James 1:26, 27
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridles not his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is vain.…
These two verses enforce by an example what those immediately preceding illustrate by a simile. The words "religious" and "religion" denote external religious service - the body, or outward attire of godliness, rather than its inward spirit. The apostle indicates in these two sentences the "work" of which every one who truly "receives" the gospel is a "doer."
I. AN EXAMPLE OF VAIN RELIGIOUS SERVICE. (Ver. 26.) This statement points back to the exhortation of ver. 19. The tongue is an unruly member; it requires to be "held in with the bit and bridle" of Christian principle. A man's words are a true index or evidence of his character; and they also react upon that character, and tend to confirm it for good or evil. Should, therefore, a person who has been for many years a member of a Christian Church indulge always, without restraint, in evil-speaking; should he be in the habit of soiling his tongue with impure, or malicious, or false, or foolish words; what other conclusion can be drawn about his character than just that he is not a true Christian? Such a man is a "hearer only," and therefore either a self-deceiver or a hypocrite. He may cherish some of the sentiments and instincts of religion; but the most sublimated sentiment is quite worthless, if it cannot be translated into everyday life. Where there is no government of the tongue, what avails love for the Church and its services? "This man's religion is vain;" it is an idle, empty, useless, unreal thing - a counterfeit of genuine worship. The apostle's language here is exceedingly strong; but it is the language of inspiration, and it runs parallel with what we read in other parts of Scripture (Matthew 12:36, 37). Many professing Christians may well tremble when they read this verse. How prone we all are to sin with our lips! How constantly we are tempted to idle speaking! Let us guard against the sin of slander, of depreciating goodness, of imputing selfish motives; and against every other form of uncharitable speech. If we do not "keep our mouth with a bridle" (Psalm 39:1), we "deceive our hearts" as to our spiritual state before God; in which case there is danger that all our psalm-singing and sermon-hearing may only help to drag us down to a deeper perdition.
II. AN EXHIBITION OF TRUE RELIGIOUS SERVICE. (Ver. 27) James here submits a rubric for the ritual of the Church. It is to this effect, that the services which God loves are not ceremonial observances, but habits of purity and charity. The moral in our Church life is infinitely more important than the liturgic. Indeed, the moral and spiritual are the great end which our fellowship contemplates, and to that end rites and ceremonies are but the means.
1. The true ritual consists in the maintenance of personal purity in a world of sin. The Christian is a man who, having been once washed all over in the blood of atonement, must labor in the strength of God's Spirit to keep himself from fresh defilement, he is to guard himself against the contaminations of the world, its pursuits, ambitions, counsels, and its grosser pleasures. He must not become an ascetic or a hermit; rather, he is to show to his fellow-men that he can live in the world an unworldly life. It is hard to do so, doubtless; it requires rare moral courage to resist evil, and. to brave the contempt and persecution which such resistance entails. Yet this is the worship to which God calls us. He will not accept our "devotions" if we refuse him our devotion. A holy life is the most beautiful of psalms. It is the blossom and fruit of all other praise. It is grander than the finest cathedral service, for it is the perfect realization of the Divine ideal of worship.
2. The true ritual consists in the exercise of active benevolence in a world of suffering. Christ, when on earth, "went about doing good;" and every Christian is an imitator of Christ. "A doer that worketh" (ver. 25) finds his chief sphere of social activity in kindness to the poor and suffering. We are joined together in the fellowship of the gospel that we may be helpful to our fellow-Christians and our fellow-men who are in affliction and poverty. All our public worship is "vain" if no hearts are made happier, and no firesides warmer, because of it. The Church exists that its members may be inspired to become a fountain of spiritual sympathy to the widow, and a ministry of moral help to the orphan. A congregation can offer no comelier praise than the music of constant acts of loving-kindness and tenderness and self-sacrifice. Where this worship is not rendered, the grandest sanctuary, so called, will be rather only a sepulcher of souls, and the most aesthetic church-service a "vain oblation." The true gospel cultus lies in personal acts of sympathy and kindness, done to the poor out of love to Jesus, and because the poor are his "brethren (Matthew 25:34-40). Every professing Christian should therefore try the reality and strength of his piety by this test: Does he give himself to the celebration of the true full ritual of Christ's house - that which lies in a life of purity and charity? - C.J.
Parallel VersesKJV: If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.