going to get out there and do good things for society we are going to correct social ills and social problems, and by doing so we are going to impress God, make our country perfect, and we are going to bring in a perfect society. That is what people think of as religion because that is what has happened historically and how we got to where we are today. We have gone through this to understand the history. History is very important. History is how we got to the mess we are in so that we can have some kind of discernment as to what is going on and how to get out of it. 

When we come to our passage here we have had to go through this because whenever we read this most of us have been so affected by our culture that we are going to completely misapply and misinterpret this passage. We are thinking of religion as what our culture has always said about religion. So when we come to this word and we see it in the English everybody is going to say 1) if you are going to be really religious and do good you are going to watch your mouth, and 2) your going to take care of the sick and the elderly and the orphans. This word THRESKOS does not mean that concept of religion, what it means is the outworking of your beliefs in God. That may work itself out in terms of personal worship, but when we take in terms of the context of what James is telling us, probably the best way to explain it is, "if anyone thinks that he is applying doctrine in his life." That is what James means by THRESKOS. This is the negative, this is the person who is the hearer but not the applier. James is going to expose his emperor's clothes right here and say, here's a condition—"If," 1st class condition, maybe yes, maybe no.

James is going to give a little test. This is how doctrine gives that mirror to perform an objective self-evaluation to determine of you are applying or if you are just accumulating nothing. "If anyone thinks that he is applying doctrine, and yet does not bridle [control] his tongue…" Sins of the tongue come in. If your understanding of doctrine isn't having some effect—and he is just using sins of the tongue here to represent all categories of sin. The whole metaphor here is talking about self-control, self-discipline. "… he is deceiving himself." He is not learning doctrine, he is not applying doctrine, and he is not going anywhere.

The doctrine of the sins of the tongue

1)  The sins of the tongue, like all sins, emanate from the sin nature. James is using the sins of the tongue just as an illustration of all the other categories of sins, primarily because it is one of the most difficult areas we will ever face in terms of self-discipline. Psalm 34:13 NASB "Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit."   

2)  Sins of the tongue are sponsored by mental attitude sins. Sins of the tongue are in one sense overt. Psalm 5:9 NASB "There is nothing reliable in what they say; Their inward part is destruction {itself.} Their throat is an open grave; They flatter with their tongue."

3)  Of the seven worst sins, three are sins of the tongue.

4)  Sins of the tongue produce triple-compound divine discipline. Matthew 7:1, 2 NASB "Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." A sin of the tongue is always initiated by a mental attitude sin. So first of all there is divine discipline for the mental attitude sin that underlies the sin of the tongue. Secondly, the sins of the tongue always maligns someone, judges someone or gossips about someone else, and there is divine discipline for the sin of the tongue. Then, third, there is also the punishment that goes with the sin of the guilty person, so punishment is received for theirs for whatever sin that is.

5)  The continuation of the sins of the tongue can produce enough callousness and hardness of heart to eventually result in the sin unto death.

6)  God both protects and blesses the believer who is victimized by the sins of the tongue. Job 5:19-21 NASB "From six troubles He will deliver you, Even in seven evil will not touch you. In famine He will redeem you from death, And in war from the power of the sword. You will be hidden from the scourge of the tongue, And you will not be afraid of violence when it comes."

7)  The believer can actually lengthen his life and find greater happiness by avoiding the sins of the tongue. Psalm 34:12, 13 NASB "Who is the man who desires life And loves {length of} days that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit."

8)  Troublemakers are always characterized by sins of the tongue. Romans 16:17, 18 NASB "Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting."

9)  Control of the tongue is a sign of maturity and the fruit of the Spirit. James 3:2-13.

10)  Since the sins of the tongue can destroy a congregation of believers it is the responsibility of the pastor to constantly warn against that and to bring correction when it gets out of hand. 2 Timothy 2:14-17.

In contrast we find the successful believer who is advancing to spiritual maturity described in verse 27. "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of {our} God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, {and} to keep oneself unstained by the world." The word for "pure" is KATHAROS [kaqaroj] and it is related to the verb KATHARIZO [kaqarizw] which means to cleanse, and is the word that we find in 1 John 1:9. So pure application of doctrine is preceded by the use of 1 John 1:9 to guarantee that we are under the filling ministry of God the Holy Spirit and producing divine good and not human good. The word "undefiled" is the Greek AMIANTOS [a)miantoj]. In the ancient world they often used the streets and the gutters as their sewers. Being defiled is being splattered by the contents of the sewer. AMIANTOS means that we have been cleansed and that we are undefiled, which means that we have been forgiven and are advancing in the spiritual life. So this is application of doctrine that is purified and undefiled (being in fellowship with God), so it is pure "in the sight of our God and Father." There are two applications that are given: a) to visit orphans and widows in their distress. This is known as compassion for others,. Showing mercy, and that is all part of grace orientation.

What are we talking about in this chapter? We are talking about believers. This is what you and I need to do when we encounter tests and trials in life. What happens when things start really going bad? Who do we start focusing on when we are out of fellowship? We get into the arrogance skills and we become self-absorbed. We start whining to everybody we can about tough life is, but then we say we are trusting God. We forget that there are a whole lot of people out there who have it a whole lost worse than we do. The point is that if we are following the precepts found in v. 21 and are receiving the Word in humility, which is grace orientation, and humility does not think more highly of one's self than it ought to think, is not self-absorption, what we are talking about here is application of humility and application of grace orientation. If we are really advancing in the spiritual life then when we are encountering these tests and trials we are not going to become self-absorbed but are still going to pay attention to the problems that other people have, showing compassion and mercy because of the resources in our own souls. If we do not have resources and we are spiritually bankrupt with no doctrine there, then what is going top happen when we go through hard times is that we can't see past our hard times to help anybody else in their hard times because there is nothing left in our banks account, spiritually speaking, to draw on. This is not the do-goodism of religion. The act itself may not be any different, it is the rationale that underlies it that is different. It is why you are doing it, it is your understanding of reality that is different. That understanding of reality is your worldview, that big picture that you have, a frame of reference you have within which you integrate everything.

The person who has grown up in a world dominated by the New Age movement, by emotion, and by all kinds of things in the religious world, and has bought into everything, has to do something. He has to completely renovate his thinking. Romans 12:2 NASB "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing [renovating] of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." The entire system of thinking that he has is the worldview. Whether he has thought it through logically and systematically is irrelevant. He now has to renovate this. "Be not conformed to the world," which is the whole system of human viewpoint thinking, "but be transformed by the renovation of your thought…" That means you now have to develop a whole new system of thinking based upon divine viewpoint precepts and you have to challenge all of your human viewpoint concepts, ideas, and opinions with the divine viewpoint of Scripture. We don't like doing that because we are comfortable with our human viewpoint concepts, and so we would rather say it is okay to be emotional, or it is okay to be this way or that way, rather than no, I have to change not only what I think but how I approach life. That is why James concludes by saying, "keep oneself unstained by the world." Human viewpoint has all kinds of techniques and skills and suggestions for how you can handle the problems and difficulties of your life. We think that somehow the Christian life, the spiritual life is going to be easy, but it is a hard life and it demands thinking and concentration, because we have to get rid of all of our human viewpoint notions and replace them with divine viewpoint notions, and then we have to apply that divine viewpoint to the problems of life so that we can advance. That is why James says it is important to listen, to make learning doctrine the highest priority of your life so that you can apply it and keep yourself unstained from the thinking of the world.