Save a Soul from Death: How We Bring Wanderers Back

Few things in life are as painful as watching a loved one drift away from Jesus. It may start as a seemingly small departure, nothing to be alarmed about. But one day you realize — and it takes your breath away to realize it — your loved one’s soul has been drifting away. He or she travels further and further away into unbelief and unrepentant sin.

The beginning of James 5:19 happens before your very eyes: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth . . .” Here we find the afflictive prepositional phrase — the one that keeps you up at night, sheds your tears, and breaks your heart: “if anyone among you wanders.”

Once he stood beside you as a brother born for the day of adversity. Once she would stay up all night praying with you. Once he even led you to the Lord Jesus. But now what is he? What is she? Shrinking back, lukewarm, rocky soil? Are they going out from us because somehow, someway, they were never truly of us?

The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteemed almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure. (“The Almost Christian”)

Is Isaac Watts right? Are they proving themselves “almost saints”? Are they making their own destruction sure? You feel so helpless as you see them off in the distance. On some days, you may wish to have already been away from the body and at home with the Lord before seeing what your eyes now see. Hope deferred has made your heart sick.

Do you know someone who is wandering away from Jesus? God has a word for you, for us, in the concluding verses of James as he talks to the church of wanderers.

How to Bring Wanderers Back

The foremost thought for everyone who feels the relevance of this topic — you can still hear his voice, see her face, and recall better days — is, How do we bring them back? This is what we want to know — what we need to know. On the face of it, James doesn’t offer much help. Stare with me for clues:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back . . . (James 5:19)

Between the wandering and the returning, we have “and.” That’s it. We’re tempted to say, “Brother James, unquestionably you are a master of pith, but please, we need more details! How?

I now realize that I have underestimated James to question him thus. Perhaps he would answer me, “Brother Greg, did you read my letter? I’ve been attempting this the whole time.” The last two verses are not a clumsy ending to the epistle, but a summary of a main purpose for writing: to bring back sinners from wandering away.

How were some of his recipients wandering? Weren’t so many wandering away from a gospel ethic? James addresses those wandering not foremost through bad thinking, but bad living. Not false doctrine, but false discipleship had led them astray.

Throughout his letter, James introduces us to such characters as Mr. Tossed To-and-Fro, Mr. Quick to Anger, Dr. Loose Tongue, Professor Dead Faith, Lady Soul Adulteress, and Lord Fattened for Slaughter. He points out the City of Useless Religion, the Town of Hearers Only, and the Land of Cozy with the World. He invites us to observe the Church of Faith Absolutely Alone, with its twin elders, Pastor You Sit Here and Pastor You Sit There.

But how exactly does James try to bring wanderers back? I want to commend three steps that attempt to capture his approach. To do so, I’ll draw from his imagery in 5:20. James uses path imagery, writing of an “erring way” or “wandering road” (translated as simply “wandering” in the ESV). A wayward road is in view.

1. Show them their road.

No one is a worse judge of sin than the sinner caught in it. Wanderers can be the last to know they are wandering. James rebukes, admonishes, and instructs to show his readers where they really stand. He shows them their road.

For example, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). They assume they are good with God, religious; reality disagrees. So we, like him, implore wanderers, “My brother, my sister, do not be deceived!” We too hold up the mirror of God’s word (1:23) to show the sinner the seriousness of his state.

2. Show them the end of the road.

Show them where this road leads. I’ve heard of one pastor who set up a booth at a fair, claiming to know people’s future. When they come, he asks about their faith in Christ and tells them about their future accordingly. James believes in this kind of future-telling.

He shows us the child of our sinful desires growing up to kill us. He holds up dead flowers to show us the end of the rich man perishing in his pursuits. He pictures the defrauder’s heart as fat livestock being prepared for the day of slaughter (James 1:11, 15; 5:5). He shows them the end of the road.

3. Place God upon their road.

Show them their ways in relation to God. An erring path errs because it wanders from him and his standards. A hot temper is not just a hot temper; it is that which does not work God’s righteousness (James 1:19–20). Partiality isn’t just something we don’t hold, but we don’t hold it “as [we] hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).

Place God on the road behind them. They need to be “brought back.” Show them that their wanderings are wanderings away from God and his beloved Son. Remind them of their first love.

Place God beside them. They have not outrun him. God stands beside these Jonahs, even now, more willing to welcome them home than they are to return. Even to spiritual adulterers, he offers more grace (James 4:4–6).

Place God before them. Warn them that if they insist on deliberately sinning after receiving a knowledge of the truth — if they plan to trample “underfoot the Son of God” (Hebrews 10:29) — God stands at the door as Judge, and they shall die without mercy. But don’t forget to plead with them to take that other path with a crown of life.

Why Bring Wanderers Back

So, I’ve suggested that we show wanderers the road, the end of the road, and place God upon their road. Yet notice that in these final verses, James does not focus on how to bring back a soul, but rather why. In this very practical book, he ends not with principles but perspective. He wants to inspire them — not just instruct them — to be a community, a church that pursues fellow wanderers.

1. Consider what it means to bring back a wanderer.

Look again at the verses:

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 5:19–20)

Here James wants the rescuer to know that as he successfully brought a sinner back from his sinful road, he saved the wandering soul from eternal death and that, in the wanderer’s returning, his sins are again forgiven before God.

“You, not angels, are given the eternal work of persuading, pleading, pastoring souls back to the narrow way.”

Have you considered what it is to save a soul? James wants you to consider the glory of it. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus taught. “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The unbreakable noose was nearly tied around their neck, the divine sword was being sharpened, they were chasing a death unutterably dreadful — and then you talked with them. God used your voice, your concern, your heartbreak, your pleadings, to call them down from the ledge.

Philip Doddridge summarizes it beautifully: “It is as if [James] had said, do but reflect what that is, and you will find your success is its own reward” (The Evil and Danger of Neglecting the Souls of Men, 27). Do you see it? It is such a great thing, an eternal thing, an essential thing, a happy thing to save a soul from death that to do so is its own compensation.

2. Consider whom God uses to bring them back.

James attributes agency to us in a way that may make us slightly uncomfortable. We cover sins and save souls?

Now, he has already attributed saving agency to several things in the letter: the gospel (1:21), faith (2:14), God himself (4:12), and perhaps prayer (5:15). James writes to bring home the utter astonishment, the sweeping grandeur, the vital agency in a Christian’s spiritual care for his fallen brethren. Though we are not the decisive agent, do not edit the verse in your mind and miss the force of James’s actual words: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.

Me? Save a soul from death? I cannot seem to save a houseplant from death. We get to be instruments in the eternal destiny of God’s chosen people? What is our life? We are but mists that appear for a time and then vanish — but God uses mists to save souls!

You, not angels, are given the eternal work of pursuing, persuading, pleading souls back to the narrow way. Your tears are to fall. Your prayers are to rise. Your quivering voice is to speak. Your Bible is to be open. Under the sovereignty of God, undying souls exist that will not be in heaven apart from your bringing them back; they will not persevere without your perseverance to save them from death.

3. Consider your joy to bring them back.

Doesn’t James’s logic suggest anything but self-denial for its own sake? He assumes, in presenting to the rescuer the knowledge of his rescue, that the wanderer’s return satisfies the rescuer’s happiness.

Do you want to make a profit in this life? Do you want to make it count? Seek to be used by God to rescue souls. Don’t go down to such and such a town and trade; go down to such and such a town following your prodigal brother there and convince him to return home! Our Father uses famines, but more often he uses brothers and sisters.

To fearful souls that tire and faint,
And walk the ways of God no more,
God often sends another saint,
To make the soul’s salvation sure.

“Beloved, you would not need any other argument, did you know how blessed the work is in itself,” Charles Spurgeon once said.

Would you grow in grace? Then, help others. Would you shake off your own despondency? Then, help others. This work quickens the pulse, it clears the vision, it steals the soul to holy courage; it confirms a thousand blessings on your own souls, to help others on the road to Heaven. Shut up your heart’s floods, and they will become stagnant, noisome, putrid, foul; let them flow, and they shall be fresh and sweet, and shall well up continually. Live for others, and you will live a hundred lives in one. (Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress, 41)

Few things in life are as painful as watching a loved one drift away from Christ. Yet few things in life give as much pleasure as watching him or her return to Christ in repentance and faith — and to know you played a part. Don’t grow weary in doing such matchless eternal good; keep pursuing.

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