Main Idea: What do we do when we see someone else in our church wandering from the truth? How can we save them?
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey wrote about a girl who grew up in a loving family, yet always misunderstood their loving guidance as them being overly judgmental and controlling. So as a teenager, she ran away, and eventually found herself living as a homeless prostitute, until she remembered how good she had it back at home.
“God, why did I leave,” she said to herself. “My dog back home eats better than I do now.” She’s sobbing, and more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.
So she tries calling home, but it goes straight to voicemail. She leaves the message, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”
So while she’s on the bus, she plans what she’ll say to her dad at the bus terminal, if he’s actually even there. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Can you forgive me?” She says the words to herself over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.
As her bus stops in her hometown, she gets off not knowing what to expect. She definitely didn’t expect to see what she saw. There was a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and even her grandmother. And taped across the entire wall of the terminal was a banner that read, “Welcome Home!”
And then she saw her Dad as he approached her. Through tears, she began to recite the speech she memorized, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know….”
But he interrupts her. “Hush child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”
You might have recognized that story as a modern telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it’s also a story that maybe some of us have experienced in one way or another. Or maybe it’s a story that you long to experience for yourself or a family member.
Our sermon today will conclude our study through the letter of James. As we’ve seen, James is packed full of simple wisdom that we can follow and live out. And the last two verses of James’s letter are no exception, encouraging us to reach out and restore the one who is straying from God.
It’s hard to see the people you love going down a path that you know will hurt them. Sometimes when that happens, we tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do about it. But the Bible instructs us to do something about it. Because the Bible teaches us, even more importantly, that God does something about it.
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. (James 5:19-20)
Father, thank You that Jesus’s blood covers all our sins, so that we can be saved by Your grace. Help us to share this good news with all the world. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
The letter of James ends rather abruptly.
Some of my favorite movies have endings that don’t make sense at first, but cause you to think or imagine what will happen next. I don’t necessarily endorse all of these movies, but movies like The Matrix, and Shutter Island, and Inception seem to leave you with big questions at the end of the movie, and cause you to wish the movie wasn’t over yet. At first, it can be kind of annoying, because I just want to shout, “Just tell me what happened!” But then, I come to appreciate how a good movie doesn’t just tell a good story, but actually invites you into the story even as the movie ends.
One of the best movies that does this well is the classic movie Citizen Kane. I showed this video about 9 months ago, but I’m going to show it again now because it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. So here is Citizen Kane in under 2 minutes.
[Citizen Kane in under 2 minutes]
I’m sorry if I’m ruining the movie for you, but you’ve had like 80 years to watch it since it was released in 1941. In the movie, the whole time they’re trying to figure out what Citizen Kane meant by his final words, “Rosebud.” They theorized that it was something Citizen Kane couldn’t get, or a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle of his life. And in the final scene, you see that Rosebud was the name of his sled, and you’re immediately filled with all kinds of questions, like, “Did he blame his parents for everything?” “Did he long for a simpler life?” Or, “did he just really like sledding as a kid?”
And that’s just like the end of the letter that James wrote. James doesn’t end his letter like most of the letters in the New Testament, in which Paul gives closing remarks, and final greetings to specific people that he was writing to. Instead, James ends the letter quite abruptly, and it leaves you with lots of questions.
Questions like, “How do I bring back a sinner who’s wandered from the truth?” And, “how can I possibly save anyone? Isn’t that God’s job?”
It’s possible that the end of the letter was lost, and that some of these questions could have been answered, but more likely, James ended the letter this way to really emphasize the message that we need to make it our aim to rescue sinners in order to save their souls from death.
And this really ought to go without saying, but we forget it so often. It’s natural for us to try to save people when they’re in physical danger. I think most of us wouldn’t hesitate to run into the street to save a child from oncoming traffic. We wouldn’t think twice about putting our own lives at stake to rescue people from a building on fire. But when it comes to evangelism, we put it off. So James reminds us that sharing the gospel with people is literally a matter of saving them from death.
As with pretty much all of the book of James, what seems like a simple command actually has a lot of depth to it. The simple command is to leave the ninety-nine in order to rescue the one. It’s the command that we share the bad news that there really is death and hell because of our sin, and yet the good news that Jesus saves by grace through faith in His death and resurrection.
And yet, when you dig a little deeper into these final two verses of the book of James, you may start asking some hard questions.
Like, who is James actually writing about? Look at the beginning of verse 19.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth… (James 5:19a)
So we see that James is writing about the very people that he’s writing to. James is writing to Jews who have become Christian believers, and are now scattered among the nations. This is interesting, because James isn’t talking about sharing the gospel with atheists, or democrats, or republicans, although we definitely need to share Jesus with all of them, too. He’s talking about sharing the gospel with people who have declared to have already received the gospel, and yet have wandered away from the truth.
You see, you can’t wander away from the truth unless at some point, you confessed to have embraced the truth. You can’t abandon the faith unless you’ve confessed to having had faith.
As Baptists, we might call these people backslidden. Or we might even say that although they made a declaration of faith in the past, that they were never truly believers because if they were, they would have continued to hold to the faith. And there’s some truth in that, because John writes in 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
So there’s definitely an aspect of our faith that’s called the Perseverance of the Saints. In other words, if a person has trusted in Jesus, then they will persevere in their faith. They’ll continue to be faithful to Jesus. So the assumption is that if they don’t persevere in their faith, that they never truly trusted in Jesus.
But I want to challenge that assumption when it comes to how James ended his letter, because James writes, “If anyone among YOU wanders from the truth…”
In other words, it could be any of us. In fact, if we’re honest, it’s often all of us. Each one of us constantly wanders from the truth. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” If we’re honest with God and one another, on any given day, our hearts are far from God.
So how do we combat this wandering? And what do we do when we see someone else in our church wandering from the truth? Look at verse 19 again.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back… (James 5:19)
We’re to bring them back. We’re to gently, in love, guide them back to the truth. Jesus showed us how to do that in Matthew 18. We’re to talk to them one on one, and if they don’t listen, talk to them with another person, and if they still don’t listen, bring it before the church. We often refer to this as church discipline, but Jesus talked about this right after sharing the parable of the lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine to rescue the one. So the goal of church discipline isn’t to excommunicate people from the church, but to restore the person to a right relationship with God.
We talked last week about confessing our sins to one another. And I wonder if maybe we don’t often leave the ninety-nine in pursuit of the one in our own church because we haven’t gotten into the habit of really confessing our sins to one another. Not in a boastful way, but humbly, asking for prayer. It’s hard to address someone else’s sin when we haven’t even admitted our own sin. But when we humbly confess that we’re all sinners, not just in the general sense, but specifically, maybe then we will humbly seek others out when they wander away as well.
Last week, I confessed a few of my sins to you. Among other things, I struggle with gluttony, greed, and egotism. And sometimes, as your pastor and fellow church member, I need to address sins that I see in your lives. But know that if I ever have to do that, that I don’t do it because I’m at all better than anyone else, but because I love you, and I want both of us to trust in God’s redeeming love.
You see, we all have the duty to one another to bring one another back. If you see a Christian beginning to wander away from their commitment to Jesus, you also have the responsibility to lovingly confront them. Do it with humility and love, because we’re all sinners, but do it.
That can seem like a scary thing. But it’s also absolutely necessary because of the outcome. Verse 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. (James 5:20)
Because of our Baptist theology, this can actually be a pretty confusing verse. We might prefer to think of these people as never having been saved in the first place, because we believe in the doctrine of eternal security. Once saved, always saved. But James writes that one of US might wander away from the truth to the degree that our soul is in danger of death. So what’s going on here?
Well, I believe in the doctrine of eternal security. Once saved, always saved. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to sin. A few weeks back, during VBS, we talked about how God doesn’t want to just forgive us of our sins, but He wants to actually purify us from all unrighteousness. In other words, He wants us to stop choosing sin, and start choosing good.
In 1983, Rickie Smith went to prison for drug possession and criminal mischief when he kicked out the window of a police car. And he could have gotten out of prison after 10 years, except for the the fact that he joined a prison gang, stabbed a correctional officer, and admitted to attempted murder of another inmate on three occasions. So his sentence was increased by almost 300 years, which means that he will likely die in the prison system.
I don’t know the exact timeline, but by 1990, Rickie Smith had become a Christian, and had completely turned around. He was baptized in the prison’s chapel, and because the guards didn’t quite trust him, he was baptized while still in handcuffs, leg shackles, and heavy chains. After being baptized, Rickie made the statement:
“I have chains on my body but there are none on my heart. Real freedom in the middle of real prison!” – Rickie Smith
In the months and years following, he left the gang he was a part of, and had started sharing Jesus with them. And now, more than 30 years later, he’s still growing in Christ and sharing Jesus, even in prison. You see, God doesn’t just want to forgive us of our sins, but He wants us to be transformed.
Now, it’s impossible to do that completely in this life, because we’re still sinners in a fallen world. But which road are you on? Are you on a path that’s content to sin however you desire, whenever you want, or are you on the path that’s leading to more holiness in your life? Are you on that path that’s characterized by death, or on the path that leads to life?
James is simply writing that we all need to guard our souls, our psyche, our minds, from wandering from Jesus, and if we see someone else wandering, that we need to help them back onto the right path as well. Because when we do that, we “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Which leads to the question, how is it possible for a believer to be at risk of the death of his soul?
Now, I’m going to share how I’ve come to answer this question. This is just my perspective, so study it for yourself to see if it agrees with Scripture.
In the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, we see Satan and his demons cast into the lake of fire, along with anyone whose names were not written in the book of life. And Scripture gives this event a curious title. It says in Revelation 21:8:
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
It calls this event the Second Death. But it’s interesting that this is the only time this phrase is used in all of the Bible. And yet, if you go back to the opening chapters of the Bible, in Genesis 2:17, God told this to Adam:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:17)
A more literal translation of that verse would be “in the day that you eat of it, dying you shall die.”
I think that means that because we sin, we actually die two deaths. Believers are saved from the Second Death, because Jesus died that death for us. And yet, if you continue to live in sin, even after having received Jesus, then you’re still living in a kind of death today. It’s the death of your soul.
We often think of our soul as our spiritual component. But the word “soul” in the Bible comes from the word ???? from which we get our English word “phyche,” and is sometimes translated “mind.” And if you’re allowing your mind to constantly dwell on sinful things, and how to gratify yourself, then your mind is dying a slow death, and truly needs to come alive. Jesus offers you abundant life!
What I’m saying is that your ongoing relationship with Christ today matters. A lot of people think that getting saved from hell is all they need. But that’s only the very beginning of a relationship with God.
And furthermore, if you continue to walk in sin, unchanged by God’s saving grace, then you really do need to ask yourself if you’re truly trusting in Jesus. I’m not asking if you’re perfect. None of us are. But I’m just asking what road you’re on. Are you pursuing holiness, godliness, or are you content to live however you please?
Because believing in Jesus is more than knowing where you’ll go after you die. It’s about following Him today. Being saved from sin is more than having your sins forgiven. It’s about turning from your sin, and obeying God instead.
Have you begun that kind of relationship with Jesus? Do you see Him not just as your Savior, but as your Lord?
The truth is, we’ve all wandered off. We’ve all strayed from the path that God wants for us. That’s why Jesus came. He lived the perfect life that we failed to live, and then He died on the cross for our sins. He saves our souls from death by covering over all our sins.
So I invite you to rest in what Jesus has done for you, and rejoice that He saves you by grace.
Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009. He and his wife, Abby, have four children. Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)
James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)