The Expository Files

Responding To The Wanderer
James 5:19-20

“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,” (Jas. 5:19-20).

The Danger: Wandering from the truth.

To wander is “to ramble here and there without any certain course or with no definite object in view; to range about; to stroll; to rove; as, to wander over the fields,” (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary). In this verse the word identifies a departure or erring from divine truth (see ASV, “err from the truth”). God reveals truth to man for man’s salvation and guidance, and unto His glory. For that purpose to be achieved, man’s response must be to obey the truth (see 1 Pet. 1:2). Failure to obey the truth yields the consequence of “tribulation and anguish,” (see Rom. 2:9). Now the Bible teaches, even though you may offer an initial obedient response to the gospel, if you later stop obeying the truth – that wandering from the truth brings you back to the outcomes of “tribulation and anguish.” It is possible to embrace the truth of the gospel and be baptized into Christ, but wander from the truth at some point after baptism and be lost (2 Pet. 2:21-22; Gal. 5:1-6). Note twelve examples of how this might occur: (1) by dishonesty (Acts 5:3); (2) by returning to the world (2 Tim. 4:10), (3) by thinking and asking for what you have no right to have (Acts 8:19), (4) by causing strife (1 Cor. 3:1-4), (5) by involvement in sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1), (6) by silent endorsement of sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:9), (7) by advancing or embracing another gospel (Gal. 1:6-12), (8) by involvement in any work of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21), (9) by letting a false teacher defraud you of your reward (Col. 2:18), (10) by indifference (Rev. 3:16), (11) teaching error (2 Pet. 2:1), (12) failure to grow (2 Pet. 3:18). Clearly, there is this danger of wandering from the truth. The purpose and prayer of every Christian should be: “Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” (Psa. 119:10b).

“The case supposed is the apostasy of a professing Christian. We must notice, at the outset, the supreme importance which our apostle ascribes here, and throughout his Epistle (James 1:18, 21-23; 3:14), to ‘the truth.’ He strikes as loyal a note as Paul does, regarding the necessity of ‘consenting’ to sound doctrine if one would live the Christian life. He assumes that all backsliding is aberration from the truth. His words cover both forms which apostasy may take — errors of creed and of conduct.” (Pulpit Commentary, C. Jerdan)

Those at Risk: Anyone.

Everyone should give heed to this, whoever we are! Years of experience afford no exemption from apostasy. Popularity or status among brethren not only provides no safety, but may in some cases increase temptation. Based on everything the Bible says about the devil, we should know – as soon as we deceive ourselves into thinking we have arrived, he sees an opportunity to destroy us. Every Christian should regularly confess what Paul admitted: “…I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 3:13-14). We must always count ourselves at risk, vulnerable to the subtle assaults of the devil. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world,” (1 Pet. 3:8,9). “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall,” (1 Cor. 10:12).

The Rescue: Someone turns him back.

This is the seeking of the faithful to recover the unfaithful. This is prompted by the same motive as in Galatians 6:1 – “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” And this is the spirit illustrated by the Lord when He told this story: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7). The instruction is not, to whisper and gossip about the wanderer, but to appeal to the sinner to repent. The action required is the faithful use of the Word to convict and convince the sinner to come back (1 Tim. 4:16). {Consider, the tongue is an instrument of evil, as described in Jas. 3. Here, the tongue can be applied to higher use as we speak the truth in love to save the erring.}

The Aim: Save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

 The aim is not a medal on your chest or a feather in your cap. The aim is not simply numerical recovery for the group. The work of recovering the sinner is to save a soul from death and thereby prevent (in the sinner’s repentance), the multitude of sins that would be practiced in the absence of repentance. The “death” of this verse must be spiritual death (separation from God by sin), for that is the only kind of “death” that one can be saved from in repentance. “No duty laid upon Christians is more in keeping with the mind of their Lord, or more expressive of Christian love, than the duty of reclaiming the backslider,” (R.V.G. Tasker).

“ ‘Let him know,’ (ver. 20). These animating words express the main thought in the text. The Christian worker must not forget that to restore an erring soul is one of the noblest of achievements. It is a far grander triumph than even to save a man’s natural life. Let him remember this for his comfort in thinking of the work which he has already done, and for his encouragement in seeking to do more. It is inspiring to realize that one has plucked brands from the everlasting burning, and helped to add new jewels to Immanuel’s crown. God works for this end; and as often as it is gained, there is joy in heaven in the presence of the angels. For this the apostles labored. For this the martyrs bled. For this evangelists toil.” (Pulpit Commentary, C. Jerdan).

By Warren E. Berkley
 From Expository Files 10.12; December, 2003