A few years ago, I had the privilege to do a three day hike at Big Bend National Park with a few men from the church. We were an assortment. One was an expert outdoorsman. Another was a world traveler. The other was an experienced missionary. I was none of the above, but excited to go.
One of the more experienced guys purchased a map and shared with the rest of us to take pictures with our phones. I didn’t. I just assumed I’d follow the experts and call one of them in the unlikely event that I get lost.
Bad idea. Somewhere on the side of a mountain I was alone. I derailed somewhere and got lost. My cellular signal was dead. There was no way to get my eyes on the map or phone a friend. So, I wandered around for two hours until I heard their voices. As it turned out, I was lost within 100 yards of our camp and wandering all around it.
James was concerned about those who wandered. In his closing remarks, he urged faithful believers to engage in a rescue mission for those who were lost and wandering from the righteous path of truth.
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 5:13-20
James closes his epistle with a benediction on prayer. In essence, he teaches that prayer is the key that unlocks joy in the midst of trials. He points out that prayer can restore our strength, renew our joy, recover our faith, rebuild our fellowship, revive our power, and finally, rescue our soul. These final words are void of any typical New Testament goodbyes and personal greetings. Instead, he gives a tender call to rescue sinners.
Notice that the word “wander” appears in both verses respectively. Some clues in the text help us to see what is meant by this. First, the wander is “among” the “brothers” which indicates that he is a Jew who names the name of Christ. Second, he is said to wander “from the truth” suggesting a personal familiarity with the truth. Third, he needs to be brought back, indicating that he belongs in the truth. This might lead us to think that the wanderer is a Christian.
On the other hand, there are other clues that suggest something different. For instance, the wanderer is called a “sinner” which is a Greek term that always refers to an unsaved one in the New Testament. Furthermore, he is on the path of “death” and, since we all are destined to physically die at some point, this must refer to spiritual death in hell. Finally, he needs to “cover” his “sins.” These clues suggest that the wanderer is not saved at all.
Both are true. James has in mind a person who professes faith, but doesn’t possess faith. He names the name of Christ, but has not been saved. He is the one in the church who strays into a life of sin because he was never saved (1 Jn. 2:19). Jesus warned that there would be people like this. He said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”Matthew 7:21-23
According to Scripture there will be some in the church who have “the appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). We can spot them by the way they “wander from the truth” (Ja. 5:19; cf: Ja. 1:18; 3:14). They abandon the path of light for the path of darkness to wander in their lostness. Sadly, this kind of abandonment leads to spiritual “death” (Rom. 6:23). So, who will save them?
Somewhere in our American heritage, we developed the idea that only the pastors and deacons are responsible for rescuing the lost. But, this is not what James teaches. In fact, he mentions twice that “someone” and “whoever” must bring him back from his wandering. Both of these words refer to the “brothers” who are “among you” in the local church (Ja. 5:19-20). He was referring to all in the local church—men and women who are faithful to the Lord.
Paul teaches this in his letter to the Corinthian church:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”2 Corinthians 5:17-19
The ministry of reconciliation is a ministry that all Christians have. It is our duty and overflow of the grace that God has given us through Christ. You are the rescuer. You are called to engage in the rescue mission.
James provides a couple of incentives to motivate us to our duty of reconciliation. “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death” (Ja. 5:20). We are not rescuing others from natural calamity or disastrous accidents. The ministry of reconciliation has eternal effects. It saves the wandered from eternal, spiritual death in hell.
If that is not enough to light your fire, consider another incentive. Reconciling the wanderer “will cover a multitude of sins” (Ja. 5:20). The word “cover” is a special word to those who are saved. It means to hide or make invisible. While it may allude to keeping the sins of one who repents confidential in order to prevent further embarrassment (Prov. 10:12). It communicates the righteous covering of Christ that hides our sin from God the Father. “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1).
Do you know of a wanderer? Has God brought someone to your mind that you’ve noticed has wandered away from the truth to embrace the deception of the world? Would you perform your duty to him or her and tenderly rescue them? You are God’s agent. Eternity hangs in the balance.