Summary: James exposes the difference between religion that comforts us and religion that reveals the power of Christ among us.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
Someone has said, “You can’t believe half of what you hear, but you can repeat it.” This points out a real problem in the church today—we have too many people with unbridled tongues. James surveyed the churches of his day and drew a similar conclusion. However, he did not merely stop at noting the existence of the problem; he exposed the still deeper problem that an unbridled tongue is a symptom of a darkened heart. In fact, James demonstrates that an unbridled tongue indicates that an individual has never been born from above and is a pretender within the Family of God.
In order to have a more thorough understanding of James’ concern, I invite you to listen to the verse before us as treated in other translations. “Anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air” [THE MESSAGE]. “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” [NEW LIVING TRANSLATION]. “People who think they are religious but say things they should not say are just fooling themselves. Their ‘religion’ is worth nothing” [NEW CENTURY VERSION].
It is difficult to find an English word which precisely captures the intent of the Greek. The Greek noun threskeía refers properly to the external rites of religion, and thus speaks of over scrupulous devotion to external forms; it speaks of “ritualism.” It is the ceremonial service of religion. It is perhaps significant to note that in the ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION of the Bible, the word “religion” occurs only five times. Three times it is used in a negative or pejorative manner [ACTS 25:19; COLOSSIANS 2:23; JAMES 1:26]. Once it is used in a neutral fashion [ACTS 26:5]. And once, following our text, it is used in a positive manner after it is defined [JAMES 1:27].
In the text, and in the verse which follows, as well as in ACTS 26:5 where Paul presents His defence of His past worship, the term threskeía or a cognate speaks of external practises of worship. When Festus laid his argument before Agrippa, he used a different term that could be translated “superstition,” though it was not necessarily meant to be negative [e.g. Paul, addressing those assembled at the Areopagus, ACTS 17:22]. The passage in Colossians uses yet a different term which could be translated “will worship,” referring to a self-made religion.
Undoubtedly as result of our fallen condition, people tend to practise eisegesis rather than exegesis whenever approaching the Word of God. That is, we tend to read our experience into the text instead of permitting the Word to define our experience. We are more comfortable adding to the Word through applying a hermeneutic of our own instead of permitting the Word to hold us accountable to God. The text before us this day can easily become one into which we insert our imagination about what James is saying rather than hearing what he is saying if we are not careful. However, let’s permit the Word to speak to us today so that we will be equipped to honour God.
MAN’S RELIGIOUS EFFORTS ARE CORRUPT — Broadly speaking, religion is either the external, observable evidence of our life in Christ, or it is an effort to make ourselves acceptable to God. Thus, religion is indispensable to the Christian Faith. However, the religion we are taught in the Word of God is, like all true aspects of our relationship to God, liable to counterfeiting. James is concerned about those who have deceived themselves. When we talk about accountability to God and accountability to one another in the church, we are really talking about the reality of our religion.
The text focuses our gaze on an individual who thinks he or she is religious. James’ use of the word implies that he has in view people who are careful to fulfil their religious duties. They have the ritual down pat; they know all the right words to say. They know all the things that are required to make others think of them as mature Christians. We should determine what is involved in selling oneself as religious. As we explore this thought, keep in mind that such individuals are said to be self-deceived. James is confronting people that are comfortable with their religion, stripping away the façade that they have carefully erected in an effort to make themselves acceptable to God, or at least to divert unwelcome attention from true followers of Christ.
Have you ever had someone accuse you of being religious? This is normally stated as an accusation and often in a dismissive manner when someone is attempting to explain your actions. On several occasions, especially when I have spoken to an individual concerning their relationship to Christ, the person responded by saying, “Oh, you must be religious?” What they mean is that I must go to church and take seriously the various acts of worship that are associated with a church.