on James 1 :27
Pure religion, and undefiled - Having seen something of the etymology of the word θρησκεια, which we translate religion, it will be well to consider the etymology of the word religion itself.
In the 28th chapter of the 4th book of his Divine Instructions, Lactantius, who flourished about a.d. 300, treats of hope, true religion, and superstition; of the two latter he gives Cicero's definition from his book De Natura Deorum, lib. ii. c. 28, which with his own definition will lead us to a correct view, not only of the etymology, but of the thing itself.
"Superstition," according to that philosopher, "had its name from the custom of those who offered daily prayers and sacrifices, that their children might Survive Them; ut sui sibi liberi superstites essent. Hence they were called superstitiosi, superstitious. On the other hand, religion, religio, had its name from those who, not satisfied with what was commonly spoken concerning the nature and worship of the gods, searched into the whole matter, and perused the writings of past times; hence they were called religiosi, from re, again, and lego, Iread."
This definition Lactantius ridicules, and shows that religion has its name from re, intensive, and ligo, I bind, because of that bond of piety by which it binds us to God, and this he shows was the notion conceived of it by Lucretius, who labored to dissolve this bond, and make men atheists.
Primum quod magnis doceo de rebus, et Arctis
Religionum animos Nodis Exsolvere pergo.
For first I teach great things in lofty strains,
And loose men from religion's grievous chains.
Lucret., lib. i., ver. 930, 931
As to superstition, he says it derived its name from those who paid religious veneration to the memory of the dead, (qui superstitem memoriam defunctorem colunt), or from those who, surviving their parents, worshipped their images at home, as household gods; aut qui, parentibus suis superstites, colebant imagines eorum domi, tanquam deos penates. Superstition, according to others, refers to novel rites and ceremonies in religion, or to the worship of new gods. But by religion are meant the ancient forms of worship belonging to those gods, which had long been received. Hence that saying of Virgil: -
Vana superstitio veterumque ignara deorum.
"Vain superstition not knowing the ancient gods."
Here Lactantius observes, that as the ancient gods were consecrated precisely in the same way with these new ones, that therefore it was nothing but superstition from the beginning. Hence he asserts, the superstitious are those who worship many and false gods, and the Christians alone are religious, who worship and supplicate the one true God only. St. James' definition rather refers to the effects of pure religion than to its nature. The life of God in the soul of man, producing love to God and man, will show itself in the acts which St. James mentions here. It is pure in the principle, for it is Divine truth and Divine love. It is undefiled in all its operations: it can produce nothing unholy, because it ever acts in the sight of God; and it can produce no ungentle word nor unkind act, because it comes from the Father.
on James 1 :27
Pure religion - On the word here rendered "religion" (θρησκεία thrēskeia), see the notes at Colossians 2:18. It is used here evidently in the sense of piety, or as we commonly employ the word religion. The object of the apostle is to describe what enters essentially into religion; what it will do when it is properly and fairly developed. The phrase "pure religion" means that which is genuine and sincere, or which is free from any improper mixture.
And undefiled before God and the Father - That which God sees to be pure and undefiled. Rosenmuller supposes that there is a metaphor here taken from pearls or gems, which should be pure, or without stain.
Is this - That is, this enters into it; or this is religion such as God approves. The apostle does not say that this is the whole of religion, or that there is nothing else essential to it; but his general design clearly is, to show that religion will lead to a holy life, and he mentions this as a specimen, or an instance of what it will lead us to do. The things which he specifies here are in fact two:
(1) that pure religion will lead to a life of practical benevolence; and,
(2) that it will keep us unspotted from the world. If these things are found, they show that there is true piety. If they are not, there is none.
To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction - To go to see, to look after, to be ready to aid them. This is an instance or specimen of what true religion will do, showing that it will lead to a life of practical benevolence. It may be remarked in respect to this:
(1) that this has always been regarded as an essential thing in true religion; because
(a) it is thus an imitation of God, who is "a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows in his holy habitation," Psalm 68:5; and who has always revealed himself as their friend, Deuteronomy 10:18; Deuteronomy 14:29; Psalm 10:14; Psalm 82:3; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 7:7; Jeremiah 49:11; Hosea 14:3.
(b) Religion is represented as leading its friends to do this, or this is required everywhere of those who claim to be religious, Isaiah 1:17; Deuteronomy 24:17; Deuteronomy 14:29; Exodus 22:22; Job 29:11-13.
(2) where this disposition to be the real friend of the widow and the orphan exists, there will also exist other corresponding things which go to make up the religious character. This will not stand alone. It will show what the heart is, and prove that it will ever be ready to do good. If a man, from proper motives, is the real friend of the widow and the fatherless, he will be the friend of every good word and work, and we may rely on him in any and every way in doing good.
And to keep himself unspotted from the world - Compare the Romans 12:2 note; James 4:4 note; 1 John 2:15-17 note. That is, religion will keep us from the maxims, vices, and corruptions which prevail in the world, and make us holy. These two things may, in fact, be said to constitute religion. If a man is truly benevolent, he bears the image of that God who is the fountain of benevolence; if he is pure and uncontaminated in his walk and deportment, he also resembles his Maker, for he is holy. If he has not these things, he cannot have any well-founded evidence that he is a Christian; for it is always the nature and tendency of religion to produce these things. It is, therefore, an easy matter for a man to determine whether he has any religion; and equally easy to see that religion is eminently desirable. Who can doubt that that is good which leads to compassion for the poor and the helpless, and which makes the heart and the life pure?
on James 1 :27
1:27 The only true religion in the sight of God, is this, to visit - With counsel, comfort, and relief. The fatherless and widows - Those who need it most. In their affliction - In their most helpless and hopeless state. And to keep himself unspotted from the world - From the maxims, tempers, and customs of it. But this cannot be done, till we have given our hearts to God, and love our neighbour as ourselves.