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 sould from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
In James 5:19-20 we find a fitting conclusion to the entire book. In these last two verses we find James’ primary purpose for writing this letter: to deal with those who had attached themselves to the Christian community by claiming to be followers of Jesus yet had fake faith. Throughout the entire letter James spoke directly to these people who were just pretenders. In 1:8 James addressed the individual who prayed, but did not believe God could answer that prayer. In 1:22-28 James rebukes the individual who listens to God’s Word but does not act on it, and then James goes on to describe what true religion really is. In 2:1 & 13 James exposed the individuals who claimed to be the recipients of God’s mercy, but were not showing mercy to others. In 3:13-15 James revealed the uselessness of earthly wisdom. In 4:4 James’ confrontation of the pretenders reached is climax when James wrote that “friendship with the world is hostility toward God…” and, “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” It is clear that James fervently called on these individuals to examine their lives, and repent unto Jesus.Here in vv. 19-20 James makes one final plea, but this plea is not to the pretenders. This time James’ plea is to the community of true believers. James’ plea is that those who have real faith are to find these pretenders and try to turn them back to the Gospel.
I. Pursue those among us who will stray away. (v. 19)
a. If some among us strays… In v. 19 James begins his plea to the true Christian with a hypothetical situation. James writes “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back…” In this hypothetical situation James is clearly addressing the true believers of the community because he uses the phrase “my brethren.” But who are these individuals who stray from the truth? The first thing that we see is that these individuals were a part of the Christian community in some way. James tells the true Christians that these individuals are “among you.” Does this mean that James is talking about true Christians who have strayed away from their faith? I do not think so for several reasons. First, if we looked ahead to the next verse we will see that if these straying individuals turn back their soul will be saved from death. This means that unless they turn back (repent) they will face eternal death because of sin. This person could not be a Christian because Christians have been delivered from this death. And the bible is clear that once you have become a Christian and God has adopted you into His family you can be assured that God will save you from eternal death. In John 10:28-29 Jesus was talking about true believers when he said:
and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
In Romans 8:29-30 the apostle Paul went to great lengths to show that God will complete what He has begun in the life of believers:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Because God has promised to preserve true believers until the return of Jesus when He will glorify them we know that James is not talking about true believers here.
So what is James talking about? James is talking about those individuals who claimed to be Christians and fellowshipped with the Church but were not truly converted. Sadly, despite their claim to be followers of Jesus they were still in need of salvation. In 1 Peter 2:25 Peter used this same word, straying, to refer to individuals before their conversion:
For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
We can be quite confident that James is not talking about a true believer who has lost his salvation, but is talking about someone who looked like a true believer but proved to be a pretender.
We all know the type of person that James has in mind here. They come to church and youth group; they might even answer some questions in Sunday school. But when it comes time to put their faith to action and live out what they claim to believe they are always straying away from what the bible teaches. In this book and in these verses James is pleading with these individuals to take a long look and their life to see if their claim to be a Christian is true or not.
b. If some one strays from the truth…
James gives us a good indication of whether or not a person is a pretender in v. 19 as well. James says that these individuals have strayed from the truth. The truth refers to all aspects of truth that are contained in the Gospel. It refers to both sound doctrine, and obedience to the commands of Scripture. This truth that James refers to is not only something that is to be believed, but it is also something that is to be done. This means that we must understand the Gospel, and we must respond in obedience to the Gospel. In John 14:21 Jesus made this point when he said
“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”
So we must have, or understand, the teachings of Jesus and we must keep, or do, Jesus’ commandments. The pretenders that we find in this verse had strayed and they were not fulfilling this requirement. Because James says that they strayed from the truth it is likely that they had the commandments, but they were not keeping the commandments. Remember these individuals were claiming to be Christians so there is little doubt that they were at least familiar with the teachings of Jesus. However, despite having an understanding of these teachings they did not obey them. This proved that they did not truly love Jesus, and that Jesus had not disclosed himself to these individuals.
These individuals had claimed to be a part of the church, they had the teachings of Jesus, but by their actions they had strayed from the truth. At the end of v. 19 James brings up the entire point of this passage when he writes, “and one turns him back.” In v. 20 we will see exactly why this was so important.