James 1:27


With our focus on adoption this month, maybe James 1:27 has come to mind, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

What does this verse mean?

James is describing “religion”. By religion he means a Christian’s worship or piety. The way someone lives out their beliefs. James teaches that religion can be “pure or undefiled” or, it can be “worthless” (James 1:26). In the context, James provides a few marks that distinguish pure religion and worthless religion.

One of these marks is the care for “orphans and widows”. Widows and orphans had little means of provision for life and so stand as stark representatives of those who are in need.[1] So James 1:27 teaches that our attitude toward and care for those in need will either show that we have indeed received the grace and love of God in Christ and so desire to pass it on or that our profession, set of beliefs, piety, worship is actually worthless.

James goes on to write in 2:14–17,

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

In other words, a claim to piety, faith, religion is worthless or dead if there are no works. For James, caring for “orphans and widows” is proof of real, living, pure faith.

Does this mean every Christian needs to foster, adopt, or volunteer in nursing homes? No. But it does mean that someone who has received the grace and love of God will be willing and eager to extend that love to others, especially those who are so obviously in need of it. Caring for orphans and widows is not the only proof, not the only fruit of real faith. But for James, it is an obvious one.

James 1:27 is a challenge to every Christian to put their faith into practice by finding ways to care for those in need.

[1] George H. Guthrie, James, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 13, Hebrews - Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 229.