James 5:19-20 Restoring a Sinning Brother July 13, 2008
We now come to the end of James’ letter. A little section concludes the letter in a
somewhat abrupt fashion. This material seems to stand alone at first, since he addresses
them again as “Brethren” which he often does when he starts a new emphasis. However,
it might also fit with the previous section on prayer, particularly in light of the physical
illness and possibility of sin mentioned there.
In any case, we can study these two verses under three headings as follows.
1. Someone Wanders From the Truth
A hypothetical situation is presented to us by James. It is presented as a possibility,
but in the course of all of life’s circumstances, it is hard to imagine a Christian not run-
ning into it.
A. Who is the Wandering One?
Shall we call this one an erring brother or a professing believer or unbeliever? Here-
in lies a problem. If someone has gone off into sin, we do not necessarily know if the
person is truly a believer. Perhaps their sin is so egregious and long-running that it begins
to look like they are not actually a believer, in which case restoration actually amounts to
bringing them to the faith in the first place. This case is, I believe, included as a distant
application. How much benefit is there in converting an unbeliever!
We are quick to say that we are not the judge and that we cannot condemn a person,
i.e. we cannot say with certainty that they are unsaved. But the thing is, the other side of
the coin must then apply—we cannot say with certainty that they ARE saved! God
knows those who belong to Him (2 Tim 2:19). We’ll have to deal with this tension
throughout the rest of these notes.
However, because James speaks to brethren and “anyone among you,” the main
point of his writing is to speak about believers who have strayed off. They have wan-
dered off and are not in a hardened pattern of sinfulness such as we might expect of an
So, the wandering one is an erring brother or sister.
B. What is the Erring Brother Doing?
He or she could be doing any of a thousand wrong things. He could be going down
the wrong path on his marriage or leaving the church for some perceived hurt or follow-
ing some doctrinal deviation, or many other things. It could be he is questioning a fun-
damental truth of the gospel. He could be wandering in his lifestyle. He professes to still
believe the gospel, but he is committing sin.
The main point is that someone among the believers strays from the standard of be-
lief and behavior set forth by the truth. The erring one has deceived himself, by whatever
means. It is best to take this as an event for which the erring brother is accountable,
namely, he was not tricked or led away so much as he wandered off on his own. But he
may also be somewhat undiscerning in his wandering. He is at fault, but is slow to get it.
The truth is the truth of the gospel (2:1) and, more broadly, Christian doctrine (see
1:18, 3:14 on “truth”). Considered from philosophical standpoint, truth is not hidden
and unknowable. It does require revelation, but this has already happened so that truth is
available in the Bible. It also requires illumination to help us “see the light.” This hap-
pens when one is saved. So, for the believer, the truth is not up in heaven or under the
earth. It is right before us! For the readers it would have been given orally, as we pointed
out earlier in our study of James. Truth also is not relative. There are absolutes because
God is absolute. All truth is rightly related to God, not disconnected from Him.
Considered from a practical standpoint, we have learned some critical truths over
the past 6 months as we have studied James. The main idea, of course, is that James was
given tests of a living faith. We say we have faith, if we are at all associated with Christi-
anity, but how do we know we have real faith? The truth of how to evaluate your faith is
what James imparts. He does not want the readers to depart from what he has said!
Wandering is bad because of the potential consequences. The remainder of the sec-
tion talks about lots of sins and death. We’ll define what kind of death James is talking
about in a minute, but what we can say at this point is that it is a serious thing to leave
the church and go off on your own, like a sheep gone astray.
2. A Fellow Believer Brings Him Back
The next part of the situation is that another person turns him back, that is, back
from his wrong way and onto the right way. The idea of the verb is to turn, turn around,
turn back, be converted. We will call this person the restoring brother.
This turning is an activity, not just a prayer or a hope or talking to someone else
about the situation as in gossip. This activity is not commanded, but assumed out of love
for one’s neighbor, a concern James has evidenced earlier (2:8, 2:15). I take it that we do
have a moral obligation here for fellow Christians. We are our brothers’ keepers!
We should be able to find someone in the assembly who is spiritual enough to do
this (Gal. 6:1) and willing enough to show real love for the person. Real love sometimes
has to rebuke; that is the real best for the other person. It is hypocritical to say you love
someone and let them go on in a sinful state where they will incur judgment or be chas-
tened or even are demonstrating lack of faith in Christ. Check Rom. 12:9.
We are told to “chase these folks down” in a sense and try to recover them from the
error of their way. However, there is a time at which it is appropriate to leave someone to
the hardness of their hearts. For example:
Rom 16:17 - avoid those who cause divisions contrary to sound teaching
Titus 3:10-11 - reject someone who stirs up division, after two warnings
2 Tim 3:5 - avoid people who live a consistent life of evil opposed to the truth
Matt 18:17 - unrepentant sinner who will not hear the church’s admonition
The step of avoiding someone becomes necessary when that one is knowingly prop-
agating heterodox (different from orthodox) teaching, causing divisions, and living an
unrepentant sinful life. But avoidance is not the first step. Texts like James 5:19-20 and 2
Tim. 2:24-25 tell us the first step—try to retrieve them.
3. Two Good Results of Bringing Him Back
There does not seem to be much bad in bringing a brother back, unless it has to do
with our sinful lack of forgiveness and pride that we could not associate with a brother
who has gone off and done some sin. Really, if we are being right about it, there is only
upside potential and no downside risk!
At the outset of verse 20 is a command: know this. We are told to recognize that if
we act as suggested in v. 19, good things can happen. Here are the good things:
A. Saving a Soul from Death
James says he will save a soul from death. There is some question upon reading the
various translations in English as to whose soul is saved—the one who turns the wander-
er back, or the wanderer himself? When it says “his” soul (NIV), what is the antecedent
of “his”? Is it “he who turns a sinner” or is it “the sinner”? Does the restoring brother
save his own self or does he save the other person? Grammatically it is really only possi-
ble to take it as the restoring brother saving the soul of the wanderer.
But then the question is raised, what is the nature of this salvation? It depends on
what the nature of the death is. We could easily imagine that the person is committing a
sin which could lead to physical death. For instance, 1 Cor. 11:30 mentions Christians
who have died because of indiscretion regarding the Lord's Table. Acts 5:1-11 records
the death of two liars in the early church. This is scary stuff! 1 John 5:16-17 talks in
similar terms to what we have in James—a brother is observed committing a sin which
does not lead to death. The person can pray for his brother and ask God to restore that
person. However, there are certain sins that we know do not result in death, and others
which do result in death—whether self-inflicted or crimes committed that require capital
punishment. We do not pray about God getting that person out of that fix because that is
the natural consequence of what he has done. The context has been speaking about phys-
ical illness, so it seems plausible to continue that notion here.
But what if James is speaking about spiritual death—eternal death that indicates
the erring one was not saved? It is true that someone who has an association with the
truth could actually be an unbeliever (see Hebrews 6:4-6 and 1 John 2:19 for this kind of
superficial connection). And it is true that the verb “epistrephw” could mean to convert
(as in KJV). And, the “sinner” in the “error of his way” sounds pretty far from God. That
seems like an unbeliever getting saved (but see Luke 22:32 of Peter).
But this seems somewhat unlikely in view of the fact that we are talking about one
“among you.” He had an association with the truth but has wandered away, and does not
seem to be one that is hardened like those we mentioned earlier that must be avoided. In
the end we could find out that he really is an unbeliever, but for now we need not assume
Because the nature of the death is physical, the nature of the salvation is physical.
The course of life that the person is going down is self-destructive. Perhaps the erring
brother is toying with serious false doctrine that leads to ill behavior, or he is hanging out
with the wrong people, or using drugs, etc. Bringing one back from that could literally
save his life.
At this point let me just lay out my view on this. It seems to me that James is talking
about physical death and the rescue from that for a genuine believer who has wandered.
This has to be included as a genuine option given James’ language. However, I won’t get
too depressed if you take this as spiritual death and spiritual salvation because many
good interpreters take it that way. But it seems to me to sound different than plain-old
“soul winning.” The problem is we just cannot tell from the outside about the reality of
another person’s salvation. So it may turn out that one we thought was a wandering be-
liever was not a believer in the first place. Could I even suggest that James has left it
unspecified here because of that uncertainty? God knows the soul of the wanderer. We
do not. So death could be any kind of death resulting from sin (after all, the wages of sin
is death—of all sorts—physical as well as spiritual). Whatever kind of death the person
is delivered from is a good thing.
In the end, if someone is straying from the truth, we must try to bring them back or
at least back for the first time. Assume the possibility of the worst, hope for the best, and
work hard to accomplish it.
B. Covering a Multitude of Sins
What about covering a multitude of sins? What does that mean? It means that the
salvation is not just physical—it has spiritual ramifications as well. The sins of the erring
brother will be forgiven if he really turns back, because he is repenting of those things
and confessing them to the Lord. The idea of sins covered is the idea of sins forgiven or
atoned for (Psalm 32:1, 85:2, Rom 4:7). Also, any further sins that he would have com-
mitted if he had continued on the wrong path are avoided altogether.
See Prov. 10:12, 17:9 and 19:11 on this. 1 Peter 4:8 is a New Testament parallel.
Whose sins are covered? Theologically it is only possible to take the sins covered as
those of the one wandering in sin, not the restorer.
These two benefits (salvation from death and covering of sin) are major and persua-
sive reasons for you to be involved in restorative activity. This is good stuff to do—it has
great benefits to the wanderer. Far better than restoring old cars or houses or antiques is
this—restoring people! Note that the text does not say God turns the sinner and God
saves the soul and God covers a multitude of sins. That is ultimately true, but God can
use YOU to do all that.
The truth that James has discussed here is not just academic; it requires action.
Change needs to be made. Some brethren need to be recovered to the truth. Some other
brethren need to get busy about helping them be recovered.
Notice that point. Much of James has concerned our own response to what he says.
But he also tells us we need to be concerned about the response of others to what he has
said. We are watching out for each other too.
And so we come to the end of James. He has told us about the tests of a living faith.
He has written us a practical letter. He knows nothing of a mere verbal profession of
faith. In fact, for assurance of salvation, we are never told to consider back to a time we
made such a profession of faith, as if that is the basis of salvation or assurance. No—
Christ’s work is the basis of salvation, and faith appropriates Christ’s work for one’s self.
The Bible has us examine our faith presently to see if it is genuine. We can know that it
is genuine because of the marked change that has occurred in behavior. Christianity
changes your life. James has told us that Christianity changes:
* how you handle trials
* how you respond to the Word of God
* how you treat other people who are different than yourself
* how you view the need for good works
* how you use your tongue
* how you look for wisdom
* how you interact with other Christians
* how you perceive the need for repentance and confession
* how you handle persecution
* how you speak with integrity
* how you pray
* how you consider helping other errant brothers