What Do We Mean By Old Time Religion

You can listen to this service where this was preached by Bro. Grant Ralston. Savannah Holy Church Of God 5/24/2020. Link opens in new tab. Note that the message starts at 32:05

The church has used the expression “Old Time Religion” without ever really defining what that is. If I asked a group of 10 people I would probably get 10 different, though the descriptions would have a common thread through them.

James, the brother of Jesus, tells us what Old Time Religion is. Those who have Old Time Religion will show the evidence that they have it by their obedience to God and his word. Specifically, James mentions three marks: speech, service, and separation. Of course, these aren’t the only indications of “Old Time Religion”, but these are the ones that James provides.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).

This has been a topic I planned on addressing in the future. However in the 9 am service this last Sunday (May 24, 2020), Br Grant Ralston handled the subject so well I asked him to share his notes. This is what he shared. (Note here is the link to that service. Preaching starts at )

Old Time Religion: What It Is And Why We Need It

It has become popular in America to devalue the importance of religion by elevating the significance of relationship.

Those who have this opinion will say something to the effect of—“Christianity is about a relationship, not a religion.”

By this expression, it is often meant, by those who use it, that they are frustrated with the ritualistic aspects that can fall underneath the umbrella of Christianity—the adherence to certain behaviors with no other particular purpose, or the defense of traditions that have little or no biblical support.

You might understand what I’m talking about. You might even agree with this sentiment. I certainly can. However, I don’t think that it is the whole story.


Rightly understood, religion and relationship are not contrary to each other.

As a matter of fact, the essence of the religion of Christianity is a relationship—a loving, abiding relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, James, the Lord’s brother, did not shy away from using the terminology of religion, because he had a proper understanding of what it meant to have genuine religion—or what I’m calling old-time religion.

Listen to what James has to say about religion:

If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:26,27).

If a writer of Scripture did not hesitate from using the word “religion,” neither should we—regardless of how misunderstood the term has become in our own times.

According to James, old-time religion will be indicated by certain marks. Those who have it will give evidence that they have it by their obedience to God and his word.

Specifically, in the passage above, James mentions three marks: speech, service, and separation. Of course, these aren’t the only indications of pure and undefiled religion, but these are the ones that James provides, and so it makes the best sense to limit our discussion to these.

Before examining this old-time religion in greater depth, it’s necessary to emphasize that there are basically two ways of viewing these three marks.

The primary way is in reference to other people. As you look at the lives of other people, especially those who profess to be Christians, you will be able to tell if they are actually saved by applying the criteria listed by James.

So, if someone in our local churches “seems to be religious,” but he cannot control his tongue and isn’t concerned about going to those in affliction and doesn’t strive to be separated from the world, then “this man’s religion is vain.”

The secondary way of viewing these marks of old-time religion is in reference to ourselves.

Think about it. If these marks can help us tell whether other people have this pure and undefiled religion, then surely they can also help us tell whether we ourselves have this religion.

We must make sure we keep this second perspective in mind, lest we become extremely judgmental—applying the marks of the Christian religion to everyone else except ourselves.


‘Bridleth not his tongue’

The first mark of genuine religion deals with the tongue.

This should not be a surprise, considering that, in James’ short letter, he devotes a lot of time to talking about the tongue. Here are a few of the things that James instructs about the use of the tongue:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19).

Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be (James 3:10)

Speak not evil one of another, brethren (James 4:11).

Clearly, James considered the tongue to be an important thing to write about. He understood that it had the potential to cause tremendous destruction. The tongue was “a fire, a world of iniquity,” and nobody could tame the tongue, since it was “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6,8).

This is reminiscent of what Solomon said in Proverbs:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21)

However, even though we can destroy the lives of others with the words that we say, we are still commanded by God to control our tongues. We are called to be “slow to speak” and to not speak evil of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must come to grips with the fact that God has commanded us to bridle our tongue.

You might say, “Well, I understand that God had called me to restrain my tongue. But there’s no way that I can always control what I say. Sometimes I just can’t help it.”

I would say that you are partially correct—you cannot control your tongue under your own power. But God doesn’t ask us to do this on our own. He enables us, by the power of the Spirit, to be obedient to what he has commanded by bridling our tongues. Therefore, if you are constantly injuring other people with your words, you have no excuse. With his enabling grace, you could have heeded his instruction to control what you say.

The question, then, is this: “Do you have control over your tongue (by God’s grace), or does your tongues have control over you?” Don’t treat this question as irrelevant to living the Christian life. According to James, the man who does not bridle his tongue has useless religion, regardless of how religious he may seem to those around him.


‘To visit the fatherless/widows in their affliction’

Part and parcel of old-time religion involves taking care of the afflicted in our communities. Now, why exactly would James mention this as the first description of pure and undefiled religion? I think the answer is fairly simple. The God of the Bible is a God who champions the cause of the unfortunate.

Specifically, he is a God who cares for the orphans and the widows. This theme runs throughout the entire Old Testament. One example should suffice. In the Psalms, we discover that God is “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows” (68:5). And since this is who God is, it only makes sense if those who were trying to be like God would also care about the fatherless and the widows.

Now, I don’t think James is limiting our visiting of those in affliction to just these two categories—those who have lost parents and those who have lost spouses. These are two examples that broadly represent those who are in distress. We could almost extend this list indefinitely: the handicapped and the homeless, the hungry and the thirsty, the abused and the abandoned. The key point, then, is that God’s people should be interested in the plight of the afflicted in our world.

It’s important to pay attention to what James actually writes in this passage. He says, “… visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” What he writes directly challenges a prevalent attitude amongst many American Christians. According to James, pure and undefiled religion isn’t saying that I’ll enable others to go visit the distressed in their affliction; it’s saying that I myself will go visit them in their affliction.

I liked what Warren Wiersbe said:

“God does not want us to pay for others to minister as a substitute for our own personal service.”

Warren Wiersbe

You see, this is a radical shift in a lot of our minds.

We love to financially enable others to minister (and we definitely should), but our financial benevolence can never become a substitute for our own doing the Lord’s work in our communities.

Obedience to God’s instruction of visiting the afflicted requires more than just sitting on the sidelines and financially supporting those involved; it requires personal participation.

I don’t know about you, but I feel convicted when I think about this.

I need to make sure that I’m doing my part of showing God’s love to those who are hurting and alone. We must be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, as he reveals to us how we can faithfully apply this verse.


‘to keep himself unspotted from the world’

In order to understand the biblical concept of separation, we need to establish what James means by the word “world.” This word can mean different things, depending on its use and context.

In this case, “world” has a negative connotation and refers to everything in the world that is hostile to God, that is at odds with God’s agenda and a godly lifestyle. Douglas Moo said that it “characterizes human life in its estrangement from the creator.”

One thing that is obvious from this passage is that James is not encouraging an isolationist mentality, a removal from interaction with society. Instead, he is saying that while we are in the world, we don’t need to be of the world.

John 17:15 – 16 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

The values and behaviors and beliefs of Christians should not be determined by the godless society in which we live. We must strive to keep ourselves unspotted from the world—free from evil and wicked influences, free from anything that would defile us in God’s eyes.

Are you striving to be separate from the world, not in the sense of removing yourself from contact with unbelievers, but in the biblical sense of living by a different set of values?

Or are your fundamental values identical to those who do not know God? If your values and actions are exactly the same as worldly people, that’s probably a good indication that you haven’t kept yourself unspotted from the world.

This doesn’t mean that you should always do the opposite of what unbelievers do (i.e., go to restaurants), but it does mean that when there is a conflict between the values of the world and the values of the Bible, you side with Scripture.


Do you have old-time religion?

Are you bridling your tongue and visiting those in affliction and keeping yourself unspotted from the world?

Be honest with yourself as you evaluate your life. You don’t want to be a person who has worthless religion and so deceives “his own heart” (James 1:26).

Brother Scott

I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior in march of 1984. I was in the Navy at this time. It became my greatest desire to draw closer to God. Since that day I have been led by God's Spirit and the scriptures to live a life of Holiness. Holiness is not a bunch of rules, but rather it is the conviction and desire that I am pleasing to God in my life. These convictions are then what set the boundaries of my conduct and actions in life.

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