James wrote: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their afflictions, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1:27). Pure religion, free from defilement and insincerity. True religion, the real thing. Virtually everyone concerned about religion claims to possess it. Bloggers and pundits, preachers and popes, cultists and occultists, statists and savants: all tell us the way. Their way. Read my book. Watch my show. Imitate my experience. Religion has billions of experts, men claiming to possess the genuine article, pursuing and promoting their brand with purely altruistic motives. Many are salesmen of vanity, self-absorbed egoists. The array of options is so confusing and the claims so diverse that the average religionist simply settles for whatever promising field in which the local herd happens to be grazing at the moment. It is a sad sight, especially when a return to pure religion is the need of this and of every hour. Selfless, sacrificing love and the purity of an unsullied, irreproachable life: these are the practical fruits of true religion. James is no purveyor of bland moralisms. He writes “before God and the Father.” This immediately draws us to Jesus Christ, for no one can call God “Father” unless he comes to the Son in faith and repentance. Moreover, there is no power to pursue true love and purity apart from union and communion with the Son of God. Therefore, life lived in the presence of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, produces true religion. There is no other source of pure and undefiled religion. Everything else is hideous, deceptive corruption, however lofty its claims may be.
Before God, in his presence, self is dethroned. When I see something of his majesty and purity, of his righteousness and justice, my only legitimate response is self-repudiation. Self-horror. I am undone; the chains of self-deception snap. All men whose eyes have been open to the glory of God are slain by his holiness. They see themselves as they are. Before him, all my righteousness is moth-eaten corruption. Yet, he has brought me here, so he must intend to provide a remedy for my filth. He has. It does not lie in the way of works, for in his sight no man living can be justified. It does not lie in following the herd, for their blind, vain glorying in men absolutely prevents them from seeing the glory of God. It lies in “Father.” Despite my wickedness, he loves me for the sake of his Son and invites me to be reconciled with him through the imputed righteousness of his Beloved. My Father’s arms are open, extended, ready to embrace me. He offers himself to me to be my God and Father. I leave self, repudiate self, to come to him. It is not longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. I have died to self that I may live to him, in fellowship with him, for him. I never lose sight of this “before God.” I live before him, in his presence, in constant memory of his glory and of his provision for my nakedness. Thus, I love. I love him first. This love grows; it is poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit, gradually eradicating inherent self-love and purifying my motives for serving him. Then, I love the miserable. Orphans and widows. These do not exhaust my love. They reveal its comprehensiveness, its depth. Through them, I am shown myself as I really am: despised, evil, worthy to be forgotten by my Father. He has been merciful; I am merciful to others: to all others within the scope of my ability, however weak and helpless they may be. I am weak and helpless. My God and Father loved me; I love them. No one can practice true love’s dynamic whose self-love remains intact, has not been dethroned. There is no end of self-love’s tyranny until I have been before God, seeing his glory and my filthiness. Cleansed by his love, empowered by his love, I love.
Unspotted by the world. All I am is spots. But before God, I am not as I was. The lusts, priorities, and impurities are purged: definitively, eternally purged away through the flowing blood of Yahweh my righteousness, the Son of God crucified for me. Yes, the world attracts. The battle for progressive purity is long and painful. The spots are far deeper than I know. My spots have spots. Yet, I am clean, washed through his word that he speaks to me: a promise of forgiveness, of deep scouring. In my God and Father I find power. It comes at odd times – when I am near the end of hope, ready to give up. Heaven blazes. It sets my faith on fire with hope. He is coming: the Pure One. I seek to purify myself in the approaching dawn of his appearing. The world keeps beckoning. I find another law in my members, leading me away from before God. I feel my wretchedness. I believe in victory through Jesus. I keep battling, knowing that I live before God, whether or not I feel like it at a given time. Forgiveness is signed and sealed with blood: the blood of the eternal Son, the Lord of the covenant. Everything the world claims to possess and offer is worth nothing in comparison to this covenant: that Holy, Holy, Holy has taken me into his safekeeping, loves me, promises to purify me that I may one day stand before him without spot or blemish. I rest in his promise. I have pure and undefiled religion through his grace, because God is my Father through the love of the Son and the sealing of the Spirit. He shows I am his by making me like him.
Satan hates purity: pure religion and pure lives. He tirelessly schemes to make purity seem hum-drum, pointless. I think of sexual purity. He who controls his spirit is better than he who conquers a city. Many have been defeated on this battleground. Will I fare any better? Writing of the “strange woman,” whose mouth drips honey, Solomon, wise man and many-time victim, wrote: “She has slain many mighty men.” I tremble before the abyss. There is a craving for a taste, just a taste of her delights. There is, I think, some safety in a taste, some anonymity. My Father calls me back before him. Dives, Lazarus’ earthly tormentor in Jesus’ famous parable, begged momentary cooling liquid for the tip of his tongue. Will I abandon him for a taste of hell on earth? How my flesh craves her! I hate and love her, whoever she is. She is me, a vain, deadly projection of my desires, my thirst for gratification. I do not love her; I love myself. She is hideous to me; she is attractive to me. My affections are divided because I am divided, unstable, easy prey. I have forgotten that my only good is in my God.
What is wrong with me? O, yes. Pure and undefiled religion. I run back before God, my Father. He knows my cravings. He hates them, but he loves me. He will help me. Because I am his Son, he will hear my pleas, my cries for help. They are sometimes little more than the peep of a bird, but my cry is his cry within me. Deep calls unto deep. He is calling out within me. I think on his holiness again. Grieved, it makes me, because of my uncleanness, but here is an ivory palace, a strong tower. I return to him, willing to be the lowest slave, but he kills the fatted calf and puts a ring on my finger. Stay in my citadel of purity, my Son. From here, I survey the world. It groans under the weight of gratified desires. It loathes itself, that valley of the lepers, but it will not climb out. It does not yet know there is a pure Father, a true religion. I turn away from the ugly site, putting off the desires that will kill me. I cannot. They are too strong. He is stronger. Long indulgence means a long battle. His silver trumpet proclaims my freedom and power in the Son. I think on purity, only purity, whatsoever things are pure, of good report, honest, praiseworthy. I find a new love. The thought of impurity begins to make me sick. Conscience returns. I am being purified. In place of filth, God my Father begins to erect a citadel of purity. True religion. Not perfect – not yet. I must endure and fight a little while longer.
Without true religion, I have nothing. We have nothing. We are up in arms about looming financial disasters and political corruption. God may allow our enemies to run roughshod over centuries of sacrifice and gain – unless we return before him and seek true religion. This is a holy war. It is not a political war, a financial war, an abortion war. It is a purity war. It is a war over true and undefiled religion. Do not be diverted by Satan’s schemes. Only a pure and being-purified people can defeat him. Self-dethroned love and purity will prevail. It is not glamorous; but, who am I posing for? It is not dramatic; but I am not on television. It is lowly, like Jesus sitting on a donkey, or taking the lowest seat at a feast without thinking the party is for me, in my honor. He must increase; I must decrease. I decrease as I seek to love as he loved and to be pure as he is pure. I then increase in him, glad to be in his ranks, even in the ambulance wagons of the sick and wounded, if necessary. If the world forgets me, I am written on his rolls; the ink is the indelible blood of the Son of righteousness, who has and is healing me, making me pure, working in me true and undefiled religion.