April 15, 2008

Turning the Sinner from Error: James 5:19-20

The book of James is full of instruction about practical matters of how to live as a Christian:

Trials lead to patience and endurance

Trust God; He does not vary or turn

Anger does not produce righteousness

Genuine faith produces works

Love others as you love yourself

Don’t show partiality (race, wealth)

Heavenly, not worldly, treasure

Prayer can be very effective

Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger

Be doers of the Word

Works should be done in meekness of wisdom

The tongue can produce good or evil

Loving the world is enmity toward God

Don’t speak negatively about each other

Do you want wisdom? Ask God and it will be given to you

Be involved in each other’s lives

It’s that final point—be involved in each other’s lives—that James dwells on throughout the book and elaborates on briefly in the final two verses: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

James is addressing a situation that has existed in the church almost from its inception: people associated with the church who are not true believers. Throughout the book James has made the point that if one truly has faith, he or she will show it in the way he or she lives. Genuine faith, he says, produces works; that is, a definite way of living that shows by our behavior what’s inside us spiritually. Our way of life, in other words, is the evidence of our faith. Conversely, someone whose way of life reflects the world’s values and not Christian works is not truly a person of faith, regardless of his or her claims to the contrary.

As a former businessman before becoming a pastor, I once worked with someone who I think may be a good example of dissonance between the faith he claimed and the life he led. He made it a point to tell everyone he was a Christian. He was a member of a church but had not attended any church in years. We occasionally had discussions about spiritual matters, and during one of those discussions one time he once told me he thought Christianity is something mainly for Americans. That discussion took place early in 2002, when two young missionaries who had just made it out of Afghanistan were in the news. He offered his opinion that they should not have been there in the first place, because we should not be so presumptuous as to interfere with people in other cultures. One of the reasons, he said, is because they were not Americans. Being born American, he added, is a sign of God’s blessing. Not surprisingly, there were other aspects of his life that were not in sync with his professed faith, including a reputation among associates for occasional unethical business practices. But casual acquaintances tended to see him as a person of faith.

Another of my former business associates also comes to mind, a person whose life was consumed with acquiring money. He often reminded anyone who would listen that he was a Christian. I once invited him to our church and described how the people in our small church interact during the sermon, asking questions, discussing various aspects of the lesson, and expressing their thoughts. He declined the invitation, saying he preferred a large church because he could be more or less anonymous and no one would interfere with his life.

Most Christians can think of people in their lives whose lifestyles and behaviors are out of character compared to the faith they profess, people who profess to be Christians but are not, according to James’ standard of faith producing works. In some cases, it’s obvious. In others, it may be less apparent.

We also know that James is referring to these people in the early church by his use of the word “sinner” in v. 20. In the New Testament, that word is used only to refer to someone who is not saved, the person who is still the servant of a sinful nature, whose lifestyle demonstrates his or her self-centeredness.

So James ends his book with some instructions: what to do about professing believers who stray from the truth. His answer is the same as elsewhere in the book: get involved, address the problems, bring them to the true faith.

Professing Christians who are not true believers will wander from the truth (19)

This is a recurring theme in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy, for example, Paul draws a line between the teacher who understands and teaches the truth and false teachers who are not really part of the message of truth: “And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’”

Notice that Paul cites the same standard as James about how to recognize a true Christian: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” In other words, real faith produces works of righteousness, not evil.

In 1 Timothy 1:18-20, he draws a similar line: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Note the contrast between the Christian (“having faith and good conscience”) and the one who only professes Christianity (“having rejected” [the faith] who “concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck”). Paul, an apostle, says he delivered them to Satan, a fate not possible for the true Christian.

The psalmist in Psalm 119:117-118 draws a similar contrast: “Hold me up, and I shall be safe, And I shall observe Your statutes continually. You reject all those who stray from Your statutes, For their deceit is falsehood.”

The authentic believer strives to observe all that God wants, while the one who does not truly believe does not. God holds up the one and rejects the other. Paul prophesied that unbelief would be a problem in the latter days of the church age. In 1 Timothy 4:1-2, he writes: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, . . .” He is talking about professing believers who are not really true believers at all, who will be prone to following “doctrines of demons.” Paul’s concern was that these people may lead others to follow them and their teachings. Christians can know them by the fact they do not teach the truth and their lives are hypocritical; that is, as James might say, their false faith does not produce works of righteousness.

Paul also gives the standard we should use with each other. He says it pretty bluntly in Titus 1:15-16: “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.”

Again, we come face to face with the fact that true faith produces works of righteousness, versus false faith, which is defiled: “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him.”

Christians are called on to teach the truth to everyone (19-20)

Verse 19 is action-oriented. Throughout this book, James has told us repeatedly to get involved with each other; as Christians to admonish, encourage, and correct each other. Frankly, that’s kind of uncomfortable in our culture. Now, in verse 19, he reminds us of a primary job God has given us: to tell the good news of the Savior to the unsaved.

In this case, the unsaved are people we know, not someone on a far-off mission field. Not only that, but they are already familiar with the Christian message but are prone to wander from it without having yielded to Christ as Lord. One of the facts we in our church have learned over and over in the last few years of Bible studies is that we can know a Christian not by his or her talk, but by his or her walk of faith. Through Paul, the Holy Spirit reveals that every human being is a bondservant, either to sin or to Christ as Lord. He writes in Romans 6:18: “Having been set free from sin, you became slaves [bondservants] of righteousness.” That is an apt description. Bondservants obey their masters, do their master’s will, and, in fact, devote their lives to serving the master.

Verse 20 tells us our witness is vitally important. This is true whether we are witnessing to a stranger, a neighbor, or to one who professes to be a Christian but whose life causes us to doubt. Perhaps that is the most difficult witnessing situation. Just as we have been told to go into all the world and preach the gospel, James here is reminding us not to ignore the unsaved who may even be churchgoers, people we know who are familiar with the gospel but not living according to it or may not even profess belief, people whom God wants just as desperately to forgive and save as he wants for people in a far-off mission field.


I was once one of those people. Back in the late 1970s, we attended church, and I was an usher, member of the board, and a Sunday school teacher. I liked to discuss religion with an acquaintance, who was part of another church. I didn’t know much about the Bible, except that it contained things like loving others and being moral. One evening we were talking about the rapture, and he finally said, “Why are you so interested? Jesus isn’t coming back for you, because you’re not saved.” That led in a few months to my salvation.

Maybe that's too blunt an approach for most people we may know, but he definitely did what James is telling us to do. I knew a little about the truth but was not saved. He helped lead me, a churchgoing sinner who professed to have faith, from error, and God saved me.

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