We’ve come to the final two verses of James’ letter to the Hebrew Christians scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond. It’s not the typical conclusion of a letter, such as the ones written by the apostle Paul, or Peter, or John. There are no parting words of farewell, and there is no closing prayer. But James has a reason for ending his letter with the words he uses. We will soon see, as we fit these parting words into the context of the rest of the letter.
Having served as a chaplain in a hospital setting for many years, and having been “under the knife” several times myself, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the procedures that are followed in some operations. I think that there are some elements of comparison, and I will be pointing them out as we look at James 5:19-20 in the light of what has preceded it.
Here are two translations of this passage of Scripture, James 5:19-20:
“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.” (NASB)
“My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering from God.” (The Message)
I. THE UNHAPPY WANDERERS (verse 19a)
James calls them “brethren”, meaning that they are either believers, or at least members of the congregations. “If anyone strays from the truth”. The word “if” implies that there are some in these congregations who have strayed, and there are others who haven’t strayed from the truth. He is saying that straying from the truth can happen and has happened. The word translated “strays”, or “wanders” is the Greek word “planao”. We get our English word “planet” from this word. It was generally believed, in those days, that the planets wandered around in the skies, and appeared in different places and at different times. They didn’t realize that these planets are in an elliptical obit around the sun, as is the earth.
James has been describing and dealing with these “wanderings” throughout his letter. Many of his readers and hearers have been guilty of impatience, misuse of their tongues, self-centeredness, greed, or other evidences of failing to practice the truth. The following saying is so true: “If truth isn’t applied, we’ve either wandered from it, or never possessed it.”
It’s a scary thing to wander from the truths of God’s Word. It usually happens slowly, imperceptible at first. Then we realize that we have not only wandered from the truth, but we have also drifted away from our closeness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to other believers. Feelings of guilt, fear and embarrassment may keep us from seeking help and turning back. We may begin to feel that our lives are out of control and that the situation is hopeless.
Have you ever been in a helpless situation because of a physical injury or infection? When I was in my early 20’s I felt pain in my lower abdomen. Within minutes I was doubled over, and the pain was so intense that all I could do was to cry out for help. My mother heard my cries and took me immediately to a nearby hospital. I was given a shot to ease the pain and told that I was having an acute appendicitis attack. I would be going into surgery immediately. My family doctor arrived, and told me that he would be performing the surgery. I would be sedated and would not be awake or feel any pain during the surgery. His presence and assurances relieved much of the tension I was experiencing. When I awoke there was a scar, stitches and minimal pain. The inflammation was gone and I was feeling much better. One of my aunts died from a ruptured appendix when she was a teenager, so my fears were real. I look back at that event as a life-saving experience, thanks in part to the immediate action by my mother and the doctor.
II. THE RESTORERS (verse 19b)
The end of verse 19 contains five simple words: “And one turns him back” (NASB). The Message uses the words, “Go after them. Bring them back.” In verse 20 James gives a more detailed description of the wanderer’s condition when he says “turns a sinner from the error of his way.” James uses the Greek word “hamartolos”, an archer’s term meaning, “missing the mark”. But the word is also used to describe a traveler who has left the familiar road and is following winding, twisted paths that cause him to lose his way. He has chosen to go his own way, and this choice has affected his thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes. We are either walking in God’s truth or in our own way. Those are the options. The “turning back” is descriptive of the acknowledgement of one’s sin, confession of it, turning from it, and once again walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to God’s truth.
The apostle Paul, in Galatians 6:1, wanted to make sure that his readers knew what their attitude should be in the restoration process. He says, “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, lest you too be tempted.” I have an anonymous poem in my collection of illustrations, and it brings tears of regret to my eyes every time I read it. I hope it has a similar effect on you.
Pray don’t find fault with the man that limps
Or stumbles along the road,
Unless you have worn the shoes he wears
Or struggled beneath his load.
There may be tacks in his shoes that hurt
Tho’ hidden away from view,
Or the burden he bears placed on your back
Might make you stumble too.
Don’t sneer at the man who’s down today,
Unless you have felt the blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.
You may be strong; but still the blows
That were his, if dealt to you
In the selfsame way at the selfsame time
Might cause you to stagger, too.
Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins,
Or pelt him with word or stone,
Unless you are sure – yes, doubly sure –
That you have no sins of your own.
For you know perhaps if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you
As it did to him when he went astray
It might cause you to falter too.
In order to effectively turn another believer back to fellowship with God through gentle reproof and correction, we will need to have that kind of an attitude toward the wanderer and toward ourselves. The hymn writer, Robert Robinson, expressed his inner struggles when he said: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” (Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing). The wanderer will need love, concern, and encouragement in order to confess the sin which has dragged him down, and redirect his focus toward the God who loves him and wants to forgive him and welcome him back. You might say that God is calling us to be part of the “welcoming committee”.
III. THE JOYFUL RESULTS (verse 20)
At the end of verse 20, James describes the results of the restoration process. First, “He . . . will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins”. These words can be confusing if taken out of their context, and without a grasp of the Hebrew concept of sin and death. The word “he” refers to the restorer, as he is used by God. The phrase “save his soul from death” is probably referring to physical death, not spiritual death. As a doctor often saves his patients from the harmful and continuing affects of an infection or an injury, the restorer has the responsibility and privilege of saving a wandering Christian from the continuing effects of his sin. In the Old Testament scriptures, sin is often associated with physical death. When Adam and Eve sinned, one of the penalties was eventual physical death. Moses and a whole generation of the children of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the desert and dying because of their sins. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire because of sin, and only Lot and his family were spared. The recipients of his letter didn’t need an explanation. They already knew the record of God’s dealings with His people.
The other result of the restorer’s ministry is “the covering of a multitude of sins”. By his own loving, listening, and forgiving attitude, the restorer mirrors God’s love and forgiveness, and becomes a model of forgiveness and acceptance to other believers in the fellowship. As it says in Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” King David said in Psalm 32:3-6, “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me. My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to Thee, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.” As a restorer, God gives us the privilege of sharing in the joy of that forgiveness (covering) of sin and return to fellowship. They say, “Misery loves company”. Well, relief-from-misery loves company also, and we’re invited to the celebration! If you’ve ever had a restoration experience, whether you were the restorer or the one who was restored, you know that it was a joy-filled experience for both parties!
IV. SUMMARY AND PERSONAL APPLICATION
Pastor and Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe concludes his commentary on the epistle of James by asking a series of questions to help us examine our hearts and evaluate our own spiritual maturity. Let’s reflect on each question and be honest with ourselves and with God as we answer them.
- Am I becoming more and more patient in the testings of life?
- Do I play with temptation, or resist it from the start?
- Do I find joy in obeying the Word of God, or do I merely study it and learn it?
- Are there any prejudices that saddle me?
- Am I able to control my tongue?
- Am I a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker? Do people come to me for spiritual wisdom?
- Am I a friend of God or a friend of the world?
- Do I make plans without considering the will of God?
- Am I selfish when it comes to money? Am I unfaithful in the paying of my bills?
- Do I naturally depend on prayer when I find myself in some kind of trouble?
- Am I the kind of person others seek for prayer support?
- What is my attitude toward the wandering brother? Do I criticize and gossip, or do I seek to restore him in love?
May the Lord give you diligence as you pursue godliness and divine wisdom. May He also provide strength and a loving friend if you should begin to stumble or falter.
“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22)