When James, half-brother to the Lord, penned his epistle, the youthful church was already in need of instruction on dealing with the unfaithful. Straying sheep are no new phenomenon! He concluded with these words: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20, ESV). Several points can be made by breaking down those verses into smaller segments.
The scope is sweeping (“My brothers, if anyone among you…”). With “brothers,” James obviously addresses Christians, and “anyone” would potentially include every Christian. In other words, none is immune to the possibility of sin and consequential destruction. James disproves the Calvinistic doctrine of once-saved-always-saved. New converts can sin (Acts 8:22). Elders can sin (1 Tim. 5:19-20). Even apostles could sin (Gal. 2:11). Understanding the possibility is part of guarding against the danger.
The truth can be trampled (“…wanders from the truth…”). You cannot wander from where you never were. You cannot leave truth if you were never in it. You cannot give up truth if you never possessed it. Thus, James is discussing those who at one time were in the truth (i.e. saved). To wander from the gospel implies God’s truth is not worth the effort to live it. If we fail to properly value the gospel, then we risk becoming like pigs which trample underfoot expensive pearls (cf. Matt. 7:6; Heb. 10:29). Truth deserves better treatment than that.
The reachable can be rescued (“…and someone brings him back…”). Sadly, not everyone can be reached. As a piece of meat can be seared to lock in its juices, so a conscience can be seared—through practice of sin—to lock out godly sorrow, which leads to repentance (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2; 2 Cor. 7:10). Some former Christians abandon the Lord with such determination they can never be reclaimed (Heb. 6:4-6). But others wander away, taking with them hearts not yet seared against God, and which are still susceptible to repentance and forgiveness. Imagine the eternal joy and thanksgiving when a wanderer is brought back.
The concerned are capable (“…let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering…”). Notice James does not lay this task at the feet of elders (though it is part of their work). Nor does he say this is the preacher’s job, or the deacons’ (though they share in the duty). Instead, he says “whoever,” and that word potentially includes any and every Christian. The words “brings back” indicate focused action. Instead of passively waiting for the wanderer to wander back, we should be actively seeking his return. Let no Christian think himself incapable of this weighty assignment. If you’re a Christian, then you’re capable of doing something for the lost (praying, if nothing else). It’s not a question of being qualified; it’s a question of being concerned.
The labor is life-saving (“…will save his soul from death…”). Has anyone ever saved your life? Will you ever forget them? What James mentions is even more monumental: saving a soul from the “second death” (Rev. 20:14), which is unending separation from God in a place of ceaseless pain. Hell is ultimate horror. The greatest good one person can do for another is to rescue his soul from that destiny. No endeavor is more worthy. Do you know anyone who has wandered? What are you doing about them?
The grace is generous (“…and will cover a multitude of sins.”). Jesus’ blood is what covers sins (Rev. 1:5). That blood is applied to those who “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7). Therefore, to cover a wanderer’s sins is to get him back to walking in the light—the only place where God’s saving grace is accessed. Thankfully, God has no quota on forgiveness. Paul considered himself at the head of the list of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), but he also knew God could forgive even his sins. God can and will forgive any and every sin the wanderer commits, as long as the wanderer repents and comes home. What a hope-filled statement that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psa. 103:12). What matters is not the quantity of sins, but the quality of repentance!