The word “religion” means different things to different people. Some are repulsed by “religion” because to them it is a system of man-made beliefs, rituals, and customs that have been added to the teachings of Jesus, and are used to force others to follow these practices and beliefs. It is seen as the reason there are so many divisions and denominations in the world.
With this definition of religion, I am repulsed as well. However, the Bible tells us about “pure religion” as opposed to “vain” (useless) religion (James 1:26, 27). It is this pure religion that true Christians should strive for. So, What is pure religion and how can we have it? How can we recognize vain religion and avoid it? These are the questions we will examine in this study.
The Bible says, “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 1:26, 27).
Someone following “vain” religion is identified here as one who seems “to be religious,… but deceiveth his own heart.” This man’s religion is a pretense, having the form but not the reality. The Bible gives us a startling explanation about this type of religion in Paul’s second letter to Timothy:
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
Up until verse five Paul appears to be talking about people outside of the church, but at the end he adds, “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” This is speaking of people who claim to have a relationship with God. Before you think of all the people in church who live like Paul described here, consider yourself. Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged… why beholdest thou the mote [straw] that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:1, 3).
Vain religion is a fake religion that seems to be real but is not; it denies the power of the gospel. This power is in Jesus Christ. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11, 12; Philippians 4:13). Pure religion is powerful, it not only speaks of the righteousness of God, but imparts power so “…the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). “…that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
Pure religion will be demonstrated by a life that reveals Jesus living in the heart (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:11-15; 1 John 2:6; Colossians 1:27). Vain religion is following a system of church rituals or beliefs that do not transform the life (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 23:27, 28). “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him,…” (Titus 1:16).
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity [sin]” (Matthew 7:15-23).
If your religion leaves you doing the same sinful practices you were doing when you started, it is vain and useless. It doesn’t matter how much good stuff you do, or how many prayers or rituals you perform, or how many church services you attend, if you are still the same, your religion is vain. The sad reality is that many pastors and church leaders have not had a true conversion, so it is difficult for them to teach others how this can be accomplished, and sins are excused. Vain religion teaches its followers that sins are okay, that “We are sinners who cannot help from sinning, so just confess that Jesus is your Saviour, and sin a little less than you did before.” Pure religion includes being kept “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Friends, don’t settle for the teachings of men to tell you what true religion is. Invite Jesus to live in your heart (Revelation 3:20) and believe what the Bible says about your new life (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:14-21; 1 John 3:4-10; Romans 6:1-18; Romans 8:1-15; etc.).
The Jews’ Religion
Paul confessed, “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood” (Galatians 1:13-16).
Paul contrasted the “Jews’ religion” with God revealing His Son in Paul. Pure religion is God revealing His Son in us. From reading the New Testament we find that the Jews’ religion consisted in a set of rituals and ceremonies that did not change the heart. Jesus said to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:25, 26).
Jesus also said, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).
It is vain to worship God by observing traditions of men. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Have you ever been in a church service or in the midst of observing some ritual and asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” “What is the purpose of this ritual?” There are some good rituals given in the Bible that can draw us closer to God, but there are far more vain rituals in Christianity than there are beneficial ones. It is good to examine ourselves concerning rituals, and especially check to see if the rituals are causing us to reject the Commandments of God. There is more of that than you might think.
False Hope in Vain Religion
Vain religion gives its followers the false hope of eternal life by resting their security in their performance or their belief of certain doctrines rather than being born again (John 3:3-7). This is a very critical point and cannot be overemphasized. It is vain to trust in your beliefs or performance to assure you a place in heaven. Sadly, this is often the case! Please, do not trust your eternal life to the practicing of rituals or the doctrines you hold. Your eternal life is dependant upon being born again by having Jesus living in your heart (John 15:1-7; Colossians 1:27).
The Bible says, “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:11, 12). Without the Son of God living in your heart it doesn’t matter how many rituals you observe or how true are the doctrines you believe. The doctrines you believe are important, but if they don’t trickle down to positively affect the way you treat others, then they are useless.
In fact, even true doctrines or good practices often do damage to many people because those possessing them often think of themselves as better than those who do not. This makes them treat others worse than if they didn’t have those things to start with. You see, if you think what secures your place in heaven is what you believe or what practices you perform, then your journey in life is to collect more and more good doctrines and practices, while ignoring what really matters, love and kindness toward others (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Those who hold to this mindset tend to fight with those who do not believe or practice the same way. Thus, having superior doctrines or practices can make a person worse off than if they didn’t have them. Sadly they, at the same time, think they are better than others (Revelation 3:14-21; Luke 18:10-14). This not only injures themselves, but all those around them.
Jesus said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. … Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. … If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:32, 34, 36). Jesus is the One who makes us free from sin. To really “know the truth,” we must know Jesus Christ, for He is “the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6). Doctrines are only important in so much that they make us free from sin. If we have the right doctrines and do not become free, then they are not doing us any good. Knowing true doctrines is important because lies interfere with our freedom. It is the freedom that counts, not the doctrines. Knowing true doctrines is just a tool to making us free. You can have the right doctrines and perform the right rituals but have a filthy heart and not be free. If this is the case then you “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). You must be born again!
Paul confessed, “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4, 5). Paul was a devout man who was very particular to believe and practice all the rituals of the strictest sect of the Pharisees’ religion. Yet, his salvation was questionable as demonstrated by the way he treated people (Acts 9:1, 2).
Many people thought those who strictly adhered to the Pharisees’ religion were more likely to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus shattered this myth when He said, “…except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This means that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was not enough to get them into heaven. Adherence to vain religion is not what prepares you for eternity.
Paul explained, “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:” (Philippians 3:4-9).
Paul came to the point where he realized that all the things he was doing to build himself up and secure him a place in heaven was complete garbage. This was the point when he denied himself to begin a real relationship with God.
Three Steps to Follow Jesus
Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To be a follower of Jesus Christ, there are three steps that must be taken in the order laid out by Jesus. The first step is to deny yourself. Until this happens, taking the other steps is a waste of time.
Jesus clarified what it means to “deny” yourself in the following story: “And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:17-21).
Notice the three-step process in Christ’s instruction. In step one, “deny himself,” Jesus told the man to (1) sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, then, “(2) take up the cross, and (3) follow me.” Here we learn that to deny yourself means to give up everything you have, whether possessions, talents, achievements, all are to be given to God. Not everyone is asked to sell everything and give to the poor, but everyone is asked to give up everything. Jesus said, “…whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Giving up everything requires giving it all to God to dispose of or use according to His will.
For me giving up everything included my desires to be a rock star. Those desires were not dragged out of me against my will. When I asked God to give me a new heart He changed my desires. Becoming a rock star didn’t even appeal to me anymore. Here is God’s promise that changed my life: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27). Notice that God takes away our stony heart and gives us a brand new heart that is ready to receive His Spirit. Jesus explained, “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved” (Luke 5:37, 38). Jesus is talking about our lives becoming brand new. It has to be a completely fresh start. The old stony heart has to go and a new one given so we are ready to receive the new Spirit He gives us.
Denying yourself is forsaking all that you are so you can put on what you were created to be. The Bible says, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Notice the three-step process when Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and (1) hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not (2) bear his cross, and (3) come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, 27). Matthew recorded it this way, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37, 38). Our lives belong to God, He bought them with the precious blood of His only begotten Son. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to God, so let’s give Him what He bought, our entire lives. This is the first step to heaven.
Step two of the process, taking up the cross, signifies dying to the old life, called the “old man” and rising from the dead to a new life (Romans 6:1-7; Galatians 2:20). Finally, after steps one and two, then you are ready to go to step three and follow Jesus. If you are struggling with step three, then go back to steps one and two and get those right. That is most likely where your problem lies.
The Bible says, “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 1:26, 27). God spoke through Isaiah in almost the same way: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16, 17).
Pure religion is not identified in the Bible by a certain set of religious practices or beliefs, it is identified by how we treat people. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Don’t get me wrong, pure religion will also have pure practices and beliefs, but they are not the primary identifying mark, love is. In the last days God will have a people on earth who “…keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). God will triumphantly proclaim, “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). The primary identifying characteristic of these people will be that they have pure love in their hearts, for they will keep the greatest commandment.
When Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment He summed it up by saying, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Paul wrote, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
The purpose of the law is to get us to the point where we love “fervently” out of “a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). The Bible says, “Now the end [aim, purpose, goal] of the commandment is charity [love] out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Timothy 1:5).
Many have missed this vital point, and have trusted in their practices or beliefs to get them to heaven. This is a serious danger, for Jesus will profess to many of this class, “…depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23).
God said through Isaiah, “Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:4-7).
What really matters to God is how we treat people. When the love of God is implanted in our hearts, it will naturally flow out in how we relate to everyone around us, in good times and in bad. The Bible promises great results from following this counsel.
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy [rear guard – NKJV]. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Isaiah 58:8-14).
These are beautiful promises! Living for yourself is a dead-end road. Living for others is the key to true happiness. Of course this cannot be realized while we are living in our natural state. Naturally, because Adam sinned, his offspring are all selfish creatures (Ephesians 2:1-3). Thankfully, God has provided a way for us to be transformed to be selfless. If you have never experienced the beauty of being born again, please repent and invite Jesus to live in your heart. (For more information request the study, You Must be Born Again.)
Two Classes of People
When Jesus comes to rescue His children, there will only be two classes of people. Jesus said, “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:34-40).
The identifying characteristic of this group is how they treat people. This is a natural out-flowing of Christ living in the heart. Without that experience, the result is the condition of the other class of people. Of them, Jesus said:
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:41-46).
What really matters is for us to have the love of God in our hearts which will manifest itself in how we treat people. We will be judged by our works (Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12, 13). Some may wonder why the Bible is so clear that we are justified by faith and not by works (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). This is true, yet those who are justified by faith will naturally perform works consistent with that experience. Paul expressed it this way, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). If you have Jesus, the light of the world, living in you, good works will follow. You will be kind to people and manifest the attitude Jesus described in Matthew 25:34-40.
In the end, what matters is to whose life you are connected (John 15:1-7). Who is living inside of you? Are you living to serve yourself, or the one who created you and those whom He has created? Is the love of God abiding in your heart or not? In the judgment there will be no questions about which doctrines you believed, or which rituals you performed. None of that will matter in the end. Is Christ living in your heart or not? The answer to this question is demonstrated by how you treat people, by your works. “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6).
The Bible says, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9, 10). “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17, 18).
Vain religion is useless at accomplishing what really matters. Pure religion is God living His life in you so that His love flows out and is manifested in how you treat people. If you find you do not have the love of God in your heart, if you do not genuinely care for others, do not try to manufacture it. “Love is of God” (1 John 4:7). You can only have this love by faith in the promises of God (2 Peter 1:4).
Friends, please do not get into the trap of relying on your beliefs or religious practices to save you. If they are good and right, they are only tools to get you where you need to be. They are not the end product. Trusting in them will leave you empty and judgmental of others. God loves you and longs to see that love shine out through you to others. May you be blessed and a blessing to everyone you meet!
An Appeal: If you recognize that you have been critical or unkind toward others who do not see things exactly like you do, be careful, you would probably disagree with yourself five years ago. Whatever particular doctrine you desire to share, if you treat people terribly, you are doing more harm than good. Even if your doctrine is incredibly important and true, your attitude can easily turn people away from what you wish to share. Those who have the most light should be more like Christ than anyone. Do not let your knowledge puff you up (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2) to the point that you are so heavenly minded you are no earthly good.
Learn from Jesus who treated Judas kindly even though, He “knew from the beginning… who should betray him” (John 6:64). He loved him “to the end” (John 13:1), calling him, “Friend” (Matthew 26:50). Please, be gentle and kind to everyone, especially those who are members of the body of Christ (Galatians 6:10).