Sermon --- Sunday,
The Message of James (16)
Grace in Christian concern: James 5:19-20
Our scripture text this morning is the last two verses of this epistle by James, the half-brother of our Lord.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 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.
[Prayer for enlightenment]
Have you ever been in a church where you saw someone whose way of life seemed inconsistent with their Christian profession? Have you ended up scratching you head, saying, I don’t understand what this person is all about? He goes to this church – he may even be a church officer – yet his behavior seems quite contrary to Christian principles or with the walk prescribed by Christ.
Many years ago, Joy and I attended a church in which the minister was having an affair with one of the members. Both he and the church member were divorced, so this affair was not adulterous in the pedantic sense. But it certainly was uncomfortable, and in the end led to a lot of misery, especially to the woman when the minister unceremoniously dumped her.
When you see such behavior within the context of the church body, what is your response? Do you leap in with accusations? Or do you keep quiet? Or do you gossip behind the back of the person of whose behavior you disapprove? Do you close your eyes and ignore what seems to be going on?
In today’s passage, James wishes us to learn clearly one important principle: everyone, all of us, have a duty of Christian love towards our brothers and sisters whose walk seems to be straying far from the path so clearly defined by Jesus.
For almost four months we have been reviewing the message which James has had for us. Today we reach the end of the letter in these two verses. Unlike many of the other epistles in the New Testament, which end with a set of greetings to various people and with a prayer for God’s grace to be poured out on all, this letter ends abruptly. James ends with a statement that there is something everyone should know. What we should know is that when we care enough to help a sinner turn back towards the truth, then we save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
As we shall see, this exhortation itself demonstrates a deep sort of grace. James urges us to demonstrate the same kind of Christian love he has called for throughout the letter. And in so doing, we will come to see demonstrated that greater, overwhelming love which comes from God. So perhaps this conclusion is not so abrupt. In fact, it is a fitting end to a letter which has been characterized by exhortations to godliness and to love.
The passage can be analyzed in three sections. First, there is the cause: people in the church are deeply concerned about someone who wanders from the truth, who is a sinner. Second, there is the care which is expressed: someone brings this wanderer back. Finally, there is the covering which is received: the wanderer is saved from death; a multitude of his sins are covered. So this, then, is the outline for today: concern, care, covering.
First, concern. What is it about which James wishes us to be concerned?
The person about whom James is concerned is someone “among us,” someone who is one of us. And in fact these verses do follow logically from the passage which Ron opened for us last week, which also was about the church. If you will look back to verse 14, for example, you will see that the sick person is told to call the elders of the church to pray over him. Again, in verse 16, clearly in the context of the church, we care called to confess our sins to each other and to pray for each other.
So when James immediately follows this by discussing the case of “one of you” who has wandered, he is talking about someone within the outline of the visible church.
But James is troubled about this person, and he thinks we should be concerned about him. First, James tells us that this person has wandered from the truth. From this we conclude that this person has made serious mistakes about doctrine. But James tells us more about such a person in verse 20. The person not only has wandered from the truth, but also he is a sinner – his ways are in error, his path is crooked. In short, the problem with this person is that both his doctrine and his behavior have gone wrong.
The link between our doctrine and our behavior is very close. James already told us this back in chapter 1, verse 22, where he said “but be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” And he described for us the true Christian intersection between doctrine and action just a couple of verses further on, in verse 25: The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does. Hearing and doing – both are key to the Christian life, both are required.
As we know, this emphasis on both right thinking and right living is not unique to James. The apostle John tells us the same thing in his first epistle. Here is what he says in 1 John 2:6: Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. The point of both John and James is this: Do we claim to belong to Jesus? Then we must show it in our walk!
What we believe in our hearts guides how we behave. The corollary is that how we behave is the clearest exposition of what we really believe, as opposed to what we say we believe. It is for this reason that James has emphasized, over and over, that faith and works are linked. It is not, to repeat what has been said many times in this sermon series, that our works is the basis on which our faith is credited as righteousness. We are saved not by our works but by Jesus’s work. However, a faith which does not result in practical action of any kind is really no faith at all. Such an empty faith is a form of words which is, to quote Shakespeare, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Turning back to the person who is the cause of James’s concern – here is a man who seems to be a member of the Christian community, but who errs in doctrine and who is straying in his way of life. James is not specific about in which particular way this person is erring. But he does not need to be. Has he not just spent an entire epistle with exhortations both with regard to what we must believe and what we must do?
Let me just remind you about a few of his exhortations.
He warns us to be strong in faith, not to doubt. The doubter, he says, is double-minded and unstable in every way, and must not expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:7-8).
He warns us against the type of desire which entices us and leads us into sin.
He warns us to tame our tongue: if we do not bridle our tongues, we deceive ourselves and our religion is worthless.
He warns us against friendship with the world. Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
He warns us against judging each other. Who, then, he asks, are you to judge your neighbor?
In all this and much more, James has been very clear. There is no such thing as a carnal Christian, someone who professes to follow Jesus but whose behavior is indistinguishable from the behavior of the most unreformed atheist. James calls us instead to a standard of holiness unknown to the non-Christian. And if a person in the church does not show some sign of attempting to reach towards holiness, well, then, there must be serious concern that he is in danger of losing his soul.
For, as James has pointed out already in the epistle, sin is in the end destructive. “When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Unless sin’s work in a man’s life is broken, it will surely result in the death of the soul in eternal separation from God.
So this is our concern: that there is someone in our midst on the road to destruction. Next, James goes on to articulate the care which we are to display to that person.
How is that care demonstrated? It is demonstrated when “someone brings him back,” when someone “turns a sinner from the error of his way.”
James is anything but specific about who “someone” is. Earlier in this chapter, in the passage Ron examined last week, James was very clear that when you are sick, and desire anointing with oil, you should call the elders.
But at this point James is as non-specific about who should get involved as he had been specific earlier in calling the elders. It is not the elders he identifies, or the deacons, or even the “righteous man” he mentioned whose prayer is powerful and effective. No, it is just “someone.”
I think this means that we all have a responsibility to be concerned for the straying fellow church member. But it is more than just concern – it is having enough care for that person to actually do something about it, something constructive rather than destructive.
Now I suspect we all have a concern when we start talking about doing something constructive. Sometimes when we get involved, it seems, we end up doing more harm than good. On the other hand, doing nothing does not help the situation. Both inaction and too much action so often lead to bad results. As is so often the case, we need to “know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible” (Plato, Republic).
One extreme, of course, is to do nothing. We see a person whose behavior is disconcerting or wrong. He is in the church, but he clearly is on the way of error. Yet we do nothing.
This is the course of action proposed by Cain. You remember the story in Genesis, chapter 4. Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice, so –
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"
Of course when Cain says he doesn’t know where Abel is, he is lying. He knows very well where Abel is – Abel is dead in the field, where Cain killed him. But the point is that his attitude is one of extreme unconcern. James wants us to know what the correct answer is to Cain’s question. Am I my brother’s keeper? Absolutely, yes, I am! I have a responsibility of love towards him which cannot be avoided because I am lazy or would prefer to avoid conflict.
The other extreme is an overly harsh and self-righteous quickness to point out my brother’s sins. We have seen this already in James, who warns us against being too quick to judge our neighbor. But is this not also the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:4-6)?
4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Is the point here that I can never offer advice to my brother? How often have we heard people misinterpret Jesus by quoting this passage in support of never criticizing anyone. But that is not his point! Rather, his point is that we need to be very sure that our own motives and attitudes are in proper proportion and control before looking towards our brother. But this does not mean we must not help! On the contrary, it is an exhortation for us to indeed get our own motives and attitudes examined and under control, so that we can help!
Later in Matthew, Jesus gives us some direction about the right way to do approach a sinning brother, in the context of when that brother has explicitly sinned against us (Matthew ):
15 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
In the scenario James has in mind, we are not necessarily dealing with someone who has sinned directly against us. Rather, we are looking at someone whose way of life or whose doctrine is clearly leading them in the catastrophically wrong direction. But the principal articulated by Jesus still holds, I think. We are to attempt to deal with our brother in private, and carefully, having first examined our own motives and attitudes so that as far as possible we are not carrying any baggage into the discussion.
Paul articulates the same approach in Galatians 6:1: My brothers, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the sprit should restore such a one in a sprit of gentleness. He goes on to say in verse 2: Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Isn’t this James’ point also? Do we wish to fulfill the law of Christ, which is love? Then let us approach our brother who is straying, but do it in gentleness and in love.
Our concern, then, has been an erring, straying member of the church.
The care we have leads us to turn this sinner from the error of his way.
Finally, James tells us the covering that is achieved. This is the reason why we are concerned, the reason why we take such care.
Remember this, he says: whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
I already mentioned above how James, in chapter one, said that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. The death being mentioned here is spiritual death, the death in which we do not have fellowship with God.
Paul teaches the same thing in chapter 6 of Romans. In verse 16 he tells us: Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness. The implication is that there are only two paths – one, the path of sin, leads to death, whereas the other, the path of obedience, leads to righteousness and eternal life. At the end of Romans chapter 6, in the last verse, verse 23, Paul states this conclusion explicitly and clearly: the wages of sin, he tells us, is death.
In pointing out that sin ultimately leads to spiritual death, James and Paul are merely following their Master. Jesus himself says in the gospel of John, : Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Again, the point made here by Jesus is that there are only two eternal destinations: death, and life. The person who wanders away from the truth, who lives in error, both doctrinal and moral, will end up in eternal death -- unless someone brings him back.
James says that bringing that person back will save him. Does this mean that you or I literally have the ability literally to save an erring church member? That cannot be the correct interpretation of the verse. For one thing, as we already have seen, Paul has pointed out that this salvation which leads to eternal life is the free gift of God. And that is the consistent teaching of the New Testament. So when you or I in gentleness work with an erring church member, such that he sees his error, repents, and turns back to the truth and the right path, the salvation which he receives is not from you or me. No, it is the gift of God.
So what does James mean when he says that a person who brings back a sinner will save the sinner’s soul?
I think the answer is one we have often seen. We are not the cause of that person’s salvation. Salvation comes from God. But we can be and should be instruments in the salvation of many. Is not that the call in the great commission – make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you?
Paul, who no one would ever accuse of not understanding that God is sovereign in salvation, uses very similar language in chapter 11 of Romans. He is speaking of his desire that many Jews would come to know Jesus. His own ministry, he says, is at least partly designed “in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Rom ). Clearly Paul does not mean to imply that his personal ministry literally saves Jews. No, but it is an instrument which may be used by God to make them turn to Jesus.
James concludes with this: in bringing back a sinner, a multitude of sins are covered.
This is probably an allusion to Psalm 32. David says, in verses 1 and 2:
1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
An implication of being saved is not only that we have eternal life and the prospect of happiness, but also that the many transgressions and sins which we have committed are forgiven. They not only are forgiven, they are “covered over,” that is, blotted out of the Lord’s sight. They are as if they never had been, regardless of whether we recall them or not.
In his first epistle, the apostle Peter uses a similar phrase in chapter 4: Above all, he says, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. In the context, this probably means that our love is to mirror God’s love. It is God’s love, expressed in the work of Jesus, which leads to our transgressions being forgiven, to our sin being covered.
Because God loves us so much, we in turn are called to mirror that love by maintaining a constant love for one another.
And isn’t this in the end the way James wishes us to see the conclusion of his letter? Has not his letter been all about the love we are to have for one another, expressed in practical terms? And so he concludes the epistle with this special admonition: above all, we are to love one another so much that we seek to save people from the worst possible fate imaginable, the fate of not knowing and loving Jesus as he is truly to be known and loved.
I mentioned at the start that in a way, these two verses do form a kind of benediction, a call to the grace of God. Is not this the greatest grace of all, the grace of knowing that salvation is really available, and being given the grace of being an instrument in saving others?
So let me close with a couple of practical applications, as we bid this epistle farewell:
Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Word