Thursday, May 12, 2016

What is your Religion?

        James 1:26-27        
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

If you examine yourself, are you religious or are you not? Many people don’t consider themselves religious because there is a negative note about religion. People understand religion to mean rituals. That is, the outward activities of religion. This is the exact word James uses here – threskeia, meaning, the ritual act of devotion, or liturgy. But we need to notice from these two verses that the word has both negative and positive connotations. There are outward rituals that could be of no use to anyone, yet there is such a thing as pure religion.
As I speak, I know that many of you come to church regularly, you spend the Lord’s day well, you fellowship with the brethren, you pray, you have your personal devotions, you give and partake of the Lord’s Supper, and so on. Yet these same acts of worship to God could very easily turn to be rituals. Done for one’s own self-aggrandizement so that other people see and consider you as a devout, holy or a pious person. But the opposite could be the truth. I pray that as we consider these two verses, the Lord will help you to diagnose your heart condition so that you will be able to distinguish the true and the false religion and neither deceive yourself nor confuse people.
We all know, acknowledge and live in a manner that identifies two types of religions. For there are only two types of religions – the true and false religions. There can’t be any confusion about the two. If you subscribe to a false religion you know, if you subscribe to a true religion, you know. But I want to make this easy for you.
1.      There is a false religion
Surely no one wants to subscribe to a false religion. But how do you know that your religion is true/genuine or false? What are the characteristics of a false religion? Unless you are able to identify and reject false religions, you may be subscribing to a false religion for all you know! Therefore listen carefully to the characteristics of false religion:
a)     Lack reality
James says, ‘If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart… This means that there is such a religion that is as good as self-deception. It lacks reality. For what would you say of a person who deceives his own heart? A self-deceived person is unrealistic. Such a person then is only a hearer of the Word and not a doer of the Word. For we have already found out that those who are hearers only deceive themselves (v.22).
There is a lot of a ‘form of religion’ yet little of the true power of true religion. Paul puts it like this, ‘having a form of religion, but denying its power’ (2 Tim. 3:5). It is like the church in Sardis, that had a reputation of being alive but you are dead! (Rev. 3:1). The form here means that the name was there, the preaching was good, the attendance was good, the giving was impressive, etc. outwardly everything was good but inside, there was deception of the heart. Any religion that is defined by the outward activities is a rotten religion; it is not Christianity at all because Christianity is a religion of the heart. It begins with the regeneration of the heart and it makes a new creation. Christianity is a true and genuine religion, delivering souls from sins, and bringing them to heavenly glory.

b)     Lack self-restraint
Tongues expose the falsity of religion. For they reveal the state of the heart. In this James speaks as the Lord did – out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). A new heart implanted by the Holy Spirit ought to produce something of self-control. Something as powerful as new birth, indwelling of the Spirit has to enable its owner to be able to brindle his tongue. But person who has cast off restraint, or a person who has no ability to restrain his own members, is not controlled by the Holy Spirit. And if anyone is not controlled by the Spirit, it is because the Spirit does not dwell in him and if the Spirit does not indwell him then he does not belong to Christ – he is not saved.
The tongue needs to be bridled, just like the rest of the members of the body. You must not yield your tongue as an instrument for unrighteousness, and especially because the tongue is naturally inclined to be so wild. It is hard to tame the tongue, in fact it is easier to tame a lion than to tame tongue!
James tells us here that bridling the tongue, that is controlling and directing it to be an instrument of righteousness, is one of the litmus tests of the true religion. For where the tongue is not controlled, you will find lying, gossip, slander, malice, hateful speech, abusive speech among other things, an indication that new life in Christ is lacking. Why is the tongue so important a litmus test for religion? Because with the tongue sin is so easily committed. Almost before we are conscious, a thought enters our mind, and before long we extrapolate it to exaggeration or a lie. One of the things that we learn from God is that there is a limit to speaking.
c)      Lack results
James closes the third symptom of a false religion by saying that a religion that lacks in reality and restraint will effectively lack in result for it is worthless. The word translated worthless means ‘empty of results’, it is vain. To understand it better, it is a word Paul and Barnabas used in Lystra when the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them as gods having healed a crippled man. So Paul responded, "Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. (Act 14:15).
The worship of idols is worthless for it produces no results. What is idols?
The Word of God responds thus:
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. (Psalm 115:3-9)
False religion is worthless to man. This is why the Lord in His word keeps on showing the worthlessness of idols.
The person who acts in these ways will get no spiritual benefit from that kind of religion. There may be a lot of activity in it, but there will be no spiritual profit out of it. Unless you apply the Word of God daily and consistently to your life you would not be profited. Unless this shows itself in godly discipline of training both the heart and the mind to follow Christ both privately more than publicly, then it is a worthless religion to you.
False religion is worthless to God. Do you think the Lord is amused by your coming to church, hearing the Word, participating in the Lord’s Supper and all the outward activities, when privately you enjoy sin? If your Christianity does not acknowledge what the reformers called Coram Deo – that is the fear of the Lord that acknowledges that we live in the presence of the Lord, then it is worthy nothing before the Lord – it does not please the Lord.
There came a time when God spoke very strongly denouncing all the sacrifices offered in Israel and said that He did not delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, instead He desired obedience:
And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1Sa 15:22)
See also Isaiah 1;10-15 as well.
2.    There is a true religion
James now turns to the true religion that God accepts by giving two illustrations of the kind of outward service that is acceptable before God. He gave these two examples to illustrate the kind of thing the Lord expects to see when your religion is real and true. These two illustrations are not exhaustive or a definitive description of true religion. What are the characteristics of true religion?
a)     Pure and undefiled
So there are outward religious activities that God accepts because they are coming from a pure motive. They are not tinted with selfish ambitions or sin. The words used generally to describe this religion are, pure and undefiled before God. This means that it is clean and untainted or uncontaminated by any human defilement, rather it passes the purity litmus test of God, since it is done in His presence, with His blessings!
In these words, James is saying that this is a heart religion. It is not simply outward to impress people, it is of the heart, impressing God. The primary motive of true Christian religion is to please God who created and recreated us at the cost of His Son. Christians acknowledge by their actions the fact that God is near, seeing and hearing everything. He is either approving or accusing, on the basis of His moral law. Unless we live as those in the presence of God, we fail this test of true religion that is pure and undefiled.

Therefore the Lord said,
"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Mat 6:1)
James sees genuine good works as being the outcome of a spiritual reality of the heart. It is the same as saying that true faith is a living faith that shows itself to be true by how it is helpful to God’s people. Where there is no heart faith, there will be false religion, but where there is a true genuine heart faith, it will produce genuine religion, that helps others.
Isaiah puts it like this:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. (Isa 1:16-17)

b)     Practical and helpful
There are people who are under the pressure of physical needs in the church. This is not out of their laziness, but because of their circumstances. It could be that they are sick, or orphaned or widowed or are aliens/foreigners who live in a foreign country and have nothing, people living away from their own land, or are unemployed and so unable to support themselves (although I do have serious questions about the latter!). All these circumstances put people at terrible positions where they are greatly disadvantaged. There are people who are needy and suffering.
As we think of how we can be helpful, please think of people in this church who are needy. This assumes that you know them well enough. Calvary-love of Jesus Christ is the model for a caring ministry in the church.
James simply states that true religion will show itself in seeking to alleviate human suffering. Most of the organizations on earth that deal with alleviation of human suffering are Christian – talk about Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, World Vision, Compassion Inc, etc. Many good hospitals were began by Christians, many philanthropic centers are Christian. Most of the children’s homes, and orphanages are Christian. But we are to offer even a closer caring ministry especially among the brethren. Our mercy ministry must be closely guarded.
How do you think the fatherhood of God manifests itself in the church? It is by Christians taking responsibility of fathering the fatherless by providing for their needs. Loving and caring for the needy, the sick, the aliens. We show love for each other in Christian fellowship.
One of the very best things we can do for ourselves when we are in trouble is to use our trouble to encourage someone else, instead of remaining in despondency. Let us not forget that there are people here who are hurting and aching at heart and mind – the tragic death of Peter Kivati in our midst must wake us up to this reality.
We are to speak to one another, show we care and love. There are people going through terrible mental anguish and pain – speak with them, encourage them. There are people who are discouraged and feel unloved, show them the love of Christ. Others feel lonely, without friends – be there for them as the friends sent from the Lord, who is the Friend who sticks closer than a brother. Others are doubting, struggling with mortifying sin. Remind them of the victory we have in Christ.
Don’t just come to church to gain, come to give and so worship the Lord. Caring love for the helpless is not an accidental or optional manifestation of the new nature, but part of its essence (Alec Motyer).
c)      Producing holiness
To be unstained from the world is to maintain both personal integrity and moral purity. It is to reject worldly standards and to live a life that honors God. If you subscribe to a true religion, then you would keep yourself unstained from the world. We are living in a world that is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19). But we must keep off it’s wicked influences and be the agents of its redemption.
The world is in a sinful stupor, it appears to be orderly but it is only ordered in sin and corruption. We can only be able to keep ourselves from the worldly stains by the strength that the Lord gives us. No one has the power to keep of the worldly influence unless aided by God.
Brethren, the first thing that happens to a sinner who has been made a Christian by God, is that his worldview is transformed, so that he embraces an eternal-perspective by the help of the Holy Spirit from the Word of God. Is this what has happened to you? It might be that there is suffering, but do you face them as a saint? Do you face this world with an understanding that the Lord is on your side and His Spirit is in you?
How are we to deal with the worldly pressure? By being sanctified by the truth of God (John 17:17). We are to take God’s Word seriously, not only to read but to study, not only to memorize but to meditate, not to only to apply but to implement. This is the way we are to receive the Word of God with meekness – to do it. Unless the Word of God is absolutely central in our lives, we have no hope of being holy. It is the Word of God that has the potent to disarm the worldly influence. The Holy Spirit who gave it, gives it the power to disarm the wicked worldly influence, and so we are to not only be hearers but also be doers of the Word.
v  Pray for God to give us strength to control our tongues
Pastor James is not requiring us to be mute, he is telling us that those who are truly justified are truly sanctified. One who is sanctified by the Holy Spirit has the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. Self-control involves among other things, controlling the tongue. He considers the tongue like a horse that need a bridle. James is the only NT author who employs the phrase. The phrase which is borrowed from the horse racing implies both control and direction. So control and direct your tongue as one who is led by the Spirit who does not gratify the desires of the flesh.
v  Develop a caring ministry to the needy
One of the saddest dimensions of our day is that Christians consume too much information but do not produce as much spiritual evidence. They go to conferences, watch sermons and are part of many meetings and conferences. Sometimes it does appear that we are too busy to attend to the mercy needs of other people. Our greatest problem in Nairobi is that people are too busy with their Monday to Friday, 8-5 jobs that they basically have no time to invest in care and encouragement of others. Put yourself in the shoes of the one who is suffering and ask if you would be satisfied with hearing others saying that they are busy. When you hear someone is sick please make haste to visit – visiting does not necessary mean that you have to take them some presents or money, it means that you are there for them. Even if you are too busy, can’t you send a card or a text, or make a phone call? Show brotherly affection to another… yet love each other as Christ loved you and gave Himself for us (something that you can’t do!)
v  Cultivate personal holiness
Keep yourself unstained from the world. Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind – you goal is to become like your Father in heaven, to be like His Son, your Saviour Christ. We are under the divine order to be holy, for our heavenly Father is a holy God (1Peter 1:16). This holiness is learnt from God by His Word and prayer. It is inculcated in the church where these two, the Word and prayer are held in a high position. Holiness is taught by the Holy Spirit who indwells us and makes us holy. Is this true of you? Personal holiness is seen in active love for the needy, personal purity and a sincere relationship with God. May the Lord help us.

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