Religion has always been a hot topic, just bring it up with a group of people from diverse backgrounds and you’ll have an instant conversation, if not a heated argument between the fundamentalist believer and the so-called apathetic atheist. Yet, while ‘religion’ may not be the word of the day, there is defined for us an acceptable and one, I believe, would find very little to be argued against:
“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.”
This verse closes the second of James’ exhortations to his readers. It sums up the total of his arguments and convictions regarding integrity in the Christian life—that is, actions must accompany the faith one professes. In these concluding words, James’ highlights, not the total sum, but a contemporary application of what faith looks like within his context. Likewise, there will be current affairs in our own life context which demands our attention and our action motivated and driven by our faith.
For millennia, throughout the Biblical record, throughout historical records of stories, journals, relics, humanity has continued to search out the meaning of life. The question has pervaded each one of our lives and continues to do so still. For Christians, this question is slightly different, “What is God’s will for my life?” I think James makes a good case for one answer to this question, an answer that is “pure and faultless”. A quick look in a concordance will show various passages discussing what God’s will is for the believer. While this passage doesn’t use the word ‘will’, I certainly think, it falls into this category of God’s will for our lives.
I find James’ choice of words, “pure and faultless“, interesting. In the original Greek, these two words have similar meanings though the illustration drawn is slightly different. The first “pure” is the word ‘katharos‘ meaning clean, clear, pure; an illustration of washing and cleansing is illustrated by this word. [Trivial knowledge: The Cathars—a heretical Medieval Christian sect who sought spiritual purity.] The second “faultless” is probably better translated “undefiled”, in Greek ‘amiantos‘, which is the negative derivative of the verb meaning “to taint, to contaminate, to defile”. These two words together draw a picture of innocence, purity, unadulterated religion.
It raises the question of how we can seek to live up to such a standard, a holy standard set by God, a standard which cannot be reached through human effort (though we might so attempt to reach). I think James answered this question in the previous verses. In the early opening of this letter James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.” (1:5) He also wrote, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (1:17) It seems that James believed his readers knew the solution, though not explicitly stated. The words of Paul to the Colossians come to mind, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1) Indeed, the obvious answer to James’ high standard is to recognise the source of such a standard who aids those to reach such a standard.
Though James has not mentioned, if we desire to seek to live up to such a standard, then indeed, our only hope is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the parable of the vine, we are reminded as such by Jesus himself, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Our only hope in reaching such an impossibly high standard, our only hope in living a righteous life before God, our only hope in successfully living a pure and unadulterated faith life must be deeply rooted, founded, grounded, based, centred on our Lord Jesus Christ, apart from Him we can do nothing. Only in Him may we seek “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”, to live the life God calls us to live.