James 5:19-20 – Care in the community…of the Church


                                         …of the Church!


James 5:19-20.




A long time since we looked at James [8 weeks] – in a moment will look back an remind ourselves of some of the main themes of James’s letter.


Looking at these last two verses it may seem an unusual and rather abrupt way of ending a letter. We will hopefully see that it is in fact a the writer’s deep love and pastoral concern for his readers. It is also in keeping with the whole tenor of his letter.


Why did James write this letter in the first place?

It is a letter written to the church in general – it is not addressed to just one congregation although it seems clear that he has specific situations in mind as he writes. He has addressed many issues in this letter:-

  • difficult situations – trials – hard times in general as part of normal Christian living.
  • quarrels and fights within the church
  • the rich use their wealth and power to exploit
  • snobbery in the church – favouritism
  • the use . or rather misuse of the tongue – criticism and grumbling
  • lack of :- wisdom – patience – submission to God
  • inconsistency between belief and action [ a major theme ‘… faith and deeds …’]


James’s concerns throughout the letter are that his readers will grow to become mature believers in the Lord Jesus – He wants them to live a GOOD LIFE —

James 3:13

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (NIV)


This good life is not simply a socially respectable life – the good life is to be controlled by wisdom and this wisdom James has told us comes from above – it is godly wisdom.


The first requirement for this good life is spiritual birth – without spiritual life there will never be godly life no matter how socially respectable we may be! But then there must be growth and development of spiritual character which manifests itself in practical action.


Clearly some of James’s readers were not living up to this expectation – some had ‘..wandered from the truth..’ – given the catalogue of issues James has addressed in this letter coupled with this concern for these wanderers we probably have the main reason why James writes this letter.


His pastoral concern is very evident – not only here for these wanderers but throughout the whole letter by the use of the endearing term “brothers” [ generic term – brothers and sisters]




This wandering from the truth is not a reference to momentary slips – he is referring to something that has become a pattern of life.


The greatest danger is that it is so subtle – ‘wander’ is a good translation – it is not a sudden rejection of Christian belief, nor an impetuous rebellion, – it is a gradual and imperceptible drifting.


ILLUS. It is not roaring away from the quayside in a high-powered motor launch but it is the slow loosening of the moorings and just drifting on the tide.


When the Bible speaks of Truth it is never an abstract concept detached from life.

The verses before us James 5:19-20

19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (NIV)


Moving away from the truth affects the way he lives – What we believe will ultimately determine how we behave. Christian Truth is not simply credal statements in our heads – when we sincerely believe something it will change our lives.


That is what the Bible teaches – but we only have to look to our society to see the evidence of this.

Over the past 30-40 years have seen some prominent Church leaders distance themselves from the authority of scripture — pussy-foot when it come to moral issues that the Bible is quite clear about. At the same time there has been a withdrawal of people from the Church – It wasn’t that they were all there one week and gone the next; it was a gradual drifting and churches began to die a slow death.

Sunday school attendance has plummeted over the same period with a corresponding rise in juvenile delinquency.


What we believe and how we live belong together – it is absolute foolishness to think that we can have Christian standards without Christian convictions.


But what about you??

Are you one of these wanderers? There was a time when you were enthusiastic about being a Christian – when you were involved in prayer and study – you had a concern for your fellow-Christians and for your unbelieving friends and family BUT NOW …??? Things have gone cold, you are too busy with work or your family or your house or maybe you just can’t be bothered – you still come to church but for how much longer???


Maybe you show no outward signs of wandering from the truth – after all you still believe everything in the Statement of faith; you are still involved in Church life BUT it is just the kind of dead religion that James has spoken about in this letter.


It is so easy to drift away – it seldom begins with some outrageous, scandalous sin BUT rather slowly, insidiously, quietly. None of us can ever be complacent about this thinking it won’t happen to ‘me’.

Paul gives us a stern warning in

1 Corinthians 10:12 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (NIV)


How do we know if we have wander from the truth – or if someone else has??

There isn’t one way!!

Blanchard p.396. [a variety of ways to wander..]

  • doctrinally – failure to apply oneself to scripture
  • morally – letting standards slip
  • church life – not contributing properly to the work and worship of the Church family
  • Christian service – what Paul calls ‘weary in doing good’ [Gal.6:9]
  • home life – failing as a parent /or child
  • in your inner soul – when your love for God dwindles away


Remember that we are not talking about momentary slips and one-off errors but something that has become a pattern of life. Our pattern of life is profoundly affect by what we believe – when our belief in the truth of God’s Word slips our lives start on a downward slide


John Bird puts is very well “They [wanderers] believed in the authority and inspiration of the Word of God, but at some point departed from that faith and soon lowered the standard of living and their lives cave in. When we tun aside from the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, we are soon left with no anchor and very little assurance. We begin to question the purpose of things and lose the true perspectives of life. If we turn aside from the Lordship of Christ it will not be long before we compromise our position as Christians and begin to live worldly lives. When the doctrine of sin is lost sight of, we begin to excuse ourselves for some of the things we do, and our ethical and moral standards are lowered. When the reality of the doctrine of hell is passed over and the doctrine of universalism is substituted, we miss the true meaning of Christ’s death and lose any compassion we may have had for the dying souls of men [and women]. When we neglect the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, then we begin to work in the energy of the flesh and our power in service is lost. When we fail to recognise the meaning of the doctrine and function of the Church, we become sectarian and begin to treat it as a religious club. ……..So I may go on. We cannot gather grapes of thorns. nor figs of thistles, and we cannot expect our to be right if our doctrine is wrong.” [Faith that works p.122-123].


We cannot possibly maintain a Christian lifestyle / Christian standards without Christian Truth. Not our own limited understanding of the Truth but the Word of God to which we must come again and again with the desire before God that His Word will constantly challenge and change our lives so that we don’t become slaves to our human traditions.

There are many who have wandered from God by binding themselves to the drifting traditions and rules of religion rather than to the immovable Truth of God.




The exact spiritual status of a ‘wanderer’ is difficult to establish from our human perspective. The term often used is ‘backslider’ – this issue has sparked a huge debate in Christianity for centuries –

Is it possible for someone who is a Christian – who has experience this new spiritual birth that James has written about to now cease to be a Christian?


NO! Those who belong to Christ are safe! Jesus taught that once a person belongs to Him he/she cannot cease to belong to Him.

John 10:27-30 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (NIV)


It seems that James has in mind Christian who slip away for a time but who are ultimately brought back.


But there are always those within every fellowship whose profession of faith is not real and who haven’t yet experience the gift of spiritual life in Jesus. In time this often becomes evident.


The difficulty from our human perspective it that we can only see the outward life and very often the backslider and the pseudo-Christian are seen to be wandering.

The fact is that the only evidence that we have of each other is what we profess with our lips and live in our lives. We cannot see in the hearts of another nor do we know what God knows. We are therefore bound to reach out to all who wander.


Two phrases James uses about restoring the wanderer –


‘.. save his soul from death ..’

‘ .. cover over a multitude of sins ..’


‘.. save his soul from death ..’ [ref., to spiritual death] – We have already seen that once you have received salvation you can’t loose it – so what does this mean? It is a notoriously difficult verse to explain.


The explanation that seems to make most sense to me is this:-

Alec Motyer these verses “are not written from the point of view of what God knows about us, nor from the point of view of what we know about ourselves but from the point of view of our fellow Christians observing our lives and hearing our talk. To them the evidence of backsliding in our lives must call into question whether we are truly Christ’s or not.”




The only way I can tell whether or not you are a Christian is by what you say and do. If the evidence points to a slipping away then we can only question whether such a one is a Christian all and therefore needs salvation – if such a person is brought back it is because of the Holy Spirit’s work in their life — whether of salvation or restoration but only God will know the difference. Form our limited perspective the person has been saved from death.


‘ .. cover over a multitude of sins ..’

covering is the basic Biblical idea for dealing with sin – not sweeping under the carpet – atonement i.e. dealing with the sin by sufficient sacrifice.


ILLUS.: think in terms of ‘cover’ in a financial deal – money put aside for something in the future – we say “That will cover it” – so when the bill comes it is paid and forgotten.


to cover means a totally sufficient payment.

Two main aspects to salvation

  • – the once-for-all, unrepeatable experience of justification – our standing before God of all sins past, present and future – at salvation
  • the need to seek daily forgiveness – this is what James has in mind here.


When a wanderer is brought back the number of sins doesn’t matter – Jesus death covers them all even if they are a multitude.


If you sitting here today thinking – “Will he accept me – how can I recover from all I’ve done??!” there is cover for all – Christ’s death deals with ALL sin – ALL!!


If you have wandered come with a prayer like David’s

Psalm 51:12

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.


When God forgives – it is complete – he doesn’t dig them up again and remind you of past failings as we are prone to do to each other “I remember ….” God is not like that!!


So with David we can say ….

Psalm 32:1

Blessed is he

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered. (NIV)


If you are a wanderer – there is a way back – Christ’s death deals with ALL sin!

If you are one who has never know this spiritual life in Christ – there is and open invitation to come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness!




James uses the vaguest words in these verses – ‘ .. one of you .. someone … whoever…’


None of us is beyond wandering – live guardedly!!

Who is to go after these wanderers?? No mention of a special ecclesiastical recovery squad! – there is no special group of priests – not exclusively the job of the elders or deacons!!


Caring for each other – watching out for each other’s spiritual well-being is the responsibility of each and every one of us!

Not constant interference and being a ‘nosey-parker’ – but a genuine concern – where there is accountability to each other – where we can challenge each other saying “Hey! I think you are going down the wrong road here!”


That happens best is a close relationship – when you know someone is really concerned for you it is much easier to take correction from them.


ILLUS.: I can take criticism from Janet far better than I can from anyone else – because however hard the criticism I know she loves me.


The idea in James’s mind is not to cut the wander down – to show them up – to parade their weaknesses in public – that is the character of the tabloid press.


Our purpose is to lovingly restore – maybe a secondary meaning of ‘covering a multitude of sins’ is to keep to ourselves those weaknesses and faults we know about others. Don’t parade them – don’t ‘share’ them with others!!


When we see someone wandering from the truth our task is to pursue them, to care for them, to rescue them — with no publicity or fanfares!!


1 Peter 4:8 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (NIV)


Is it not God alone who can restore a wanderer?


I can’t bring some back – cover sins – save them from death – Surely only God can do all that!!   How can I do these things??


Of course we cannot!! BUT we should act as if we could!!


This should be an indication for our concern and effort for those in spiritual need.

  • We cannot convert anyone BUT we should do everything in our power to bring them to Jesus!
  • We cannot save anyone from death BUT we should work for there spiritual welfare as if their eternal destiny rested upon us!!
  • We cannot cover sins BUT we need to follow the example of Jesus who did not selfishly preserve himself but sacrificed for others.


We are so polite in British society – so superficially friendly – consequently when we see someone wandering off we feel it inappropriate to interfere.


We are responsible for each other before God! We live in a society that says ‘You are free to do what you want — it is your choice!”


We are not free to do as we please – we are responsible to God — we are responsible to each other – we are responsible for each other!


If we can’t show care in the community of the Church we will not be very attractive to the community in which we live.


  • James calls us to hold unswervingly to the TRUTH and to live so that our words and actions reflect the truth we believe.




                                                   … OF THE CHURCH


JAMES 5:19 – 20





       not a sudden rejection of Truth

           but a gradual, subtle drifting from Truth


       Biblical Truth is never abstract

          – never detached from living





       Wanderer – a backslider or an unbeliever?


       –Restoring – “… save his souls from death …”

                           – “… cover a multitude of sins …”





       “someone” can wander

        “anyone” can bring back a wanderer

        ultimately only God can restore a wanderer


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