Religion that God Actually Accepts - Radical

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Religion that God Actually Accepts

According to James 1:26–27, it’s entirely possible to practice a kind of religion that is acceptable to man but not to God. The danger of deception is real, and God graciously warns us against deception by telling us what true religion—the kind that pleases God—looks like in our speech, our care for the vulnerable, and our conduct. In this message, David Platt challenges us to put our faith into action, particularly as it involves caring for the vulnerable. This is not an option but an obligation. However, we don’t care for orphans and widows because we’re rescuers; we care for orphans and widows because we’re the rescued.

If you have a Bible—and I hope you or somebody around you does that you can look on with—let me invite you to open it with me to James 1. As you’re turning, I want to welcome you; it’s good to come together around God’s Word.

Last week we saw in James 1:19–25 that if we just hear this word from God when we gather together, but we don’t do it, then we’re deceiving or fooling ourselves. I don’t want to be deceived or fooled; I’m assuming you don’t either. Before we even hear what God is going to say to us about caring for orphans and widows, we need to have the mindset to say yes to whatever he’s saying to us. We should not come to God’s Word thinking, “Let me hear what it says, then I’ll decide whether or not I’m going to do it.” No, not if you’re a Christian. A follower of Jesus has sacrificed the right to make the decisions in our lives. We do whatever God calls us to do, because we trust God more than we trust ourselves. We’re confident that he loves us and knows what is best for us. So it’s not a big sacrifice to say to the God who made you, “I’ll do whatever you call me to do.” God loves you and wants you to have life in that—even if that leads you in ways you didn’t see coming. 

Many of you have heard me tell the story about Heather and me on a date night. We were joyfully content with our four children at that time and had not planned on talking about adoption. But then the subject of adoption came up, and it was like God met us there at the table in a way neither of us saw coming. Before we knew it, Heather was crying. I was super self-conscious that the waiter and the other people in the restaurant were thinking I was the lamest husband, taking my wife out and making her cry at the table. All that to say, by the time we walked out of that restaurant, we were ready to start the adoption process again the next morning. Fast forward four years later, we have two more kids in our home through a story we never could have written. Everything that changed when God spoke to our hearts. 

So I want to invite each of us, before we hear the Word of God, to say, “God, we want to hear from you and do whatever you call us to do.” I’m not saying I know all the different ways he’s going to speak to us. I do believe God is going to call some of us in the next few minutes, or in the days that flow from today, to foster or adopt a child into your family. I believe God is going to call some of us to do a variety of other things to support children who don’t have families. 

I also believe God is going to call some of us to care for widows in ways we’ve never thought of before, in our church family, in our city, beyond our city. This is the wonder of meeting with and hearing from God, which is what we’re doing right now. You never know what’s coming, but you know it will be good for us and for others. You know it will be glorifying to him. 

Here’s what I want to do. I’m going to put a prayer up on the screen that I want to lead us to pray together before we even read God’s word today. Here’s the prayer: “God, I will do whatever you call me to do to care for orphans and widows.” That’s it. That’s the prayer. I want to invite every single follower of Jesus within the sound of my voice to pray this out loud with me. So will you bow your head with me? I’ll start by praying for us, then I’m going to invite you to repeat this prayer after me.

O God, Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, this is who you are. We are asking you, in this moment, to speak to our hearts. We are saying we want to do whatever you call us to—whether that’s a small, simple step, or a big, significant step. We don’t want to just hear your Word and deceive ourselves. We want to do it. So church, I invite you to repeat this prayer after me, phrase by phrase. “God, I will do whatever you call me to do to care for orphans and widows. In Jesus’ name, amen.” 

All right. Let’s listen to the Spirit of God through the Word of God in James 1:26–27:

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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. 

God is telling us right now that there is a kind of religion that is worthless, empty, useless, even fraudulent. And there’s a kind of religion that is pure. It’s clean. It’s holy. Matthew uses this same word to describe the clean linen shroud that wrapped Jesus’ body after the cross—undefiled. Hebrews 7:26 uses this word to describe how Jesus is unstained by sin. So in these two verses, God on high is telling us there’s a kind of religion that he accepts and there’s a kind of religion that he abhors. It’s really important to know the difference between the two. If we don’t, then it’s possible to create and practice a religion that works for us but is worthless to God. Did you hear that? It is possible for us to create and practice a religion that works for us but is worthless to God.

What kind of religion is pleasing to God? I see three marks of pure and undefiled religion in these two verses, knowing this list is not exhaustive. There are many things in the Bible that God points to as pure religion. This list is essential, meaning if you don’t have these qualities in your religion, then you don’t have religion that honors God. So this is really important to know.

Let me give you a heads up. We’re going to hit this first mark briefly today, because this specific thing is going to come up again in depth in most of James 3.

1. A pure and undefiled religion is controlled speech that demonstrates a changed heart.

James writes, “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue….” Notice it’s not about muzzling the tongue, but controlling the words we say, not deceiving the heart. Do you see the relationship here between the tongue and the heart? James is recounting what Jesus said multiple times: out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. What we say is a reflection of what is inside us, in such a way that if our speech is not controlled, the Bible says our religion, at the core of our hearts, is worthless. The way you speak to your spouse, your parents, your kids, your friends, coworkers, classmates—not just out loud, but through texts, emails, any way we use our words. The way you speak to other people, about other people, including the way you speak to or about people you don’t like or who may be your enemies. All of these are indicators of what’s in your heart. If you engage in gossip or slander, if your words are biting or angry, if you engage in cursing or course joking, if your words are foolish or simply inundated with trivialities—they are reflecting something deeper within you. 

God help us control our tongues, particularly in a culture that says, “If you have a thought, you should immediately speak it, share it, text it, with someone else or with the rest of the world.” 

Don’t do it, brothers and sisters. Bridle your tongue. Speak in a way that reflects a heart that loves God above all and loves others as yourself. This is the first mark of pure, undefiled religion: controlled speech that demonstrates a changed heart. 

Let’s just pray that right now. God, help us control our speech in a way that reflects the heart of Christ living in us.

2. A pure and undefiled religion is sacrificial care for the vulnerable in the world.

So thinking about the heart leads us right into this next mark of religion that God accepts. Number two, sacrificial care for the vulnerable in the world—specifically here for orphans and widows. This is a pair that we see throughout Scripture, oftentimes also including sojourners. Let’s go on a quick tour in the Bible. You won’t have time to turn to all these places, so maybe write them down. There are many places where we see God’s concern and commands to care for this vulnerable pair, specifically orphans and widows. 

  • Exodus 22:22: From the very introduction of God’s law, so right after the Ten Commandments, we read, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” 
  • Deuteronomy 10:17–18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.” Just picture his greatness, then how does God display his greatness? “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” 
  • Psalm 68:5: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” This is who God is. He commands his people as a result.
  • Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” 
  • Jeremiah 22:3: “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow.” 

We hear God saying, “Don’t sit around debating justice—do it. Don’t sit around debating oppression—deliver the oppressed, care for the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow.” So it’s no surprise then to come to come James 1:27 and see this pair again in God’s Word. 

Now, this verse uses a fascinating word to describe what pure and undefiled religion does with the orphan and the widow: it ‘visits’ them. What does that mean? What’s God telling us to do? Go say hello to them? Spend a little time with an orphan or a widow, then move on with our lives? Or is there more to it than this? Well, this word for ‘visit’ here is used 11 times in the New Testament, and a few more times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. So it sure seems like it’s more than just making a short visit. Let’s take one more tour of the Bible. Look where we see this word, starting in Genesis. 

  • Genesis 50:24: “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’” This is saying God is going to come to his people amidst their slavery in Egypt and  bring them up out of slavery. He’s going to bring them to the Promised Land he’s made for them. That’s what it means to visit you: come and bring you into a whole new place.
  • Psalm 8:4: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” The word ‘care for’ here is the same word that’s translated as visit in Genesis 50:24. God visits us by caring for us. 
  • Psalm 106:4: “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them.” The word for ‘help’ here is the same word that we see translated ‘visit’ in Genesis 50:24. It’s showing us how God visits us by helping us and showing favor to us. 
  • Luke 1:68: So it’s no surprise when we get to the New Testament and read this. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” That’s not saying God made a short visit to his people. He came to them to redeem them. Just ten verses later, look at this imagery: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God in his tender mercy visits us like the sun shining on us, bringing light to darkness and the shadow of death, guiding our feet to peace. That’s what it means to visit. 
  • Luke 7:16: After Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead, the Bible says, “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’” How about that? Jesus is God’s definition of visitation. And not just Jesus. Look at this next description of Moses.
  • Acts 7:23: “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel.” Moses goes to the people of Israel, seeks them out to take responsibility for their deliverance, for their wellbeing, for their future destiny. 
  • Acts 15:13. Here’s one more referring to the Jerusalem council When James speaks up and says, “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.” God has visited the nations, not just to say hello, but to save them and call them to be his people.

Isn’t ‘visit’ an amazing word? I haven’t even mentioned when this same word is used in Matthew 25, when Jesus says, “When you visit the vulnerable, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, you visit me.” Are we hearing what God is saying to us right now? This is religion that is acceptable before God. It’s not paying token attention to the vulnerable. It’s visiting them in the same way God has visited us. It’s going to them, caring for them, taking responsibility for their wellbeing, raising them up, bringing them out, giving them life. 

The implications of this word are staggering. God is speaking to us, particularly in a culture and a country where millions of babies are vulnerable in their mother’s wombs, where millions of children are vulnerable out of the womb, in need of moms and dads who have what they need to care for them. And not just those children, but vulnerable birth moms and dads and families who for a variety of reasons are not able to care for a particular child, who need the support of others. 

And what about widows? I should add that while this passage is clearly talking about widows who are alone due to the death of a spouse and they need support in caring for themselves, there are also many functional widows who are alone because of divorce who need this kind of support. God’s undoubtedly calling us to come alongside them in their affliction as well. Pure and undefiled religion takes responsibility to care for the vulnerable from the womb to the tomb. 

So I think about Randy and Courtney, friends and formers neighbors of Heather and mine. They spent the first 30-plus years of their lives in cultural Christianity. They were involved in church, but not in pure and undefiled religion. Then one day God visited them, opened their eyes to his love for them, opened their hearts to new life in him that went beyond the routine of religion. They were born again, and with their new birth came new hearts for the vulnerable, particularly widows. Randy is an electrician by trade and Courtney is a nurse practitioner, so they started looking for opportunities to visit widows in their affliction. Long story short, they started a ministry on the side, where they now spend their weekends and many days during the week doing fairly unglamorous work in widows’ homes, rewiring electricity, fixing plumbing, building wheelchair ramps, cleaning bathrooms, changing diapers, delivering medicine—visiting and staying with many of these widows until their last breath.

I’ve heard from some of the people that Randy and Courtney have visited. These are the kinds of things they say: “Randy and Courtney are my friends. They’re my family. I believe that God sent them to me to encourage me and help me. Sometimes I ask God if they’re even real. It’s like God has sent me some angels to take care of me. They pray with me. They help me with my house. They always come and check on me. They bring me food and groceries. They read the Bible with me. I know that they care. Sometimes I just feel like I want to cry, because I am so thankful to God for sending them.”

Another said, “When I see Jesus, I’m going to tell him everything Randy and Courtney did to help me and serve me and take care of me.” 

One more said, “I spent over 20 years without a friend. Then Randy and Courtney became my friends. They’ve given their life to show mercy to people like me.” 

To me, this is the very picture of who Jesus is. The woman who said those words was elderly and disabled. She went to be with the Lord not long ago, holding her friend Courtney’s hand.

That’s what it means to visit. It means sacrificial care for the vulnerable in the world in their ‘affliction.’ This is a word that can include everything from oppression to tribulation. Let’s not forget the reason orphans and widows exist in the world is because sin, suffering, trauma, tribulation and death exist in the world. Babies are aborted, children are orphaned, widows are alone, because this is a fallen world. But God says in the middle of it that pure religion steps into the fallenness. It doesn’t take the easy route around it. It steps into the fallenness and takes responsibility for the wellbeing of the vulnerable. 

In this way, sacrificial care for the vulnerable in the world is not an option for Christians. It is an obligation for Christians. It is a gloriously grace-driven obligation for followers of Jesus Christ, doing this in such a way that we keep ourselves unstained by the world.

3. A pure and undefiled religion is clear separation from the ways of the world.

In this verse, true religion is telling us that it involves clear separation from the ways of this world, keeping oneself “unstained from the world.” Now, when we hear that word ‘unstained,’ we probably think, “Okay, moral purity.” It sounds good: be morally pure. Then we turn the page from James 1 and get ready for James 2. But remember, the chapter divisions are from us, not from James. This means what follows in James 2:1, which we’re going to look at more next week, flows from James 1:27. 

Let’s just think for a minute about how these verses relate to each other. James closes this verse with the word ‘world.’ He uses that word three other times in the book, always referring to a fallen world system that goes against the ways of God. True religion, God says here in James 1:27, does not live according to this fallen world system. We talked about this last week, how we’re so often just like this world, filling our minds for hours every day with what this world offers us, instead of God’s Word, in ways that keep us from God’s ways. Now, specifically here in chapter two, James immediately—right after he writes this verse—starts talking about favoritism in the world toward the rich, because that’s how the world works. The world loves to honor the rich and neglect the poor.

The problem James is addressing is it wasn’t just the world—the church was stained by the world in this way. Look at James 2. We’ll talk about it more next week.  It says:

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

Do you hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through James here? According to the world, you go out of your way to honor, respect and treat well the person who can benefit you the most. I’m going to say that one more time. According to the world, you go out of your way to honor, respect and treat well the person who can benefit you the most. But that is not true religion, James says. 

So make the connection with sacrificial care for orphans and widows, visiting them in their affliction. You are to go out of your way to honor, respect and treat well those whom this world would say would benefit you the least. Are you seeing this? Are you seeing how true religion goes totally against the ways of this world? Think about it. 

Control your tongue? No, speak your mind! Let your words fly, from your mouth and through every form of media available to you. 

Adopt or foster children? No. Do you realize what that would cost you, how that would change the plans you have for your life and your family? Look at what it will take away from your other kids. You’re too busy anyway. How could you add that to your plate? Get a dog instead of a kid. That’s real advice Heather and I were given in this world over the last couple of years. Why step into hard, difficult and unpredictable situations? Just take care of your own. 

And widows? Somebody else will take care of them, some other person or organization or institution. You have so many things you want to do with your life, so many things you want to accomplish. Don’t let them hold you back.

Do you see how true religion requires a radically different perspective of this world and the purpose of your life in it? Do you see how true religion requires a radically different perspective of orphans and widows, and your relationship to them? Let me be crystal clear at this point. We don’t do this because we’re some group of good, altruistic people out to be saviors and rescuers of orphans and widows in this world. That is not who we are and that is not why we do this. We don’t care for orphans and widows because we’re rescuers. We care for orphans and widows because we’re the rescued. This is the whole point of what we’re seeing. It’s the whole point of the gospel. 

For those of you who are exploring Christianity, visiting with us, what unites us together is the fact that God on high has visited us in our ultimate vulnerability. God has come to us in our ultimate need, in our sin against him that deserves eternal judgment. God has come to us to forgive us from our sin by sending his Son as a sacrifice, to die on a cross for our sin. He has risen from the dead and ascended on high so that anyone who believes in him and his love for us will be forgiven of all sin and restored to relationship with God.  This is what drives everything we do. It’s who our God is. It’s what God has done in our lives. If he’s not done this in your life, we invite you today: trust in him. Realize at this point that you’re not a rescuer—you’re the rescued. 

On an unrelated note, I also want to say something to every child or every adult who has been an orphan, without a family in your life. Maybe you’ve been part of the foster care system, maybe you’ve been adopted. I want you to know, on behalf of our entire church family, that we honor you. We honor you for so many reasons—first and foremost, for how you are made in the image of God. We honor you for all you have faced and all you continually face in your unique life story, including unique challenges that you endure. We honor you and love you in ways we hope you see. Far more important, God on high honors and loves you.

I also want to say a word of encouragement to every birth mom or birth dad who, for any number of reasons, has not been able to care for your child. You’ve taken steps to make sure your child is cared for, or you’re working to be able to care for your child. We, the church, want you to know that we honor and love you. We are for you. We want to support you in every way we can. God sees you. God sees all you’re walking through. God honors you and is for you. 

Finally, I want to say to widows in our midst that we honor and cherish you. We praise God for his strength in your faith, your courage, your endurance and the unique beauty of your trust in him, in the middle of hard days, hard months and hard years. 

[Message ends, followed by testimonies from others.]

Observation: What does the passage say?

1) Read James 1:26–27 aloud as a group. Let group members share observations. Try not to move into interpretation of the passage or application of what you read quite yet. Simply share what you observe.

  • What body parts does Scripture cite in this passage and how are they related? (James. 1:26)
  • What can result when these body parts work separately or apart from God? (James 1:26)
  • What does God call us to do to have pure and undefiled religion? (James 1:27)
  • How would you summarize James 1:26–27 in your own words?

Interpretation: What does the passage mean?

1) Read Matthew 12:33–37.

  • Consider the bit in a horse’s mouth that controls a large beast of burden. In comparison, what is the tongue’s influence when we speak? 
  • How do the words we speak reveal our heart?
  • How does the heart influence the tongue?
  • How can God’s Word influence our hearts, our tongues, and our minds? (see Romans 12:2)

2) Read Exodus 22:22, Deuteronomy 10:17–18, Genesis 50:24, Psalm 8:4, Psalm 106:4, and Luke 1:68.

  • What is God’s perspective about widows and orphans that he wants us to share? (Exo. 22:22, Deut. 10:17–18)
  • What does it tell you when God says that he will visit (care for, save, and redeem) His people? (Gen. 50:24. Psa. 8:4, Psa. 106:4, Lk. 1:68)
  • How is Jesus the New Testament fulfillment of these Old Testament promises?
  • How does God sacrificially care for His people in a vulnerable world?
  • How should believers sacrificially care for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people in this world?

3) Read Leviticus 19:9–10 and James 2:1–5.

  • With what responsibilities does God charge us when it comes to looking after those who are less fortunate than ourselves? (Lev. 19:9–10)
  • What does God’s command ‘to show no partiality’ look like in the modern world? (Jas. 2:1)
  • What makes us partial to some, while we often miss those who need us most? (Jas. 2:2–4)
  • Why is the faith of the poor often richer than the faith of those who are more affluent? (Jas. 2:5)
  • What must we do to separate ourselves from the ways of the world?

Application: How can we apply this passage to our lives?

1) Controlled speech demonstrates a transformed heart.

  • What patterns of speech (criticism, speaking badly about those who receive social programs, etc.,) do you need the Spirit’s help to stop doing?
  • What patterns of speech (speaking the truth in love, witnessing to those who are lost, etc.,) should you practice more?
  • What personal practices do you need to stop that are embittering your heart?
  • What personal practices should you start to strengthen your heart for God’s work?
  • What prayer support do you need from your Church Group to aid your transformation?

2) Sacrificial care for the vulnerable demonstrates true religion.

  • How do you reflect God’s care for the vulnerable in your speech and in your actions?
  • How do you help or support those who are more vulnerable than you?
  • Recognizing that we are ALL called to care for orphans and widows…
    • What evidence of faithfulness in these areas can you celebrate within your Church Group?
    • What do you need to do in order to demonstrate sacrificial care for widows in our church?
    • What do you need to do in order to demonstrate sacrificial care for orphans in our city and around the world?
  • How could your Church Group better practice true religion together?

3) Clear separation from the ways of the world requires godly discipline.

  • How can you recharge your heart with God’s resources rather than the world’s resources?
  • How could your Church Group pursue supporting widows and orphans in our communities?
  • How could your Church Group adopt a family or a cause to provide the love of Christ to those who are in need not just for material things, but for Jesus himself?

James 1:26-27 ESV

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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. 

Sermon Recap

Three Marks of Pure and Undefiled Religion

  1. Controlled speech that demonstrates a changed heart.
  2. Sacrificial care for the vulnerable world.
  3. Clear separation from the ways of the world.
David Platt

David Platt serves as a pastor in metro Washington, D.C. He is the founder of Radical.

David received his Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Don’t Hold Back, Radical, Follow MeCounter CultureSomething Needs to ChangeBefore You Vote, as well as the multiple volumes of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series.

Along with his wife and children, he lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

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