Today we finish our series in the book of James.
We began the series with an explanation of the title – True Religion.
The word religion carries many connotations. To some it conjures memories of stained glass, soaring ceilings and incense. To some the word brings to mind thoughts of holiday services, weddings and funerals. To many, religion is a negative word, a realm of the humane experience responsible for long centuries of oppression, darkness and war.
Many of us who are followers of Christ would rather not claim the word.
Yet, no matter how far we move away from religion as a society, we can’t escape the realities of the human soul. We can’t escape our deepest longings for love, meaning and transcendence. We can’t escape the fact that after all these years, religion alone offers an object for our deepest desires.
The book of James was written by a man who saw the failings in religion – he saw the hypocrisy and emptiness of false religion. The book that goes by his name was a letter written to call the people of God to a pure and true religion.
It’s a call to stay on the path of authentic devotion to the truth.
We don’t always stay on that path, do we? Many of us know people who at one time professed faith in Christ, yet have wandered from the truth.
What do we do when we see that happening? What should I do when a brother or sister in Christ seems to be drifting away from Christ?
Turn with me to James 5:19-20:
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 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.
A few years ago I went sailing with my son Jack at Cheney lake. We spent the morning out on the water, then tied up the boat at the dock to get some lunch. A few minutes into lunch, Jack looked over and noticed that the boat had come untied and was drifting across the harbor. We immediately set out and found someone with a motor boat who helped us chase down our sailboat and bring it home.
As Christians, our hearts are a lot like that sailboat. We love God, yet there are external forces constantly pushing on us. The winds and waves of trials, temptations and doubts drive us away from God. If we are not diligent we will drift and wander.
We drift by lack of discipline and attention to spiritual disciplines.
We drift by distraction with the busyness of life.
We drift by attraction to the pleasures of this world.
This is the message of James 5:19-20:
When you see a brother in Christ drifting from God, you should go after them, because in Jesus we are family, because in Jesus we are dead serious about the human soul and because only in Jesus are our sins covered and are we saved from death.
First, we should run after the sister who is drifting from Jesus, because we are family.
In verse 19 James uses a word he repeats for the 9th time. Brothers. The Greek term may have been more inclusive, some translations use ‘brothers and sisters.’ Brothers, beloved brothers, my dear brothers. The familial affection is a defining mark of this letter.
In Christ, we are family. Wherever you go in the world, whenever you see a follower of Christ, you see a brother or a sister.
It’s one of the great joys of my life to have the opportunity to travel from time to time in ministry. Over the years I have made friendships with brothers and sisters from Italy, India, Albania, Austria, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Romania, Poland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Colombia, Rwanda, The Congo, Vietnam, China and more. There’s something wonderful about meeting someone half-way around the world and connecting over a shared devotion to Christ.
In Christ, God is building a family.
Not one of us needs to live this life on our own. Life is hard, isn’t it? We are all carrying burdens, facing challenges, making difficult decisions, and the great news of the gospel is that we aren’t alone in our challenges. We are surrounded by the comfort and support of family.
A Christian can’t stand by when a brother or sister wanders from Christ, because we are family. Because we can’t stand by when one of our family is drifting from the only source of truth, life and salvation. We’ve got to do something.
When a sister wanders from the truth, we have to go after them because we are dead serious about the human soul.
Last week my family was driving to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. As we drove East on I-40, we encountered a major slowdown and took the exit at Kingman to wait out the traffic. When we got back on the highway and approached an accident scene, I saw a large truck with the words Medical Examiner printed on the sides. In front of the truck were three bodies.
On any given day our hours are filled with entertainment and distraction – the next Marvel show, the latest development in the feud between grown PGA golfers, the Olympic qualifiers. As Christians, we may show interest in all of these things, but at the end of the day, we know that it is all going to pass away. We know that death is coming for all of us. We know that everything else is trivial compared to the eternal destiny of a human soul.
It could have been my family on the highway that afternoon. It could have been us breathing our last breaths and standing before God.
The language in James is deadly serious. Soul, sin, death – there are no words more serious than these. It’s a deadly thing to wander from the truth.
So when we see a brother or sister drifting, we go after them.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes we don’t have it all together. Sometimes we are afraid of conflict, we are afraid of damaging a friendship. Sometimes we don’t know if we will have the right words. But when a human soul is at stake, these will not stop us.
We go after one another because we are family, because we are deadly serious about the human soul and because in Christ God covers or sins.
The word cover means to hide or conceal. The word is used in relation to sin in a handful of places throughout the Scriptures – it’s a glorious, crimson thread woven through the Old and New Testaments.
We see it in Psalm 32:1-2:
Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.
Psalm 32 is a song celebrating the happy and favored condition of the person whose sins have been covered.
The Psalm gives three of the blessings of this person: their transgression is forgiven, the LORD does not count their sins against them and they are perfectly authentic and transparent – because their sins have been exposed, covered and forgiven, they don’t have anything to hide they don’t have to wear any masks. They are totally free to express their authentic selves.
The phrase is used again in Psalm 85:2:
You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.
This verse again brings together covering and forgiveness. The covering of sin is the result of forgiveness, it is God himself who is the agent responsible for the covering.
He reaches down like a father who tenderly covers his sleeping infant with a blanket to cover our sins with the blanket of his grace.
In Romans 4:5-8 – Paul picks up the thread and weaves it into his explanation of how salvation works.
He begins in verse 5: to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
In verse 6 he shows us that this one who does not work but trust God is the same person described in Psalm 32:1. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.
The Psalms tell us that there is a favored and happy person who receive the forgiveness of God, the covering of all their sins and the freedom to live an authentic life.
Romans tells us that the person who experiences all of that happiness is the one who does not try to achieve it on their own merit, but who trusts in God.
So far the covering of sins is an act of God. It’s like a hurricane or an earthquake or a flood, no one can predict it, no one can control it, it’s the hand of God in our world.
But there are two more places where the thread of covered sin is picked up.
Peter does it in his first letter:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4:8
Peter seems to be referencing another Old Testament passage, Proverbs 10:12: Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.
The proverbs contrast two approaches to another persons faults and sins: hatred looks for an opportunity to bring up an offense and use it against the offender, love actively covers over sin.
A great example of this is the case of Noah. At one point in time Noah became intoxicated and ended up separated from this clothes. His son Ham found Noah like this and went to tell others about the incident. Ham’s brother Shem and Japheth grabbed a robe and walked backward into the room, laying the robe across their father’s body to cover his shame.
That’s what love does. We should love each other earnestly like Shem and Japheth because we all have our nakedness and we all need grace.
Peter seems to be talking more about earnestly seeking to overlook offenses and believe the best about someone. James seems to be referencing the ultimate covering of sins in Romans 4.
So who is the person who wanders in James? Who is the person who needs to be saved from death and to have their sins covered?
It is a believer who has wandered from their salvation and must be brough again to faith? That doesn’t fit the context of the Scriptures.
Is it a professed believer whose wandering reveals that they were not a true believer and must be brought to genuine faith for the first time? It’s possible.
And what exactly does the person who brings the wandering person home accomplish? Do they really save a soul and cover sins?
These are important questions, but they must not keep us from action.
Let me give you an example:
Let’s say you are riding your bike along the Arkansas river, you hear muffled shouts for help and you look over to see a child out in the middle of the water struggling to stay above water. Are you going to stop and sit down on the riverbank to reflect on the sovereignty of God and His plans for that child?
Of course not, you are going to jump in and pull the child out of the water.
Now who saved him?
You can say you saved them and you would be right.
You could also pan out and look at the big picture and think about the fact that your friend bailed on your coffee meeting so you decided to spend your free hour riding a bike and happened to be there at just the right moment when that child was in need. You could see the hand of God and you could say that God saved that child.
To say you saved a child and to say God saved the child would both be accurate. You can have a high view of the sovereignty of God and you can go through life ready to act at the same time.
To know our God who covers sins is to actively pursue the people in our lives who have sins that need covered.
James 5:20 is meant to be an encouragement. Who is it for? Is it for the person going after the wanderer or is it the wanderer?
Could it be both?
Often we need motivation to overcome our hesitation and go after our friends when they need to hear the truth in love.
The truths of James 5:19-20 are strong motivation to get up and go.
They are also a comfort to the person who is being chased after. They are a reminder that Jesus is serious about our souls, that we belong to a family and that our God is ready to cover our sins.
Here are 5 signs that you may be wandering from the truth:
- You can’t remember the last time you read the Bible.
- It’s been months since you prayed about a decision.
- You’re avoiding spending time with God’s people.
- You’re going through the motions at church.
- You look to your feelings to guide and justify your actions.
What do you do if these describe a friend of yours? How do you practically go after someone in that situation?
There’s a good clue in the context. James has just written about prayer. As Cody pointed out last week, prayer is a relational activity.
There is no greater way to influence another person than through prayer.
I have often heard a wise principle about this: you must learn to speak to God about men before you can speak to men about God.
The first thing you do if a friend is wondering is get on your knees and talk to God about that friend.
Then you talk to your friend about God. And that is usually much simpler than we make it out to be.
The most important factor in that conversation is not having just the right words or having it all together yourself, the most important factor is love.
If you love your friend, they will see that and they will more often that not receive that love.
“Brother, I may be wrong, but it looks to me like you may be drifting from the truth. You know I love you. Can we talk about your heart?”
Love covers a multitude of sins.
What if I’m the one wandering?
If you are the one who is wandering, look to Jesus.
Do you remember the stories Jesus told in Luke 15? He told three stories of people who had lost something valuable to them. In each case there is nothing so important to the character in the story than reuniting with what has been lost. The final story is the story of the father whose son has wandered away.
When that son has tasted the world and come away empty, when he remembers what he had with his father, he begins a hesitant journey home.
Do you remember what the father does? The moment he sees the son, he sets off running after him. He calls for his finest robe and he wraps his son in that robe. He covers the grime and filth the son had accumulated in his wandering, he covers it with the luxury and honor of his finest robes.
“Let’s not talk about it any more, son. All that matters is that you are my child and you are home.”
This is your God. Come home.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown