My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
There is a general tendency to be scared of rebuking and admonishing others. You well know that someone is falling into a ditch, or even into a precipice and you look the other way, or you pray that they will open up their eyes and see their danger, but you say nothing! I want you to know, that I will not let you go down the abyss without telling you. We must never be quite as people abandon themselves to folly and vanity. The passage before us exhorts us to be on the lookout for the brethren who wander from the truth and bring them back. Bring back the backslider!
Consider the progression of James’s line of reasoning - he began with the need for physical healing (14-15) and went on to the need of spiritual growth (16-18) and in this passage he addresses the need to reclaim the wandering brother (19-20). Here is an edification church where both members and the elders are doing their job.
1. It is possible for a true Christian to backslide
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth… It is evident from these words that a true, blood-bought saint can actually wander from the truth. This is the last time James is using his favourite address, ‘brothers’. This term refers to fellow members of the family of God whether men or women, boys and girls. Those whom Christ has given the full rights and privileges of sonship (John 1:12-13). The Bible says clearly that even the saints can wander from the truth.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:12 “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” If you think yourself to be too sanctified that you cannot fall, then you are very mistaken and deceived. You could fall, you may fall, you may have fallen already! Consider your ways and ask yourself if you are standing even as you read this.
The language James employs here of wandering suggests that he is not just thinking of inadvertent wandering, it may as well be intentional wandering. Therefore, these may be casual sins or backsliding – any deviation from the truth. He uses the word truth here to speak of all that is involved in the gospel and not just the Christian doctrine. Any deviation from the gospel, whether major or minor.
You are capable of deviating from the glorious truth of the gospel. You could neglect this great salvation (Heb. 2:3). You may trample underfoot the Son of God. You are capable of profaning the blood of the covenant by which you were sanctified. My dear brother, you are able to outrage the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29). So we conclude that it is no mark of a wise or a holy man to boast of being free from error or sin, or to refuse to acknowledge when he is in error or in sin.
The Bible constantly tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought but to think with sober judgement (Rom. 12:3). A passage like this helps us to sober up in our own judgement of ourselves – we are capable of worse than we think. Don’t be surprised when you fall into sin – you are prone to wander; prone to leave Christ; prone to reject the eternal love of Christ by your words and behaviour.
2. It is possible for you to bring back a backslider
Many of you are too quick to resign from any attempts of helping an erring and wandering Christian. But Pastor James exhorts us to do all we can to promote the conversion, restoration and salvation of others. If any is found or known to be in error from the truth or be in sin, that is in opinion or in practice of the gospel you must endeavour to bring them again to the law of Christ. And praise the Lord for it is possible to bring back a wandering brother!
You realize that errors in judgement and errors in life go together. What the heart believes, the mind thinks, and the mouth confesses and eventually the whole body must do! The point here is that there is some doctrinal mistake at the bottom of every practical miscarriage. There is no one habitually bad, but upon some bad principle. Now to convert such is to reduce them from their error, and to reclaim them from the evils they have been led into. The verse says nothing about accusing the brother. But the verse speaks of efforts at bringing back the wandering sheep to the fold of God.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back… Someone can and should bring the wandering brother back to the truth. The ‘someone’ here is not necessarily a pastor, in fact it can be argued that it is not an elder for if it were a pastor, James could have told us. The point made here is you, a fellow believer, along with your pastor, have a responsibility to bring back a wandering, backsliding, erring brother to the sheepfold of God. Yes, the responsibility of restoring the backslider is potentially placed on your shoulders. I know some of you are deliberate in seeking out the wanderer. I pray that your efforts would be rewarded.
Therefore, we are to do more than pray for the grace of God to work in the backslider. We must be watchful all the time for one another’s welfare and continuity in truth and life. How easy it is to slide from the full commitment to the Saviour of our souls. We are called here to go to the person and do what Paul says in Galatians 6:1;
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
The word translated to bring back, is ‘epistrepho’ which refers to a person’s initial turning away from sin to God in conversion as it is used in Acts 14:15; 15:19; 26:18; 1Thess. 1:9.
James here makes reference to ‘anyone among you’ i.e. one who has openly identified with the Christian community. He is most likely referring to a church member. When he says, bring back, he means, turning back to faith from which one has strayed as used in Mark 4:12.
Salvation is of the Lord from first to last. But the salvation of the Lord is brought about through the instrumentality of sovereignly appointed means – the preaching of the gospel by a preacher and the believing of Christ for the sinner. If we are instrumental in the conversion of any, we are said to save them, even if this is principally the gracious work of God. therefore participate in the work of grace of the salvation of sinners by being the instrumentality used by this gracious, sovereign God.
I perceive that it is easy to love the brethren who are making good spiritual progress – they come to church early, spend the whole day, they are intentionally cultivating holiness, reading the Bible and disciplined in their devotion, mortifying the deeds of the flesh – of course it is so easy to love such as this! Such brethren warm our hearts and we ought to be thrilled by such brethren who are making wonder spiritual progress in their lives.
But if someone no longer comes to church, he is struggling with multiple sins, not submitting to the discipline of the church and are not listening to elders, then you feel unable to say anything. The exhortation here is to go out to them and convert them. Be careful not to encourage them in their waywardness. Be careful not to encourage them to wander further away from the Lord, of from the truth, or from the body of Christ, the church. Do you remember making efforts towards the spiritual rejuvenation of others?
Why should you make this effort? Because there is a promise of hope both for the wandering brother, and for the restraining brother.
3. The two-fold reward of bringing back the backslider:
a) Rescue from death
Pastor James says that when you turn a wandering brother back into the narrow way of truth, you will ‘save him from death’. James is not in any way saying that that a true believer can lose salvation, as some people have argued from such passages as Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26, 27; 2 Peter 2:20. He has simply said that a true Christian can backslide. He has also added that such a backsliding Christian can be brought back by the efforts of other Christians and be rescued from death. Thank God, for there is hope for you backslider!
What death is James speaking about here? Imagine a pastor who falls into sexual immorality, with a Sunday School teacher in the church. The Sunday school teacher is also the wife of one of the deacons. Then the pastor and the teacher abandons their spouses to live together in immoral cohabitation. Efforts to speak spiritual sense to both of them fails. The pastor is eventually excommunicated and removed from his pastoral responsibility. The Sunday school is also excommunicated. When you look at their lives, you are frustrated by the level of sin and transgression and you cannot help but imagine a fearful expectation of judgment. This is what James is speaking about here: within every fellowship there are those whose profession of faith turns out not to be real. Their attachment to Christ and to His church is tested by circumstances of life and then the true condition of their soul is exposed as still held by sin and death. It becomes evident to the caring eyes of those who watch and observe their progress within their church. For such as this, it is easy to come to the conclusion that they have no hope. Yet there is hope for them – the grace of God super-abounds and we should do something ourselves to bring them back to the Chief Shepherd.
Is it possible for us, with our limited wisdom, finite perception and fallen outward observance to discern the difference between the backsliding of a believer and the apostacy of a non-believer? The fact is that the only evidence we have is the fruit of both. The Lord says that we shall know them by their fruit. So when the living and believing do not agree we have to communicate. And when there is no change, we no choice but to excommunicate and start the work of evangelism once again!
Thankfully there is hope of being brought back and yes, there is hope of salvation of his soul from death. The soul being the principal part of the man, the saving of that only is mentioned, but it includes the salvation of the whole man since a human being is not divided but one. The spirit shall be saved from hell, the body raised from the grave, and both saved from eternal death to eternal and glorious salvation in heaven.
By such conversion of heart and life, a multitude of sins shall be covered. Though your sins be many, or even be a multitude, yet they all could be covered or forgiven. Though your sins be as red as crimson, the blood of Christ can cleanse to be as white as snow. The most wicked sinner, even the king of siners can be sanctified to be a saint by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The word cover is a very gracious word drawn from the OT. It means to cover over so that no trace of sin can be seen. It is one of the Bible’s great salvation words, speaking of God’s gracious covering over of man’s sin by the sacrificial death of Christ. This covering of sin is what secures forgiveness for the sinner and the two concepts are brought together perfectly by David when he cries, ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered’ (Ps. 32:1)
The point is made then that sins forgiven or covered can never appear in judgment against us. The Lamb of God does take away the sins of the world. His blood covers all our sins. His death took our death and it’s sting away. The blood of the Lamb of Christ is the only hope for us.
Some think this text means that conversion shall prevent a multitude of sins. Of course it is true beyond dispute that many sins are prevented in the party converted. Indeed salvation prevents much mischief, and the spreading and multiplying of sin in the world. But the only way in which your sins can be removed from you is through Christ.
We also must never forget that those that turn many to righteousness, and those who help to do so, shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. May you then be a Christian who is willing to do anything possible to bring the restoration of a backsliding Christian to the kingdom of Christ. Do not just stare at those who are wallowing in their sin and waywardness – bring back the prodigal. Yes bring back the backslider by speaking with them, rebuking them, correcting them, that they would know the redeeming love of Christ and saviour the gracious mercy of our Father in heaven.