One the major themes in James’ epistle is the practicality of faith in God. For James it was not enough to have religious piety, or devotion, faith must produce something in terms of concrete works! James tackles his subject from two different perspectives in chapters one and two. First, he talks about the role of the word of God that leads to salvation and how it should produce genuine change and perceived results in terms of what can be seen in the life of the disciple of Christ. Secondly he talks about faith being more than a theoretical belief in God, but rather something that produces good works in terms of graciousness toward others who are in need.

In both instances James is anxious to show to his readers that mere theoretical devotion to God is not enough. The Word and faith must have their follow through, and produce tangible results in this life. Religion can all too often be mere ritualistic piety, an outward show of devotion, that is impressive to watch, but which is of little practical value in the world. But the essence of faith in God is not mere religious devotion, it is also practical with respect to moral change producing righteousness (ethics), and it is also concerned with grace that acts in behalf of others, who are in need.

Religious people tend to be long on words and short on action (cf. 19)! So James warns his readers that it is better to listen more closely than to speak, without having properly understood. It is better to not be angry, because the religious person cannot bring about the righteousness of God, or do the will of God, through the exercise of human anger (20). Religious persona, James, warns does not make for the righteousness God demands, which involves action and practical obedience, no matter how impressive it might be.

James was used to seeing the Pharisees with their religious persona and outwardly impressive religious presence. But all too often behind the facade lay a cold and calculating spirit, without the grace and compassion that even the Old Testament speaks of and which God demanded of his people. God has always expected his people to care for one another, to show love and justice to the alien, and to be practical and helpful to the poor, especially the widow and orphans. The outward religious persona of the religious professional was of no use to the practical needs of the poor and needy, and made no difference to their plight in terms of their very real needs. And above all it was a failure on the part of those who professed faith in God to not address their needs! God was much more interested in his people “being” than in their “talking.” The Word is often read, but after the reading is finished, those who heard it forget what it said about them, that it indicated their need to change or act in some way! It was like a mirror, after looking in which, a man forgets his appearance and goes on about his day without acting on what he saw.

James also had a problem with professing faith in God that never produced anything in terms of practical outcome, specifically in connection with helping the needs of others. James calls this practical help “deeds,” and by deeds he means acts of kindness and grace that actually provide genuine concrete benefit to the needy (16). Faith that does not lead someone to act is defective. It is religion, piety and showy devotion, but it not the kind of genuine faith God has in mind, when he calls upon his people to show one another consideration and grace. Even demons have “faith” in the sense of mere belief in God, but it does not produce the righteousness, the practical outworking, that God demands. But at least they have the sense to tremble and fear (19)!

James seizes on the term “religion” in this context to express what he means. He uses the word twice in chapter one (cf. 26, 27). At first, to illustrate his point about being a doer of the word and not merely a hearer, he uses the example of someone who does not control their tongue. He will come back to the misuse of the tongue later (3:1-12). Nevertheless, a religious spirit that cannot bridle the tongue, or speak with grace and compassion, that gossips, or cannot tell the truth, betrays that the underlying spirit of that religion is faulty. It is not what God has as the goal of faith or the Word, which is a change in disposition that produces righteousness in terms of a practical outworking devotion and love for God. To be religious, to have devotion for God, means you will live out the principles of that faith, especially as you obey the word by helping and ministering to those who are in need. James says it is not as important to seem religious, as it is to be genuinely religious in terms of action. Genuinely religious people, people who have real faith in God, do not ignore widows and orphans, but rather find ways to help them in a practical sense (27a). They also keep themselves pure, and do not allow the encroachment of the world into their spiritual life; in this context, James may have in mind the spiritual pollution incurred as a result of the uncontrolled tongue.

For James spirituality was a matter of the proper relationship between faith and practicality, between the word and action. You cannot be spiritual or religious, if your devotion to God is fruitless and barren, if it does not produce action and deeds. God expect us to follow through and be the church, not boast about our spirituality. In the end, from a purely evangelistic perspective, the church being the church is much more attractive to unbelievers than religious people practicing devotion toward God that does not impact how they treat others or behave in terms of lifestyle. People are impressed by integrity and genuine faith in God, when it results in something that is tangible in relationships, behavior and the treatment of others.

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