“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27 [NASB])
James spent the entirety of his epistle teaching and reminding Jerusalem Christians and later Christians that faith without works was dead. Works for James included actions and words, just as he expressed in this passage with regards to bridling the tongue and visiting the orphans and widows..
In these two verses, James spoke about both actions and words. He equated the Christians’ religion to his or her words and actions. Religion, as James spoke about and as the world considers it, are two different things. Religion, no matter the faith system, always requires the worshipper to perform acts to prove the person’s faith and obedience, acts such as sacrifices, good works, and attendance at places of worship. Each of these must be visible for the person to be considered religious.
The difference between the Christian faith and other faith systems is that a person does not become a Christian by doing these things - actions, whereas in the other faiths they hope to attain to true faith and gain forgiveness and life after death by these things. Christians act and speak in obedience to God because of their love and gratitude to Him for saving them from their sins and giving them abundant and eternal life.
For James, being a religious person meant fearing and worshipping God with awe. Obedience to God and His laws comes from this awe and love of God. Therefore, when a person’s actions or words are not what God calls holy, pure, and undefiled, the person must question whether he or she is truly a Christian. If the person determines his or her faith is genuine, then he or she must adjust his or her life – actions, words, and thoughts – to reflect his or her faith in Jesus Christ. The ability to adjust one’s life so that it reflects the new life Jesus Christ gave the believer comes through the power of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus gave each person when he or she became a believer.
When James said, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious and yet does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart,” he meant living out the new life Jesus gave them because of His conquering sin and death. James meant the faith the person’s mind assented to did not affect his or her words. That person’s unbridled tongue showed he or she was not renewed in all way by Jesus. His or her tongue showed he or she was deceived in his or her heart. A person who finds this to be so must grow to become more like Christ. Jesus spoke about this when He said in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” A person cannot truly worship God when he or she allows his or her old, sinful person to lead his or her life. That person’s tongue deceives his or her heart, the heart that thought it was worshipping God. When that occurs, the person’s worship is worthless. Something came between God and the person – sin and the old way of living.
James said worship of God only occurs when it is pure and undefiled. Pure and undefiled worship means the person is free from sin, guilt, falseness, insincerity, and anything that defiles the person and God. To be able to worship God this way, a person must be clean before God. That means a person must live a godly, Christ-filled life. Now none of us is perfect and we all sin; therefore, when we go to worship the Lord, we must begin with confession and genuine repentance of our sins so that God may cleanse us from our sin and guilt. Only then will we be clean enough to worship before God. That is what the word “religious” means for Christians. A religious Christian person is one who strives to walk daily with God becoming more like Christ, who obeys God in action, word, and thought so that his or her love for Him is evident, and who confesses and repents of sins so that true worship of the Lord can occur. The Christian faith is different in this way. We obey Him because of love for Him and what He did for us. Add that with reverential fear and true Christian faith is real and evident to others.
When worship of God affects our daily lives in ways that affect our words, thoughts, and actions, then we can say we are truly worshipping God.