Gospel Truth & the Church's Role in the Saint's Perseverance
Passage: James 5:19–20
A New People with a New Speech
I mentioned this last week, but I need to repeat it to give us some context. As the gospel of Jesus advances among all peoples, the Holy Spirit transforms people. One fruit of gospel-transformation is a people with a new speech (Jas 1:26; 3:13-18). The world is full of sinful speech—angry remarks, quarreling, fighting, cursing, grumbling (Jas 1:19; 3:10; 4:1; 5:9). All of us were once part of that rebellious world. When sin rules the soul, people don’t use their mouths to glorify God and serve others.
That all changes when the gospel of Jesus takes root in the soul. When we believe the gospel, God unites us to Jesus, who not only breaks the power of sin but also gives us a new heart. That new heart frees us to speak as we ought to speak.
However, even those of us made new in Christ still struggle with remaining sin. The fullness of salvation has yet to arrive. The reign of sin has been snapped, but the remnants of sin still wreaks havoc if we allow sin even the slightest ground in our lives. Occasionally, that will manifest itself in the sinful use of our words. The church James is writing had a similar struggle; and God has rebuked them through James.
Now, at the end of the letter, James moves to a few constructive examples of what righteous speech looks like in the church. We saw three examples last week: we use our words to express adoration to God in praise, dependence on God in prayer, and humility toward each other in confession.
In verse 19, James adds to yet another example of righteous speech.[i] Righteous speech also includes using our words to restore each other to gospel truth if someone happens to wander from gospel truth. As we’ll see, it’s in this way that the church as a whole helps each and every saint to persevere to the end for salvation. Perseverance is a community project. We need each other to make it to the end. Read with me verses 19-20, and then let’s pray for help:
19My brothers, if anyone among you wonders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
The Church and Gospel Truth
Let’s take four steps to understand and apply these verses. Step one, we need to review the church and its relation to gospel truth. James mentions “the truth” in verse 19. Unlike the religious pluralism saturating the culture around us, James believes in “the truth.” There is truth from which one can wander; and the result is damning to the soul.
Gospel truth creates the church
The word “truth” appears two other places in James; and they help us see the larger picture of what he’s talking about. Look first at 1:18. It says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” This is conversion. God converts people, “by the word of truth.” Ephesians 1:13 identifies this “word of truth” as “the gospel of our salvation” (cf. 1 Pet 1:23, 25).
So this is not just any, general truth like 1 plus 1 equals 2—though to deny that would also cause serious problems for you. This is special, gospel truth—the truth that God reveals in Scripture, the truth that reveals God in all his holiness, the truth that exposes us as guilty sinners before our Maker, and that then tells us of Jesus Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection, his present reign, his future return, and all that his word demands for our lives. This gospel truth is what God uses to create the church, to bring the church into existence.
Gospel truth compels the church
Once that gospel truth creates the church, it then produces ongoing results. Again, 1:18 stated the results: “that we might be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” When truly embraced, the gospel doesn’t leave people the same. Gospel truth compels the church to live as God’s new-creation people, to reflect the image of God. As the letter progresses, James shows how that plays out in our controlled speech (Jas 1:19-20, 25; 3:1-12), in our pursuit of holiness (Jas 1:26; 4:6; 5:1-6), and in our care for the helpless (Jas 1:26; 2:1-7).
Look also at 3:14, the other place James refers to the “truth.” It says, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, don’t boast and be false to the truth.” Gospel truth—when you look at Jesus, who had every right to condemn us, humbling himself to death for our sins—that compels humility and mercy and peace in the church, not jealousy and selfish ambition. When you profess to know gospel truth but live in ways that contradict gospel truth, and then boast about it instead of repenting from it, you end up telling the world lies about that gospel truth (cf. 1 John 1:5-10).
In other words, wandering from the truth has just as much to do with our outward actions as it does our inward convictions, just as much to do with our behavior as it does our beliefs. Gospel truth compels the true Christian to live in ways that show the worth and value of Jesus.[ii] When we don’t live that way—when we slander and fight and gossip and such; when we walk just like the world in sin—we prove by our actions that something besides the gospel is compelling us.
Gospel truth corrects the church
Which leads me to say just one more thing about the church and its relation to gospel truth: gospel truth must also correct the church. The church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15. But we will be that “pillar and buttress of the truth” only insofar as the truth rules us, governs us, corrects our wrong thinking and corrects our wrong living.
You may recall the story that Paul tells in Galatians 2. Peter, a Jewish convert to Christ—he was won over by gospel truth, that salvation comes not by something we do for ourselves but by everything Christ did for us. And because of this truth, Peter was eating freely with Gentiles who had also been converted by the same gospel truth. They were all one body in Christ.
Then all of a sudden some Jews show up; and Peter, fearing the circumcision party, drew back. He separated himself from the Gentiles. He didn’t want his old Jewish buddies to see him associating with Gentiles—after all, Gentiles didn’t have the badge of circumcision like they did. The rest of the Jews followed Peter, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. They might have said salvation is by faith in Christ alone, but their actions were showing they put a whole lot of stock in their works.
Does Paul just let this continue? Does Paul just sit back and let the hypocrisy run rampant in the church? Does Paul fear how awkward it may be to confront Peter? No. It says that he “opposed [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned.” That’s love, folks. When you see that your brother is starting to live his life by a false gospel, such that he will be condemned if he continues down that road, love goes after him. But look at the way Paul describes what led him to action: “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all…”
When I saw that their conduct was not in step with “the truth of the gospel”—sound familiar? What James means by wandering from the truth is very similar to what Paul means by not walking in step with the gospel. There’s something about the way we’re acting that’s out of sync with the rhythm of gospel truth, and we need correction.
The Church Restoring Each Other to Gospel Truth
Step two, we need to look at the church restoring each other to gospel truth. Notice first James’ use of “anyone.” Verse 19, “If anyone among you wanders from the truth.” Anyone is vulnerable to wandering from gospel truth. Nobody in here is immune to wandering away from the truth. And if you think that you are immune, you’re in a very dangerous place. Take heed, lest you fall. Your elders, your staff, your ministry leaders, we’re all vulnerable to wandering away from the truth of the gospel.
This is why Paul’s counsel in Galatians 6:1 is so important for us to remember when we’re in a situation of restoring someone caught in sin: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness, while keeping watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” We’re all vulnerable to stray, and that should not only keep us humbly crying out to the Lord; that should also shape how much you see your need for each other to keep you on the right path.
Lifeway Christian Resources and Ligoneer Ministries recently put out some statistics on the state of theology in the American church. It’s a grievous report but not so surprising—I’d encourage you to check out thestateoftheology.com. But one of the things they found was that “Christianity apart from the local church is not theologically robust Christianity.” There’s no accountability to gospel truth when you cut yourself off from the local church. We need each other to keep walking in step with the gospel.
And that leads me to another observation here: notice that anyone can act to bring the wanderer back: “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone [or “anyone,” same word] brings him back…” In other words, restoring the wayward person is not restricted to the elders, or to the ministry leaders (cf. 1 Tim 5:19-20). Restoring a wayward person doesn’t begin with you coming to tell the elders what’s going on, it begins with you going to the wayward person.
Of course we’ll gladly walk alongside you and pray for you, if you need counsel and assistance. But restoring the wayward person is for all the church’s members, not just a select few. If you’re not the wayward person, I hope you’re the one chasing after the wayward person. Anyone who loves Jesus and who loves the gospel truth entrusted to the church can and should act if they see a brother or sister wandering from gospel truth. Gospel truth corrects only insofar as we speak it to each other.
More on that in a moment, but do notice lastly that it is gospel truth to which the wayward person must return. He has wandered from the truth either in belief or behavior. When someone brings him back, he brings the person back to gospel truth—not merely back to the church, or merely back to a friendship or ministry position, but back to gospel truth. It’s the truth of the gospel that saves people and keeps people saved.
The Church Saved & Preserved by Gospel Truth
That brings us to step three: the church and it’s members are saved and preserved by gospel truth. In verse 20, we get a two-fold result of bringing the sinner back from his wandering and into step with gospel truth.
Result #1: Saving the Wayward Person’s Soul
The first result is this: “he will save his soul from death.” By death, he does not mean physical death but spiritual death and ultimately eternal death, separation from God’s welcoming presence and the experience of his divine wrath forever. Living in unrepentant sin and waywardness from the gospel of life in Christ, always brings death.
In 1:15, James shows how wayward desires lead to sin, and then sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death, by which he means separation from God, cut off from experiencing eternal life with God both now and in the age to come. Whenever someone restores the sinner back to gospel truth, the result is his eternal salvation. If that person continues down the wrong path without repentance, he will suffer condemnation; but if he responds to our pleas to repent and he returns to Christ in the gospel, he will be saved, that is, finally, on the last day.
Which brings up a huge point that we must get as a church. Anyone who does not persevere to the end will not be saved. Jesus said that much himself: “…the love of many will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). Or take Colossians 1:22-23: “[Christ] reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith…not shifting from the hope of the gospel.”
Perseverance is necessary for final salvation. Final salvation is conditional on the saint persevering. We must walk in step with gospel truth until we reach the end, or Christ calls us home. Never does the Bible give assurance to a person who is proving by his unrepentant lifestyle that Jesus isn’t the object of his faith.
Discipleship begins with a profession of faith, but that profession means nothing without perseverance. The perseverance of the saint is the inevitable result of genuine faith. The person who goes astray from the truth never to return is proving that his faith isn’t in Jesus. He’s like the people in 1 John 2:19: “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 it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Now, to be clear, everyone who truly belongs to Christ will persevere to the end and finally be saved. Romans 8:30, “those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Those who are truly justified will make it to the end and be glorified. Every grace we need to make it to the end will be there for those of us in Christ: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion for the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).
But here’s how a text like James 5 fits into that larger picture of perseverance: God uses means to keep his saints persevering, and one of the means he uses is you, church. You are one of his appointed means in helping each other make it to the end. So, it’s necessary that we remain faithful till the end; God promises to keep us till the end; and one way he keeps us is by using each other.
Notice, “he will save his soul from death.” We know from elsewhere that it’s ultimately God who saves the sinner. But James is quite comfortable saying “he [i.e., the restorer] will save” the sinner’s soul from death”—because James believes that God uses means in his saving work. That means is you and me. God is ultimately the Savior, but he uses us to keep his people walking with him.
That’s not because we’re so great but because the Spirit of grace is at work in and through the church. We were once dead and he made us alive. Now, by the Spirit’s enabling power, we run the race together until we make it to the end. If one of us goes astray, we chase each other down and rebuke and exhort back into the right way. Because ultimately that’s what our God is like and what our God moves his people to do.
Isn’t he like a shepherd who chases down the lost sheep? Matthew 18:10-14. Many people know Matthew 18 because of what it says about church discipline. But they hardly pay attention to the context just before it. “What do you think,” Jesus says, “if a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray [same word James uses: “one of them wanders], does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
So what does he go on to show in 18:15-20? How the Father’s love plays out in the life of the local church. People go to each other when their brother has sinned, not for the purpose of cutting people off but always for the purpose of keeping people in. It may end up proving that someone loves their sin more than Jesus, and the church has to act accordingly. But the point and goal is restoration, rescuing the sheep. If that’s the way the Father is toward his “little ones,” then far be it from us to ignore it when someone goes astray. Every single disciple matters to the Lord. We go after them like the Father would come after us.
Result #2: Covering a Multitude of Sins
Another result of restoring someone to gospel truth is this: “he will cover a multitude of sins.” That’s not an easy one to understand, and I really wrestled with what James means by “covering a multitude of sins.”
I can first tell you what it certainly does not mean. It does not mean that our own restorative actions ultimately cover, or atone for, the person’s sins. Only Jesus’ restorative actions cover and atone for our sins when we place our faith in him. Only Jesus is qualified to take away your guilt and shame—all your wrongdoing wiped clean. He does that for anybody here trusting in him. It also cannot mean that we cover over sin in the sense that we treat sin as no big deal. That seems to undermine the whole point of James’ exhortation.
What then does it mean? Here are two of my best attempts. One is that “covering a multitude of sins” describes the effects that the restoration of the sinner will have on him and the church. The exact phrase reappears in 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Proverbs 10:12 has similar wording: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses [or wrongdoings].”
James could be saying that when we pursue each other with earnest love, and we restore the wayward person back to the gospel, we keep a multitude of sins from wreaking any further havoc in his own life or in the life of the church.
But there may be a clearer option here. The other way to read it is as a further explanation of saving the person’s soul from death. What does it mean to have your soul saved from death? It also means having the multitude of your sins covered, not ultimately by the restorer but by the blood of Jesus. The restorer brings back the sinner to the gospel, and it’s in the gospel of Jesus that the sinner finds a multitude of his sins covered.
First John 1:7 might serve as a good parallel idea: “If we walk in the light, as God is in the light [think of walking in the truth according to James], we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” If we choose not to walk in the light, then we prove that the blood of Jesus hasn’t truly cleansed us. Only those who are truly cleansed by the blood walk in the light.
That will also be true when a Christian goes astray from the truth. If he truly knows the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, then the gospel will turn him back. Even if it takes time, it will turn him back. And as he remains steadfast in it, the Lord will cover his sins through Jesus’ blood. Either way, the point is clear that God both saves and preserves his church and its members when we restore each other to gospel truth. It’s in the truth of the gospel that we encounter Jesus who alone saves and alone forgives sins.
Isn’t it glorious that Jesus covers a multitude of sins? However far away we may perceive someone to be, Jesus’ blood is able to cover it. That should give us all the more reason to go after the wanderer, and never carry this attitude of “he’s just done way too much.” Never do we have to scratch our heads wondering, “I don’t know if Jesus can cover that sin.” His blood covers a multitude of sins.
Taking Hold of Our Role in the Saint’s Perseverance
Last step, step number four: how might we put into practice what we’ve learned about the church’s role in the saint’s perseverance? We’ve worked through the text; now I just want to leave us with a few tangible takeaways.
Keep each other accountable to gospel truth
First off, keep each other accountable to gospel truth. The culture around us isn’t making it any easier to stand firm in gospel truth, and that’s to be expected. But sadly, other churches—if we can still call them that—and entire denominations have wandered from the truth of the gospel to accommodate the culture. That has included compromising basic gospel doctrines such as the exclusivity of Christ as the only way for salvation. Or, that has included making the Bible’s teaching on marriage and human sexuality more palatable to the culture’s wants. Sometimes it’s that a church just doesn’t want to hold the members accountable to the truth.
But James has shown us that wandering from gospel truth is destructive to the soul. Moreover, 1 Corinthians 15:3 says the gospel is of first importance. Why’s it so important? Because it’s the message by which we are being saved (1 Cor 15:2). The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16-17), not just for non-believers but also for believers (Col 1:23). If we lose the gospel, then we lose Jesus and everything with him. Our beliefs must align with the gospel and our behavior must accord with the gospel. Let’s not treat what is central to the faith as if it’s peripheral. Faithfulness to the gospel in belief and behavior is necessary for salvation.
We’re responsible for one another
Second, you and I have an incredible responsibility for each other. This is why James encourages the church to restore the wayward; this is why Hebrews 10:25 says that we must not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another all the more as you see the Day drawing near; this is why we have a Membership Matters class, why we read our Church Covenant regularly, why we strive to practice meaningful membership: we need to understand who we truly are in relation to each other. Our unity in Christ is deeply interpersonal. We need to be familiar enough with each other’s lives that we’d actually know if someone is going astray.
God’s word to us here reminds us to redouble our efforts in caring for one another, to keep looking out for each other’s well-being. It’s also a good reminder of the massively significant role we play in helping each other make it to the end. Perseverance is a community project. I need Bryan to keep checking on me as a pastor. I need the elders to rebuke me when I get proud. I need Michael to ask me hard questions while we’re jogging about what causes my frustrations in parenting. What are they doing? Caring for my soul and making sure I don’t take my eyes off gospel truth. Oh that all of our relationships would manifest such concern and care in the church!
We must be patient, treating each other as family
Third, James’ words teach us to be patient with our judgments on a wayward individual. If someone goes astray from gospel truth, sometimes we’re too quick to judge them, too quick to write them off as false. But James is still willing to include the person among the “my brothers” in verse 19: “My brothers, if anyone from among you [i.e., from among you ‘my brothers’] wanders…” So the demeanor would be like running after an immediate family member. The initial waywardness shouldn’t make us condescending but compassionate. If there’s no sign of repentance over time, that’s another matter. But the hope is that God will use us to keep people in the faith. That should make us patient. We don’t go after them like an enemy but warn them as a brother, as a sister.
We must lovingly pursue & not ignore the wanderer
Finally, we must lovingly pursue and not ignore those who go astray. It’s easy to love those who are progressing in the faith. It’s easy to love people who are zealous for Jesus and who sacrifice for you and who look for ways to serve and pray for you. But it requires a lot more to love the person who goes astray. Sometimes it’s that we just don’t want to get involved in potential controversy. We don’t like confrontation. Maybe it’s that we fear being rejected—you know, “What if he never turns? What if she doesn’t listen to me?” Sometimes it’s that we just don’t want to make the extra effort. Whatever makes it more difficult for us to love, let this passage encourage you. It’s meant to be an encouragement to the restorer: you may be used of God to save a soul from death.
Isn’t your brother or sister’s salvation worth it? Isn’t their eternal destiny of greater concern than our comfort? Of course it is. And Jesus is worthy of their praise too. That’s ultimately why we do it. They reach the end saved and Jesus gets the glory for it all. We can’t love only when it’s comfortable and convenient. We must love even when it’s hard and requires awkward encounters.
Remember, too, how we didn’t deserve to be found when we went astray, but the Father overcame every obstacle to have us. Isaiah 53 says that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” All of us know what it’s like to go astray. And all of us who belong to Jesus know what it’s like to be found: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” If a member ever strays, remember how the Lord has come after you in Christ, and then do likewise for them.
[i]That James adds yet one further yet distinct exhortation related to righteous speech seems evident from his use of “anyone” throughout verses 13-20: “Is anyone among you suffering…Is anyone cheerful…” (Jas 5:13); “Is anyone among you sick…” (Jas 5:14); “If anyone among you wanders…” (Jas 5:20). It seems that even though James said, “Confess your sins to one another…” (Jas 5:16), some will not be so willing to come and confess their sins. They will need someone to go to them.
[ii]As chapter 2 showed us rather clearly, Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable, external embodiment.
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance
August 21, 2016The Peril of Self-Indulgence