James 5:19 & 20 “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
And with those words James abruptly ends his letter. Not a hint that these are his last words. We could tell it was almost over because our eyes saw the end of the page, but his first hearers were sitting and standing in their congregations, listening to one of the elders reading aloud the letter, and – suddenly the letter finished. No goodbye waves. No smiles of farewell. No affectionate greetings. James’ last words are as peremptory as his first. Think of how Paul ends his letter to the Romans; what a contrast. An entire chapter meanders on in love mentioning one person after another. Thirty-four people are named in Romans chapter 16, let alone this unnamed ‘brother’ and that ‘sister.’ It is refreshing to have these differences. It reminds me of the way some church services end in Scotland, compared to how they end in Wales. In Scotland they end more like James: it is over and you go home with the word in your mind and heart. If you bow and pray at the end of the service as we do, when you open your eyes in certain churches in Scotland you might be the only one left in the building. There is much to be said for that, if we are going to enervate the strength of the Word of God we have just heard by chitter chatter better go home. Just as long as it does not become an excuse for unneighbourliness. In Wales our church services tend to drag out like the ending of the letter to the Romans, as we move from one ‘brother’ to that ‘sister.’ We appreciate both traditions and see their relative strengths. We need endings like Romans as well as James.
James leaves us with a concern for people and Christian duty. “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.
1. Professing Christians may Wander from the Truth.
The greatest blessing God has given to us is the truth. It is the truth about ourselves and about himself. It is the truth about our ruin through sin, our need of redemption in Jesus Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit. It is the truth about resurrection from the dead and life eternal. All those great words and concepts – what value are they if they are figments of imagination, the invention of deluded people who lived 2000 years ago? The greatest action God took was giving his Holy Spirit to favoured men so that they were led into all truth when they wrote the Scriptures. It was not that they received some general truths from heaven and then God told them to put them in their own words. Why should God do that when he could supervise the whole process of writing?
What would you think of a pharmaceutical company telling men who worked in a tax office the broad composition of a powerful drug and let them go ahead and make it up? What would you think of a manual on brain surgery being written down by fishermen? What if a medical doctor should write down procedures for marine biology? Yet the gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts was written by a doctor, and the first gospel was written by a man whose expertise was taxes, and the man behind the second gospel as well as two letters of the New Testament was a fisherman. Do you think an unaided fisherman, doctor and tax official constructed Christianity in their own words? Those gospels and letters are extraordinary compositions. God brought these three men to his Son Jesus Christ, transformed their lives by him, enriched and inspired their thinking and speaking, and when it came to the time, many years later, when they put down in actual writing the mighty works of the Lord Christ God gave them the unlimited assistance of God the Holy Spirit of truth. Too much hung on their words to let it be an adulterated mixture of poison, prejudice and pure truth. Listen to the former fisherman Peter as he tells us, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
The eyewitnesses set out the life and achievements of Jesus of Nazareth, and there has not been one scientific discovery in the last century that has disproved anything at all in the New Testament. I mean nothing in archaeology or cosmology or genetics has given us cause to doubt anything in the 27 books of the New Testament. Modernism, you must always remember, is not a scientific movement. It is a romantic movement.
The greatest discovery a man can make is the truth. The only thing worth believing is the truth. What saves and delivers people from despair is the truth. Yet people whose lives have initially been changed by the truth can wander from it. The word James uses is the classic term in the Bible for defiant estrangement from God. It is the Greek word planao from which we get our English word ‘planet’. The stars have fixed points in the sky but the planets are so-called wandering stars. This professing brother has begun to drift. That is so familiar a concept that we actually sing about it: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” That is an experience we all know about first hand. For a favoured few their hands were on the plough and they did not look back. I think of Henry Martyn, and Robert Murray McCheyne, and David Brainerd who never appeared to waver as they followed Christ, but for the rest of us we have often been like Lot’s wife, looking back longingly at forbidden fruit. Only the longsuffering of God has prevented his judgment making us pillars of salt. Prone to wander, and we feel it.
It is not that we are wandering from the people of God because they are hypocrites, or wandering from the congregation because the ministry is boring, or wandering from the young people because they don’t excite us, but wandering from the truth because it is too inconvenient. We would rather follow lies because they let us keep our sins, our self-pity and unmortified anger and pride of life and lusts. We would rather hang on to them than cleave to the truth.
So here James describes the sadly familiar spectacle of a professing brother wandering from the truth. It is an enterprise as full of folly as a man wandering from belief in the law of gravity, or in the solar system, or in the chemical composition of water. It is very interesting how the New Testament writers speak of the truth. It is never just taken for granted or accepted like a mathematical formula which you have picked up on your way to doing something else. In this clamouring world with all its conflicting ideologies you have been given the truth, and so you love it (2 Thessalonians 2:10), obey it (Galatians 5:7), display it in your life (2 Corinthians 4:2), speak about it in accents of affection (Ephesians 4:14), witness to it (John 18:37), and you do it (John 3:21). This truth liberates men (John 8:32), and it is manifest in a whole life of love (1 John 3:19). Of course the truth is ultimately Jesus Christ: “I am the truth.” People who once were closely following him can wander from him. It is the love of sin that makes them do it. A man can be married to a woman and be the father of her children, but he can wander from that truth. Children can deny the truth that this senile old woman is their mother and dump her. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – and it is true! On the third day he rose from the dead according to the Scriptures – and it is true! It is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment – and it is true! I will take you unto myself that where I am there you may be also – and it is true – to be lived and done and loved and witnessed to and displayed in our loves. But men can wander from that truth!
Judas wandered from it. Demas wandered from it. Diotrephes wandered from it. Hymenaeus and Philetus wandered from it saying the resurrection is past already. There was a time when Bishop Cranmer under the most inhuman pressures wandered from the truth, and signed a document to that effect, but later he came back, and held out that hand that had signed that document in the flames to burn first. But how many do we personally know who have wandered from the truth? They once sat with us and broke bread at the same table and were baptized in the same pool, and where are they today? They have wandered from the truth. Some gave out tracts to those who were standing in the queue to enter the bingo hall, and they spoke in the open air. When they had prayed in the Prayer meeting no one wanted to pray after them because they seemed to know God in the closest way. Yet where are they tonight? They have wandered from the truth. They say to their favourite Christian friend, “Would you like to borrow my Christian books on a permanent loan?”
Intellectual pressures, political ambitions, firm young flesh, financial success, a course in a theological seminary, homosexuality, the honours of the world and a myriad other temptations drew them away. And their wandering says to us, “You who think you could never wander, take heed lest you also go away.” It almost becomes a foundational premise of the Christian life that I watch myself. I think of all that Judas had, and I watch myself. I think of those better men and women than myself making shipwreck of their lives and I tremble. Think of how that mighty Free Church of Scotland formed in the Disruption under Chalmers’ leadership and established with such men of God at the helm with the winds of heaven blowing around them, how virtually that entire denomination had wandered from the truth by the end of the last century. The whole history of the church from the end of the first century warns us of the likelihood of the professing church going into error. “Take heed,” Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:31). The writer to the Hebrews says to them, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God…so that none of you be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebs. 3:12 & 13).
2. The Church Must Remember it is a Restoring Brotherhood.
“Someone should bring him back” (v.19). He doesn’t say, “Notice this phenomenon.” He doesn’t say, “Take heed from it.” He doesn’t say, “Weep over it.” He says, “Someone should bring him back.” He doesn’t say, “The pastor should bring him back,” or “The elders should bring him back.” He doesn’t even say, “God should bring him back.” Some person should bring him back. The good shepherd didn’t say, “Leave them alone, and they’ll come home bringing their tails behind them.” Though he had ninety-nine safe in the pasture there was one who had wandered far, “Away on the mountains wild and bare, Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.” What did the shepherd say? “Although the road be rough and steep, I go to the desert to find my sheep.”
Why doesn’t James say that the minister should bring him back? Because there are times when the minister is not the best person. It may be that this is a young girl from a home where no one else goes to church and he cannot call in that house and see her privately, but another Christian girl can. It may be that the person in question is the pastor’s own child, and now it is time for someone else to speak to that child. Someone should do it, and it should be known by the church that someone was trying to do it.
Isn’t it God’s work to bring people back? It is true that God is the one who ultimately wraps cord of love around us and brings us back, and that it is particularly God the Holy Spirit who does this, convicting them of their error and energising them with repentance. There seems to have been no human intervention to bring the prodigal son to himself in that distant country to which he had wandered. But God uses people. We are co-workers with God. 100% God and 100% ourselves are needed to bring them back. How did God bring king David back? Not by an angel, he used a man called Nathan: “The Lord sent Nathan to David” (2 Sam. 12:1). Paul tells Timothy about the kind of man he must be when he deals with those who have wandered, “that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap” (2 Tim. 2:26). Think of the three parables Jesus told in Luke 15, of the lost sheep and the shepherd who went out and looked for him, and the lost coin and the women who sought for it, and the lost son, and the brother who stayed at home and did not go looking for him. It was a time of famine, but no one gave the lost boy anything, not even his own brother. I have told you about Life magazine many years ago featuring the story of the man whose pilot brother was shot down over Vietnam, and how he gathered all his money and went again and again to that country following up every possible lead to find his lost brother. He was known everywhere in that part of Vietnam as ‘the pilot’s brother.’ A murderer was asked the question, “Where is your brother?” (Gen. 4:9) and he lied when he answered, “I don’t know” because he did know. And he protested too much when he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Because though we are not our brother’s keeper we are our brother’s brother. James says, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth … someone should bring him back.”
How should he bring him back? What must be his manner? I think the Scripture insists on three characteristics.
i] He must be motivated by love for his neighbour. This is the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Now all of us are under the demands of that law, but if one is going to bring a wanderer back he must be known as a lover of his neighbour. Think of the case laws in the Old Testament where Moses is explaining to the people what it means to love your neighbour. Deuteronomy 22:4 “If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet.” If you don’t ignore the needs of his donkey, how much more his own needs! Exodus 23:4 “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him.” If you help your enemy, how much more your brother!
What is more difficult work than bringing back a brother? Confessing your own sin to someone you have offended? That is just as hard. I don’t know what is more difficult. A debate on that point would be like eavesdropping on a conversation Spurgeon had one day. You know that he had a very serious case of gout which came him out of his pulpit for periods of time, and he was approached by a man who claimed that his rheumatism was much more painful than Spurgeon’s gout. Spurgeon looked at him and said, “I’ll tell you the difference between rheumatism and gout: put your finger into a vice and turn it until you can’t stand the pain. That’s rheumatism. Now, give it three more turns; that’s gout!”
Bringing back wandering brothers, or confessing our sins to people we have badly treated are both assignments from which our flesh cringes. No assignment has been bungled more than restoring the waverer. If we do not love our neighbour then we will gossip about him, or kick him further down, or harshly drive him back, or give up on him entirely. The Bible commits us to the way of love. Look at a mother’s tenderness for her erring son, how patient she is, and how she puts him in the best light. Look at young David’s love for petulant Saul, even though his own life is threatened by the king he never stops loving him or wishing he would return.
Think especially of the Lord Jesus. How did he behave to his wandering disciples? Did he say, “You wait and see how they always let you down. Look at them, more concerned who should be greatest in the kingdom than learning from me. Look at Judas – I was always suspicious of that one from the first. And Peter, he sounds good but you wait until he’s under pressure, I’ll be watching.” Then they all run away when the soldiers come, and Peter denies him with curses. “There you are. I told you so,” said Jesus, “You can never trust men: they always let you down.” So he gave them all up and got a new lot, but he was just as cynical about them too.
God incarnate was not like that. He was not like that at all. Men are. They can always find some excuse when they see the inconsistent behaviour of some Christians, and they start to wander. But Jesus hung in with them, and kept loving Peter, and James, and John, and Judas too, and all of them. If he treated them as they wanted him to treat others who had offended them then he would have called down fire from heaven on them years earlier. But he loved them, and so was patient, and forgiving, and he won them back, except Judas, who was determined to sell him. That omission is salutary too. There is no guarantee that we are going to bring every wanderer back, but our judgment is not that we tried and failed, but that we did not try at all. So first of all he has to love his wandering neighbour.
ii] He must be conscious of the plank in his own eye. I am referring to the words of the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). The Saviour talks about the folly of one totally blind man actually leading another blind man, and the result being that they both fall into the ditch. But there is another folly even worse, and that is of the blind optician. How can he do anything to help another man see? If you want to take some minute speck out of another man’s eye make sure that you yourself can see clearly. In other words, to be qualified to handle men’s peccadilloes you must first deal with your own crimes. It is much easier to see other men’s problems than to deal with one’s own. It’s much easier to say, “He should be on a diet,” than to go on a diet oneself. It’s very common to have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others. Very often what men are doing is seeing their own faults in others, and judging them vicariously. So they experience the pleasure of self-righteousness without the pain of repentance. It is simply hypocrisy for some people to try to restore wandering Christians when they themselves have gone further still from the truth. So there must be no trace of exalting ourselves by disparaging others. Here is an apparent act of kindness – taking a speck of dirt out of someone eye – but the thing is being done so publicly that it has become an exercise in moral superiority. Dr Lloyd-Jones says, “One person goes to another as a would-be friend and says, ‘It is such a shame that this defect is in you.’ But, oh, the malice that is often displayed by such an action, and the pleasure that such a person often enjoys! No, says our Lord, if you really want to help other people, if you are genuine and true in this matter, there are certain things you have to do yourself. First – and we must notice this – first cast the beam out of thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to cast out the mote out of they brother’s eye.”
Paul once said, “If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged” (I Cor. 11:31). We need to apply to ourselves at least as strict and critical a standard as we apply to others. Then we’d escape the judgment of God, because we are doing what God requires of us. Then we would also be in a position to help the wanderer. We have removed the plank from our own eye and can see clearly to take the speck from another person’s eye. It is all a matter of our own spirit. We come to church and we want God to deal with us. I know we listen also through the ears of other people present, and rejoice that they are hearing these words, and we are so sorry other people are absent whom we know could be helped by them, but most of all we are saying as we listen to the Word, “Lord is it I? Am I the one that needs this word?” That is the spirit we bring to the Word, and only if we have that are we going to be able to help others who are wandering. He or she may be going through just some little winter season. It happens to all of us. But we may be in the land where it is winter for six months of the year. Examine yourself!
iii] He must gently bring him back. I am thinking of those familiar words in Galatians 6:1 “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Our gentleness should be evident to all men, Paul tells the Philippians (Phils. 4:5). They should all say about a professing Christian, there is no question about his gentleness. Christians are to be large-hearted people, courteous, considerate, generous, lenient and moderate. That is what the word means, the very opposite, in other words, of irritability and abrasiveness. If you have a short fuse you can’t begin to bring back a wanderer. This gentleness reflects Christ’s presence and power in your life. It honours the Lord and pleases him. It guards you, when you have the opportunity to speak, from speaking harshly, and that would make matters worse. Gentleness is contagious. The wanderer himself becomes more self-controlled in what he says.
He has a grievance against the preacher, and he makes some accusations, and the preacher doesn’t try to defend himself. He acknowledges the mistakes and he apologises, and then a change comes in the wanderer. He responds with kind words, and confesses that he hasn’t been the most easy person. He’s been touched by the gentleness, and he apologises too, and what could have been a real confrontation has been defused by gentleness into a time of real ministry and restoration.
So someone brings him back, and with neighbourly love, conscious of his own sins, and in gentleness.
3. There are the Most Blessed Consequences.
Again there are three mentioned:-
i] A man is saved from death: “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death”. Now there is an ambiguity in the original, and the NIV doesn’t like ambiguities, and so the translator will impose his interpretation instead of allowing the ambiguity to appear in the translation. He suggests that turning a sinner “will save the wanderer from death.” The Greek simply says that once the man is brought back by somebody, his soul has been saved from death and a multitude of sins have been covered. Whose soul is saved? Whose sins covered? Grammatically it could refer to either the man who brought him back or the man who has been restored. If it is the man brought back then that gives our feeble attempts to rescue the wanderer more urgency. If you wander and wander away from the truth then all your previous knowledge will do you no more good than the demons’ knowledge of the truth does them. You are going to die. Before you lies the horror of what the book of Revelation calls the second death. Don’t die twice. Stop wandering. Listen to our feeble words. We are not eloquent. We are nervous. We are sincere. There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin. There is a door into the eternal city on the sides of the north, south, east and west. That is, from right in front of you there is a door that is open today. It will not always be open. There is no door in the pit. But there is a way for you to return today. Come to yourself, and go back to the father’s house. I am your older brother and I have come looking for you. I don’t want you to die with the pigs, but to live with Jesus in paradise. Come from death to life. Cease your wandering and you will be saved from death.
If the words refer to the Christian who has gone looking for him and turning him from his sinful way then it is saying that this Christian persuader has been saved from death by going after the wanderer. If that is what James is saying, then we are not to think he is teaching that there is another way of salvation from death besides the royal sacrifice of the blessed Lamb of God. No one has ever been saved from hell because of the fact that once there was some wanderer they went looking for and found and brought back. The simple fact is that all such grand and glorious deeds are flawed by sin. There was some pride and some weakness in your search. That action itself needed forgiveness. You remember in “The Sound of Music” Marie sings of her happiness at finally marrying the Captain. She can’t get over her good fortune. Why should this have happened to her? She sings these words, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” Marriage to this handsome rich dude she believes to be God’s reward for forgotten good deeds she did done a decade earlier.
The Christian never thinks like that. All the wonderful things that happen to us both in this world and in the world to come are God’s response not to our good deeds but to the good works of Christ. God so loves his Son that the blessings we have have been bought for us by the Lord Jesus. The rewards we get are commensurate with God’s delight with his Son. Christ’s life and death cry to God, “Now follow that!” and everything we receive is a response to God’s pleasure with the Son of God. So when the patient praying Christian brings the wanderer back, and so is assured that he is saved from death, that action cannot be a means of his salvation, but it is a confirmation that he is being saved.
How do I know that I am saved from death? I believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Bible says that those who believe on the Lord Jesus are saved. But I must also answer that question like this: I am saved by repenting of my sin and following the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the Good Shepherd who looked for the sheep, and I do the same if I an following him. I steal myself away from my comfy armchair and the television programmes and find out why so-and-so is wandering from the Lord and bring him back. Only people saved from death act in that way, and confirmation that I am numbered amongst the saved is shown in the love of Christ in my heart that sends me out for the lost.
This is what the Lord Jesus was talking about when he said that if we lose our life we will save our life (Mark 8:35). And this is what Paul’s words to Timothy mean in I Timothy 4:16, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” We all understand the first part – faithful living and faithful teaching brings salvation to men and women. But Paul says – “it brings salvation to you too.” Here is a religious teacher who doesn’t watch his life, and doesn’t watch his doctrine – he’s a dead man. He’s pulled down into the second death many people with him. The only way people can be saved is by persevering in following Christ. The mother must persevere in being a Christian mother. The servant must persevere in being a Christian servant, and the preacher must persevere in being a Christian preacher. Only then can he be saved along with those he is preaching to.
So professing Christian you will be saved from death by your life as well as your faith in Christ. Isn’t this James’ constant theme – faith without works is dead? What would you think of a man who would sing loudly on a Sunday,
I was a wandering sheep,
I would not be controlled;
But now I love my Shepherd’s voice,
I love, I love the fold.
I was a wayward child,
I once preferred to roam;
But now I love my Father’s voice,
I love, I love His home.
And yet this man has no interest at all in other wandering sheep and wayward children? He couldn’t care less whether they returned from the distant city or died there. You would say about such a man that he was a hypocrite. He was deluding himself in thinking he had been found, because a sheep saved from death will seek to save other lost sheep from death.
ii] A multitude of sins will be covered over. Whether it refers to the wandering Christian who’s been brought back or the Christian seeker laying aside his carelessness and going out to find the wanderer we certainly know that their whole future life of unbelief and defiance and cold hearts and laziness against God never happens, and a multitude of potential sins are covered over. Saul of Tarsus’s life would have been that of the Great High Executioner of the church if he had not been saved. How many ugly actions bringing such pain into the lives of others would have happened if Saul had not been saved. All that was covered over. Maybe it means that. But I think it is something else.
Here is a Christian who is concerned about people. He sees a brother who wanders from the truth and he goes and brings him back. This man has been in the distant city; he has wasted days of his life and done unspeakable things. The Christian covers over all those sins, however many, however bad, he covers them over. He keeps them to himself. Love does that. We don’t tell people about the falls of other Christians. Love covers a multitude of sins. The restored man does not go on the religious circuit telling people what it was like to wander from the truth. He covers over his own sins. God because he loves us does that to us, and we do it to others. It’s the most God-like thing we can do.
iii] You have a multitude of good memories: verse 20, “remember this.” Think of the Christian full of regrets that he failed to seek and to save those who were lost. Think of the bad memories of the wanderer. But then consider the Good Samaritan, all he did for that man who had been half-killed, what memories of thankfulness and joy to take with you for the rest of your life. Good memories of lasting friendships. How precious in old age those memories. That’s not pride. It’s only grace that gave us concern and energy for the lost. If God himself rejoices at sinners who repent, shan’t we?
Thus this letter, so full of Christian priorities, comes to an end. All that remains is for us to do what it says, for the rest of our lives. We will close by singing Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “Give me the faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain” and note these verses:-
I would the precious time redeem
And longer live for this alone,
To spend and to be spent for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known;
Fully on these my mission prove
And only breathe to breathe Thy love.
Enlarge, inflame and fill my heart
With boundless charity divine;
So shall I all my strength exert
And love them with a zeal like Thine;
And lead them to Thy open side,
The sheep for whom their Shepherd died.
21st March 1999 Geoffrey Thomas