Intro: James 5:19-20 – 19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
These verses describe a spiritual rescue. One person wanders away and is in danger of losing their spiritual life. Another person is called upon to rescue them and “save a soul from death.”
What can we learn here? How does this apply to us?
I. Identifying the Wanderer. The words that James uses here are important to our understanding of these verses.
A. Who is he talking about? Although James does use the term to refer to those, like him, who were of Jewish heritage, the word “brethren” is used most often to refer to spiritual brothers and sisters, or other Christians. The context indicates that he is speaking to those who were Christians. Is it possible for Christians to fall away?
1. James identifies these brethren as those “among you”. He used this term earlier to refer to Christians who needed to pray (is any among you suffering) or sing (any among you cheerful), or call the elders of the church (any among you sick). His concern here is not for the sinner outside of the church, but those who have “wandered from the truth”.
a. Wycliffe says, …The statement, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth”, and the two references to bringing him back (cf. RSV) seem clearly to indicate that the man under discussion is a Christian.
2. The word for “wanders” here is also translated as “err”, or “go astray”. The term implies that one has already begun to walk in a certain direction and has now gone off the path.
a. We get our word “planet” from this word, planao (plan-ah’-o). The planets, in comparison to the stars, seem to meander erratically in the sky.
b. Although some Calvinist commentators want to conclude that James is not talking about sinning Christians here, this verse corresponds to other passages that indicate that it is possible for a Christian to sin and fall away from God.
c. The writer of Hebrews uses the same term in Heb 3:8-13 – 8 Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. 10 Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ 11 So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ 12 Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; 13 but exhort one deceitfulness of sin.
3. Notice as well, that those who go astray and are rescued are “souls” saved from “death”. This certainly indicates that this wandering is disobedience that leads to being lost eternally.
II. Staying on the Path: God has called His people to follow Him as He leads. Jehovah’s leadership was the defining characteristic of the Israelites as they moved toward the Promised Land. They could not trust their own instincts or wisdom. They were called to follow God, and not be drawn away to follow others. Deut 11:26-28 – 26 “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known.
A. To live as a Christian is a single-minded endeavor. It demands that we recognize only one way. John 14:6 – 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. Later Paul called Christianity “the way”.
1. Acts 9:1-2 – Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
2. Acts 22:4 – 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women,
3. James’ words clearly teach the objective standard of God’s word. The wanderer strays from the truth. There is a right & wrong way to believe and live.
4. If you want to reach your destination you have to travel the right road. Sometimes we can be deceived. (David was notorious for not knowing his way from one place to another. One night he got turned around and called us for help. He said he was on I-75 N and just coming into Lakeland? But I-75 doesn’t go to Lakeland!)
5. The N.T. characterizes the consistent obedience that God expects of his people as a “walk”. We chose to walk in the path that God has provided or we wander in our own way.
a. Rom 8:1 – there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
b. Rom 13:12-14 – 12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.
c. Eph 4:1 – I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called,
d. Eph 4:17-24 – This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. 20 But you have not so learned Christ, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
B. We are all vulnerable to temptation to leave the path, and follow our own desires. Thus, the scriptures are full of warnings. 1 Cor 10:12-13 – 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
1. Do you know someone who has gone astray or wandered off the path? Do you have a responsibility toward that person?
III. Turning Him Back – James calls on those who have not strayed to “turn back” the wanderer.
A. The word for “turn” (convert) indicates a change of direction. Vines says …is used (a) transitively, “to make to turn towards” (epi), …to convert; (b) intransitively, “to turn oneself round,”
1. It involves a change in mind and behavior that the Bible characterizes by the word “repentance.” Albert Barnes says… “This does not mean “convert him as a sinner, or regenerate him,” but turn him from the error of his way; bring him back from his wanderings; re-establish him in the truth, and in the practice of virtue and religion. So far as the word used here is concerned, [epistrepsee) he who had erred from the truth, and who was to be converted, may have been a true Christian before.
B. Who is the someone? This person is the real focus and target of the passage. Look again at James 5:19-20: 19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. – one . . . him . . . he
1. The apostle Paul echoed that truth in 2 Cor 5:18: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” The same “us” that God reconciled is the “us” that has the ministry of reconciliation; bringing wandering sinners to God is the task of every believer.
2. Galatians 6:1-2 – Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
IV. Saving a Soul from Death – Rescue shows – people were lost at sea, caught in an avalanche, etc. In nearly all those rescue episodes that I have seen, the one who is rescued from death has a new perspective. They often say they think of that day every day since. That is because it was a matter of life and death. So is this.
A. The Stakes are high. Unrepented sin is spiritually terminal. James said earlier in James 1:15 – 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
1. Rom 6:16 – 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?
2. Rom 6:23 – 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
B. In times of peril there is often a moment of clarity when the person becomes fully aware of the danger he is in. That is a moment of decision. Will he give up or will he live?
1. In a sense the job of the rescuer is to bring the wanderer to a realization of the danger he is in.
C. God answers this imminent death warrant with life. Although we are responsible for acting, the true rescuer is God. When God forgives the penitent sinner there is joy in heaven because a life is saved. Luke 15:7 – 7 I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.
D. Cover a multitude of sins” – The efforts of the rescuer lead to an effect that he could never provide. Sins are covered – It seems best to understand that the sins that are covered are the sins of the wanderer, now covered by the blood of Jesus. Not just one sin, but a multitude of sins.
1. In Ps 32:1 David exclaimed, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” The writer of Ps 85 offered the following words of praise to his forgiving God: “You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You covered all their sin” (v. 2).
2. I like the image of God’s marvelous grace presented in Micah 7:18-19 – 18 Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. 19 You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (NIV)
a. Ps 103:11-12 – 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (NIV)
Conclusion: When we were camping a few years ago, an older man from the campground got lost. He wandered off the marked path – though he could find his own way home.
The search was frantic. The response was immediate. Would we expect anything less? (kept me up all night, helicopters, search lights, we prayed for his return; how much money did it cost?) When he was found, all that did not matter. Nothing else mattered.
Our brothers and sisters have wandered away – what we will sacrifice to bring them home
Rescue the perishing care for the dying; snatch them in pity form sin and the grave, Weep o’er the erring one, Lift up the fallen, Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.