Wandering From The Truth

Grace For The Journey

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8Apr A friend told me once about a family member named Frank.  He would say frequently, “My name is Frank, and that’s what I am.”  This certainly sounds like James, doesn’t it?  If there is one thing we have learned about James in these studies it is that he does not mince words.   He sugarcoats nothing and gets right to the point.  He is frank, direct, straightforward, and real.  He is blunt, bold, and candid.  His approach, while painful at times, is both real and refreshing.

Consistent with his style throughout, these final two verses of James’ letter are succinct, incisively penetrating, and fraught with meaning. Here’s how James puts it in James 5:19-20, “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 teaches that Christians are to be involved in the ministry of restoration, bringing back fellow believers who have wandered from the truth, presumably by wandering from the church.

Christians are to go after those

Who have fallen into this error.

They must work to turn

These erring brothers and sisters

Back to the truth.

Doing so, argues James, is tantamount to the saving of their soul from death and the receiving of God’s forgiveness.

There are some discernible, straightforward truths for the church here:

1) It Is Possible For A Believer To Wander From The Truth.

James supposes the real possibility that someone hearing or reading his letter may “wander from the truth.” By this statement he means “wandering from the truth of the gospel, wandering into heresy, or wandering away from living the truth, falling into the sins (some he addressed earlier in the letter – sins of being judgmental, sins of the tongue, sins of worldliness).

It is possible for a believer to wander from the truth.  We often sing of this possibility in a well-known hymn:

Prone to wander,
Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

We may ask how this is possible given the fact that Christians have a new nature and have the Holy Spirit residing within.

Before we address this question, let us admit that many in the typical church congregation may not be saved.  No one knows with absolute certainty who is saved and who is not.  When we read the New Testament, the writers never pretend to know that every person to whom they are writing is truly saved.

The New Testament writers write the same way we would write if we were writing to our church.  We would write to the “brethren,” not knowing for certain that every brother is in fact a genuine brother.  Sadly, there may be some among our gatherings who will turn away from the church, turn away from spiritual truth, and walk down a path that leads to destruction and hell.  That is simply the reality of the situation.

Recall Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

A person can refer to Jesus as “Lord,” serve in the church, and perform good deeds among the Christian community, but not be a genuine brother or sister in Christ.

In 1 John 2:19, the Apostle John writes of those who left the faith: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”

James addresses the “brethren,” without assuming that every person is, in fact, a brother.  This uncertainty notwithstanding, James’ truth applies to all: turning a sinner from the error of his way saves his soul from death and covers a multitude of sin.

Having addressed the possibility – if not the likelihood – that not all of James’ readers and hearers are genuinely saved, we are comforted knowing that true believers will remain true believers.  Authentic Christians will persevere in their faith.  They will struggle from time to time, but will finally overcome.

Justification describes the very moment God declares us entirely forgiven of all sin.  It happens all at once, at a specific, singular occurrence in time.  But while justification is a precise point in time, sanctification is an ongoing process.  Sanctification takes a lifetime.  So, God changes us, but He does not change us all at once.  Much of the change occurs gradually over time, even through the “various trials” mentioned earlier in James’ opening chapter.

But . . .

While justification is a precise point in time,

Sanctification is an ongoing process.

Because of Christ, Christians are saved, redeemed, and justified forever.  Yet, there is still what we often describe as the “sin that remains,” the daily struggle with temptation, the daily battle of the “old man” or “the flesh.”  When we give-in to the tug of the world and the flesh, we are at that moment “wandering from the truth.”

So, it is possible for a Christian to wander from the truth.  It is interesting that the original word for “wander” is a word from which we get the word “planet.”  That’s helpful as the term conveys “the idea of going off-course, wandering like a planet out of orbit.”

This is why it is vitally important for a Christian to endeavor to walk in righteousness every day, reading the Word, living by and in obedience to the Word, praying to Him, spending time with God’s people, attending worship with other believers, and sharing the gospel with the lost.  These actions are the “working out” of the salvation God has “worked within us (Philippians 2:12-13).

As we endeavor to walk in righteousness, we have the growing assurance that God is growing us in our sanctification, making us more like Jesus, the One with whom we are assured to spend eternity.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians, God “will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ/” (1 Corinthians 1:8; cf Romans 8:30).

Until that day, however, we will battle sin and temptation.  James’ words remind us that it is possible for a believer to wander from the truth.

2) It Is Assumed Another Believer Will Turn Him Back.

For every person who wanders from the truth, James assumes there will be “someone” who “turns him back.”  He assumes the church is actively going after those who wander.

Given the immediate context, this work of restoration includes prayer.  Christians are to “pray for one another” that they “may be healed (James 5:16).”  Certainly the effectual, fervent prayers of many righteous persons, prayers for the turning back of the erring one, increases the likelihood of that soul’s restoration.

In addition to their prayers for a wandering brother, the church will also need to approach the one in error in an effort to “turn him back.”  James assumes “someone” from the congregation will do this.

This truth calls to mind Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep.  He supposes a man has a hundred sheep and one of them “wanders” (same word used by James).  Jesus asks, “Does he (the man) not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying (Matthew 18:12)?”  Jesus concludes the parable with the truth: “It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (Matthew 18:14).”

James expresses the same concern for the church.  He assumes that the church has the same love for wandering members as the man does for wandering sheep—as God does for wandering souls.

“A real friend is someone who always ‘gets in your way’ when you are ‘on your way down.’”

Do you love those who have wandered from the truth?  Do you know anyone who has wandered from your Bible study?  Your small group? Your school class?  Your worship service?  Have you called to check on them?

Too often we allow fear or pride to overrule the Spirit’s promptings to reach out to a wandering brother or sister.  You can be sure that Satan wants you to just forget about them or to reason: “They had issues,” or, “They were never really connected anyway.”

Too often we allow fear or pride to overrule the Spirit’s promptings to reach out to a wandering brother or sister.  You can be sure that Satan wants you to just forget about them or to reason: “They had issues,” or, “They were never really connected anyway.”

Fear of confrontation or fear of appearing sanctimonious may also impede the work of the Spirit within us.  But if we truly love others, we will not allow our fears to keep us from doing what the Bible teaches.

Someone said, “A real friend is someone who always ‘gets in your way’ when you are ‘on your way down.’”  Good words!

It is possible for a believer to wander from the truth and it is assumed another believer will turn him back.  Thirdly:

It is a Blessing when a Believer is Restored 

James teaches that the one “who turns a sinner from the error of his way” invites a blessing.  The blessing is the knowledge that God used him to “save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”

James’ teaching raises a poignant question: Do you love others enough to go after them when they wander?

When a sinner is turned back, his soul is saved from death—spiritual death—because his sins are “covered.”  His sins are not covered by the one who turned him back, but by God.  God alone forgives sins.  God uses caring church members–working through them–to bring about the forgiveness of a wanderer’s many sins.

James’ teaching raises a few poignant questions: Do you love others enough to go after them when they wander?  Do you love them as you love yourself?  Are you a real friend—someone who “gets in the way” of another who is “on the way down?”

Since all Christians are to be engaged in the ministry of restoration, let us consider how to live out this truth.

Develop The Necessary Character Of One Who Restores

If we are to be involved in going after those who have wandered from the truth, there are at least two character qualities that are essential to the work.

Humility 

If it is possible for a believer to wander from the truth, then it is possible that one day we ourselves may be that very believer.  This possibility should give us pause lest we draw boastful conclusions about those who have wandered from the truth.

Recall Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:3-4, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Among other things, Jesus teaches that each of us “has issues.”  We each have some kind of inability to “see clearly.”  So before we make prejudgments about the errors of another brother or sister, let us humbly remember “the plank” in our own eye.

In the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).  Recall also Paul’s teaching on this subject to the churches of Galatia: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

Never become so critical of a struggling Christian, a downcast, seemingly defeated brother or sister in Christ, believing somehow you are “above all that.”  It could happen to you.  Practice humility.

Mercy

If we hope to win back those who wander from the truth, having mercy and showing mercy towards others is essential.

Showing mercy is the primary application of the familiar “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  Read it afresh and consider how it may apply to James’ teaching: “And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”  And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”  But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.  But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.   So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’  So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Develop necessary character as one who restores: humility, and mercy.  There is something else helpful to us as we apply James’ teaching:

Understand the Ultimate Cause of Wandering

Why is it that people wander from the truth?

What happens to individuals that they begin to lose interest in corporate worship, preaching of the Word, small group study, and private devotion?  Why exactly do they fall away?

To be sure there are many factors involved in the Christian’s going astray.  We noted earlier, for example, the Christian’s ongoing battle with “the flesh” or the “old man.”  We must not underestimate the need for constant vigilance as we endeavor to walk in holiness.

It is also important to remember that most sin stems ultimately from misplaced desire.  A lack of delighting in the all-satisfying relationship with Lord Jesus Christ weakens our defenses and awakens our vulnerability to wrong.

God speaks of misplaced desire through the Prophet Jeremiah: “My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that can hold no water”  (Jeremiah 2:13).

When we forsake the Lord, we stop going to Him in prayer, listening to Him in His Word, communing with Him both corporately and privately.  We stop “drinking” from the well of our salvation and we drink from something else.  The prophet says God’s people have made their own cisterns, or wells, wells he describes as “broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

A broken cistern is a container that is cracked, allowing water to seep out slowly while mud slowly seeps in.  To drink from a broken cistern is to drink muddy water.  Who wants to drink muddy water?  A thirsty person will drink from it until he discovers a better, more refreshing, and more satisfyingly healthy source.

As people created in God’s image, we often thirst for our Creator without even realizing it.  As St. Augustine so famously wrote: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

Spiritually we may be drinking muddy water without even realizing it, inadvertently trying to satisfy our spiritual yearnings.  It’s like trying to quench our thirst with the wrong water, drinking from the wrong well.

  • When you turn to pornography to make yourself feel better, you are drinking from a broken cistern.
  • When you allow your thoughts to wander into sin and temptation, you are drinking from the wrong well.
  • When you get drunk or use drugs to get high you are substituting living water for muddy water, perhaps without even realizing it.

Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14).

The ultimate cause for wandering from the truth is drinking from the wrong well.

We wander from the truth when we forget that Jesus embodies truth (John 14:6).  Often unintentionally we turn to the lies of the Enemy, the one in whom “there is no truth” (John 8:44).

The ultimate cause for wandering from the truth is drinking from the wrong well.  Take care to drink from the water of life, the only water that can quench the thirsting of our souls, and see that those who wander are turned back to the living water of Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, let us read prayerfully the words of an old hymn that speak to the heart of this ministry of restoration:

Though they are slighting Him, still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly, plead with them gently;
He will forgive if they only believe.
Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
Rescue the perishing, duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide;
Back to narrow way patiently win them;
Tell the poor wand’rer a Savior has died.

This is God Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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