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.
In my last blog post, I discussed James’ teaching on how we must “be doers of the word, and not hearers only”. In this post, I will go over the next couple verses in which he gets a bit more practical, explaining what exactly a heart embedded with the implanted word looks like. But first, I’d like to go over some of the apparent issues among the recipients of the epistle, which can be gathered from its content. While it is broadly addressed to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (referring to general believers from different localities), particular issues are confronted that were widespread among Christians at the time. The dilemma that faced these believers was intense persecution for their faith, which resulted in greed, partiality, envy, adultery, and overall worldliness. If you believe, as many do, that the first century church was spotless, then think again. The picture painted here is messy. And the lesson that James teaches in order to tackle their messiness speaks greatly to the messy American church today. It is this: The fruit of the implanted word is a bridled life.
The Tongue and Directional Bridling
After speaking of being doers of the word, James makes a point to instruct his hearers to begin their doing with a bridled tongue. He says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). He explains this further in chapter 3, saying, “For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2). In other words, obedience begins with the tongue. If you can practice righteousness and self-control with your words, then you will be able also to do so in deed. If you are unable to do so with your words, neither will you be be able to do so in deed, and you will not bear the fruit that is proof of discipleship. Christ said, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). Therefore, proof of the word’s implantation in one’s heart begins with a bridled tongue, which is the first step toward its working to bridle the believer’s life.
I don’t wish to be redundant with my references, but I could not write on this passage without again quoting Douglas Wilson, who I quoted in my previous post. On this passage, he writes, “The Lord’s brother James draws a straight line between governance of the tongue and governance of everything else. He compares self-control here to a bit and bridle that enables a rider to direct a horse where it needs to go… But there are two reasons why we want to be able to direct a horse we are riding. The first is to prevent it from going where we don’t want to go. The first is to keep us on the trail, to keep us from arriving at a destination we do not want. The second is to direct us positively, to actually arrive where we need to be.”
In regards to the exercise of self-control, what comes to most people’s minds is the ability to abstain from what you do not desire to do. This is certainly a great deal of what self-control is, but it is not the whole of it. It also includes the ability to do that which you wish to do, or more in line with the illustration, to arrive at your intended destination. Bridling of the tongue then means not only refraining from saying what you ought not, but also engaging in the saying of what you ought. You can then see how James uses this to transition into the two defining fruits of pure religion: 1. “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction”, and 2. “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” He defines word-implanted faith as that which is manifested in the negative (being unlike the world) and the positive (performing acts of justice toward the needy). The purification of the stains of the world is the pulling of the horse out of the ditch, whereas the acts of justice are the destination. Both the negative and positive make up the whole of the bridled life, and the ability to do this comes ultimately from a bridled heart and tongue. And a bridled life is what James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”
The Church (Un)stained
To begin our self-examination according to these truths, let us begin by observing the call to keep ourselves unstained from the world. Would you say that “unstained” is a good defining term for the American church? “Pure”? “Holy”? If we are honest, these words are just about the last we would use to describe the state of much of the Christianity that surrounds us. R.C. Sproul successfully identified our condition when he said, “The greatest weakness in the church today is that the servants of God keep looking over their shoulder for the approval of men.” We are like 10 year old boys in a little league baseball game who look to the stands, after getting a base hit, to see if dad was watching. Should we not then be surprised that we can go only a few steps toward first base before tripping over our own feet? But it is even worse, as in our case, we are not looking to our Father for approval, but rather the very men who oppose our Father. Their father is the enemy who seeks our destruction. Should it be of any surprise to us then that the church lacks any power whatsoever? Step back and examine the average American church service for a moment. What is the focus? Is it an unashamed proclamation of the gospel? Is it solid doctrine? Is it heart-felt, Godward praise? Is it iron-sharpening and exhortation? Not quite… Rather, the focus is very much on entertainment or personalities or performances or vague “spiritual” abstracts that never touch reality enough to convict a single soul. We have let the world write our liturgy. We have let the world decide what we can or cannot preach. This is most prevalent in the seeker-sensitive movement, but I am not only speaking of them. Even churches with the most solid theology shy away from certain truths and actions in an effort to appease unbelievers. The American church is submitted not to the lordship of Christ, but rather to the opinions of men.
And by our submission to men’s opinions we have neglected the orphan and widow. If you can’t see how this is the case, then you have probably never been outside an abortion clinic. At the Planned Parenthood nearest to where I live, at least 75-100 children are led to the slaughter by their own mothers on a weekly basis. To watch woman after woman walk in, knowing the atrocity they are about to commit, is absolutely heartbreaking. Seeing them hours later having to be carried out of the building by their boyfriend or husband or mom or dad while bawling their eyes, out is beyond heartbreaking. But the most heartbreaking sight of all is when I turn around from preaching to these women to see only a couple other Christians behind me. The churches in the city outnumber Planned Parenthood more than 100 to 1, and yet only a handful of Christians are ever there to plead with mothers, offer assistance, and preach the gospel. And why are Christians nowhere to be found? Like the first century believers to whom James wrote his epistle, our care of the world’s opinion of us has superseded our responsibility to love all of our neighbors impartially. We hold vague pro-life opinions. We reluctantly give sanctity of life sermons, ending with a call to put money in a baby bottle. We hold yearly marches. We vote for presidential candidates who make empty promises. And this is just about where our efforts end. It is not enough. In fact, we know it’s not enough. Yet we continue to do the bare minimum, and I am convinced that it is because we know that if we started to truly live as if children are being murdered, the world would not tolerate it. Just like the recipients of James’ epistle, we neglect our responsibility to care for the orphan and widow for the sake of a preserved reputation before the world. Our religion is far from pure and undefiled. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 is also a rebuke of the American church; “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” We take time out of our week to listen to sermons, sing songs, and give our tithes, but how much of our time is given to establishing justice, extending mercy, and doing the faithful work of caring for the ‘least of these’?
Repentance and Hope
We have to repent of our apathy in regards to the unborn children being led to the slaughter and the many women in need of assistance. And this begins with a bridled tongue. How so? Well, it begins by using our bridle to direct our tongues positively toward the preaching of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again from the dead, abolishing death and claiming authority over all things, according to His plan to reconcile all things to Himself. We are the ambassadors of a God who saves sinners. We are the messengers of a Creator who redeems murderers and gives them new life. Once we understand the heart of the gospel and successfully communicate it to ourselves and those around us, then we are also able to understand why it is the farthest thing from unloving to preach it to those who are so enslaved by this culture of death that they are willing to pay someone to tear their own child apart. They believe that whatever sin led to their situation can be covered by the blood of their child. But we know that the only blood able to atone for sins is the blood of the spotless lamb, Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no greater message to be preached to women, no greater message to be offered in interposition for the unborn, than the gospel. But, as Paul writes, “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). And who has the ability to preach the gospel with power, other than the Church, in whom the Spirit of the living God dwells? You, if you are in Christ, have the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation. There are children and souls waiting to be saved, and you have the power to do so. Don’t hide your light. Instead, let it shine and light up the darkest corners of this world.