Summary: James defines the difference between real and phony faith.

Through the New Testament 2006

The Real McCoy

James 1:23-27

Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister

First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO

Did you ever wonder where that expression The Real McCoy comes from? According to the folks at, nobody really knows for sure. Several possibilities are often cited.

Some think it came from the advertisements for a brand of Scottish whiskey from the 1870’s. To combat cheap imitators, the distiller promoted its drink as the “Real McCoy.”

Others point to Kid McCoy, a welterweight boxing champion from the late 1800’s. So many lesser fighters traded on his name, the promoters resorted to calling the champ “the real McCoy.”

Another possibility is Elijah McCoy, a Canadian inventor of engine lubricants that became popular with steam engines. When lower quality substitutes became common, he patented his product. It became known as the “real McCoy.”

Whatever the origin of the term, we know what it means—the genuine article, the real deal! That’s the concept in our text. In fact it’s the theme that runs beneath the surface of the entire book of James. That’s the next stop in our journey through the books of the Bible. We are at the beginning of our fifth year working our way through the Bible book by book.

The letter of James was probably one of the earliest New Testament books written. The author says he was “the brother of the Lord,” probably one of the children of Mary and Joseph after the birth of Christ (Mat 13:55; Gal 1:19). James would become one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (1 Cor 15:7, Acts 1:14, 12:17, 15:13, 19; Gal 2:1, 9, 10, 12, 1 Cor 9:5). Early Christians nicknamed him “James the Just” because of his reputation for righteousness.

The key to the book is wrapped up in a few words found at the end of the first chapter. He says in 1:26, “If anyone considers himself religious….” He continues in the next verse, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is . . .” James asks, what does real religion look like? What are the tell-tale signs that distinguish the “real McCoy” from a cheap imitator?

How would you answer that? Real religion is ….? We might offer lots of potential descriptions of the “real McCoy” when it comes to religion. Some might suggest real religion means going to church or having perfect attendance. Obviously, I’m in favor of church attendance and church membership. But I also know that there is more than that to the “Real McCoy.”

Pappa Ten Boom hit the nail on the head in the book The Hiding Place. Many of you probably read the book or the saw the movie about Corrie Ten Boom’s family who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis during the opening days of WWII. At one point in the book, Corrie and her sister question their father about why so many of their professing Christian neighbors were siding with the Nazis. “They are part of the same church we are,” observed young Corrie. Wise Pappa Ten Boom answer, “Just because a mouse is in the cookie jar doesn’t make it a cookie.”

Some of you old timers here can remember the days when perfect Sunday School attendance was rewarded with attendance pins. If you went a year with perfect attendance, you received a special pin. The next year, you received a little attachment that hung under the pin and the next year another. The practice died out at least thirty or forty years ago. I am old enough to have received a pin or two when I was kid. I can remember some of the old saints in my church with pins a few inches long. I have read of folk who had fifty or more years of perfect attendance. They would have to be careful not to trip over their pins if they wore them all at once. Now that’s impressive. Maybe that’s what real religion looks like.

Maybe you can tell real religion by how big a Bible a person carries. Maybe it is how a person dresses or how a lady wears her hair. Maybe real religion drives a black car like I do. Or maybe no car at all. Some might suggest that real religion sees visions, hears voices, and works miracles.

Folk from James’ Jewish background might have defined real religion by right ceremonies, rituals, or temple sacrifices. In fact, the word James uses for religion was the Jewish term for ceremonial temple service. James takes that term and pours a whole new meaning into it.

The entire book unfolds out of these few verses at the end of chapter 1. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (26-27).” The “Real McCoy”, genuine religion, always does three things in a person’s life. It controls the tongue, softens the heart, and purifies the soul. If it doesn’t, something’s wrong!

First, real religion controls the tongue. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (vs. 26). That is quite a statement!

James explains this in the third chapter. He says the tongue is harder to control than a wild beast. It corrupts like a poison and consumes like a roaring fire. There is not a single one of us that doesn’t know that by experience—either from the effects of our own tongue or from the receiving end of someone else’s razor sharp words.

We all know about that. I may be a preacher but I grew up in a high school locker room and spent my college summers working on a union construction crew. I have heard most everything. Most of you have too. In fact, some of you probably used to be able to make a sailor blush with the words that popped out of your mouth. Some of you know how hard it is to change that. A foul mouth can be habit forming. But Jesus can change that, can’t he?

One of the stories out of the great Welsh revival in Britain in the early 1900’s would be funny if weren’t so poignant. It is said that hundreds of coal miners were so converted to Christ that it affected the production of the mines. The miners worked just as hard if not harder after they became Christians. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the profanity of so many miners was so cleaned up that their mules didn’t recognize them any more and refused to pull the coal wagons.

What’s so bad about a foul mouth? The problem is that our words are windows to our soul and our mind. Our words reveal, for good or bad, what kind of person we are on the inside. The roots of dirty, foul, profane, or blasphemous words grow deep into the human soul.

As bad as that sort of talk may be, that is not really what James is so concerned about. It is not profanity that reveals a worthless religion—according to James, as much as a negative, critical, condemning, gossiping tongue. He spotlights the poisonous effects of grumbling, complaining, quarreling and slandering talk. That is the evidence of a phony faith, James says!

The Real McCoy controls the tongue. It also softens the heart. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (27). James uses concern for the needs of widows and orphans as but one example of how real religion acts. The plight of such folk was not a pretty picture in the ancient world. It isn’t in our world either where caring family and a believing neighbors don’t step in. Such compassion has always been the hallmark of Christian people. You know, I am sure, that most hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes in this nation or most nations around the world were started first by Christian people. It is a fact that atheists seldom build hospitals and orphanages. When they do, it is almost always with other people’s money, not their own! Christians however have always been famous for the generous manner in which they sacrifice from their own livelihoods to help others. The ancient believers commonly rescued abandoned children, fasted and used the money to feed the hungry, sold property to provide for the destitute, and dug into their own pockets to provide decent burials for the needy, even for strangers they didn’t know and who didn’t belong to their number.

As with the controlled tongue, James provides a pretty close to home application of this principle. He asks (in chapter 2) how the church treats visitors and newcomers. He wonders out loud what happens if an obviously poor person and an obviously rich and important person walk into church on the same day. Which gets greeted first? Who is treated with the most preference? Is the poor man ushered to an inconspicuous spot, out of sight out of mind? Is the rich man catered too and swooned over? Does everyone want to be seen near him or with him? The same principle could be applied to folk of difference races, or cultures, or languages. Such differences of treatment—if they exist—tell an awful lot about how real and genuine our faith is!

Real faith is always compassionate and never bigoted! James highlights a third mark of genuine religion. The Real McCoy purifies the soul. It keeps one “from being polluted by the world” (27). At times religious folk have associated being polluted by the world with such things as movies, television, hanging with the wrong crowd or going to the wrong places. Those can certainly qualify as sources of moral and spiritual pollution. We do well to teach our young and remind ourselves that evil companions do corrupt good morals. Sophisticated types may scoff at such old fashioned concerns, but we know the truth. Old fashioned or not, there is a lot of pollution out there and a lot of it fouls the soul in ways far worse than dirty water or unclean air.

But again James is full of surprises. While I am sure James would agree with what I just said about spiritual and moral pollution, he takes this discussion into an entirely different arena. When he writes of being polluted by the world, I think he has in mind a more subtle sewage. Listen to then end of chapter 3:

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (13-18)

Later he warns against “secular” thinking that makes plans and conducts business as if God was irrelevant or could be kept in a neat little Sunday only box. James cautions against envy, greed, and materialism that corrodes and destroys. Those are the very qualities that too often accompany false or frivolous religion, but can never keep company with a genuine, God-pleasing faith.

Roy Weece tells of a phone call he received at his office at the Christian Campus House at MU. “I want to talk with you,” a man’s voice on the other end of the phone said, “I want to know what you did to my sons.” Roy was a bit taken back at first. He wondered what sort of accusation he was in for. But of course, he agreed to meet the man.

By the time the father arrived for the appointment, Roy had a pretty good idea who he was. His two sons were members of a fraternity just up the street from the Campus House. Not long before, the two had decided to become followers of Jesus. When their father arrived, he explained, “I know what my two boys were like when they came to school. I know how they lived and how they talked. I know what their priorities were and I know at least some of how they spent their time at the fraternity. Since you got hold of them, they are totally different. I don’t know what you did to them, but I need some of it.” According to Roy, after several long talks and some serious thinking, the father also decided that following Jesus was what he needed most out of life.

That’s what the Real McCoy does. When you the real deal shows up in your life, those around can help but notice.

Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister

First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO

***Dr. Roger W. Thomas is the preaching minister at First Christian Church, 205 W. Park St., Vandalia, MO 63382 and an adjunct professor of Bible and Preaching at Central Christian College of the Bible, 911 E. Urbandale, Moberly, MO. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College (BA) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (MA, MDiv), and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).