An external act of religion that actually means something.

Having come from a religious background that, much like the pharisees of Jesus’ day, abused teaching on the externals of a person, I am skittish at even considering that externals DO mean something spiritually. Yet, Scripture is clear. Everything flows out of the HEART, but it does flow OUT. Our external actions can have value in terms of self examination. But their value cuts both ways. We can examine externals and become satisfied with ourselves to the point that we ignore our heart – the white washed tomb syndrome. In that case, there is a disconnect between the heart (which is dead) and the externals (which look good). The outside looks clean, yet it houses dead men’s bones. Christians have always been adept at coming up with amazing amounts of white wash to cover our tombs. But we also often miss what Scripture itself says is the appropriate outworking of a heart that abides in Christ in light of His gospel. What should be flowing out?

I am slowly working my way through Ray Ortlund’s commentary on Isaiah, God Saves Sinners. His discussion of Isaiah 1 has pricked me, a sword that cuts deeply and exposes the truth of our problems (MY problems) and the only thing that will fix it.

Isaiah 1 is a lament by God over His children. You are wounded and bleeding, says God, yet oblivious to your sorry condition (v. 5-7). You continue with the traditions of worship like you always have, to which God brings a strong rebuke, “Bring no more vain offerings” (v. 13).

Vain means empty. Useless. Ineffective. Their worship means nothing and accomplishes nothing. They are, in theory, following the letter of the law in their external worship, but it is utterly ineffective, actually becoming a burden to God (v. 14) rather than the incense it should be.

Hear well both the indictment against them and then the answer God gives them in Isaiah 1.

“Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” v. 15-17

As I read verse 17, I immediately thought of those intriguing words on pure religion in the New Testament in James 1. They intrigue me because I so rarely have heard it emphasized with the clarity that Scripture seems to speak of it.

James 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this : to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James calls it PURE and UNDEFILED religion. When you boil it down and remove the impurities, here is what you will have left. Growing up, I read that passage in my Bible but NEVER heard it as a topic of sermons, or youth activities, or Sunday school lessons, or Christian school devotionals, or ministry staff meetings, or chapel messages, or … well, you get the picture. Yet James uses wording that makes it sound like something pretty important. And when I read Isaiah 1 this last week and Ortlund’s commentary on it, I realized, it is of UTMOST importance.

The Greek term in James 1 for religion is interesting. It particularly applies to the outside practices and visible worship that flow from our doctrine and beliefs (as does Isaiah 1). We all know to focus on heart issues. Yet everything that we inwardly believe plays itself out outwardly. Our worship music, preaching styles, the method in which we pray, the way we decorate for Christmas, the Christian t shirts we wear, the WWJD bracelets, the cross necklace, or whatever other OUTWARD manifestation you can imagine of your belief system – that is “religion” of James 1:27.

If you read James 1:27 in the context of the entire chapter, James is teaching on being a doer, not just a hearer, of the word. He says many people look in the mirror, see the truth of what God says, but then turn away unchanged. They hear it, but it never connects in a way that makes a difference. James says that a crystal clear outward indicator that the truth of the gospel actually registered with you is care of the oppressed and remaining unstained by the world. I’ve heard the second phrase taught in the past in a way that is contradicted by Jesus’ own earthly example, and that’s never good. So I want to think more on what it means and post those thoughts another day. But the first indicator is pretty straightforward—care of widows and orphans, and when coupled with Isaiah 1, the general seeking of justice and correction of oppression.

I generally value these things, but I am praying about what I need to see in the mirror of God’s Word and how that will affect my responses to the oppressed in my realm of influence. I have vaguely noticed this in the past, but I didn’t have the gospel conviction to realize what was happening. I remember years ago counseling a former church member who was undergoing a serious crisis shortly after leaving our church at the time. She was suddenly in terrible need. What an awesome moment to show her the love of God and unconditional nature of His grace, right?! It was slowly dawning on me — this is a gospel outworking of love kind of moment. Yet church leaders kept putting me off in my efforts to get help for her and her children. I thought at first that the leaders and I just had a different philosophy on the church’s obligations to former members. So I did things on my own without church support, a little befuddled by it all. Reading Isaiah 1 and James 1 clears it up for me. Now I realize that the real philosophical disparity was over the gospel itself. Gospel-centered, grace loving, Christ abiding hearers of the Word walk away from the mirror with a readiness to care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the oppressed. Once I realized that my burden for gospel-centered care of widows and orphans was not supported by my church leadership, I realized something significantly more. What do the words gospel, grace, and Jesus mean in this moment practically? My gospel understanding deepened, and my conviction to help the oppressed solidified in light of it.

But despite bad experiences with others on the subject as well as my own slowness to grow in it personally, I am also encouraged. As the gospel moves forward, I see a flourishing, gospel-centered growth in ministries focused on care of and justice for the oppressed. Here are a few.

Members of my church are heavily involved in Seattle Against Slavery and Rwanda Partners.

Dan Cruver has spearheaded a growing movement, Together for Adoption, with yearly conferences and lots of helpful material.

Russell Moore has written a great book on the subject of adoption, Adopted for Life.

A good friend of mine has started working for and raised my attention to Illien Adoptions International.

In my small church (maybe 300 people max), at least 4 families have adopted, two of which are elders’ families. There is no big push for adoption, per se. It’s just in their spiritual, gospel-centered DNA. It’s NATURAL to care for such things when you believe what our church believes and teaches about Christ, the gospel, and our adoption into God’s family. The church also has a robust deacon’s fund ready to help any who have need. A few months ago, I met a guy in line at Walgreens who had been burned out of his home, and in half a day, deacons at church were ready to assist him with getting temporary housing. Helping needs, caring for the oppressed, and seeking justice is the accepted norm there. It’s not an agenda. It’s the natural outworking of the gospel.

Now, PLEASE don’t walk away from this article with a simplified checklist on which people or ministries with adoption ministries are good and those without are bad. It’s bigger and deeper than that, and people who love Christ and the gospel are doing it left and right in ways most of us will never know. Most of all, it’s about MY PERSONAL heart, not yours, or theirs. When I hear God’s Word and see MYSELF in the mirror in light of it, I will turn out with a posture toward the widow, orphan, oppressed, and in need. My posture will be to seek justice, to correct oppression, and love the abandoned and orphaned. If that’s not your posture, don’t immediately go looking for an adoption ministry to which to send your money out of guilt (though sending money is good). Instead, preach the gospel to yourself. Our posture toward the needy will be corrected when we hear the Word and see ourselves clearly in its mirror. Meditate on the gospel, grace, and the life of Jesus. Anything less than looking anew on the cross will just produce self-righteous legalists (and nobody wants to be adopted by them!). 🙂

**If you’d like to share a link to other gospel-centered ministries living this out, please feel free to do so.**

**One additional note — what if you or your ministry sit under the accusation of harboring injustice or ignoring the care of widows or orphans? Our worldly coping mechanisms are denial and shame. But the gospel offers us a different beautiful, real solution — REPENTANCE. It is as simple as saying, “Yes, I committed injustice instead of correcting injustice. But I see from the gospel hope for myself and a call to something different toward others. I repent.” THAT is the antidote for accusations of disobedience against you. Chances are, the accusations are true. Face it. Repent. And then get up and go forward in a new direction. To the praise of God’s glorious grace.

6 Responses to An external act of religion that actually means something.

  1. emulatingErin December 8, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    I have a question- I understand the concept of caring for the sick and the oppressed, and I know that when I walk closely with Jesus, my heart is burdened for people in need. However, more and more frequently, I'm being taken advantage of. People lie to me just because they know I am compassionate, and I end up giving money or time to a person who has been dishonest to get my help. It's been a downward spiral- I hate being taken advantage of, so I begin to avoid those who are in need, which lessens my chances to live out my faith, which hurts my growth in Christ. At least, I think that's how it's playing out. Anyway, I wondered if you had any insight into this situation.

  2. Jackie Lyles December 8, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    To emulatingErin – I found myself in a similar situation years ago and even today I get criticized from other people for helping a homeless person that's on the street begging. My philosophy is to stay in tune with the Holy Spirit and if He tells me to do something, then do it with no regret. If the person was dishonest with me, then God will deal with them. I am just to be obedient.

  3. Wendy December 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    That is such an important issue, Erin. And I hesitate to speak with any authority because I don't feel that I'm experienced enough. However, I will say that gospel grace is by definition open to abuse. We take advantage of God's grace all the time. So there should be some expectation that in caring for others, we will be taken advantage of at times, and that's ok. On the other hand, I can't visit every widow in my neighborhood or give to every ministry to orphans, so I need a strategic focus, which must flow from the Holy Spirit moving me and convicting me of what to do when. I don't think there is a simple answer though.

  4. Wendy December 8, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Thanks, Aunt Jackie!!!

  5. Wenatchee the Hatchet December 9, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    At the risk of some oversimplification it is helpful to be able to budget a certain amount as being practical for helping someone who is in need. For years I helped a disabled friend by getting him groceries when money was tight. I think in many cases we persuade ourselves that being able to help strangers is the ideal when within the church helping believers who we know have persistent need may be the more practical and urgent matter. This may be something where, like so many other aspects of life, there is a paradoxical need to plan for some spontaneity.

    It is also useful to know ministries and service organizations to refer people to so as to be able to help them when you don't have money to spare.

  6. Keri December 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    Here in Greenville a bunch of us girls have gotten together and formed We meet and raise funds for ministries and local physical needs. We have a lot of fun doing it!