Rescue the Perishing (James 5:19–20)

Hero visions of rescuing strike a spark in the best part of our imagination. We honor brave warriors who rescue fellow soldiers under fire on distant battle fields. We honor local heroes who rescue people from death by drowning or fire in our own towns. But the work of restoring wayward Christians is an even more important rescue work. I like how The Message puts it:

“My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.” (James 5:19–20, The Message)

James shows us various reasons that people wander from truth. They may…

  • waver in the folly of of divided loyalties (Jas 1:5–6)
  • go astray into the lustful feedback loop of temptation (Jas 1:14–20)
  • suffer under the lash of someone’s unbridled tongue (Jas 3:1–12)
  • get eaten by bitter, ambitious, selfish jealousy (Jas 3:13–16)
  • succumb to the devil and withhold their loyalty from God alone (Jas 4:7–10)
  • grumble their way into unbelief (Jas 5:7–11)
“The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV)

These spiritual hazards call for spiritual attentiveness. We must not ignore the spiritual condition of those around us when temporary failure threatens their eternal soul. As James says, “someone should bring him back.” That’s the proper role of spiritual people vis-à-vis sin.

Sometimes so-called spiritual people become the quickest and most persistent levelers of charges. They don’t have a taste for the sweet honey in the rock; instead, they have a nose for trouble—and no empathy for troubled souls. But Paul says, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1–2). Let’s hear Peterson’s reinforcement of this idea.

“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.” (Galatians 6:1–2, The Message)

James says, “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20). The sinner walks the pathway of death (5:20a). The way a person takes when he wanders from truth is by definition the “way of death”; the wages of sin is death. That is true for the one who has made a life-long specialty of filthy practices, when that path has become a well-traveled dark rut in your life. But the way of sin is just as deadly if it’s a new and unfamiliar path into which you’ve wandered in the dark night of your soul’s backsliding. “Death, death, death” is the judgment hanging over anyone who finds himself at the far end of the way of error.

But Jesus came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Death must claim no more dominion over that wandering brother in Christ. We should exhort the backslider, “This is the way, walk in it.” We should encourage the backslider—if we dare—“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Proverbs 10:12, ESV)

The one who restores the sinner will “cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20b). Notice that this sin-covering is for reconciliation. Sin-covering does not condemn the one in fault to hopeless destruction; instead, reconciliation moves in the direction of deliverance from death. Sin-covering does not excuse sin as a matter of little consequence; instead, it recognizes that if recovery is not effected, death will result. Sin-covering is not the pagan’s “tolerance” that denies guilt; instead, it is the believer’s compassion that seeks Christ’s forgiveness for the sinner.

We have the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). That ministry should flow from hearts of people who love with a love that never fails (1 Cor 13:4–7). Paul talks of love in ways that speak to this issue of restoration: A believer who loves enough to exercise the ministry of reconciliation…

  • is patient with someone who wanders from the truth.
  • is kind enough to cover over a multitude of sins.
  • does not envy the worldly attainments of people who are languishing in the error of their ways.
  • does not boast of one’s own spiritual excellence.
  • is not proud of one’s own spirituality
  • is not rude to sinners despite their folly.
  • is not self-seeking but rather seeks to “turn a sinner from the error of his way [and to] save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
  • is not easily angered, not even with that rage which some seek to sanctify with the label “righteous indignation.”
  • keeps no record of wrongs but hopes to lead the wayward back to the place where there is “no condemnation.” He longs to bring people to an altar of repentance where the record of sin is cleared by Christ’s own justification (Rom 8:1).
  • does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth—and there is no truth that makes him nearly as happy as the truth that sets men free (John 8:32).
  • always protects: “[saving people] from death and covering over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
  • always trusts, exercising that kind of faith which casts itself on Christ and can encourage doubters to do the same.
  • always hopes in the effectiveness the gospel of liberty.
  • always perseveres, knowing it’s a life-or-death business.

As we near the Advent season, during which I’ll blog every day, I think of Jesus in terms of this blog’s theme, “Rescue the Perishing.” In our case, rescuing the perishing means extending a hand of reconciliation and welcome back into the family of God. In Jesus’s case, it taking up the role of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12). He could have extended a lordly invitation from the dignified glory of his throne on high.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Phil 2:7–8

In the coming days, this blog will celebrate the many ways the Old Testament points forward to the work of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t already checked out what’s involved, here’s the Introduction I posted about a month ago. If it’s something you would like to follow, at least during Advent, click one of the subscribe buttons. If you would like to do this with small children, I post a link to a PDF containing all the devotionals that I wrote for that level.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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