“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. ” (James 5:19-20)
This passage has been used by several people to argue the possibility of a believer losing his salvation especially because of the phrase “save a soul from death” which the passage outlines. Well, this argument does not go well with the truth of the gospel as found in other epistles that Salvation is simply by Grace through Faith in Jesus…and not by the ability of any man to possess or maintain moral uprightness. There are 2 main ways I answer the puzzle of this seemingly difficult but easy passage:
– by CONTENT of the verse
– by CONTEXT of the epistle
Ready for an exciting study into this matter? Let’s go! First let’s examine the CONTENT of the verse.
“BRETHREN, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. ” (James 5:19-20)
On a quick look, I would say I don’t always automatically translate the word ‘brethren’ or ‘brothers’ to refer to ‘believers’ in any of the epistles especially the ones written particularly to the Jews, i.e. the epistles of Peter, James and John and the book of Hebrews. Take for example, 1John 2:9 says:
‘…He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness EVEN UNTIL NOW…’ (1John 2:9)
Did you notice that passage never said the brother hating another brother has once been in the LIGHT but now has left the Light? The brother ‘…is in darkness EVEN UNTIL NOW…’ That simply means he is NOT A BELIEVER!It’s not that he ‘lost his salvation’…but that he was never saved in the first place! (Matt 7:23)That you are called a ‘brother’ does not automatically translate into being saved.Brotherhood can be a ‘self-acclaimed’ title! ‘…HE THAT SAITH he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now…’ (1John 2:9)Self-acclaimed title!
To be called a brother, all you need is to join a church. But that does not necessarily translate you into a BELIEVER! A church or fellowship knows her people as ‘brethren’, while God only knows His people as SONS! (John 1:12) Sonship is by ‘birth’…while brotherhood is by ‘fellowship’.
Even Paul had issues with some ‘brothers’!
‘…But actually, I wrote to you not to associate WITH ANY SO-CALLED BROTHER if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one…’ (1Cor 5:11 NASB)
A brother can be ‘so-called’…but that does not mean he is a believer. NIV puts the above verse thus: ‘…I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone WHO CLAIMS TO BE A BROTHER…’ (1Cor 5:11 NIV)
Brotherhood can be a ‘self-acclaimed’ title. That you are ‘in-church’ with believers does not mean you are ‘in-touch’ with Christ!
So when James says: ‘…BRETHREN, if anyone AMONG YOU wanders from the truth…’ Just remember that it was ‘brethren’ he was referring to and the ‘wanderer’ stands the chance of NOT being a believer in the first place!
‘…They went out FROM us, but they were NOT OF us; for if they had BEEN of us, they would no doubt have continued WITH us: but THEY WENT OUT (or wandered from the Truth), that they might be made manifest THAT THEY WERE NOT all of us…’ (1John 2:19 emphasis mine)
It’s therefore clear that though they wandered from the ‘Truth’, it does not mean they were IN the truth before! It simply meant they were formerly associating with the men of Truth. It was brotherhood by PHYSICAL ASSOCIATION… and not brotherhood by SPIRITUAL REGENERATION.
But someone may ask: Pastor Dami, what if the Brethren there actually referred to believers indeed and the ‘wanderer’ was once in the ‘truth’ but now a fellow believer is told to intervene for ‘saving his soul’?
This brings us to the second way of solving the puzzle of this passage – by examining the CONTEXT of the epistle.
“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will SAVE A SOUL FROM DEATH and cover a multitude of sins. ” (James 5:19-20)
Now listen carefully: even if James could have been writing about a believer, his argument was for MORAL purity and not DOCTRINAL sanctity.
The whole tenor of James’s epistle has to do with people wandering into SINFUL LIFESTYLES or activities and he argues for MORAL PURITY. James is not talking, in this context, about people wandering into DOCTRINAL error. In fact, throughout his epistle he never argues about a ‘brother’ who has wandered away from Christian orthodoxy. He is speaking of saints who act in UNHOLY WAYS. This definitely shows that the threat here is not on the believer’s salvation but the earthly consequences of his unruly behavior. James repeatedly exhorts his readers to LIVE GODLY LIVES and on some occasions also, he rebuked them for practicing evil (see chapter 1:22-27; 2:1-13,14-26; 3:14; 4:1-2,11-12; 5:9).
Believers are indeed capable of living contrary from the truths found in Scripture. Paul had same issues with the believers living in Corinth.
‘…You are still WORLDLY. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like MERE HUMANS?…’ (1Cor 3:3 NIV)
Though believers are guaranteed of their ‘eternity’…that does not mean believers no longer wander into ‘carnality’. If someone wanders into sinful activities then, out of love, another saint ought to address it with him and return him to the straight path. This was what James was passing across. Paul also emphasized this in his epistle to the Galatians:
“Brethren, even if a man be OVERTAKEN IN ANY TRESPASS (wander from the truth), ye who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:1-2 emphasis mine)
The reference is clearly for moral purity which every believer ought to watch each other’s backs …so as to restore any derailing brother from moral decadence. This is what James referred to as ‘saving a soul from death’.
‘…“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will SAVE A SOUL FROM DEATH and cover a multitude of sins. ” (James 5:19-20)
By using the word ‘death’, James was NOT referring to spiritual death or eternity in hell. That is ONLY determined by your faith in Christ! Scripturally, In terms of morality, ‘death’ can either be used for a state of complete moral decadence or physical death in the long run. For example, when Paul said he was getting deep into ‘sinful acts’ in his early days of Christianity, he used the word ‘DEAD’ to explain his experience.
‘…But SIN, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence…For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, SIN REVIVED, AND I DIED…’ (Romans 7:8-9)
This does not mean he lost his salvation! He didn’t even die physically at that very time. It simply means he lost all ‘personal ability’ to fight back against his moral failure. It is a state of addiction that requires a divine intervention! (Rom7:24) This is exactly the ‘death’ James was also referring to in the first chapter of his epistle:
‘…and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death…’ (James 1:15)
A state of perpetual moral defeat and/or probability of facing the full EARTHLY consequence of the violated law! In such state, the ‘brother’ opens himself up for oppressions of the devil. (Eph 4:27) Such oppression keeps him deep in dangerous addictions and attitudes that can eventually cost him his physical health or life.
The ‘saving a soul from death’ is therefore referring to the ‘physical’ and not the ‘spiritual’. In fact, The Greek word translated “soul” is “psyche”, which has within its scope of meaning both “life” and “person.” For example, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His LIFE [psyche] a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). But, no one would argue that Christ gave up His eternal soul. He gave up His mortal life. So to facilitate a better understanding, we could safely translate that clause as “he will save a life from death” or “he will save a person from death.” In other words, by bringing a wandering saint back to the truth we help them avoid deadly consequences of their actions. James concluded the admonition thus:
“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and COVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS. ” (James 5:19-20)
I doubt if there is any believer that does not know that it is the BLOOD OF JESUS that actually cleansed away all our sins and not the effort of a ‘brother’ in admonishing another brother.
‘…the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin…’ (1John 1:7)
But what James was talking about is “covering a fellow brother’s sins” by helping him out of moral deviation and forgiving his actions too. There was a practical case of an erring ‘brother’ who was restored by the brethren. Paul’s admonition was apt:
‘…So that contrariwise YE OUGHT RATHER TO FORGIVE HIM, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow…’ (2Cor 2:7)
By contrast, if we do reach out to an erring brother or sister in Christ, we are acting out of love, seeking to restore such a one and forgiving his actions too. It balances well with Peter’s admonition in his own epistle:
“Above all, LOVE EACH OTHER deeply, because love COVERS OVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS.” (1 Peter 4:7-8 NIV)
Simply put: ‘be your brother’s keeper by not allowing him to be overtaken by a sinful lifestyle’. James was in one word, advocating for the restoration of an erring brother and also admonishing that his sins among the brethren be covered and forgiven. I believe with these few points, it is clear that the Eternal Salvation of Man is only by faith on what Jesus has accomplished…while every believer is admonished to walk in the ‘truth’ of our righteousness in Christ.
Kindly let me know how this helps. Remain under Grace. Amen.