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?