“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
(James 5:19-20 NIV)
Today our hearts are both blessed and saddened as James wraps up his letter to the churches (and to us). James’ theme and message have been consistent: Examine your life and make sure you’re truly a follower of Jesus Christ.
James begins with his familiar term of endearment (“brothers and sisters”) as his signal that he is changing subjects again. James was speaking about prayer; now he concludes his letter and gives a final thought about living for Christ.
Throughout his letter to the churches, James has issued a series of tests that church members could use to see if their faith in Christ was genuine or counterfeit. Just like today, and like the churches in James’ day, there would also be those individuals who would come to church, even get involved and become part of the community, but then leave for whatever reason. They might just quit going altogether, or they might get involved in some other religious group or movement that does not name the name of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
What does James say about them? That they wander from the truth.
And what does James say we should do? Go after them, don’t let them wander.
Jesus used a similar illustration when he talked about the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7. Luke says the shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to search and find the lost lamb. Notice the shepherd’s attitude toward the sheep. Does he yell at the sheep, or scold the sheep for wandering off?
No. Jesus says the shepherd joyfully carries the sheep home and calls the neighbors to celebrate that the lost sheep has been found.
And so it is with those who wander away from God’s truth: we are to go after them, to love on them, show them the way back to the Lord. Some may choose not to return; some will choose to humble themselves and submit their lives to the Lord.
James uses the term “sinner” to identify that one who wanders from the truth as one who has not committed their life to Christ. They may have been coming to church for a long time, lived a moral life, even participated in the church community and activities, but never committed themselves to the Lord.
James says that when we go after the ones who wander away, and that person comes to Christ, that we rescue them from death. We don’t save them; only God can do that. But we can be the human agent that helps them along the way to salvation.
James also says that our actions as believers can have a huge impact on others, changing the very course of their lives. James says that when we reach out to others who are wandering and they come to Christ, that we can cover a multitude of sins in their lives.
Peter expressed a similar truth in his letter:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
(1 Peter 4:8 NIV)
Do we care enough to go after those who wander from the faith, and who may have never come to Christ in the first place? Or are we so wound up in our own little worlds that we don’t even notice that there are those who are lost and wandering off all around us?
I leave you with the words to an old hymn, along with the back story that so beautifully illustrates this heart for others:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
Though they are slighting Him, still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly, plead with them gently;
He will forgive if they only believe.
Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
Rescue the perishing, duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide;
Back to the narrow way patiently win them;
Tell the poor wand’rer a Savior has died.
(Rescue the Perishing, by Fanny Crosby, 1869; follow the link for the story that inspired the hymn)