In the final two verses of chapter one, James summarises his discussion in the chapter, brings it to its climax, and also prepares for the major discussion that he will undertake in the next sections of the letter. It is possible that in these verses James identifies the key theme of the chapter, and indeed, of the entire epistle: true religion. The word translated “religion” (thrēskos, adjective, in verse 26a, and thrēskeia, noun, 26b, 27) is used only infrequently in biblical Greek, the adjective (26a) only here. Generally it describes outward expressions of religious devotion and may be used in either a positively (e.g. Acts 26:5) or negatively (e.g. Colossians 2:18). James uses it in both senses in these two verses, negatively in verse 26, while positively in verse 27. While it is unclear what particular expressions of religious devotion James may have in mind in his initial comments, it is likely that he would include such things as prayer, fasting and corporate worship (Davids, 101).
For the third time in this chapter James uses an ei tis construction (“if anyone”; cf. vv. 5, 23). Although his statement is set up as a conditional clause, he probably has an actual situation in mind. In this case, there are, perhaps, some who parade their religious observance and think themselves uncommonly spiritual: “If any think they are religious” (Ei tis dokei thrēskos). The problem, however, is that if these same people fail to “bridle their tongue” (mē kalinagōgōn glōssan autou), they have “deceived their own hearts” (alla apatōn kardian autou) about the true nature of their religious practice: their undisciplined speech subverts and undermines their devotion so that they are not actually “religious” at all.
James, of course, has already raised the use of the tongue in verses 19-21, where we found that he was concerned that some in the congregation were tearing at one another with angry and malicious words. What the believers must learn instead is to “bridle” or “restrain” their tongue. Kalinagōgōn, the word used here (and in 3:2), may have been coined by James for it appears in Greek for the first time in this verse (Davids, 101), and only in these instances in biblical Greek. The participle is in the present tense and so suggests that the persons concerned speak in undisciplined ways at the same time that they consider themselves religious.
Finally, James brings his conditional clause to a devastating conclusion: “their religion is worthless” (toutou mataios hē thrēskeia). Mataios means that something is useless, futile or worthless, and in this statement means that their diligent religious practice produces nothing of value either before God or in their own lives. Their religious practice is empty and perhaps even fraudulent. Just as the one who only hears the Word without doing it is deceived, so the person who practices their religion without disciplining their tongue is deceived. Just as angry speech cannot and does not produce the righteousness of God (v. 19), so religious activities without accompanying works do not produce anything of value or worth. It is the “doer of the work” who is blessed (v. 25), and the first work that James highlights is the difficult work of taming the tongue. True religion, true spirituality requires this discipline.
As we have repeatedly seen in our discussion of James 1, James’ teaching echoes the teaching of Jesus who also emphasised the importance of disciplined speech:
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:33-37).
Our speech is a truer indication of our heart than our religious practice. The way we speak and use our words reveals the nature, condition and content of the heart. If our heart is filled with vicious anger and malicious intent, it will be betrayed in our speech, and all the religious practice in the world will not cover or disguise the truth of our condition.