The Important Work of Turning a Wandering Brother Back to God
Passage: James 5:19–20
If one of your Christian friends, begins to wander away from God, what should you do? Should you: Pretend that nothing is wrong? Pray for them but not say a word to them? Talk about their condition with other people? Tell your pastor (or someone else) to go talk to them? Or should you pray for them and appeal for them to come back to God? This is the issue James address in the last two verses of his book.
One of the saddest realities of life as a Christian, is that some people wander away from the faith. We wish every professing Christian would live faithfully to the end, but some do not. In spite of the great love and goodness of God, some will turn away from the truth. Some fall into sexual immorality, some turn away from sound teaching, some fall in love with the world, some turn aside into doubt and unbelief, some are turn away from a simple and pure devotion to Christ into religious legalism.
This phenomenon of spiritual waywardness is mentioned frequently in the Bible. Paul tells Timothy to turn away from godless empty chatter of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing, HAVE WANDERED AWAY FROM THE FAITH. He also wrote, “Timothy my son....fight the good fight, HOLDING ON TO THE FAITH and a good conscience. (For) Some have rejected these and so HAVE SHIPWRECKED THEIR FAITH”. *In 1 Timothy 4:6 Paul wrote, “Some people, eager for money, have WANDERED AWAY FROM THE FAITH and pierced themselves with many griefs”. *2 Timothy 4:3 “For the time will come when they will turn their ears AWAY FROM THE TRUTH”. *Peter speaks of those who have known the way of righteousness and then TURN THEIR BACKS on the sacred command that was passed on to them”. 2 Peter 2:21 In our passage James addresses this same concern, “If one of you should “WANDER FROM THE TRUTH”.
Some Christians may not be aware that there are verses like that in the Bible. But we need to be aware of these warnings for ourselves AND we need to go after people in this condition, and seek to turn them back from spiritual disaster. This mission to wayward brothers and sisters is PRIMARILY what James has in mind here in this passage.
Usually when this passage is taught, it ends up being an argument over whether you can loose your salvation or not, and that is about all anybody remembers. BUT that misses the whole point of this passage. The point is: That it is a great thing to turn a man or woman back to the truth, because you are playing a part in sparing that person from spiritual disaster.
CT Studd Missionary to Africa in the 1800s, once said, I'd rather save one soul than be Queen Victoria. He saw the spiritual importance and the glory of turning people to God. He saw it as a greater thing than to be the queen of England. We should have the same appreciation for the work of turning a wandering brother back to the Lord.
If you turn someone who is sinning, back to the path of obedience to Christ, you have rescued that person from an extremely serious condition. Sin leads to misery and death. Therefore, it is one of the greatest acts of love ever shown in the body of Christ to go seek to turn around a sinning brother or sister.
Jesus said in Revelation 3:19 “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline”. Jesus does not reprove and discipline people because he does not want them to have any fun. He reproves and disciplines because he loves people so much he does not want them to harm themselves. This is why you should go after a wayward person.
James begins verse 19, by addressing “my brothers”. It is a phrase James used throughout the book. In chapter 2:1 he said, “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”. He is talking to those who are in the church, in the fellowship of believers, “my brothers”.
Our relationship with other Christians is a family bond. We are a band of brothers. We are bound to each other in Christ, in love and affection. That other person you see on Sunday morning is not just someone who comes to your church. They are your brother! That wandering person James wants you to be concerned about IS YOUR BROTHER! You go after them NOT because they violate your sense of right and wrong, but because they are family!
“If any one AMONG YOU wanders from the truth”. “If any one (of the brothers) among you”. If any one in your circle of Christian friends. He narrows it down to believers among you. He is talking about people you know!
He is talking about a person who has walked in the path of truth, for some length of time, but now has wandered AWAY from that. Again it seems clear he is talking about a believer.
James says this person has WANDERED away from the truth. No one just walks away from the truth all of a sudden. No one is faithfully following Jesus and abiding in the Word of God and faithfully involved with the saints, then in one day, falls into adultery, or denies the Christian faith, or believes some false teaching. People GRADUALLY move away from God. They gradually get farther from fellowship, farther from truth, farther from the path of righteousness.
A wandering person, usually first departs from close fellowship with God in their own personal life: they stop praying; they lose their love for the Word of God. They stop coming to church, they associate more and more with people in the world or people who are walking down a similar path as they now are heading.
James says, “they wander FROM THE TRUTH” What is this truth they wander away from? The truth includes our beliefs AND our walk. People wander away from the correct teachings about God and Jesus and salvation; they also wander away from the pure and godly lifestyle we are to walk in as believers.
“And someone should bring him back”. James goes on to say how important this work is of bringing the wandering brother back. He is going to show what great disaster you are saving a person from if you should be that someone who brings back the one who has wandered away from the truth. But before we dig into that there is something else here that I think is SO important!
Notice James says “if ONE of you should wander away, and some ONE of you should bring HIM back”. This is one person going after one person. There are so many people out there in the world who need help, it is overwhelming! You may think “what can I do?” James says you can help bring one person back. Sometimes ministry seems only for famous pastors and large churches and it seems that what you and I can do would not matter. But James says it does!
A pastor by the name of Glenn Pease gave a message titled “One is Enough”. In it he said, “Sometimes our biggest problem is that we think too big. We want to save the world, and this is very noble, but it is an ineffective goal. We need to narrow our scope, and devote our lives and resources to reaching just the one. If you have two tennis balls coming at you, and you try to get both, you usually miss both. You need to concentrate on the one”.
Sometimes we hope to do something big for God but often what God sets before us is to go touch ONE person. It is so easy to only value big numbers, and big things, and fail to value that one single person God has in front of you.
James tells us, that one person who has strayed, their soul is important, and you do a great work to go after them. “Remember this, whoever turns (ONE) sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins”.
Notice the phrase, “If one of you turns him back”. No work like this can happen without the power of God at work, but still YOUR part is seen as so vital that James says if YOU turn him back... You are doing something to turn him back. You are going after this person to stop them and bring them back to the path of truth. HOW?
*You pray for them. James just told us prayer can accomplish much. Pray for the one you know who no longer loves Jesus like they used, the one who no longer comes to church, the one who is wandering off of the path of righteousness and truth. Your prayers can have a major impact on turning that person around.
*You live as godly example. It is hard to overestimate the power of your life to challenge people to live for God or to come back to God. If you are following hard after God, if you are finishing you course, your life itself is a message that calls other people back to the way of truth.
*You make a personal appeal to them. You go to the person and with as much love and respect as you can express, you say I am concerned for you and the direction you are heading.
You are not confronting them because you have a personality conflict with them, or because you don't see eye to eye with them on some minor doctrinal issue, or because they irritate you...but because they have clearly departed from the Lord and his truth and the way of life he has called us to. You are calling them back to the path of righteousness. you are calling them back to Jesus Christ.
Verse 20 “Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save will save him from death”. A sinner is simply one who is sinning. In this case he is talking about a brother among you who is sinning. If you turn him from his the error of his way you will save his soul from death. Sin leads to death.
The main point here is that you are saving his soul from something really terrible. You should know that! You are saving him from some really bad things! This is WHY you should go after him or her. This phrase could mean death on three different levels:
*Physical death. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about those who were NOT living in a manner worthy of the Lord (While living ungodly lives they took part in the Lord's Supper as if their sin were no big deal) He says for this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. Some experienced premature death because they did not deal with sin in their lives. Paul called this the discipline of the Lord and said we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. So loss of salvation was not the point - these people will not be condemned but they will experience a very serious consequence for their sinning. If you turn them back from this you will save them from early death.
*Eternal Death. It is also possible this person has been in the church, known the way of salvation, and fit in with everybody for years, but has NEVER TRULY known the Lord and is headed for eternal judgment. So if you turn him to God, you play a part in saving him from eternal death.
The apostles clearly taught that a person living in persistent willful sin, will not inherit eternal life. Never in the Bible is assurance given to a person living in persistent willful sin. People living wayward lives are ALWAYS warned in the strongest terms. Sin leads to death! You don't have to try to figure out if this person had a genuine conversion or not. All you have to do is look at their life!!
“For this you know with certainty that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words.” “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” ALL WHO PRACTICE SUCH THINGS CAN BE SAVED. But they are headed toward spiritual death and exclusion from the kingdom of God UNLESS they are turned around. As James says, “If some one of you turns the sinner from the error of his way you will save his soul from death”.
*A third kind of death comes from sinning. It is a present experiential death. It is the misery, and bondage that comes from living in sin for any period of time. A person in this state is not serving God, or enjoying God, there is no emotion of hope in God. They are just kind of dead. IF they are genuinely a believer they are not living or thinking or acting like it.
Let me give you just a few examples from scripture to show what I mean. In Revelation Jesus said to the church at Sardis, “You have a reputation that you are alive but you are dead”. This church had a reputation that great things were happening in the that church! People said, That church is really alive, but God's opinion of it was that they were dead. Paul said if a widow in the church lives for her own pleasure, “she is dead even while she lives”.
Peter tells us how terrible a state a brother is in who has wandered from the truth into the pathway of sinning: 2 Peter 2:20 “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them”.
People who have known the truth and turned their backs on it are in a terrible situation. There is nothing more miserable than “a Christian” who is not living as a Christian any more. James said, if you turn someone back from this situation, you have saved him from death and covered a multitude of sins.
“You will save him from death, AND cover over a multitude of sins”. If you turn someone back to the way of truth, you will play a part in that person's being forgiven many sins.
Now here is the main application for us: If you know someone who has departed from the path of righteousness and truth, the greatest and most loving thing you could do for that person is to pray and to appeal to them to turn back to God's way.
Practical considerations to remember:
*If the wandering person is a close friend, you may worry that you will lose that friend if you say something. And you very well may. But you would lose them anyway. If you are walking with God and they are headed off into the world you are divergent paths that will separate you anyway.
*Warnings are not often well received. Be prepared that the person may spurn you, or accuse you of being judgmental, or legalistic. They may reject you as a friend.
*You do not have to wait till the person has completely shipwrecked, before you talk to them. You can usually see it coming. And an early warning is better.
*Go with great humility. Galatians 5:1 “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”
*Another obvious application here. If you are secretly entertaining any thoughts of defecting from the faith, don't do it. Those who wander away from the truth, invite untold pain into their lives. “Some people, eager for money, have WANDERED AWAY FROM THE FAITH and pierced themselves with many griefs”. You could change the word money for lots of other things... Anything that you would go after that could cause you to wander from the faith will cause you great pain and misery!
Jeremiah 6:16 “This is what the Lord says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” God's way is always the best! Ask for that, walk in that, and you will find rest for your souls.