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. 27 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.
To Each Person According to His Deeds
Next week we will return to our series on Romans. Today's message could be viewed as a kind of application of a recent text from Romans 2. Paul speaks to religious people who are pointing their fingers at others, but are actually hypocrites. They have a religious veneer, but are spiritually and ethically corrupt. He says in Romans 2:5-7, "Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [he will render] eternal life."
We saw that this does not teach that we can earn eternal life by "perseverance in doing good," but that the faith that obtains eternal life by trusting Jesus and his righteousness, is the kind of faith that will, in fact, "persevere in doing good." So the path to life is the path of a transformed life of love, not just religious talk and finger-pointing.
Now James is the place where this truth is driven home perhaps more than any other book in the New Testament. There is the famous section in chapter 2 where he says,
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (2:14-17)
This is the same message that Paul gave in Romans 2:7 - the faith that perseveres in doing good leads to life, but the faith that does "not obey the truth, but obeys unrighteousness," leads to wrath. It is worthless.
So today's text in James 1:26-27 is a particular application of Romans 2:6-8, and my aim is to relate it to the issue of abortion in the wider context of mercy to widows and orphans.
Take James 1:26 first: "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." Here we have religious hypocrisy again: people who think they are religious, but who use their tongues the way the world does. James says the same thing Paul does: that religion, or that faith, is worthless.
"Religious" Means "Faith in Jesus"
The reason I think he means "faith in Jesus" when he uses the word "religious" (in verse 26), or talks about "pure and undefiled religion" (in verse 27), is that this is what he continues with in the next verse (2:1): "My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism." There is no break in the flow between 1:27 and 2:1; so there is good reason to think that "pure religion" is "faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." That is James' religion.
And his point is: If you say you are religious, or say you have faith, but you don't bridle an unloving, lying, gossiping, cursing, angry tongue, then your faith - your religion - is worthless. In other words, it is faith that saves us, but whether our faith - our religion - is real is shown by the change it brings about in our hearts and lives. He illustrates this with the use of the tongue, the way he did back in 1:19, "Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger."
Now in verse 27, James gives another very concrete example, which is why I chose this text for today - two days after the 26th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 that made abortion on demand, for virtually any reason, legal up to the point of birth. He says, "Pure and undefiled religion [that is, real faith in our Lord Jesus Christ] 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."
Stay on the Horse!
Notice the two kinds of effects that pure religion or faith in Christ has: 1) practical compassion toward orphans and widows, and 2) personal purity of life. This is important to see, because so many Christians fall off the horse on one side or the other. Some fall off by saying: What matters is personal purity - sexual purity, financial integrity, a clean thought life, and so on; but they are weak in practical deeds of compassion for the poor and helpless. But some fall off the horse on the other side, by saying: What matters is social justice and compassion and helping people, and what you do with your mind and body and your private personal life is not significant.
For example, I recall some years ago one of you told me about a project you worked on with a group of very socially engaged, religious people who gave every appearance of compassion and justice, but during off-duty hours were sexually involved in fornication and other lewd practices.
But James says, in verse 27, that pure and undefiled religion - true faith in Jesus Christ the Lord - stays on the horse. It is "to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Not either/or, but both/and. Social justice and personal piety. Public compassion and private purity. Proactive steps of kindness and protective vigilance against defiling sin.
So focus with me this morning on the former: "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress."
What Does this Have to Do with Abortion?
What does abortion have to do with orphans? The connection I see is this: God wants us to be concerned about orphans because they are helpless without mother and father, and we should feel compassion for the helpless who depend utterly on others for life. Picture a three-year-old child riding in his safety seat on the back seat of a car with his mommy and daddy riding in the front. There is a terrible crash and both mommy and daddy are killed. The child has minor injuries, but is okay. The hospital officials check and discover there are no grandparents and no other family members known. This is a heartbreaking situation. And God says to the church, step in there and take care of that child.
So orphans are children whose parents have died and left them at the mercy of others to take care of, lest they die. How does abortion relate to that? Well, abortion puts the child in a worse situation. The parents are not dead, but they have turned on the child and choose to have the child dead. This is worse than being an orphan. To have Mommy and Daddy choose to have you dead is worse than Mommy and Daddy being dead.
So it seems to me that if God wants us to care about the orphan whose life is endangered because his parents are dead, he would want all the more that we care about the child whose life is endangered because his parents choose to make him dead.
Is the Unborn Child a Person?
Of course, the objection could be raised that the unborn child is not a child, and so doesn't qualify for the compassion of this verse. But have you noticed? You don't hear that argument in the public debate any more. A woman may hear it in the abortion clinic, but not in public, where it may be called to account. There are several reasons.
1) Scientific evidence has shown that the fetus has all the crucial genetic elements of human life.
2) The differences between the unborn baby and the born baby are differences that don't count in determining whether this is a human life: size, shape, looks, immature reasoning capacity, physical dependence, etc. These are simply irrelevant, because they all apply to the newborn outside the womb too. And ultrasound makes this clearer every day.
3) Doctors treat the unborn as legitimate patients just as they do the born children.
4) The idea that the Bible teaches that human life begins with breath (Genesis 2:7) breaks down in view of other texts that say the life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11).
5) The age of viability in the womb is getting earlier and earlier, with no clear line of demarcation between human and pre-human, or between person and pre-person.
6) The insistence of President Clinton and others to keep the partial birth abortion procedure legal shows that the basis of their position is not that the unborn are not human. Here we are talking about children that are within four inches of qualifying for the right to life, and yet are legally killed. So you rarely hear anymore, in public, that the basis of legal abortion is that the fetus is not a human life and a real developing human person.
Instead, the moral bottom line is this: It is a tragic choice between a mother's plans and a baby's life. And the legal bottom line is: A baby in the womb has rights to life if the mother wills it to; and does not if the mother does not will it to. There are fetal homicide laws that stand as a stunning testimony in our culture that it is a crime to kill an unborn baby if the mother doesn't want you to. Yet abortion laws say it is not a crime to kill the same baby if the mother wants you to. The difference is not the humanity or the personhood of the child. The difference is the desire of the mother. The rights of the weak are defined by the will of the strong.
So the objection that James 1:27 doesn't have implications for the unborn because they are not human persons is wrong. They are persons created by God in the womb. Therefore, James' command to have compassion on the helpless who have lost mother and father applies to them if their mother and father turn on them and become worse than dead parents; namely, killing parents. If orphans should be cared for by God's people, how much more children whose parents reject them.
And when it says, visit them "in their distress" we may ask, Is there any place of greater distress than in the womb of a woman who gives herself over to abortion? This is the greatest distress any child will ever experience. To be torn limb from limb in the very place that should be the safest place in the world is "distress" if there ever is anything called "distress." "Visit orphans in their distress."
But now, lest we isolate the case of abortion, let me put it in the context of the wider need for compassionate action toward orphans. In some of the states and countries emerging from Soviet Communism, the increasing number of orphans is huge. For example, in Romania, there are nearly three abortions for every live birth, the highest rate anywhere in the world. And still, "Hundreds are abandoned daily in hospitals and at the front doors of the orphanages." An estimated 350,000 street children "huff inhalants, panhandle, and live underneath bridges and in the municipal dumps of Bucharest and other cities" (Roy Maynard, "Disposable Children," WORLD Magazine, Dec. 12, 1998, Volume 13, Number 48, Internet).
Abortion has not solved the problem of unwanted children. It never will. Killing the unwanted will never be a solution. There is another way. James 1:27 points the way. Helpless children are a great concern to Christ and he says that our religion, our faith in him, will express this concern with radical, risk-taking acts of compassion.
And speaking of risk-taking, consider the greater tragedy of AIDS, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and its impact on children. Worldwide more than 30 million people are HIV positive or have AIDS. 16,000 are being infected with HIV virus every day. Estimates are that there will be 5.8 million new infections each year, which would bring the total number of HIV/AIDS cases to 40 million by 2000. 2.3 million people died of AIDS in 1997, a 50% increase over 1996, 460,000 of these under 15. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in thirteen sexually active adults is HIV positive, and in certain countries, such as Botswana, it is 30% of the adult population. One of the staggering effects of this is that 8.4 million children have been orphaned by AIDS (StarTribune, Nov. 27, 1997, pp. A1,15).
These are mind-numbing realities and evidences of the sin and calamity and futility that are in this fallen world. And the call on the church is to take this massive word "visit" in James 1:27 and apply it in radical, risk-taking, thousand-faceted ways to rescue the orphan for Christ and his kingdom. Why do I call this word "visit" a massive word? Because it is used in some massive ways in the Bible. Exodus 4:31 - "The LORD had visited the children of Israel [in Egypt], and he had looked upon their affliction." Luke 1:68 - at the coming of Jesus, Zacharias says, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people."
"Visiting" is a huge word. It carries wonderful redeeming overtones. What a great calling for the church - both to the abandoned unborn children and to the destitute born children! What a great work for the pro-life committee in our church! What a great calling for the Micah Fund, which has brought so much redemption to helpless children through adoption! What a great global dream for some of you who are wondering what to do with the last third of your lives - or the first two-thirds!
But before I finish, let me tell you one thought that springs from the word "widows" in verse 27. Many women who have abortions are worse off than widows. The pain of widowhood is great. The loss of a husband - or the one who fathers your child - in death is heartbreaking beyond words. But the loss of a husband through abandonment is in some ways worse. The amputations caused by death usually heal clean. The amputations caused by abandonment often stay infected. It does not heal the same. Women who abort are often desperately alone. They are in a worse situation than many widows.
What then should the church do? Just what it has done for the last 25 years. An infrastructure of care for women in crisis pregnancies has grown up that is so massive in this country that there is scarcely any more criticism from pro-choice people to the effect that the pro-life people only care about babies not women. It simply is not true. And everybody knows it. The evidence is overwhelming. This is exactly as it should be, according to James 1:27 - both orphans and widows. Not either/or, but both/and.
So I leave you with this one very encouraging hope about the future of the "abortion wars." Dave Andrusko, Editor of National Right to Life News, said last November that some think the conflict will just go on and on, without resolution. But he pointed out that this is based on a false assumption: namely that the two sides speak two different languages: one invokes the woman and one invokes the unborn child. Not so, he says. "In truth, pro-lifers are bilingual, lifting up both mother and child. And because they are fluent in both languages [which pro-choice people are not], they can lead American women by the most natural route imaginable" out of the impasse. He and many others see the tide turning in our culture, which is far less enthusiastic about abortion than it was in 1974 ("The Pro-Life Movement Then and Now," First Things, Nov. 1998, No. 87, p. 36).
O how I pray that the religion of our church will be "pure and undefiled religion" - pure and undefiled faith in our Lord Jesus Christ! May God grant us to speak both languages of compassion: the language of the orphan and the language of the widow. The language of the helpless child and the language of the desperate woman. There are many other languages we must speak (to the fathers and to the lawmakers and to the doctors, etc.). But whatever we do, let us not be silent. For if we are, our religion is empty, and our faith is dead (James 1:27; 2:14,17).