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.Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
James is about to dive full force into the practical application of Christian faith in the life of the believer, and he begins his dissertation on this subject with this passage. Here, we begin to enter some territory which has been considered controversial off and on in theological disputes.
Any true believer knows that man is saved solely by the grace of God, and not by any works we have done or can do. Ephesians 2:8,9 teaches that clearly of course. But here we have James, a most Jewish of Jews and steeped lifelong in the Law of Moses, writing a letter almost totally devoted to works in the life of the believer. Some have mistakenly assumed, for instance, that James and Paul conflict in their teachings, with James teaching works, and Paul teaching grace. Of course, this is not true as we will examine later and repeatedly.
James’s reference to “religion” adds to the confusion is some ways. Religion defined simply means, “the outward practice, the service of a God.” In some other uses of the original word in the New Testament, it was translated, “worshiping.” The important thing here is to note that true, or pure, religion has nothing to do with rites, sacraments, rituals or holy days; it means practicing God’s Word through our speech, service and separation from the world.
So, as we progress through the remainder of the Book of James, understand that James is in no way saying that the things we do will ever save us, but rather that the the things we do should be a natural result of the fact that we are saved.