James now supplies examples of this life of active obedience. With these examples, he again poses two contrasting alternatives in two kinds of "religion." Both as an adjective threskos in 1:26 and as a noun threskeia in 1:27, the term especially refers to the outward observance of worship--for example, attending worship services, praying and fasting. James's initial proposition is that even among people who perform these outward observances, there are some who practice a deceptive and worthless religion and others who practice a pure and faultless religion. The examples he gives are so practical that they may make these verses pointed and uncomfortable reading for us.
The first example James chooses is a negative one--failure to control one's tongue. This is not the first time he has brought it up (cf. 1:19). It is far from the last time. In 3:1-12 he will discuss the huge evil done by the tongue; in 4:1-12 he will give further examples of impure speech (e.g., quarreling and slander); in 5:9 and 5:12 he will tell his readers not to grumble or swear. The repetition of the theme shows that it has great importance in the message of James's letter. Sinning in the way we speak cannot be regarded as a minor matter.
James's imagery here gives a second clue as to why he sees one's speech as deserving such attention. The participle chalinagogon is properly translated keep a tight rein on, because it is indeed an equestrian term. James is the only New Testament writer to use the word, and he employs it again significantly in 3:2. He sees the control of one's tongue as decisive in the control of one's entire behavior, much like the decisive control of a horse's direction by means of the rein and bit.
The conclusion James reaches within this one verse appears to have two parts in the NIV. Actually, the first part, he deceives himself, stands as a contrast to bridling one's tongue. More literally, it reads, "If anyone thinks himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his heart . . ." To neglect controlling one's tongue while still considering oneself to be a religious person is self-deceiving. The actual conclusion is that such religion is worthless (mataios, meaning idle, fruitless, useless). This term makes emphatic James's rejection of a disobedient faith as a false faith. Genuine, saving faith will produce actions in the believer's life which are obedient to the word of God.
From James's repetition of emphasis throughout the letter, from his imagery of a horse's rein and bit, and finally from his conclusions of self-deception and worthlessness, the implications are inescapable. Readers who affirm biblical authority and so seek to submit their views to the biblical view will give priority attention to their speech as they seek to purify their behavior. Immoral ways of speaking simply cannot be excused biblically as somehow of secondary importance. Further instruction concerning specific forms of impure speech will come later in James's letter.
James's further examples illustrate a religion of positive value. The first portion of this sentence is like a public introduction of two important persons: James is announcing facts about two examples of active obedience so that we will know why these two are to receive our careful attention. The introductory facts should therefore be noticed first.
1. The two reasons for active obedience. In the Greek sentence structure, the initial introductory fact is that these examples of behavior will demonstrate religion that is pure and faultless. The first of these two terms (kathara) is used in the New Testament to refer to purity of heart as well as a ritual cleanness of objects. The second term (amiantos) means "undefiled." Together, the two terms hold up a standard of purity, complementing the standard of worth raised in 1:26. The terms emphasize that the examples of active obedience about to be presented are to be desired and practiced by all who seek a genuine, uncorrupted religion before God.
The second introductory fact is the identity of the one who raises these standards. He is none other than God, who (James is deliberate in stating) is the Father. This emphasis recalls the theological context shared in 1:2-18: God gives generously, without finding fault, to those who ask in faith; God gives the crown of life to those who love him; God is pure, neither tempted by evil nor tempting anyone to do evil. All of this culminated in James's description of God as "the Father of the heavenly lights" who does not change, who is the giver of every good gift and who has given us the gift of birth through the word of truth. He gave this gift specifically with the intent that we might be "a kind of firstfruits." This Father of the heavenly lights has thus become our Father. For James, that fact makes it automatic and imperative that we should practice religion in a way that is pure and faultless in the eyes of this God.
The phrase that God our Father accepts is the NIV's rendering of a prepositional phrase that envisions our practice of religion as being "before" God our Father. This sense is worth preserving when one teaches or preaches from this verse. Envision your own practice of religion as taking place before the glorious God and Father who has given every good and perfect gift, including his own Son to save you, and you will gain a sense of why James writes about these matters with such moral earnestness. What matters is that which is pure and faultless specifically before God (or in his "sight" in the NASB).
2. The two examples of active obedience. With this introduction, the two examples are presented. The first directs our attention toward needy people with acts of love; the second directs our attention toward ourselves for maintenance of purity.
The instruction to look after orphans and widows in their distress can be examined in three parts. First, the verb to look after (episkeptomai) is a compound verb in which the prepositional prefix epi- places an emphasis on the act of looking. The basic act "to look" becomes intensified for a possible meaning of "looking at observantly" or "examining," though this meaning would not fit the present context. It is used elsewhere to express the awe with which one describes a visitation from God himself (Lk 1:68, 78; 7:16). In the context of James's instruction, the verb would carry the connotation of giving active care or help. Here, then, it is proper to translate this verb not merely as "visit" (KJV, RSV, NASB) but as "look after" (NIV). It is the same verb used by Matthew in Jesus' warning about the future separation of people for blessing and cursing. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, some will be welcomed into blessing because "I was sick and you looked after me," while others will be sent into the eternal fire because "I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me" (Mt 25:36, 43).
Second, in specifying orphans and widows James is prescribing nothing new or innovative for the church. He is recalling an explicit theme in God's Old Testament revelation of his will, so that there should be no disputing that this is indeed what God accepts as pure and faultless religion. Psalm 146:7-9 describes God's commitment to care for the needy such as the fatherless and widows. Jeremiah 7:1-8 warns against placing trust in the presence of the temple while oppressing the fatherless and widows--an example of religion that is "deceptive" and "worthless."
Third, in their distress refers literally to a pressing or a pressure, or figuratively to an affliction or oppression. In keeping with the Jeremiah passage, James has regard for the powerlessness of these people, their inability to protect or care for themselves.
Altogether this is a biblical view, not just James's own thinking. Scripture says that God is committed to caring for the powerless and defenseless, including the poor, the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Since the needs of such people are on God's heart, he expects that same heart to be in us. Further, Jesus himself so identified himself with needy, oppressed people that when we care for one of his people in need, we do it unto him. Any practice of Christianity that does not exhibit this concern in action is deceptive (it misrepresents the truth about God's own heart) and worthless (it is of no value before God). We have to conclude, then, that this first example of pure and faultless religion is a matter of serious obedience required of the church.
The second command is to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, and it too has three parts to be examined. First, it directs our attention to ourselves. In the two examples of active obedience in 1:27, James is certainly not trying to give a comprehensive list of all acts that make up pure and faultless religion; rather, these are just two examples of the kinds of acts needed. We would probably be reading a notion into the text to suppose that James's two examples are intended to encompass outward acts and inward purity (as in Hiebert's commentary); more likely the continuation of the text in the next chapter gives an illustration of what James means by the pollution of the world, and if so it has much to do with outward actions. By strict observation of the text, however, there is a complementarity to be identified between the two commands. The first command sends the Christian with acts toward others; the second command directs one's attention toward oneself. The first command prescribes positively certain acts of love, while the second warns negatively against the pollution of the world. This is the nature of the balance James is urging in the Christian life.
Second, the term behind polluted is aspilon, literally meaning "without blemish" or "spotless." Like other terms and concepts in James, it is a term familiar to Peter, as in 1 Peter 1:19 (referring to Christ as a lamb without blemish) and 2 Peter 3:14 (referring to Christians' striving to be spotless). We can see the term, therefore, being used in the church of James's time in a literal way that drew upon the Old Testament sacrifices of lambs without blemish and in a figurative way applied to Christians' moral purity.
The third important term in this command is world. This is the first of five times James will use the term kosmos in this short letter (in 1:27; 2:5; 3:6 and twice in 4:4), each time with a negative connotation. James, in keeping with other New Testament writers, calls Christians to be morally distinct from the world. This is the course charted for Christians by Jesus himself at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which might be summarized in this way: Blessed are those who become so different from the world that they come to be persecuted by the world; only so can they become "the light of the world" (from Mt 5:3-16).