Question: "What is pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27)?"
Answer: In James 1:27, the apostle James gives us insight into what pleases God: “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” (NASB). The word for “undefiled” is translated “faultless” in the NIV.
When interpreting any verse in the Bible, including James 1:27, we should always look at its context to get an idea of what the verse means within the surrounding verses. In this case, we can look at what comes immediately before James 1:27 and get some idea of what is going on in this particular passage. Verse 26 says, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” So, in these final two verses of James 1, we have a contrast between what makes religion “worthless” and what makes religion “acceptable” to God.
Here it would be good to define the word religion. By “religion,” James means the external evidence of inward piety; that is, worship as expressed in ritual acts.
In the “worthless” religion, it doesn’t seem to matter what rituals or pious acts the worshiper engages in—it is all negated by an out-of-control tongue. A man may go through all the external motions of Christianity, yet if he tells lies or speaks unkindly or gossips or slanders or profanes God’s name, then his religion is empty. Everyone around him will see it, but he himself remains self-deceived. “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).
The implied contrast in the “pure and undefiled” religion that pleases God is that the worshiper keeps his tongue under control. “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (Psalm 34:12–13). But James goes beyond just tongue control and gives examples of the religious acts God is looking for. One is outward-focused: “Look after orphans and widows in their distress.” The other is inward-focused: “Keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Holy living, coupled with service to others, is the key. Or, as Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31).
“Pure and undefiled religion” happens when believers take care of the less fortunate and strive for personal purity. The right kind of religious practice involves helping those who cannot help themselves (and who cannot pay you back). As Jesus taught, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13–14). The right kind of religious practice also requires a personal commitment to growing in Christian virtue (see 2 Peter 1:5–8).
The apostle Paul also wrote about pure and undefiled religion, i.e., the actions of those who wish to please the Lord: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4). Taking care of one’s family is a proper religious practice.
Looking after widows and orphans and keeping oneself “unspotted” from the world (KJV) are just two practical examples of what the Christian might do who desires to please God in his or her religion. James is not trying to create an exhaustive description of what religious practice must include. He is most likely highlighting some areas of concern among the believers to whom he was writing. But the result—pure and undefiled religion—is what believers of all eras should have as their goal.