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The Forgotten Part of James 1:27 (Part Two)

by Dan Cruver Published May 19, 2009

“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” (James 1:27).

stained-by-the-world After posting my article, “The Forgotten Part of James 1:27,” I received some excellent feedback that I think warrants a second post. Here’s the feedback:

From my quick read, you seem to think that performance-based Christianity is the stain of the world. But isn’t performance what James is addressing there?

In the first chapter, he addresses wrong thinking about trials, joy, anger, wickedness, doing the Word, and controlling the tongue. In the second, he addresses partiality, mercy, and the necessity of works to validate true faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I think what you said was true. I just didn’t see where you got in from James.

When I argued that being stained by the world means being seduced by its “performance-based” value system, I was referring to the kind of thinking that says, “God accepts me because I’ve performed.” That is certainly not what James is saying anywhere in his letter. 

Yes, James is concerned about action; but his concern is for action that flows out of belief. Genuine belief in the gospel results in Christian action (i.e., bridling the tongue, v.26; caring for widows and orphans, v. 27; showing no partiality, 2:1; etc)  because the gospel produces Christian action.

So really, the question we must answer is this: what is this gospel that produces Christian action? It is the good news that in Jesus “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7). It is the good news that God has accepted me because of Jesus, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). It is the good news that for our sake God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We could go on and on.

My point is that the kind of action that James calls for is action that is based on and produced by the performance (i.e., action) of another. The Christian paradigm of living says, “I  care for widows and orphans, bridle my tongue, and show no partiality because God has cared for me, has spoken the life-giving words of the gospel into my heart,  and has accepted me because of who Jesus is for me.” 

In a sense, we could say that both the world and Christianity are performance-based. The world calls us to look to our own performance; its paradigm of living is me-centered:“I care for the orphan; therefore, God accepts me.”

Christianity invites us to look to the performance of another; its paradigm of living is Jesus-centered: “God has already accepted me because of Jesus; therefore, I care for the orphan.”

Ultimately, to be stained by the world is to operate from a me-centered, performance-based paradigm. If this is the paradigm we live by, after a while, we stop “doing the Christian life.” Why? Because it’s so draining and exhausting. We were never meant to live by our own performance. We were meant to live by the performance of another, namely, Jesus.

So, what James is calling for is a Christianity that lives out of true faith. He’s calling for action that’s based on and that flows out of the performance of another.

If anything will sustain the church’s care for orphans for the next 20, 50, or 70 years, it will be the performance of Jesus. In other words, the orphan’s hope is the gospel of Jesus.  The gospel is the one thing—the only thing—that can mobilize and empower the church to care for orphans in their affliction until Jesus returns.

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