Rescue the Perishing (James 5:19-20)

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As we come to the end of our study of James we find ourselves confronted with both an encouragement and a warning.

James has been practically highlighting what saving faith looks like. He has told us that such a faith works; but more than merely instructing us in this regard he has actually shown us what such works look like. He has told us that the believer is marked by a commitment to having a controlled tongue, of reaching out to those in need, of being “unspotted” by the world, of having a value system that is deeper than superficial judgements. Further, those who truly have a saving faith are characterised by wisdom from above as they seek to be harmonious in their relationships fuelled by a passion for holiness. Such individuals live in dependence upon God as they humble themselves before the Lord. In a phrase, those who are saved by grace through faith are characterised by being God-centred. It is for this reason that they live with the mindset, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (4:15). But if I were forced to reduce James’ teaching to just one word then I would choose the word “perseverance.”

Throughout this letter the apostle has been exhorting his readers to endure to the end. His opening salvo in 1:12 pronounces the beatitude, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” And I would maintain that everything that James subsequently deals with has this underlying theme.

Believers are called to persevere in their relationships within the church; to persevere in the fight against sinful desires; to persevere in their seeking to gain mastery over their words; to persevere in their tendency to self-will; to persevere in the face of the onslaught of mistreatment and oppression; to persevere in the face of poor health; to persevere in prayer. However you want to outline the book of James, you will encounter James’ underlying premise that those who are saved by faith continue to be sanctified by faith; and this requires perseverance. True believers (that is, justified believers) persevere to the end. Their lives are characterised by progress in the faith as they grow in their love and in their loyalty to Christ.

One of the heartaches experienced in church life is the reality that some begin the journey of the Christian life with great joy and zeal and yet after some months or years they begin to wander from the narrow way. That is, they seemingly cease to persevere.

They begin to develop a cynical and thus critical spirit and this often manifests itself in a slow but sure withdrawal from the life of the Body. Church attendance becomes less of a priority to them, ministry to the Body becomes a drag and eventually it is stopped altogether. Sometimes this chilling of perseverance is coupled with a doctrinal declension and the one wandering begins to flirt with heresy, which may lead to contentedly feeding on poisonous fodder. The end result, whatever particular form it takes, is a life that is no longer (and this is now obvious) passionate about Christ. In other words, love for the Lord Jesus wanes and thus a desire for a God-centred life slowly but surely falls away. This was surely the progression in Demas’ life, of whom Paul wrote, “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10).

The evidence of such a declension is often a life that is noticeably “spotted by the world” with the result that the negatives which James has admonished believers to avoid are now increasingly the hallmark of the one wandering. In short, their lives are marked by a wisdom that is from below: It is earthly, natural, and demonic. That is, rather than being characterised as those that are persevering they are characterised as those that are perishing. And such, James tells us, need to be rescued.

James, as the pastor-teacher of the church in Jerusalem, understood that not everyone who is a member of the church is actually converted. He no doubt was well-versed in the Lord’s parable of the soils in which Jesus taught the disciples that many will initially embrace the gospel only to eventually depart from it. Many will only intellectually or emotionally assent to Christ and thus, when tough times come, will fall away. Perhaps physical illness or the hardship of the various trials of life will expose one’s belief in Christ to be superficial at best. For others, they will seemingly follow Christ until the oppression (persecution) begins to mount at which time they will wander from the path of the cross. Regardless of the form that such wandering takes, James knew full well that not everyone that claims to be of Christ will necessarily continue with Christ and he knew that this would be a reality faced by the church, regardless of their location.

What must be noted, however, is that James is not matter-of-fact about this reality of church life. On the contrary, he is burdened for those who had only a superficial commitment to Christ. James does not end his epistle with a slap on the back of those who are persevering and a harsh word for those who are not. Rather, he seeks to encourage those who are persevering to do all that they can to rescue those who, rather than persevering, are in fact perishing.

This study brings our study of James to a close (the Lord willing!), and as we do so I trust that we will come to see that a mark of saving faith is a concern for those who do not have it and a commitment to try and secure their conversion. That is, those who are justified by faith are involved in the work of seeking to rescue the perishing. As Douglas Moo notes, “James closes his letter not with the greetings and benediction typical of epistolary endings, but with a summons to action.” Or to cite John Blanchard: “In keeping with the whole tenor of this letter, the words now before us breathe an air of loving concern for the good of the church as a whole and fit in perfectly well with the theme with which he dealt in the verses immediately preceding them.”

Let us now examine the text before us and see some essential elements related to this issue.

A Fearful Acknowledgement

As James commences his conclusion, he uses the endearing term “brethren” for the nineteenth and final time. This term would indicate that James is writing to those who profess to be in the family of God by virtue of the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. What he says next should have a sobering effect on us. James tells these church members that there is the very real and present danger of apostasy. “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth” (v. 19).

A question naturally arises at this point: Just what is apostasy? I have been accused on several occasions of being apostate. At one point, I was “apostate” because I dared to cite a verse from a translation of the Bible other than the KJV. I have been accused of apostasy for abandoning my former conviction of premillennialism. But do these types of issues constitute what the Bible defines as apostasy?

The word translated “err” is the Greek word planao, which speaks of moving about (wandering) as a planet. It is used 67 times in the New Testament with reference to departing from the “the truth.” “The truth,” biblically defined, is “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3); that is, the Christian body of doctrine. In speaking of those who had departed from this “faith,” Jude called false teachers “wandering stars,” using the same word as James uses here for “err.”

Jesus Himself spoke to this issue. In some well-known words, He said, “How think ye? if a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” (Matthew 18:12). Importantly, we should note that whilst sheep sometimes stray, it is often the case that goats, who only think that they are sheep, stray. That is, those who “err” may well be unbelievers: The condition of their heart will be manifest by their response to the call to repentance.

We have seen in recent studies that James 5 has much to do with “the last days.” We have understood this phrase to speak of the days leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In light of this context, it is significant that James should use the word planao, for Jesus Himself used this word on many occasions to speak of the same time period. He warned of those who would try to “deceive” the Christians during that time (Matthew 24:4-5, 11, 24). Paul used a form of this word to speak of the “seducing spirits” that would seek to deceive believers during the same time (1 Timothy 4:1), and further warned Timothy of false teachers who would come “deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). He wrote to the Thessalonians of God sending a “strong delusion” during this period to deceive those who willingly suppressed the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:11). And Peter similarly spoke of “them who live in error,” also employing the word planao (2 Peter 2:18).

In each instance, the word is used to speak of those who had departed from the faith, those who had abandoned essential gospel teaching. Thus, James is here highlighting the ever-present danger of church members departing the faith (cf. Galatians 2:5; 3:1; 5:7). Apostasy is not when someone stops using the KJV, or changes their eschatological perspective; apostasy is when someone begins to deny essential teaching regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We should note the subtlety and the seriousness of this reality. Apostasy doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly, over time. In fact, if we do not watch closely, we may well miss the telltale signs of apostasy in the life of another. But not only is it subtle, it is also serious. Daniel Doriani says quite plainly, “Without restoration, the sinner is alienated from the church and lost to God.” And Alec Motyer writes,

Within every fellowship there are those whose profession is not real and whose attachment to Christ is not yet a saving faith. Their true condition, as still held by sin and death, becomes evident to the caring eyes of those who watch within the fellowship. Departure from the truth, and from the life that accords with the truth, gives a revealing testimony to how things rally are and calls forth a spirit of concern in every truly Christian heart.

But how would this come about? How might someone go from being actively involved in the fellowship of the saints to apostatising completely from the faith? What are the telltale signs that we should look for when it comes to this danger?

One telltale sign might be the neglecting of the fellowship. (Note that James seems to have in mind those who are close but not yet converted). Apostasy often begins by people withdrawing from the fellowship of the church. They may still attend all the services, but you notice that they come in just as the service starts and exits as soon as the benediction is uttered. There is no communion with the saints. They do not make an effort to attend opportunities for fellowship outside of the services. Pretty soon, their priorities begin to shift more clearly. They begin making excuses. The smallest cold or a simple headache might keep them away from church. They become too busy for fellowship, and when events conflict they begin choosing that which will keep them away from church. They grow out of touch with the Body, and soon it is clear that they don’t actually belong.

But before we get too hasty in pointing fingers, let us be alert to the danger in our own lives. James notes that “any one” can fall prey to this temptation. Note that carefully: “any one.” We are on thin ice when we begin thinking that it cannot happen to us. When we believe that we are quite safe and that apostasy can only happen to others, we have begun to deceive ourselves. Let us take seriously the exhortation of the apostle Paul: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

The church should not be a place of paranoia, but neither should it be a place of presumption. Whilst we do not want to become overly introspective, neither do we want to presume on God’s grace. James has urged us throughout this letter to examine our lives for the faith that works, for if we lack such evidence of faith we may lack faith itself.

We must seriously reflect on this danger. Moo writes, “It is by sharing with James the conviction that there is indeed an eternal death, to which the way of sin leads; that we shall be motivated to deal with sin in our lives and in the lives of others.”

In the church in which I grew up, a lady began attending with her children. I had heard of her husband, who had at one time been in the ministry. As it turned out, he had abandoned his wife and become involved with a teenage girl. Some time later I met the man and had the opportunity to speak to him. It was incredibly sad to speak to a man who at one time had preached God’s Word but had completely abandoned the faith that he had once professed. Everything that he had once professed he now denied. It was both sad, and a stark warning of the danger of apostasy. And this is a danger of which we must always be aware in our churches.

A Formidable Activity

Not only does James draw our attention to a fearful acknowledgement, but he also exhorts us to a formidable activity: “and one convert him” (v. 19). James further speaks of converting “the sinner from the error of his way” thus saving “a soul from death” (v. 20).

The concepts of “converting” a wanderer and his impending “death” speak to the reality that this task is not only a serious one but a difficult one as well. After all, what power do we have to turn someone around, thereby delivering him from eternal death. Of course we do not have such power in and of ourselves yet that does not mean that we can’t be a means towards that end. The very fact that James brings this matter up is proof in itself that it is a possibility.

The word “convert” means simply “to turn about” or “to return.” It is translated as “returned” in 1 Peter 2:25, where Peter speaks of us as lost sheep having been “returned” to our great Shepherd. Jesus gave Paul the commission to “turn [the Gentiles] from darkness to light” and to “turn” them to God (Acts 26:18, 20).

The term “the sinner” as it is used in the New Testament is interesting. Usually, it speaks of an unbeliever. For example, in Matthew 9:13 Jesus said, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And in recounting his testimony in 1 Timothy 1 Paul wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v. 15).

The term “save a soul from death” is a reference to spiritual death, and thus it refers to one who is an unbeliever (because he never was a believer in the first place). In 1 John 5:16-18 John spoke of those who sin “a sin unto death” and those who “sin a sin which is not unto death.” The “sun unto death” speaks of apostasy. In other words, those who commit apostasy—who overtly reject essential doctrine pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ—are still dead in their trespasses and sins. It is not that they were once saved and have subsequently lost their salvation; they were never saved to begin with. Jude says of such individuals that we must “save [them] with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23).

To “save a soul from death” is not, obviously, to prevent someone from dying physically. Everyone is destined to die physically (except, of course, those who are one day alive at the second coming of Christ). The “death” of which James here writes is best understood as the “second death” spoken of in Revelation 20:6, 14; 21:8. The “second death” refers to eternal condemnation, a doctrine which is clearly taught in the pages of Scripture. We may not like to think of an eternal hell, and anyone with an ounce of human compassion might well prefer to think in terms of annihilation rather than eternal punishment in the lake of fire, but the Bible will not allow us to do so. The urgency of the task is only heightened as we submit to what the Scriptures teach about eternal judgement. “Death, from which he is saved,” writes Adamson, “is the penalty of sin as in 1:15, and under the covenant ‘final exclusion from the Divine Society.’”

This is a difficult task for it is a matter of the mind, heart and the will. The divine command is clear: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is a type of response that we cannot automatically generate; the person who does not love God in this way must submit his mind, heart and will to God. Of course, when we understand the enormity of the task we will hardly approach it glibly. In fact, if we truly understand its immensity, we would surely conclude that the task is impossible. As Motyer writes, “How can we do these things? The answer is that we cannot, but we must act as if we could. The words express the measure of the concern and effort we are called to expend in our spiritual concern for those in spiritual need.”

Why is this task so formidable? It is difficult because of the threat to our comfort. If we are honest, we will admit that it is far easier to simply live and let live. It is far more comfortable for us to overlook the sins of others—perhaps under the guise of “love”—than to confront them with it. But we cannot do so if we understand what is at stake: “death.”

It is furthermore difficult because there is no guarantee. We can (and must) confront those who seem to be heading down the path of apostasy, but there is no guarantee that they will hear us. Human responsibility dictates that we exert every effort to turn sinners from the path of death, but God’s sovereignty never guarantees us success in every instance. Knowing that our efforts may well be spurned makes the task ever more difficult, though no less necessary.

Lastly, it is difficult because we are up against the world the flesh and the devil. Our battle, says Paul, is “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our foe is formidable and thus it is no easy task to obey this injunction. Nevertheless, obey we must!

The question is, when do you stop? After all, we are not omniscient, and so we do not know the condition of a person’s heart. How, then, do we know when we have done enough? The answer is not as difficult as it might first seem, and it is seen in Matthew 18. There is an inspired process through which we must go in order to confront a person in such a sin. First, there is private confrontation. That is later reinforced with two or three witnesses. Eventually, the matter must be brought to the church. In each case, the goal of the confrontation is repentance. If no repentance is forthcoming, then the church must remove the offender from its membership and, according to Jesus, treat the person as an unbeliever, for that is precisely what they are professing by their refusal to repent from sin. We never stop loving the person, and there is always opportunity for repentance, but we cannot maintain a membership in the church that includes unbelievers.

Ultimately, the response of the offender is not the main issue. Our prayer must constantly be for repentance, but even if repentance is not forthcoming, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have failed. The ultimate issue is obedience to God’s Word. In fact, obedience to God’s Word—regardless of the result—strengthens the integrity of the church, and that always aids the church’s witness in the community.

A Family Affair

Having observed the danger of apostasy and the response that is called for, we must now consider the truth that the assignment that James gives is not exclusively, or even specifically, for the elders of the church. James has issued his exhortation to the “brethren” and says, “Let him know …” In other words, whichever brother has sought to rescue the perishing needs to know what James says in v. 20. The point is simply this: The responsibility stated is that of the church family. “There is no hint here of a special priesthood within the church,” writes Blanchard, “either individual or corporate, with the power of restoring those who have strayed.” Or as Adamson puts it, “The Church is a redemptive brotherhood; through its efforts the wandering brother can be restored.”

Whilst the elders are certainly to be involved in this process, the church must care for its members to the degree that wanderers are rescued. To cite Motyer,

We have a care for each other not only when someone in physical (14-15) or spiritual (16a) need makes an approach for help, but also when there is no such call. This is when the evidence of our own eyes tells us that someone within the circle of the fellowship is slipping away into the path of sin and death. Within the local fellowship we dare not treat truth and life as negotiable. It is our task to care and to rescue.

Or as Doriani puts it, “If the family prays together when physical illness wounds a member, they should certainly work together if spiritual troubles threaten … We should diagnose sin in order to bring restoration and a covering for sin.” Clearly, the responsibility stated by James falls on the entire congregation.

Of course, this implies that relationships are being developed to the point that the family notices when erring occurs. As noted above, the erring is always subtle; it never begins in an overt fashion. If we have not built relationships in the church we will not notice when fellow church members start wandering. But not only does it imply the needs for healthy relationships in the church; it also suggests that relationships are such that family members actually get involved and do something about those who are wandering. In this sense, though there are pastors of the church by virtue of their office, all of us can be a “pastor” (“shepherd”) to each other.

We should be careful to be constructive not merely observant. We can easily sit back and become critical of those who have wandered. I remember a former church member saying to me many years ago, when another man left the church, “Well, I knew that he wouldn’t stay long anyway!” What a shameful comment! Rather than critically sitting on the fence, let us get involved in seeking to restore others. To cite Blanchard once again, “What a difference there would be in our churches if instead of a barren, negative criticism we had a loving, pastoral concern for those we saw straying from the truth!”

A Fortifying Assurance

Finally, James tells us that if we are successful in our attempt to correct and convert the errant then we will be rewarded: “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (v. 20). The reward is the knowledge that the danger of “death” has been avoided, and that blessing has been experienced (“hide a multitude of sins”).

This last phrase is taken from Proverbs 10:12, which is also quoted in 1 Peter 4:8. What James seems to be saying is that when the wanderer is won, his former erring need not be remembered. God forgets it, and so must we.

Sin is not swept under the carpet—it is not ignored—but it is dealt with and then not brought up again. The convert has started a new life and he is to be treated accordingly. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1; cf. 85:2).

With such blessings to be experienced by the one converted, we have all the motivation that we need to get involved in rescuing the perishing. “The real reward of the counselor,” writes Jay Adams, “is not that of a bounty hunter by that of one who rejoices to see so many sins forgiven in the lives of those he is able to help bring back from the error of their ways.” Moo adds, “James may well be encouraging his readers to seek actively the conversion of those who are straying by reminding them that their efforts will be met by God’s approval and blessing.” And Blanchard quotes Albert Barnes:

When we come to die, as we shall soon, it will give us more pleasure to be able to recollect that we have been the means of saving one soul from death, than to have enjoyed all the pleasures which sense can furnish, or to have gained all the honour and wealth which the world can give.

James has written to exhort his readers to live a life that is consistent with their profession of faith. They are to prove the integrity of their professed faith by the evidence of works. This will naturally lead to the confronting of wandering “sheep” and admonishing them to show their faith by their works. Such is the biblical expectation of the church for its members. Therefore, as we confront those who are wandering let us know that, regardless of the outcome, the church will be blessed because we will be honouring Christ in our obedience. As Doriani states it, “The church retains its integrity, its essence, when we render mutual assistance, including moral and spiritual correction, if necessary.” By God’s grace, let us seek to rescue the perishing.