Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
James left no room in his letter for the idea of hearing the truth and not doing what it says. He didn’t want his readers to deceive themselves into thinking they could be Christians merely by believing the right things about Jesus. Following Jesus requires action. As a disciple, you not only have to believe that Christ is worth following, but you also have to take steps of faith to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him daily (see Luke 9:23).
Being a doer has two components: putting away filthiness and seeking pure religion. If the word religion gets you bent out of shape, set aside your personal interpretation of what that means. James was talking about a devoted life that’s pleasing to God:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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.
1. Putting away filthiness. The phrase used in verse 21, “Put away all filthiness,” calls to mind an image like dirty laundry. Everyone has proverbial dirty laundry or dirty little secrets, which are just cultural euphemisms for sin. James later instructed the church to keep themselves “unstained from the world” (v. 27). What James called “rampant wickedness” (v. 21) includes obvious filthiness and stains that Christians easily recognize as sinful and must repent of and abstain from.
2. Seeking pure religion. Throughout generations and cultures, people have asked the question, What should a relationship with God look like? James’s answer is shocking in that it doesn’t focus on behaviors to appease the divine. Instead, it offers a simple description of controlling the tongue and caring for other people. A right relationship with God will be evident in right relationships with other people.
Jesus said people would know His disciples by their love for one another (see John 13:35). Christlike love is most evident in relationships in which the other people have nothing to offer in return. This kind of love is countercultural. It’s selfless. It’s righteous.
Orphans and widows are vulnerable and have nothing to offer in return for kindness, especially in a first-century context in which Christians were a persecuted subculture. God expects us to go out of our way to love the overlooked, marginalized, vulnerable, and needy. Why? Because that’s exactly what the Creator of the universe did for us (see Rom. 5:8; Phil. 2:4-9).
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the Bible study James by Matt Chandler.
Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.