22—Saving a Soul from Death (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. (5:19–20)
These two verses form a fitting conclusion to the book of James. They express James’s primary objective in writing his epistle: to confront those in the assembly of believers who possessed false, dead faith. As already noted, the epistle does have an evangelistic emphasis, but one that is mainly directed toward professing believers in the church. James wrote, as did John in his first epistle, to call professed believers to examine their faith and make sure it is real. He was deeply concerned that no one be deceived about his salvation.
That concern originated with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 7:21–23 He warned,
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
Echoing the words of Jesus, James called for true, genuine saving faith. It is a frightening and tragic reality that throughout the church’s history there have always been tares among the wheat; rocky, shallow, thorny soils that produce no spiritual fruit; those who draw near to God with their words while their hearts are far from Him (Isa. 29:13); those for whom God is “near to their lips but far from their mind” (Jer. 12:2); those who are hearers of the Word, but not doers of it (James 1:22). To help people avoid being deceived, James has given a series of tests by which one’s faith can be evaluated. True saving faith is marked by its proper response to trials, temptations, the Word of God, and God’s standards for holy living (chapter 1); its response to people from various social classes and its manifestation of righteous deeds (chapter 2); by proper speech, wisdom, and by not being a friend of the world (chapter 3); by humility and submission to God’s will (chapter 4); by a proper view of money and by truthfulness (chapter 5). Those tests form the benchmarks against which a person’s faith can be measured.
At the very core of the epistle is an evangelistic invitation to those whose faith has failed the test. In 4:7–10 James exhorted those with false faith to
[s]ubmit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Those verses are a clear-cut evangelistic call to genuine salvation (cf. chapter 15 of this volume).
As he closes his epistle, James has one last salvation appeal to make. Unlike his appeal in 4:7–10, however, he is not here calling the unsaved to salvation. Instead, he calls on believers to evangelize the unsaved. The assumption throughout James’s epistle is that there will be those who identify with the church, but have dead, nonsaving faith. Here the writer calls on those with true saving faith to pursue such people. This is nothing less than a call to evangelism within the church.
These final verses provide four points to enable Christians to identify and help those in their midst who lack genuine saving faith: the evidence, the threat, the instrument, and the goal.
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth … he who turns a sinner from the error of his way (5:19a; 5:20b)
James uses the phrase my brethren (or brethren) in a general sense throughout his epistle (cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12). His usage is broad enough to include Jews, with whom he shared a common racial heritage, as well as all those who identify with the church. Here, as in 2:1 (where it also stands first in the sentence), the phrase my brethren refers to genuine believers and, as in 2:1, marks a sharp break in the flow of thought. There is no connecting link with the previous section (5:13–18); rather James is now turning to a new and final concluding thought. The concluding two verses describe a different group from the weary, weak, persecuted believers who need to be ministered to by the elders. To the ministry of restoring struggling believers James adds the ministry of reconciling the unsaved in the church.
The phrase if any among you also introduces this third category of people. In verse 13 this phrase described suffering Christians who needed to pray; in verse 14 it described weak, defeated Christians who needed the care of the elders. Here it describes professed believers who need to be called to true salvation by the rest of the fellowship. Sadly, such people are to be found in every church; Jesus promised as much in Matthew 13:20–23, 24–30, 37–43, 47–50. Among you indicates they are in the believing church, professing salvation. And every pastor knows the heartbreak caused by those who profess Christ yet turn their backs on Him, live in overt, blatant sin, or join a cult. Even Jesus had His Judas and Paul his Demas. Such people emerge last in James’s list because they have the greatest need and, as will be seen below, are in the gravest of all danger.
The Greek grammatical structure of the phrase if any among you strays from the truth indicates it is a possibility likely to happen. Strays is from planaō, which means “to wander,” “to go astray,” “to apostatize.” It is used to describe physical wandering, both in the Septuagint (e.g., Gen. 37:15; Ex. 14:3; 23:4; Deut. 22:1; 27:18; Job 38:41) and in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 18:12–13; Heb. 11:38). But it is often used of straying from spiritual truth, both in the Septuagint (e.g., Deut. 11:28; 30:17; Prov. 14:22; Isa. 9:15 [9:16 in the English text]; Ezek. 14:11), and in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 21:8; Heb. 3:10; 2 Pet. 2:15). It frequently describes the condition of the unsaved. In Matthew 22:29 Jesus said to the Sadducees who tried to trap Him, “You are mistaken [from planaō], not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.” “For we also once were foolish ourselves,” wrote Paul in Titus 3:3, “disobedient, deceived [from planaō], enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” Before we were saved, Peter noted, we were “continually straying [from planaō] like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).
The truth refers to the Word of God, primarily the gospel of salvation (cf. 1:18; 3:14). It is a sure mark of those whose faith is not genuine that they reject the truth of salvation and fall away doctrinally from “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” wrote the apostle John. “This is the antichrist [deceiver, false teacher], the one who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Later in his first epistle he added, “every spirit that does not confess [that] Jesus [has come in the flesh—v. 2] is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist” (4:3). On the other hand, Jesus taught that the mark of true disciples of His is that they continue in the Word (John 8:31).
When the false believer strays from God’s saving truth, he enters the error of his way [lifestyle, pattern of living]. Planē (error) is the noun form of the verb planaō, which is translated “strays” in verse 19; false faith results not only in an errant theology, but also an errant lifestyle. Those who reject God’s Word also reject the principles of godly living it teaches and shun the only power for obedience. Truth and virtue go together, as do falsehood and evil behavior. Despite any outward profession of faith they might make, those who live in open defiance of God’s revelation in Scripture do not belong to Him. In the poignant words of Jesus, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). If they do not repent, such people will one day hear from Jesus the shocking words “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).
James defines the wanderer from sound doctrine and godly living as a sinner (see comments on its use in 4:8)—a word used in Scripture of the unregenerate (cf. Prov. 11:31; 13:6, 22; Matt. 9:13; Luke 7:37, 39; 15:7, 10; 18:13; Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:9, 15; 1 Pet. 4:18), not believers. The term sinner frequently describes hardened unbelievers, those who openly, defiantly disregard God’s law; those whose evil character is apparent to everyone; those whose wickedness is common knowledge. Genesis 13:13 described the men of Sodom as “wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.” The opening verse of Psalms declares, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” (Ps. 1:1). Verse 5 of that same psalm adds, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.” Sinners are defined in Psalm 51:13 as those who need to be converted to God, while Proverbs 11:31 contrasts the wicked sinner with the righteous.
In the New Testament the term sinner invariably describes those outside the kingdom of God. Jesus declared in Matthew 9:13, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Sinners are those whose repentance causes joy in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10); it was when he cried out “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” that the tax collector “went to his house justified” (Luke 18:13–14). It was “while we were yet sinners” that “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); indeed, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
A sinner, then, is someone who is without God and Christ, and so in need of salvation; it is a word of characterization. The apostle John writes, “The one who practices sin is of the devil … No one who is born of God practices sin” (1 John 3:8, 9). While Christians may sin, sin will not be their continual, unbroken practice; it will not characterize their lives. A sinner, on the other hand, is one who continually, habitually practices sin. Such people John declared to be children of the devil, not of God.
In every church there are those who make shipwreck of their faith by straying from God’s truth. “They went out from us,” wrote John in 1 John 2:19, “but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” True believers are to pursue those whose faulty doctrine and sinful lives give evidence that they have departed from the true faith. Such defectors from the faith they claim to believe are to be warned relentlessly, as illustrated in the epistle to the Hebrews (2:3–4; 3:7–15; 4:1, 6–7; 5:12–6:9; 10:26–29).
will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (5:20c)
Realizing the terrible fate that awaits unrepentant sinners should motivate believers to call to salvation those who stray from the truth. Nothing less than each person’s eternal soul is at stake—his most priceless possession (cf. Mark 8:36–37). Psuchē (soul) refers to the whole person (the Septuagint uses it in Gen. 2:7), particularly the inner, immortal person who lives in the mortal body.
The threat facing the soul is death—eternal hell, the second death, the final state of the unrepentant sinner (cf. Matt. 13:40, 42, 50; 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43–49; 2 Thess. 1:8–9; Rev. 20:11–15; 21:8). God declared in Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul who sins will die” (cf. v. 20), while Jesus warned the unbelieving Jews, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (John 8:21; cf. 8:24). The ultimate end of sin, as James noted in chapter 1 of his epistle, is that it “brings forth death” (1:15). In the oft-quoted words of the apostle Paul, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). In one of the most terrifying passages in Scripture, the apostle John wrote, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death [physical death being the first death]” (Rev. 21:8; cf. 20:11–15; Isa. 66:24; Dan. 12:2; 2 Thess. 1:8–9). It is an often overlooked truth that Jesus spoke more of hell than He did of heaven. (In Matthew alone He spoke of hell in 5:22, 29–30; 7:19; 8:12; 10:28; 13:40–42; 18:8–9; 22:13; 23:33; 25:41, 46.)
Those with false faith, who have chosen their own way over God’s, must heed the warning of Proverbs 14:12 or be damned: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” The deeply serious threat the sinner faces is spiritual death—eternal separation from God in hell.
Unrepentant sinners face eternal death weighed down with a multitude of sins. Since even one sin damns the sinner to hell, James’s use of the word multitude emphasizes the hopeless condition of sinners. Throughout their lives they accumulate a weight of sin that ultimately will pull them down into hell. In Psalm 5:10 David wrote of the godless wicked, “Hold them guilty, O God; by their own devices let them fall! In the multitude of their transgressions thrust them out, for they are rebellious against You” (cf. Isa. 59:12; Jer. 5:5–6). “Because of [their] stubbornness and unrepentant heart[s they] are storing up wrath for [themselves] in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). Nor is there any unbeliever who is free from the crushing weight of sin:
There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. 3:10–18)
But unrepentant sinners in the church will be more guilty than the worst sinners who never professed Christ:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–29)
one … him … he (5:19b; 5:20b)
James’s use of the above three pronouns defines the agents God uses to recover straying sinners; it is the task of all believers, not merely the pastors and elders. The apostle Paul echoed that truth in 2 Corinthians 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. The realization that those who knowingly reject Christ face a severer judgment (cf. Luke 12:47–48) should spur believers to evangelize the lost within the church.
In Luke 19:10 the Lord Jesus Christ defined His messianic mission when He said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” and His church is to follow His example (Matt. 28:19–20). The salvation of lost, doomed sinners brings joy to heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). Believers have the great privilege of participating in the ministry of reconciliation that prompts that eternal joy.
one turns him back … he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (5:19b; 5:20c)
The goal of reaching out to a false believer in the church is simple: to [turn] him back. Epistrephō (turns him back; turns) is used frequently in the New Testament to speak of the sinner’s conversion to God (e.g., Luke 1:16, 17; Acts 9:35; 14:15; 26:18, 20; 2 Cor. 3:16; 1 Pet. 2:25). Matthew 18:3 uses a related Greek verb when it records the words of Jesus: “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In Acts 3:19 Peter urged his audience to “repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away.” Paul commended the Thessalonians because they “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). James uses epistrephō in this passage to speak of turning people from false belief and evil behavior to genuine saving faith.
Save translates sōzō, the most common New Testament word for salvation (e.g., Matt. 1:21; 18:11; 19:25; Luke 8:12; 9:56; 19:10; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; Acts 2:21, 40, 47; 11:14; 16:31; Rom. 5:9–10; 10:9, 13; 1 Cor. 1:18, 21; 2 Cor. 2:15; Eph. 2:5, 8; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2:4; Titus 3:5). In four of its five uses in James it refers to salvation (cf. 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; in 5:15 it refers to restoring weak, struggling Christians). Turning to God in repentance results in salvation; He will then cover the multitude of sins the repentant sinner has committed. In Psalm 32:1 David exclaimed, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” The writer of Psalm 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). In the words of the familiar hymn “Grace Greater Than Our Sin,”
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
As the hymn writer correctly notes, only the death of Christ can provide forgiveness of sin (Eph. 1:7; 2:8–9). God casts believers’ sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), removing them as far from us as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
God has granted to all believers the ministry of reconciling wandering souls to Himself. When the evidence indicates a professed believer’s faith is not real, true Christians, knowing the terrible threat of eternal death that person faces, must make it their goal to turn him back from his sin to genuine saving faith in God.
By so doing they will exhibit true wisdom, for “he who is wise wins souls” (Prov. 11:30).