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James closes his letter with a powerful reminder of the nature of Christian community, namely, that real Christians care about the members in their own midst who wander:

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)

To wander is to leave the narrow road that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:13–14) and to start down the broad path that leads to destruction. The New Testament gives several concrete examples of early Christians who wandered away, including Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Demas (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:10).

Wandering can take two forms. On the one hand, the wandering can take a moral form. For example, a church member might no longer desire to live by the ethical standards of Scripture; perhaps he wants to be unfaithful to his marriage vows.

Or, wandering can be doctrinal in nature. Here, a church member might give up essential tenets of the faith. Perhaps he begins to deny the exclusivity of Christ as Savior or justification by faith alone or biblical understandings of sexuality.

Wandering can start off subtly—a minor loosening of one’s doctrinal conviction on this point, a cutting of one’s moral mooring on another. Thus begins a slow drift. That is what makes wandering so insidious. Is it any wonder that the New Testament is rife with warnings about this? These warnings could all be summed by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” The ever-present threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil mean that we must be perpetually vigilant.

when someone wanders

In cases of wandering, James doesn’t say, “Well, that’s none of our business.” No, he sees such wandering as profoundly serious because we are knit together in one body.

Who should bring back the wanderer? James leaves the answer broad by saying  that this task of turning the wanderer should be done by all faithful Christians.

To “bring back” someone who is wandering toward ungodliness is to reorient him, to point him toward righteousness. Our task is not to “unconditionally” love the wanderer (to accept his lifestyle or theological choices as he makes shipwreck of his life) but to “turn” him. How? By reasoning with him from Scripture, pleading with him to repent. That is the essence of “speaking the truth in love.”

Earlier in his letter, James told us how not to use our tongues. He ends his epistle by telling us the right way to use our tongues. He calls us to say to the wanderer, “My friend, you were on the narrow path, you are getting on the broad road that leads to destruction, so turn!” What would we say to a person in a burning building? We’d tell them to run. How much more should we do so to a person who is in danger of eternal judgment?

Nothing less than one’s eternal destiny is at stake when someone wanders.
how god brings wanderers back

God the Holy Spirit turns wanderers back to Himself, but He ordinarily uses people to do so, just as He uses means to bring people to saving faith in the first place. Just as God will use our faithful prayers and proclamation of the gospel for the saving of His elect, He will use our faithful exhortations to backsliders to be the means of reclaiming them. That’s what the Lord did when King David wandered from the truth. The Lord sent Nathan to confront the king and call him to repentance (2 Sam. 12).

God pursues people to turn them back, so to engage in reclaiming wanderers is a godly action. When we are used by Him to call wanderers to turn back to the Lord, we are being conformed to His image.

when the wanderer is brought back

What happens if someone is brought back? The blessings upon him are many, and they include the blessings of the ordinary means of grace that accompany restoration to the church (the Word, prayer, sacraments, fellowship). But James 5:19–20 highlights two blessings in particular that come upon the repenting returner.

First, the former wanderer’s soul is saved from death. Nothing less than one’s eternal destiny is at stake when someone wanders. To pull him from the precipice of hell is an act of supreme love.

Second, the sins of the wanderer are covered. “Covering sins” comes from the Old Testament picture of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), when the high priest would confess the sins of the people and sprinkle the blood of the spotless sacrifice upon the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, signifying that when God looked down at His law (in the ark), what He saw was the blood of the lamb and not the broken law. Sins were covered by blood. This annual symbolic rite was an acted prophecy of the Lamb of God who would perfectly atone for sins. When a wandering sinner returns, He is confirmed as one for whom Christ died, one for whom the blood of the Lamb is an atoning cover.

How, then, can we not desire to see a soul saved from death and his sins covered? Sinful and selfish individualism is the only answer. James corrects our self-focus, demanding that we be involved in one another’s lives. This is why James keeps using the term “brothers.” Professing Christians who wander are family members who are straying. We must do what we can to help our family when it is in trouble.

So, whom have you ever pursued to turn them away from the way of death?

The Ordinary Means of Soul Winning

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From the September 2017 Issue
Sep 2017 Issue