The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Losing My Religion

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on August 14, 2016

James 1:26-27

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Well if you have your Bibles with you, I’d invite you to turn to James chapter 1. If you need a Bible, they’re right there in front of you in the pews and we are on page 1011; 1011. And we’ll be studying James 1:26-27 this evening. Again, welcome. If you’re here with us as a visitor and I’m glad to see you; glad you’re with us. And before we listen to God’s Word and while you’re turning there, let’s pray together.


Father, we call this a prayer of illumination because we want to humble ourselves before You. We want to admit every week that we cannot see the deep truths of Your Word, we can’t see past our own noses as it were because of sin, and it just clings so tightly to us. So we want You to do a miracle this evening. We want You to make our hearts soft so that we hear. The one who speaks needs that, the ones who listen need it, and we want to hear from You. We want You to speak directly to us and we want to hear whatever You say. So Holy Spirit, open our eyes and illuminate them to see Jesus from this text. We pray in His name, amen.


James chapter 1 and verses 26 and 27. This is God’s Word:


“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.”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.


Some of y’all may remember the name Jim Fixx. He quite literally wrote the book on running in the 1970s. It was published in 1978. It was called, The Complete Guide to Running. He was world renown for his expertise on not only his times but also how he ran and how he taught people to run. But one day he was out jogging on a road near his home in Vermont and he dropped dead of a massive heart attack, out of the blue. And it was revealed later from his wife that he had not had a physical in years. So here’s the guy who looked, from the outside, to be one of the most in-shape, healthy guys you would ever want to come across, a specimen, and things were not well.


And that’s the point of the text here before us this evening. Looks can be deceiving! That’s James’ major concern in this portion of Scripture. We can look religious, we can look like we’ve got it all together, we can look Christian, but we fail the test. That’s terrifying! And James here is just following Jesus, right? Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will be saved but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will come to me in that day and say, ‘Did we not do many mighty works in your name?’” It’s terrifying to think that everything can look good but we’re self-deceived. Here’s the good news. James tells us to lose our outward display of religion and find the Gospel, and he’s going to tell us how to do that this evening. Isn’t that freeing? He says you can lose this self-deceived religion and find the Gospel and he wants to do that so we’re not like Jim Fixx – we don’t die self-deceived.


Now let me set the context just again for you briefly. It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve been here. James is a New Testament wisdom book. What does that mean in a nutshell? He’s offering us the wisdom of Jesus. And here’s another bit of good news for you. The only requirement to receive the wisdom of Jesus is to recognize that you are not okay where you are. If you can admit that this evening, Jesus is going to talk to you from His Word. If you can’t admit that, this is not going to make any sense to you. You have to be dissatisfied with where you are. And last time we looked at these verses leading up to this where James told us how to change. He said it comes from looking into and listening to the Gospel of grace. That’s how change happens. We listen to it, we look deeply into it, we meditate on it, we take it into our souls. And these verses are therefore a transition and really a stage-setting for the rest of the book. All the major concerns that the rest of the book are going to address are right here. And remember what James is all about. People will tell you and people say things like, “You know, James is the New Testament book about works.” And we’ll get into that at some point – James 2:14-26. “James is all about works.” James is not a book about works in that sense. James is not writing to you to tell you what to do to be saved. He is writing to tell you what saved people do. He’s not writing to tell you what to do to be saved; he’s writing to you to tell you what saved people do. It’s all of grace for James. The same way it is for Paul; the same way it is for the rest of the Bible.


Therefore, two words summarize the message of James – genuine faith. And that comes back to what we’re talking about this evening. What does it mean to have genuine faith so that we are not self-deceived? And so the main point of the text this evening is simply this – James contrasts false religion with true religion to set the stage for the rest of the book. James is going to teach us about the dangers of false religion and contrast that with true religion to set the stage for the rest of the book. And we’ll look at this text very simply under two headings. In verse 26 – false religion. And in verse 27 – true religion.


False Religion


So first of all then, verse 26 – false religion. Look with me there again at the text. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” So here’s what James is doing. Remember, he’s already talked to us about our speech. That’s a major theme in this book. And what he’s saying to us here is, the first, maybe the primary characteristic of a false religion is this. It shows up in the way we talk. It shows up in unbridled speech. What does that mean? It’s speech that’s angry, speech that’s slanderous, speech that twists things, speech that is the kind of thing that somebody who’s having an affair looks at the person who’s not their spouse and says, “I’ve never felt like I feel when I feel around you.” Those kind of words; hateful words. Words that tear down instead of words that build up.


And what James wants to do and why he’s doing this to set the stage for us for the rest of the book is he wants us to have the kind of speech he heard consistently for three years from his half-brother, our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember what Peter said to Jesus in John 6, I think it is? He says, “Where are we going to go, Lord? You alone have the words of life.” Jesus has the words of life. That means when you pick up this book and you listen to the Word of God and you hear Jesus speaking to you in this book, it gives you life. That’s why we believe in preaching here. We believe it gives life to the dead. And it will give you life when you read it in private, it will give you life, as James told us last time, as we meditate on it, and as you gain life from the Word of God, you begin to give life with your words. That’s James’ point. That’s what he wants us to pay attention to. False religion can’t do anything to change us, and if you want to see where that shows up first and foremost, James says, look at how you speak. Someone who is growing in Gospel wisdom, this is hard to say as one who struggles with this, someone who is growing in Gospel wisdom doesn’t say the first thing that comes to mind; learns how to bridle his or her tongue; learns how to use speech in a wise way.


False Religion Deceives the Heart

False religion can’t change us. Why? James says it there. He says this person’s religion is worthless. Why? Because it deceives his heart. The deeper heart, the deeper aspect, the deeper reality of false religion is that it is powerless to change our hearts and in fact, only deceives them. False religion deceives our hearts telling us everything is okay; you’re good on the outside. And this kind of false religion that James has in mind can take many forms. It can be African animism, practiced on the sub-Saharan plains. It can be the idolatrous worship of ancestors found predominantly in a culture like Japan. It can be the really, really nice religion we practice here in the South where everybody’s fine, everybody goes to church, and everybody’s a Christian.


I’ll never forget, at our neighborhood pool back in South Carolina we had some folks move in – a lot of people were moving in from out of town – and I was talking to this one couple trying to get to know them and of course asked them where they were from, what they did, and then I said, “Do y’all have a church home?” And the man just kind of furrowed his brow and he goes, “Why does everybody ask us that around here?” He’d come from a place where nobody had asked him that. But that’s how we identify each other down here. “Where do you go to church?” And the danger of that is we can begin to think that just because we’ve kind of drifted along-stream with the Christian culture around us that we’re okay. And James wants to warn us about that. And he says this. False religion is worthless because it never gets below the surface. It’s content to deal with outward realities where we can all fake it. It’s content to do with performance and ritual so that we dot all our “I”s and cross all our “t”s and everybody who sees us says, “That’s a really good person.” It’s content to deal only with outward realities. This is the kind of religion that says, “Do better, try harder, give God your best and He’ll give you His best. The way to be spiritual, the way to get close to God is to perform.”


We Are Not Good People

And that seems obvious, doesn’t it? That’s how so many people think they can relate to God today. “I try really hard. I’m a good person.” If you’ve ever shared the Gospel with somebody – if you’re not a Christian here tonight and you may think this – first of all, welcome. We’re glad you’re here. If you think this way and you think this is what Christianity is, I want you to listen carefully because I hope to bring some clarity. We tend to think when we share the Gospel with somebody – how many times have you heard this – “Um, I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anybody. I’m a good person.” And the reality is, as the Bible begins to deal with our hearts, we realize we’re not good people. And we’re going to come back to that at the end. But let me say this right here. Christianity is not primarily a message and not even in the main a message of how you become a better person or how you’re a nice person. Christianity, in fact, is not even about us at all in its main focus. It’s about Jesus. And James wants us to see the Gospel is not obvious. It seems obvious that we perform and relate to God that way. James says, “Do what’s not obvious. Relate to God in a different way.”


We Need a New Heart

And so here’s his main point in this opening heading here. If you want your words to change, which evidences our heart, if you want to get close to God you don’t need to just clean up your speech. This is not a message of, “Oh, I need to have a pure religion undefiled before God the Father so I just need to watch my mouth a little bit more.” That’s not what James is after at all. He says if you want clean speech, if you want to get close to God, you don’t just need clean speech. You need a new heart. And the question he’s laying before us is, “Has your heart been changed by the grace of God because a changed heart will have an impact on the world around us,” as he’ll tell us in just a moment. So that’s false religion.


True Religion


In the second place – true religion. Verse 27, “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.” So James has shown us the powerlessness of false religion and then he talks to us about pure religion. And normally this word “religion” is used in a pejorative, in a derogatory sense in the New Testament. James uses it both ways here. It’s a word not used very often. Usually, it means false religion. Here in this verse, he’s going to turn it to us and say, “Here’s what the Gospel is like.” How do we know he’s focused on the Gospel when he talks to us about pure religion? He’s giving us a summary here. He’s not saying, “This and this alone is the only way to know you have pure religion.” Remember, it’s a summary that he’s going to unpack over the next three chapters. But how do we know he’s talking about the Gospel? Because just a few verses earlier he told us that we were born again – how? By the Word of God. That the grace of God working through His Word in a totally sovereign act from God the Father and God alone, that’s why we’re saved. We’re not saved by our doing; we’ve saved by His dying, namely, Jesus! That’s his focus. We cannot confuse that with James. We will make a mess of this letter if we think he is again telling us what to do to be saved. No, James is saying, “Here, you’ve already been saved. This is Gospel religion. Here’s what it looks like in day to day practice.”


God Is “Father” to Believers

And he makes that point very, very simply with one word that contains a universe of meaning for us. Pure religion, he says, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.” Friends, you don’t get God as Father unless you have His Son by grace. That’s the only way we get God the Father is if we are by faith and by faith alone, done with our own doing and fully invested in the dying of the God-Man, then God is our Father. And again, we come back to the fact that when we stop and think about it, this is extraordinary. Isn’t it? The longer I walk with Jesus and the longer I’m a father, I find this designation of God to be so precious, so wonderful, so sweet to meditate on because I see my own failings as a husband, as a man, as a father, and I come and I see that God as my Father is not done with me yet and He loves me the same way that I love and more so, in an infinitely greater way but in some similar way He loves me the way I feel when I look at my children. With all of their mess and all of their junk, I know I’ve got to teach them; I’ve got to mold them. But I love them. They don’t earn the possession of my affection by the way they live. It’s theirs by virtue of having my last name and being my children. And God says, “I’m your Father.” He’s a good Father. That’s who we practice if we’ll put it in those terms, our religion before. That’s why James puts it in these terms. Here’s who’s watching all the time and if we stop there, if we say, “This is the One who’s watching all the time, this God,” we should end in abject terror. But it’s not just this God who’s sovereign who watches us; it’s the God who’s our Father. Your Father watches.


You, fathers, know what that’s like to watch your son or your daughter. There’s those moments, those moments where all you can do is sweep them up your arms and tell them you love them not for anything they’ve done, just because they’re yours and they’re your children and you love them. And God says, “This is how I relate to you.” That’s that James is after. This is the grace of God expressed to you. Do you want to know grace summarized in one word? Father. Father. That’s how God relates to us now because of Jesus. And so James says now, “What are the implications?” that he’s going to spend the rest of his letter unpacking. “What are some of the implications of the Gospel?” He gives us two. He says the Gospel has a social impact and the Gospel has a personal impact.


True Religion’s Social Impact

A social impact – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Social impact. All throughout the Old Testament God has these warnings. Places like Proverbs 21:13, “If any man closes his ears to the cry of the poor, God will not hear his cry.” That’s pretty strong language. Why orphans and widows? As David explained this morning, these are the most vulnerable, particularly the widows and the children, the most vulnerable, the poorest and the powerless in this society. And James is saying to us, “When you get the Gospel, it’s going to show up in how you look at the poor and the powerless.”


And here’s the thing! This ought to be relatively easy for us to grasp. Why? Think about it this way. When you pass a poor person on the street – and it doesn’t matter if you’re dressed in Brooks Brothers or you’ve got a Tory Burch bag with you, none of that matters. When you see a poor person, you’re looking in a mirror. I’m looking in a mirror. Because the Bible describes us, no matter what our outward accouterments, no matter what we wear, the Bible describes us as very poor and needy people. And when we see somebody who’s materially poor, the last thing, the last impulse that should come to our mind when we see that person is to despise that person, because we’re that person.


And if possible, it gets even more amazing because here’s what the Gospel tells us. 2 Corinthians 8, Paul just can’t get over this. He starts saying things like, “Remember Jesus, who though he was rich, for your sake became poor.” Have you thought about that, that the Savior we follow and profess and have just sung to was a poor Man? “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” He told us. Let’s put it in stark terms! You and I follow a crucified and resurrected, homeless, itinerant preacher! Not a conqueror who got a bunch of land before He died. Not a religious mystic who lived in privilege and then said, “I’m going to leave My privilege and then go to a mountain like Buddha.” We follow a crucified, itinerant, homeless, poor Man so that, when James says visiting widows and orphans in their affliction, that ought to be something we go, “I get that! That’s me! I was the orphan! I’m the poor man! I’m the vulnerable one! And Jesus, the rich Man, the riches of heaven leaves those to rescue people like us who love things more than Him.” That’s really, really good news for people like us because we’re so easily infatuated with the riches of this world. I’m so easily infatuated with the riches of this world that we miss the riches of glory that Jesus left behind to become poor for people like us. And James says when you get the Gospel, let’s put it in these terms, there’s no such thing as a private Gospel. When you get the Gospel it will spill out. It will spill forth from you. It will have an impact on the world around you as you live it out, as we live it out together.


The Personal Impact of the Gospel

And then he says the Gospel has a personal impact. Not just social but personal. “And to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Don’t you love the balance of the Bible? It’s popular today to say, “You know, I’m not into doctrine. I just want to help people.” And that’s what the Gospel is all about. Friends, doctrine, all doctrine is, is teaching about God. That’s a sweet thing to study. That’s an amazing thing. The Bible never sets up and says, “Doctrine and practice – take your pick!” It says, “Both.” It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. And that’s James’ point here. There’s a social impact but there’s a personal impact too and you never get to divorce them. I never get to divorce them. So what he’s saying to us when he tells us to keep ourselves unstained from the world he’s not saying, “Go sell everything, go join a monastery or a convent. Live on a mountaintop. Starve yourself; wear really bad clothing. Don’t shower and then you’ll be holy.” That is not what he is saying. He’s not telling us, in other words as one author put it, “to be separate from the world. He’s telling us to be separate in the world.” Not separate from the world. We live in this world but we’re separate in it. We’re different.


And you see, what James is doing here, he’s saying, “When you get the wisdom of Jesus, when that really starts to shine through, when you are impacted in that by your daily life and you take in that Word like looking into a mirror and the Gospel begins to change you,” he’s telling us, “the world’s wisdom will pale by comparison and you’ll want to be unstained from it.” You see, this is what the world does. This is one of the keys of worldliness. It makes all kinds of false promises for wisdom. Have you ever received bad advice in your life? Have you ever given bad advice in your life? Here’s what the Gospel tells us. Jesus never gives us bad advice. He never has to go back on what He says. Jesus never tells us to do something and then has to go back and say, “My bad. My regrets.” No, the wisdom we are offered, what James is saying here, the wisdom we’re offered is so much better than what the world has. And when he says, “be unstained from the world,” he’s not saying that what matters, to define what being unstained from the world looks like is what you watch on TV, what you listen to, and the length of your hair. That’s all outward stuff, friends! That’s the culture I grew up around in South Carolina – fundamentalism. It’s still so much alive in each of our hearts – “If we just get the externals right, then we’re unstained from the world.” What the Bible tells us, what the Gospel tells us, is that it gives us the freedom to be unstained from the world to be attracted to the wisest, most helpful Man who ever lived – the God-Man, Jesus. And as He becomes more attractive to us, the world becomes less attractive. As His wisdom becomes more ours as we take it in, we become unstained from the world.


That’s what James is calling us to do! The Gospel gives us freedom from having nanny-like oversight. Right? We feel like sometimes God is following us around, “Don’t do, don’t do, don’t do!” Like I have to do with my daughter sometimes, my little one. I have to have that oversight over her. When she gets older, I hope not to have that oversight over her. When we grow in wisdom and Gospel grace, God is freeing us from the tyranny of nanny-like oversight and giving us the freedom to say, “No,” to the false promises of wisdom all around us. And the more we do that, the more we take in Gospel wisdom, the more we look like Jesus and the less we look like Madison Avenue which is always pulling for our attention. James says be attracted to Him. Keep yourself unstained from the world by being attracted to Him.


The Difference Between Religion and Gospel

What do we do with this? Let me mention just a couple of things in closing. One of the major takeaways from this text is this. We, as Christians if you’re a Christian, have to understand the major difference between religion and the Gospel; religion and the Gospel. Vital, vital, absolutely necessary for us to understand this difference today. Religion teaches us, false religion, what matters is outward performance. You do and God responds. God is a nice addition to an otherwise complete life. Religion teaches us that really nice, genteel people go to heaven. By contrast, if I could put it this way, only the Gospel speaks in the past tense. Everything else is active tense – do, doing. Only the Gospel speaks to you in the past tense and says, “Look to the One who did and has done, Jesus!” Past tense versus active tense.


The Gospel flips all this religious obviousness on its head and tells us very simply this. Everything else tells you to do; the Gospel tells you what is done. The Gospel tells us, as one author put it, “that really nice people without Jesus go to hell and really bad people with Jesus go to heaven.” It’s the diametric, polar, direct, categorical opposite from religion. And if you hear me say nothing else this evening, meditate on that this week. The Gospel is different. It’s unlike anything else. There’s nothing like it because there’s no one like Him! That’s why it’s good news. That’s why it’s not self-help. That’s why it’s not sitting here tonight going, “Do better. Try harder. Be nicer tomorrow and that’s going to make everything ok.” No, surrender, give it up to Jesus, come to Him, be attracted to Him, make your life about Him, put Him at the center because it’s all about Him from start to finish! That is such good news. Nobody else has it. And if you’re not a Christian and you wonder, “What’s the difference?” Here’s the difference. It’s about the doing and the dying of the God-Man, not yours, not mine. Praise God.


Personal Holiness

And let me say two specific things about personal and social holiness where the Gospel affects us. The issue today for us, friends, very simply is this. One of the ways we’re going to stand out in personal holiness is how we deal with the whole Biblical teaching of sexual purity. This is a hyper-sexualized society in which we live. It is all the talk. It is around us all the time. And here’s the deal. Our sexuality never stays compartmentalized. As one author put it, “There’s no such thing as a one-night stand.” And here’s what the Gospel tells us. The good news is this – if you’re struggling with sexual purity, if you’re captive to lust, the Gospel tells us that by grace alone we can become more attracted to Jesus than we are to naked images. We become more attracted to Jesus than we are to the hyper-sexualized society around us. The Gospel tells us that Jesus can be more beautiful and believable than the false promises of an overly sexualized society.


And one of the ways we’ll witness, just like the early church did – which is amazing. You read one of the letters from the Roman governors to the emperor, he says a couple of things about Christians. “They take better care of our poor than we do.” He’s writing to the emperor and he says, “And they keep themselves sexually pure.” Those are what stood out to the Romans, these pagans who were just like the society today that we witness just overly sexualized, saturated in it, and the good news came to the Roman empire like it comes to us in 21st century Jackson and says, “Jesus is better and He can satisfy you more than the false promises of a hyper-sexualized society.” All it takes is for you to be unhappy with where you are. All it takes is for you to be unhappy with where you are tonight. Jesus will meet you if that’s where you are. Come to Him.


Social Holiness

What about social? There is, I think, such a clear application here and it struck me as a walked into church this morning; it strikes me every time I see this. Okay, we need to be unabashedly pro-life. Let’s be clear on that. Killing a baby, I don’t care if it’s a week old, a day old, an hour old, is wrong. It’s sin; it’s murder. You can be forgiven of that; I want to be sensitive here. If you are – the shame of abortions. Talk to people who’ve dealt with that. Jesus is here for you; we’re here for you. this is not a place where you’re going to get the finger of judgment pointed at you, but let’s be clear on what it is. You can’t get over something until you know what it is. And one of the ways we will care for the widows and orphans in distress in our day and age is through adoption. I walk in this sanctuary. I see so many of you with children who don’t look like you and every time I see that and I look at them and see the difference and I go, “These children could have been something else.”


And I want to say this carefully here. I know there’s many who may be engaged in adoption right now but I think of our friends Jake and Anita Beth Adams who are working to adopt a little girl from Poland. And let me say why this is such a big deal, too. She’s older, y’all, and if you read the statistics, older girls who get turned out of orphanages when they’re sixteen, it doesn’t end well for them. It ends up in horrific circumstances. And you know what I’m looking forward to? I’m looking forward to celebrating a little girl from Poland sitting under the ministry of First Pres. Jackson as a picture of what happens to all of us in the Gospel. That we who are the orphans, who have no claim on the righteousness of God, who have no claim on His mercy, who had no claim on His graciousness to us and His riches, He just came and took us and brought us in His family and calls us sons and daughters. Support adoption wherever you can, friends. It’s one of the main ways we’re going to fulfill this verse today. Do whatever it takes. Pray for them. Give to them. When that little girl walks through these doors, y’all throw your arms around her. She’s part of this family now. She’s not an orphan anymore. She’s part of their family and part of this family.


Last thing! One other way we can care for orphans and widows in their distress is to be uncomfortable that we, not Jesus are the center of our universe. Let’s pray this week about being the kind of people who are on the lookout for hurting people, who are not oblivious to hurting people, who aren’t oblivious to the powerless and the weak among us, who look out for them and go to them. One author described the American church as “a nice man standing in front of nice people telling them that God calls them to be nicer.” What James tells us is this. That religion can’t change you. What the Gospel teaches us is that a broken man stands in front of broken people and tells them that God the Son, Jesus Christ, was broken for broken people like us so that we’d be fixed forever. That’s true religion and it can be yours tonight. Let’s pray!


Father, we’re so grateful for what You’ve done for us. We don’t even know where to begin. We’re going to sing praise in a minute so tune our hearts to sing Your praise. We were orphans, we were poor, and we are rich and adopted now. Let that reality make Monday morning beautiful. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.




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