Turn the Sinner Back: Notes on James 5.19-20

It would appear that James declares the purpose of his letter at the very end (Davids 1994, 1367), in Jas 5.19-20, by calling his readers to do what he has just done by writing:

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (NET).

By leaving his purpose statement for the end, and crouching it in yet another recommended behavior, perhaps he hopes that his readers will not only repent of those sins and errors which he points out, but will themselves turn to their erring brethren and work toward their restoration as well.

The 54 imperatives in the 108 verses leave no doubt that James is concerned to straighten out problems among his readers. (The last imperative is in verse 20: “know.”) They also highlight what is evident from even a cursory reading, that the book emphasizes the necessity of obedient action among the faithful in order for faith to be genuine and effective for salvation. “Tests of a living faith” is the key that one writer finds to tie the letter’s diverse subjects together under a single theme (Hiebert 1978, 224).

The letter appears to have been written early on in the church’s history. Some believe the persecutions by Saul and Agrippa are behind the scattering, or diaspora, of the readers, Jas 1.1. So James writes to maintain a connection with these Christians and encourage them to remain connected as well. That connection is Jesus Christ who calls to action.

Notes on James’s Conclusion

My brothers and sisters. We are family in Christ. God is our Father. Hence, restoration of the erring is to be seen as a loving task of family. Through his repeated address to his readers as brothers and sisters, and now in his concluding statement, he emphasizes the nature of their identity, which determines both the spirit and the nature of their actions.

If anyone among you. James recognizes that sin may cause any saint to separate himself from the Lord. If even an apostle could be lost, then all must beware. Those who devote themselves to the mission of God are special targets of the evil one. The battle is fiercest on the front line.

Wanders from the truth. Such wandering leads to perdition, to spiritual and eternal death (see below), and thus deserves utmost attention from all the brothers and sisters. The wandering from the truth implies that one has come to that truth, since obedience to the truth of the gospel saves, 2 Thes 2.10; 1 Tim 2.4; 1 Pet 1.22, so here is indication of the possibility of apostasy.

Someone. Anyone within the congregation who is faithful. All are responsible for everyone in the church of God (cf. Gal 6.1ff). Discipline and correction belong not only to the shepherds and teachers, but to all members of the body, since all suffer when one member errs or wanders. Humility is needed by all, both by those who correct their brother or sister as well as those who are the focus of restoration.

Turns him back. Back to salvation and “to the fellowship and life of the church” (Sheef 1971, 923). God is merciful and to him who desires to return, the door is always open. God does not wish anyone to perish, 2Pt 3.9. “[H]e wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” 1 Tim 2.4. James foresees a positive result from seeking to restore the erring saint. In spite of the difficulty and against the pessimism of many, the erring can be restored. It is not an impossible task.

He should know. In order to practice rightly the life in Christ, it is necessary to know what to do. Postmodernism emphasizes doing (anything!) above knowledge, but the New Testament teaches that faith, knowledge, and action are a complete package. This present imperative verb underlines how essential it is to know the truth and to work to help others submit to it as well.

The one who turns a sinner back. The Christian’s task is to help the erring to return, to change, to repent. The Bible is clear about who is and who is not a sinner. The term sinner is used for those in rebellion against God, not for saints in Christ. This clarity of those who are in Christ and those outside of Christ provides powerful motivation for the mission to save.

From his wandering path. The strong emphasis on truth and error, on staying in the way and wandering away from it, has been reflected in James’ entire letter. Right and wrong is not a matter of opinion, but a clear revelation from God. Restoration is sought because truth exists and that truth must be followed in order to be saved. Current religious opinions that God will save universally or will save those seekers who are sincere but in error (even worshiping other gods) lack biblical support, Acts 17.30-31.

Will save that person’s soul. Christ saves in the most basic sense, but it is quite correct to speak of one person (the Christian) saving another (the erring or the pagan). Those who complain about the terminology of a person saving another need to read the Bible more closely and do proper study. (See, for example, 1Cor 9.22.)

From death. Spiritual, eternal death, permanent separation from God. The phrase indicates the seriousness of the error and the importance of the effort to restore. The stakes are high. From this death we were once removed by the sacrifice of Christ. Shall we think so lowly of that price as to let our brothers and sisters slide back into sin and sink into irrecoverable perdition? Shall we be content to let one who “has crossed over from death to life” Jn 5.24, be reclaimed by the evil one?

Will cover a multitude of sins. Salvation, or redemption, occurs by means of the forgiveness of sins, Eph 1.7; Lk 1.77. God’s people should be clear, therefore, as to what actions bring forgiveness. To those outside of Christ, they are faith, repentance, and baptism, Lk 24.46-47; Acts 2.38; 22.16. To those who have already been immersed, they are repentance, confession, and prayer, Acts 8.22; 1 Jn 1.9. The work of God, and of the Christian, is to secure forgiveness of sins. This is our mandate, and none other has been given us for the work of the church. The idea of covering refers to the atonement by the sacrifice of Christ, through whom every effort may have its desired effect and for whose glory every action is performed.

Conclusion

With such a statement, James closes his letter, leaving his readers with these last words to ponder. No parting salutations, no closing prayer, no moving benediction, just this powerful purpose statement to describe his reason for writing and to leave them with this most worthy task.

This last test of faith is one of the most crucial: Will they not only repent themselves, but also seek to turn others back from the wandering path? It is a test worthy of our own protracted consideration.

“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. The one who does not love remains in death” 1 Jn 3.14 HCSB.

SOURCES CITED

Davids, Peter H. 1994. “James” in D.A. Carson, et. al. eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (Downers Grove IL: Intervarsity Press) 1354-1368.

Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1978. “The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James.” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (July 1978) 221-31.

Sheef, Jr., Richard L. 1971. “The Letter of James,” in Charles C. Laymon, ed., Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary (Nashville TN: Abingdon) 916-923.