\o/    Miscellaneous Writings

The Meaning of the Words "religious" and "religion"

     From the commentary on James by Robert Johnstone.

'If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this - to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.' James I. 26, 27

These verses are closely connected with what precedes. The apostle wishes to impress on his readers the vast importance of being 'doers, and not hearers only;' and he knows the great advantage of exhibiting a particular example illustrative of any general principle - not merely from its making the meaning clear, but because, in morals especially, general principles are apt to slip from thought, whilst examples lay hold of heart and conscience like grappling irons. A general principle of duty is to our feelings very often like an exquisitely chiseled and most beautiful statue in a gallery of art, looked at with admiration, but cold, dead, destitute of all connection with our daily life - an example, like a living, loving, wise friend and adviser, whom we meet at every turn in our life. The apostle proceeds, accordingly, to show what 'doing God's word' is by special cases: and this first negatively, mentioning one easily recognized feature which characterizes the non-doer; then positively, describing modes of conduct which, with more or less fullness, are found in doers.

First, negatively: 'If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.' Our authorized version, admirable on the whole alike for accuracy and for perspicuity and beauty of expression, appears to lack somewhat of its customary excellence in the rendering of this verse; for in one or two points it is obscure, if not misleading. The sentence would have been clearer, if in the middle clauses the participle form had been retained which they have in the original, thus: 'whilst bridling not his tongue, but deceiving his own heart.' Again, the question very naturally arises, How can a man seem at all to be religious - how could any person take him for religious - when his religious pretensions are completely and obviously refuted by his unbridled tongue, 'his speech betraying him?' But the word translated 'seem' has reference merely to the existence of an opinion, not to the existence of any apparent ground for this opinion; and in the present case the opinion is the man's own. The meaning therefore is, 'seem to himself' or 'think himself;' just as, for example, in Paul's words to the Corinthians: 'If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise' (I Cor. iii. 18). But after these little things have been rectified, there still remains the chief misleading element in the translation - which, however, is not due to any ignorance or carelessness on the part of the translators, but to a change since their days in the meaning of the words 'religion' and 'religious..

Change of meaning is a source of error that has affected a considerable number of words in the English Bible; and there is plainly more danger of misunderstanding passages where these occur, than passages where words occur that are now entirely out of use. When you meet such a word as 'ouches,' 'taches,' 'days-man,' you see at once that it is a stranger in modern English; and if you wish to understand what you read, and do not merely go over a chapter mechanically, under the idea that you are serving God and benefiting yourselves by passing the eye over the words, you ask a well-informed friend, or consult a book, what the obsolete word means. But when you read, 'If any widow have children or nephews,' and do not know that everywhere in our version this word means 'grandson;' when you are told that Paul and his company 'took up their carriages, and went up to Jerusalem,' or that 'David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage,' and forget that with our translators 'carriage' meant 'baggage;' when you hear Paul saying to the Athenians, 'As I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar,' and do not know that by these the translators intend the outward objects connected with what we now call devotion - temples, images, and the like; 1-in these and other similar cases you might easily go unconsciously altogether astray as to the sense of the passage..

Words wholly unused in the English of our own time 'are like rocks which stand out from the sea: we are warned of their presence, and there is little danger of our making shipwreck upon them. But words like those which have been just cited, as familiar now as when our version was made, but employed in quite different meanings from those which they then possessed, are like hidden rocks, which give no notice of their presence, and on which we may be shipwrecked, if I may so say, without so much as being aware of it.' .

By far the most serious of the misconceptions arising from this source of error are those connected with the words 'religion' and 'religious,' especially in the passage before us. At the time our translation was made, these words seem to have been generally, if not always, employed with reference to the outward forms in which what we now usually call 'religion' - reverence and love to God - showed itself. The words do not occur often in our Bible - nowhere in the Old Testament, and but a few times in the New; but in every case they refer to what we may call the body, not the soul, of religion - to forms of worship, under which there might or might not be true piety. 'Godly' and 'godliness' are the terms our translators employ for the spirit of religion. In the verses before us, the words in the original which 'religion' and 'religious' are used to represent unquestionably refer to worship, or, generally, to the form or embodiment of religion. I have gone into this matter with some fullness, because I am persuaded that the last verse of this chapter, misunderstood, has often been applied as an opiate to their consciences by persons who, feeling that they loved the world and the things of the world more than they loved Jesus Christ, would fain believe that a life of outward decency and some kindness to the poor constitutes the whole of religion - the whole of piety. What the apostle states is that, where piety exists in the soul, stainless morality and earnest philanthropy form its proper and legitimate outward expression.

Gathering up what has been said in regard to various points in the rendering, we may give the translation of the verse thus: 'If any man among you think himself to be observant of religious service, whilst at the same time bridling not his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, that man's religious service is vain.' The case supposed is that of a 'hearer of the word,' a person, say, who attends the house of God with considerable, perhaps great regularity, to whom the Bible is not by any means an unfamiliar book, and who regards his character with complacency, but all the while has a tongue that is 'unbridled,' unrestrained by Christian judgment and feeling.

The tongue, you observe, needs to be 'bridled.' Like all the other members, it is by nature yielded up as an 'instrument of unrighteousness,' under the impulse of unholy passions. By nature its course is wild and destructive, like that of a spirited horse, infuriated, and free from bit and bridle. The apostle assumes, too, that Christian principle will bridle it. 'For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil,' and among them falsehood, profanity, unkind, unclean, unprofitable talk. The gospel of Christ is 'the power of God' to effect this, to save the soul from the corrupting power of the devil, to bring men to yield up the tongue, with all the other members, 'as instruments of righteousness unto God.' 'Whoso,' then, 'looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth looking, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of work, this man bridleth his tongue.

The apostle's statement here implies still further, that bridling the tongue is a peculiarly excellent test of genuine religion. From drunkenness, uncleanness, and other gross and obvious vices, many are led to abstain through influences unconnected, or but indirectly connected, with religion; but whilst every true Christian - every person really spiritually-minded - will with more or less thoroughness and success bridle his tongue, there must be very few cases, if any, in which this is habitually done by an unconverted person. The government of the tongue is a task so difficult, that he who has grace to accomplish it, has grace to accomplish anything. Think of the facility and rapidity with which sins of the tongue are committed. Almost before we are conscious that a thought has entered the mind, before we have taken a moment to ponder its nature or the consequences of uttering it, it has leaped into outward life as a spoken sentence..

Again, think of the great scope there is for going wrong. To most of the other sins which take an outward form temptations present themselves but occasionally; and if we desire it, we may to a considerable extent keep ourselves clear of the circumstances in which the temptations occur. But business and the general intercourse of life cannot be carried on without speaking, and therefore there is always abundant scope and temptation for offenses of the tongue. The words any one of us speaks during one day of average talkativeness would, I suppose, if printed, go far to fill a fairly-sized volume. Speech is continually passing from us on the most varied subjects; and thus, as it is far more difficult for a military commander to keep a post to which there are many approaches, than one where he is safe if his force is concentrated on two or three, so the habitual and thorough government of the tongue is a singularly difficult duty. Still further, consider how little help one has to the right discharge of this duty from popular feeling on the subject. 'You know how very little importance men generally attach to sins of the tongue. Is not the tendency of our minds to reason thus: A hasty word, vented in a moment of excitement, a slight misrepresentation, a profane joke, an impure innuendo - why, it is all empty breath, nothing serious is intended by it, and a man may be a very good man who indulges in such words occasionally.' .

When you think of these things, my brethren, is it not plain that nothing but deep, decided piety will habitually, thoroughly, on all subjects, in all circumstances, bridle the tongue? This can do it, this will do it. Every believer, according to the measure of the intelligence and liveliness of his faith, bridles his tongue; for he knows that God's judgment on words is not as man's. 'I say unto you,' was the solemn declaration of the Lord Jesus, 'that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. A good man, out of the good treasure of the heart, bringeth forth good things; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure, bringeth forth evil things.' It is evident that, however lightly men may regard the conduct of one who speaks words which ought not to be spoken, 'the Lord will not hold him guiltless..

Thus, looking into the matter closely, you see that nothing could well be either a truer or a more easily consulted index of the character of the heart than the character of the tongue - lawless or 'bridled,' regulated constantly by reverence and love for God and His law.

Hence it follows that a professor of Christianity, a man who believes himself to be an acceptable worshipper of God, and who yet 'bridleth not his tongue,' necessarily 'deceiveth his own heart;' for through such conduct he plainly takes rank, not among 'the doers of the word,' but among the 'hearers only,' of whom the apostle has already said, in the twenty-second verse, that they 'deceive their own selves.' Such a man cheats himself in that he fancies that a decorous observance of ordinances and a freedom from some of the coarser vices prove piety, though all the while his corrupt, unhallowed speech betrays a corrupt, unhallowed heart.

Or, if the apostle's reference in 'bridling not the tongue' be, in the first instance, and especially - as, from the connection of the verse with what precedes, I am inclined to think - to unchristian bitterness in religious discussions,1 then these persons may even, and no doubt often do, 'deceive their own hearts' to the extent of fancying that their unbridled speech itself; their fierce and uncharitable declamation on behalf of what they deem orthodoxy, is a service rendered to God - that their 'wrath' is fitted to 'work His righteousness. This special reference of the 'deceiving' - 'cheating themselves with the idea that their angry and arrogant speech is honoring to God' - appears to me almost certainly the true one, because thus a distinct and impressive thought is brought out; whilst, if we give the word only the general sense - 'cheating themselves with the thought that they are Christians, when they are not' - then it is difficult to discriminate this from the force of the closing statement in the verse, to which we now come..

'This man's religion ' - that is, as we have seen, 'religious service' - 'is vain,' 'empty and profitless.' The apostle, experienced in human weakness, would be very far from saying that all who sometimes, or even often, are guilty of violent or otherwise unguarded utterances, are thereby absolutely proved to be irreligious. Yet, certainly, those with whom this is frequent have much cause to doubt of their piety. Persons who look largely to their theological bitterness, or their keen (denunciation of the moral halting of their neighbors, as evidence of their standing before God, are trusting to a broken reed. And wherever a man's tongue is habitually unbridled, then, many though his prayers may be, great his knowledge of truth, high his hopes, decorous his general life, still 'his religious service is vain,' - it lacks life and power, - it is a body without a soul, - and it meets no acceptance with God: for 'out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,' and therefore a mouth full of wrath and bitterness cannot but reveal a heart full of envy and malice and uncharitableness, - a heart that has not yet felt how marvelous is the love of Christ, and thus by the divine 'gentleness' been made truly 'great..

Having thus pointed out the non 'doer of the word' by describing a feature easily recognized, and which evidently was to be seen lamentably often among the professing Christians of that age, - and in most ages of the church since too, for men slow to hear, but swift to speak, and speak arrogantly and unlovingly, have never been wanting in her ranks, - the apostle goes on now to depict the 'doer,' and thus show how Christ would have men serve Him. 'The religious service' of the man who has been set before us in the twenty-sixth verse - very fair in his own esteem - was in truth, before the eye of God, sullied with a broad black stain, - a stain that came from within, from a polluted heart, and thus made the whole 'vain.' In what follows we have in contrast a description of 'religious service pure and undefiled.' These two epithets are as nearly as possible equivalent in meaning, - the one exhibiting the idea positively, the other negatively; and they seem to be joined here simply to give emphasis to the thought. But further, the 'religious service' now to be depicted is 'pure and undefiled before God' - that is, 'in His sight or estimation.'.

The views of men on the nature of acceptable worship are very varied; but it is God 'with whom we have to do.' It is His view on the subject that alone will be regarded at the great judgment: how transcendently important it is, then, that we should accept that view now! By the words rendered 'God and the Father' is meant, undoubtedly, 'our God and Father ' - He who 'begat us with the word of truth.' Now, wherever in Scripture an addition is made to the simple name of God, there is implied in the addition something by way of argument or illustration specially bearing on the point before the writer. This special force here is obvious and striking. 'To us Christians God has given life, and the life is that of His children. This is our supreme dignity, the chief spring of our joy. Now, what can be a true and acceptable embodiment or exhibition of this new spiritual life, except such an outward life as bears the image of our Father, such a life as mirrors His love and holiness, who is Father of the fatherless, and Judge of the widows, and of purer eyes than to behold evil?.

In accordance with what is thus, as we see, naturally suggested by the name 'our God and Father,' the 'pure and undefiled religious service' of His children is set forth by the apostle as falling into two great divisions - active philanthropy and personal holiness. This is plainly not altogether exhaustive, but sufficient for his purpose. He wishes to bring impressively before his readers those elements of true 'service' in which many of them were grievously lacking. The third great division, attention to 'religious ordinances' - in our ordinary limited application of the expression - attention to prayer, to the study of the Bible, to public worship, and to the sacraments, he leaves unmentioned; because, as the whole course of his previous remarks has shown, those for whom he primarily wrote were not seriously neglectful of these duties, regarded simply as outward services, but in too many cases deemed them the sum-total of the proper embodiment of religion.

'The fatherless and widows' are clearly enough representative classes. Their case is meant to suggest the general category of 'all that need temporal or spiritual help - all who, from any cause, require the active display of Christian love.' Thus, as I have already said, this branch of 'religious service is active philanthropy. 'The widow and the fatherless' are often referred to in the Bible as claiming peculiar sympathy, and the feelings of all of us attest the justice of this representation. And an Oriental widow (particularly when through any cause cut off from the aid of her natural connections - father, brother, and the like - as, no doubt, among the Jewish Christians was often the case through the woman's conversion) 'presents a case of even more absolute destitution than with us: for, in the East, any resources of remunerative occupation to a woman can be scarcely said to exist; and the comparatively secluded habits of life which custom exacts, prevent her from pressing her claims and wants upon the attention of others with that vigor and effect which among ourselves a widow may properly do.' .

True piety, the apostle says, will impel us 'to visit' the destitute, in order to give comfort and aid. The word is one employed of God's manifestations of grace. 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.' exclaims good Zacharias, 'for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us.' So, when Jesus raised from the dead the widow's son at Nain, 'there came a fear on all, and they glorified God, saying, A great prophet is risen up among us, and God hath visited His people' (Luke i. 68, 69, vii. 16). The employment of the term in the passage before us, regarding God's children, has manifestly reference to visits made in their heavenly Father's spirit of tender love and pity. The need and the purpose of the 'visit' which constitutes an element in true 'religious service,' are further defined by 'in their affliction.' Many visits - many visits to 'the fatherless and widows' even - may have nothing of religion connected with them; but when the existence of need draws men, through the working of Christian love, to strive to satisfy the need, there is a religious deed.

Christians act in the spirit of the principle here laid down when they give money to build and maintain asylums for the sick and destitute, and to send Bibles and missionaries to the heathen at home and abroad. But this is not all that is required. The apostle's statement evidently intimates that vital religion in the soul will reveal itself by personal exertion in the way of Christian help to others, as its legitimate embodiment. In our age, at least as fully as in any previous age of the world, men believe in the power of money, - and money certainly can do many things: but it cannot buy the position before God of Christians; nor, in the case of true Christians, can it buy advancement in the divine life. Too many are disposed to compound for personal effort, by giving to charitable institutions. The sound principle on the subject, I apprehend, is that 'this we ought to do, and not to leave the other undone.' Town missionaries and Bible-women are most necessary and most useful; yet I cannot help believing that the Christian who, because there are such agencies, and he helps to maintain them, abstains from personally 'visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction,' sinfully darkens and enfeebles his own spiritual life. And persons who can take time for much recreation of various kinds, and who, in the midst of a day which they would declare to be quite full of business, could yet certainly make time to consider some new remunerative piece of business which unexpectedly presented itself and accomplish all the rest besides, such persons cannot at the bar of conscience plead want of time for the discharge of Christian duty. Few things, dear brethren, are more quickening and strengthening to the life of the soul than a visit made in a Christian spirit to a house of mourning. We meet Jesus there: 'I was sick, and ye visited Me: inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me..

The other great division of 'pure and undefiled religious service' to which James draws our attention, is personal purity of life: 'and to keep himself unspotted from the world.' This covers the whole range. 'The world', as often in Scripture, particularly in the writings of the Apostle John, designates the men and things here below, regarded as pervaded and controlled by the great evil spirit whom Jesus Himself called the 'prince of this world.' By nature we are all 'of the world;' but 'as many as receive Jesus Christ, to them gives He power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on His name, 'and these 'are not of the world, even as He is not of the world;' for to this end 'He gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from the present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father.' Yet, being not taken 'out of the world,' but left in it for a time, to be its 'lights,' its 'salt,' and for these ends expressly called on to have much intercourse with the men of the world, we are liable to be contaminated by its evil, and thus be but dim 'lights' - 'salt' that has almost 'lost its savor.' Hence the urgency of Bible pleading with Christians, 'Be not conformed to this world;' 'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,' and the like..

The duty of the child of God is 'to keep himself unspotted from the world,' his character ever a garment of stainless white. God alone can so 'keep' us, and His gracious help will be bestowed abundantly; for the prayer of the great High Priest for His people - Him whom the Father 'heareth always' - is, that God will 'keep them from the evil.' But while power is only from Him, there must be care with us. 'Keep thyself pure,' says Paul to Timothy. We must 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,' for the very reason that we know 'it is God' - the God of all grace - 'which worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure..

It is important to observe that the two characteristics which James describes - active love to the needy, and personal purity - belong both to every truly Christian life. There are, I doubt not, non-Christian people, who, from a certain constitutional delicacy of spirit, favored by education and surroundings, live a life of beautiful personal purity, but have little love or care for others. And, on the other hand, there are not a few kindly worldlings and sensualists, men personally given to drunkenness perhaps, or uncleanness, or profanity, or utter frivolity, who yet, simply from natural temperament, from impulse and not from principle, pity and help those who are in trouble. But in 'religious service pure and undefiled,' in the life which is the legitimate 'issue' from a renewed heart, are found both benevolence and purity of character. Active love is an essential element in it no less than self-restraint, and self-restraint no less than active love.

Looking over the whole of the apostle's statement in this verse, then, brethren, we find him here, as so often, echoing declarations made by his Master in the Sermon on the Mount; for Jesus too has told us that piety exhibits its presence in us, that we take rank among the 'blessed' of God, when we are 'merciful,' and when we are 'pure in heart.' How perfect such teaching! How divine! And how gloriously complete is the model that the Lord's own earthly life has set before us.

His coming from heaven was 'to visit the fatherless in their affliction,' the fatherless who had criminally made themselves such by willful alienation from their true home, and to bring them gladness by recalling them to their Father's presence and grace. 'He went about doing good;' and when imagination calls Him up before our view in His ministry, the ear seems at once to hear a 'Son, Daughter, be of good cheer: go in peace; thy faith hath saved thee.'.

If we seek a representative scene from the records of that wondrous life, none more naturally occurs than this: 'When He came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And He came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And He said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And He delivered him to his mother.' Certainly no embodiment in 'religious service' of love and consecration to such a Saviour can be more fitting than 'to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.' And amidst the freest converse with the men of the world - often the most depraved - for the working out of His purposes of love, yet the exquisite beauty, the unsullied purity, of His character, stood out clear and glorious..


1. I Tim. v. 4; Acts xxi. 15; I Sam. xvii. 22; Acts xvii. 23. Some interesting and valuable remarks on this source of error are to be found in the second chapter of Archbishop Trench's work entitled, On the Authorized Version of the New Testament.

2. Trench.

3. Dean Goulburn, in a sermon preached in the school chapel at Rugby, and printed as an appendix to his excellent little book, The Idle Word. To this sermon I have been indebted, in writing the present lecture, for several valuable hints.

4. The figure of 'bridling' one can hardly help feeling to have a peculiar appropriateness, if passion, bursts of angry invective, be the sin of the tongue particularly in the writer mind.

5. Kitto's Daily Bible Illustrations, Viii. 58.

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