Calvary Road Baptist Church


James 5.19-20

Turn in God’s Word to James 5.19-20. When you find that passage, stand for the reading of God’s Word and our text for the message this morning:

19     Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;

20     Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

Though we understand from the background of the Book of Acts and history that this letter written by James is directed most specifically to Jewish Christians who had fled from the Jerusalem church to preserve their lives from vicious persecution, and that once they had relocated to comparative physical safety their faith was subjected to various types of testing, let us never forget that there is a great deal to be found in this first of the New Testament books to be written that is applicable to any genuinely converted Christian who is found in a church relationship. From James chapter one alone we see the applicability of this letter to our own situations. Just as James mentioned to them in verse 2, we also “fall into diverse temptations,” and need to be reminded not only to count it all joy when such happens, but also that “the trying of your faith worketh patience.” We, just like they, find ourselves overwhelmed by events that transpire and in desperate need of wisdom, for which reason we like they need to ask for wisdom from God, and to be careful not to waver when we ask, but to be confident about the generosity and goodness of God to meet the needs of His children, verses 5-6. Do you find yourself facing terrible discouragement? James points out that those who endure such testings and trials of faith will be rewarded with “the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him,” verse 12.

I could go on, but allow me to skip to the end of James’ letter and the possibility of serious illnesses that are to be dealt with by calling the church elders to prayer and the confession of one’s sins if the illness has anything to do with God’s chastisement. In short, the Christian faces a plethora of issues that challenge our faith, and it sometimes seems like it will never stop. On occasion a believer can become so discouraged that he begins to drift away from the proper practice of the truth. I must admit that when this kind of thing happens, it is very common for Christians who see it to be paralyzed into inaction. What happens when someone in the church seems to be going through a difficult time in his life, his participation in ministry begins to wane, he no longer seeks out friends and confidants for fellowship and advice, and you have this terrible feeling that perhaps he is gearing up to sever his relationship with you or reject you, the church, the gospel, and the Savior, out of hand?

In actuality, there are at least two distinct possibilities concerning what is happening: First (and this is the worst), it may be that the person who seems to be drifting away was never really a Christian at all. In actuality, he entertained a false hope and was initially thrilled at the possibility of having his sins forgiven. The Lord Jesus Christ spoke of such a person in His Parable of the Soils. Let me read Matthew 13.20-21 to you:

20     But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;

21     Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.

On the other hand, and this is the situation that James addresses in our text at the very end of his letter, it is possible for a brother or sister in Christ to become discouraged and disillusioned enough to wander. How will you and I know what is really taking place? We may not. Just know that when it appears that a brother or sister in Christ is straying, it is God’s desire for you and me to be involved in the ministry of restoration.

God wants you and me to prayerfully do our best to restore that brother or sister in Christ. James writes two concluding statements to show this:


“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him”

There are seven observations I would like to make relative to this verse:

First, “Brethren.” No less than ten times in this short letter James identifies his audience as “brethren,” those who are in and of the same family that he is a part of. The question is, which family does he refer to? Though this is a letter written to Jewish Christians, I am not of the opinion James is here referring to Jewish people when he uses the word “brethren.” His use of this word is both broader and narrower. Allow me to explain. James is not with the word “brethren” identifying blood brothers from the same human family, from the same tribe, or from the same nation. No such physical kinship rises to the level of the significance he attaches to the word “brethren” as he uses it in this letter. James uses the word “brethren” in reference only to those who, like him, are members of the family of God, those who, like him, have experienced the miracle of the new birth and are born again into the family of God.

Next, he writes, “Brethren, if any.” This is what is called a third-class conditional sentence that establishes a hypothetical situation.[1] James is in so many words saying to his readers, “Suppose this happens.” In establishing this hypothetical situation James reveals to his readers two real possibilities: First, it is possible that Christians will err from the truth and wander away from God’s will for their lives. After all, Christians are sheep and sheep do wander. Second, such a wandering away from the will of God can happen to you and can happen to me, as the Apostle Paul warns in First Corinthians 10.12: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”

Third, “Brethren, if any of you.” This literally means, “Brethren, if any among you.”[2] Thus, we see that James is once again narrowing down the field of those to whom he is referring. Perhaps James’ exhortation is most specifically a reference to restoring Christians within the confines of a church congregation. This is the opinion of one very respected Bible teacher, and I would tend to agree.[3] Thus, by application, James is saying to the members of our church, “You Christians in this congregation, if this kind of thing occurs involving any of you. . . .”

Fourth, “Brethren, if any of you do err.” Here James describes exactly what kind of situation he is addresses. The word “err” translates a Greek verb from which we get our English word planet, the word meaning “to wander about.”[4] Ancient astrologer-astronomers observed heavenly bodies that seemed to wander about in unpredictable fashion, unlike the great majority of the twinkling stars whose positions in the night sky were far more predictable. It turned out that those wandering bodies were planets in our solar system whose orbits about the sun greatly puzzled observers. The Greek’s name for those heavenly bodies was related to their belief that they had lost their way, that they had no understandable direction. Thus, we see that James chose this word very well, since it perfectly describes those who are so disillusioned that they begin to exhibit a number of troubling characteristics: Sometimes Christians can become so discouraged that they seem to have (for at least a while) abandoned Christ. Turn to Hebrews 12.1-3 to see this trait a bit more fully outlined:

1      Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,

2      Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

3      For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.

Sometimes Christians become so disillusioned that they ignore scripture. Second Timothy 3.16 speaks concisely to why God’s Word should not be set aside even for a while: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Sometimes Christians become so disillusioned that the assembly is despised:

First Timothy 3.15: “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Hebrews 10.25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

Whatever the cause that results in the believer not availing himself of the grace of God to deal with challenging difficulties, remedies are available.

Fifth, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth.” It is important that we understand precisely what James refers to by this phrase “the truth.” Of course, some professing Christians believe James is referring to turning away from Christ, with the subsequent result being the loss of one’s personal salvation. However, can anyone who is really saved lose his salvation? Listen to Romans 8.36-39, where Paul speaks directly to the kind of situation James refers to:

36     As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

37     Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

38     For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39     Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Additionally, the Savior covered all contingencies Himself, in John 10.27-29:

27     My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

28     And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

29     My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

Therefore, if the truth is not referring directly to Christ, then what has the erring one, the wanderer, the straying sheep, departed from? “The truth.” In James 1.18, James writes about “the word of truth.” In Third John 4, mention is made of Christians walking in truth. Of course, the Apostle Paul pointed out that the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” as we just read in First Timothy 3.13. Finally, Psalm 119.30 begins, “I have chosen the way of truth.” I am persuaded that the truth referred to in this verse is the body of truth contained in the Christian faith and in God’s Word. It is possible for a Christian to wander away from what he once held to be true, perhaps because of discouragement, perhaps because of affliction, or perhaps because of persecution. For whatever reason, such erring from the truth is extremely dangerous.

Sixth, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one.” The one referred to here is not preceded by a definite article (there is no “the” in front of “one” in Greek), meaning the one referred to is ambiguous enough to refer to either you, or me, or anyone else in the congregation. Therefore, James refers here not necessarily to a pastor to do something. Thus, we are shown that all Christians should be involved in restoring the wanderer.

Galatians 6.1: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”

Galatians 6.10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

Seventh, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert.” Please recognize that this does not refer to bringing a sinner to Christ, as in someone being converted to Christ. You can see this is true if you remember that the context shows James addressing Christians about Christians. Convert, here, refers to bringing about a change in the direction of a Christian’s lifestyle. Someone has strayed off the proper path of life, and conversion here refers to getting a Christian back on track. Keep in mind that this shows us that the restoration of an erring Christian is possible because God works with a Christian to accomplish this kind of restoration, as two passages clearly show:

Matthew 18.15-20:  15     Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

16     But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

17     And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

18     Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

19     Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

20     For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Hebrews 12.5-14:     5      And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:

6      For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

7      If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?

8      But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.

9      Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?

10     For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.

11     Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

12     Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees;

13     And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.

14     Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

Perhaps you will be the means by which God restores an erring Christian to the cause of Christ.


“Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

First, “Let him know.” Let that spiritual one of Galatians 6.1, who sees a brother overtaken in a fault, who with fear and trembling approaches that brother (who he realizes may become angry and indignant with him) “know” something to be true. Hereby, James gives absolute assurance to the spiritual Christian who seeks to please God by overcoming his natural inhibitions and reservations in order to help a beloved brother or sister in Christ.

Next, “Let him know, that he which converteth.” James is directing his comments to the brother or sister in Christ responsible for the restoration. This the one who is functioning as the counselor, the prayer warrior, the friend, the example, the teacher, or the guide. This is the child of God who directs the other’s gaze back toward Christ. This is the one who brings his attention once more to scripture. This is the one who rekindles the other’s love for the brethren, and the church for whom Christ died.

Third, “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner.” Notice, that this does not refer to someone who is environmentally handicapped. Neither does this refer to some wronged brother with an “excuse.” It is not a remark directed to a sincerely mistaken person. James has reference here to a sinner. My friends, it is sinners who are restored. Therefore, unless and until the person who has erred, who has wandered, who has strayed, sees himself a sinner and not someone who is handicapped or aggrieved and thereby with an excuse, he will not be restored. James reminds us of this and we must be aware of this. People stray because of sin, pure and simple. No one who has ever lived has ever had a justifiable excuse for straying from the narrow path, because though this person did something or that event occurred, the Savior has always been faithful and true. This point is more clearly seen in the next phrase.

Fourth, “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way.” The error of whose way? His - the sinner’s. In Isaiah 53.6, we are told that as lost sinners “we have turned every one to his own way.” Sadly, it is possible for even those saved from their sins to wander from the straight and narrow back into “his own way” instead of his Savior’s way. James is not here suggesting that people in need of restoration are necessarily unsaved. He just reminds us that they, and we, are still sinners. Therefore, when a sinner goes his way instead of His way, he is in trouble. The next phrase gives a clue as to the kind of trouble.

Five, “Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death.” This may surprise you, but God’s plan for disobedient Christians sometimes involves premature physical death. Ananias and Sapphira are the most famous Christians who died prematurely as a result of sinning against the Holy Spirit, in Acts 5.1-11. Though not often mentioned by preachers, the Bible is quite clear that even so great a man as Moses died prematurely because of his sin’s consequences.[5] In First John 5.16, we are once more informed that there is a sin unto death. Who knows, Christian who seeks to convert a sinner from the error of his ways? Perhaps by restoring a wandering believer to the right path, you will be useful to God in sparing his life from a premature death.

Finally, “and shall hide a multitude of sins.” We know from Proverbs that you cannot prosper if you cover or attempt to cover your sins and hide them from God, so this must refer to something else. James is not encouraging spiritual Christians to collaborate with disobedient believers to cover-up sins. As well, hiding sins from others while pretending to be spiritual is hypocrisy. Our dilemma is cleared up by a proper understanding of the word “hide,” which translates a word referring to doing away with something. “Thus the person who is returned to the truth has his sins done away with. They are covered. They are not to be seen by anybody any more, not because they are done in secret, but because they are no more.”[6]

After examining all of these words and phrases, we can draw some safe conclusions. First, Christians are still sinners - saved sinners - who can fall into sin and wander from the truth. Second, Christians are supposed to restore others who have strayed.

Do you know a Christian in sin? God wants you to help that person get back on track, even if he does not want you to help him get back on track. To get you motivated to do it, James shows that it can be done (v. 19) and that it can very well save someone from an early grave (v. 20). Therefore, when you see someone beginning to drift, not answering your calls, not acknowledging your text messages, missing church in ways they have not done before, do not give up on them. Keep after them. Pray for them, love on them, and gently help them get back on track and serving the Lord. Don’t live their life for them or do their duty for them. You do what you are suppose to do to get them to do what they are suppose to do. Therefore, if there is someone God has laid on your heart to restore or convert in this way, you might want to begin praying for that person, and then approach that person.

God is real. Sin is bad. The consequences are grievous, even in the life of a Christian. Therefore, if you are real, and if your love for the brethren is real, you cannot stand by and do nothing. Christians restore Christians they see wandering.

[1] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol VI, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1933), page 67.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See footnote for James 5.19 from John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997), page 1935.

[4] Spiros Zodhiates, The Behavior Of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), Part Three, page 217.

[5] Deuteronomy 34.5; Numbers 20.7-12

[6] Zodhiates, page 232.

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