Before starting this study, take a moment to read James 1:22-27. Although I’ll primarily be using the NIV version for the preparation of this study, you can read from whichever version you prefer.
James continues to write hard-hitting truths in this letter. In today’s passage, he calls to attention the need for Christians to be completely transformed by their faith. When Christians fail to live according to Scripture, their religion is worthless.
I’ll be honest: as a perfectionist, I’ve read passages like these and thought to myself, “See? I just need to try harder. If I’m more perfect, it’ll be proof that my religion and my life aren’t worthless.”
However, that’s not what this passage is saying. Yes, this passage tells us that we need to do what Scripture tells us to do. Yet that isn’t the end of the story. When we follow Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit equips us for the work God has called us to do. Pure religion isn’t about trying harder, but trusting the transformative power of God’s Spirit.
Called to Obedience
Verses 22-27 explain how seriously we need to take the Word of God. When we merely listen to the Word, without putting it into action, we deceive ourselves. God’s call for Christians isn’t about knowing the right verses or remembering the right stories.
God’s call is for us to hear the Word and obey it. If we are not being shaped when we listen to and read the Bible, we are not being obedient to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
I was convicted of this last week when I was preparing my sermon on Acts 9:1-19. In this familiar story, Saul is on his way to Damascus on his quest to persecute followers of Jesus. On the way, he has a life-changing encounter with Jesus. He radically changes course, eventually writing half the letters included in the New Testament.
When reading this passage, I was challenged by Ananias’ obedience. God asked him to go and meet with Saul, a man who was actively seeking to harm Christians. Ananias voiced his concerns, but then obeyed God’s leading and went to minister to Saul.
I’ve heard the story a hundred times. And while it might be easy to hear a familiar story and tune out because we feel like we’ve gleaned everything we can from it, God’s Spirit continuously speaks to us through Scripture.
Looking into that Word, obedience looks like going to the hard places and doing the hard things. It means going to talk to the “Sauls” in my life. It means trusting that the same God who changed Saul, a man who persecuted Christians, is the same God who can radically change my unsaved friends and family.
We’re called to hear God’s Word. We must also put that Word into action.
Pure Religion Changes Hearts
What does it mean to be spiritually free? Verse 25 reminds us that the perfect law gives freedom to those who look intently into it. This isn’t just about freedom from the consequences of sin, but freedom from our own self-interest and immorality.
When I obey the instructions found in Scripture, I’m free from the demands of my own self-centeredness. When I allow the Holy Spirit to work on my heart, I’m less consumed by my wants and needs and more concerned with the needs of others. I’m softened and molded into the image of God.
Religion cannot shape your heart. Going to church, doing the right things, and reading your Bible don’t equal pure religion. Sure, pure religion will almost always contain these things. However, a real change must occur in our hearts for our religion to be pure.
We cannot get control over our addictions, our sinfulness, and the words that come out of our mouths until we have a real encounter with God. Holiness happens when the Holy Spirit purifies our hearts. The Holy Spirit strengthens and enables us to live out the words of Scripture.
Is your religion pure? If you’ve been going through the motions or allowing the world to pollute your faith, the good news is that you’re never so far gone that you cannot turn back to God. Your religion can be pure again if you seek God’s face and follow God’s lead.