Restoring the Wandering Pilgrim

James 5:19-20

Preached by L Going at WACC September 9, 2001

As James brings his letter to a close I wonder if any of you recognize how revolutionary and profound these last two verses are. Let me read them to you again but with a particular stress. “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, note this, Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

This passage is one of many in the New Testament that challenge the present culture of much of the Bible believing or evangelical churches in the West, including our church. The present culture of the church that exists is hurting us and hindering us. There are two marks of this culture… The first is that the church buys into a professionalistic model of ministry and life. This breeds a functional passivity in the church. The ones who are to be engaged in ministry are the full-time professionals and maybe the elders and then there is everybody else. Seldom do the average people who faithfully attend church every Sunday carry a moral sense of responsibility for the welfare of the person sitting next to them. Yet James tells us here (and he is not the only one) that every believer has a moral responsibility for the growth of others.

The second mark of the present culture of the church is that of a therapeutic mindset. There is a therapeutic culture within the church. What people think is wrong has changed and moved from a sin/worship model to a needs/happiness model. What the major problem that people face is that their needs are not met and hence they miss happiness. The church exists to meet needs for self-fulfillment and personal happiness. Yet what James would say is wrong with people is they wander from the truth, that they are captured by their inordinate desires, which lead them to worship other gods. What the church is to be prepared to do is lovingly minister the truth of the Gospel to people who are by nature moving away from the truth.

James is calling all of you to be engaged in personal ministry. Now how this is to be done needs to be addressed. Let’s face it when it comes to helping people with their problems we freeze. Part of the reason we do this is because we too have problems that we do not know how to handle. The other part is that we do not know how to minister to the wanderer. We are just going to lay out the call from James today. In the following weeks we will look more closely at how the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses every problem life can throw at us and is the only powerful resource we have to really help other people. We will be doing this in order to introduce you to the exciting material we will be studying in or home groups this fall. So lets look at this issue that this passage in James presents to us this morning.

The danger of wandering from the truth is one that we should all take seriously. No one is immune from the potential of such wandering. Wandering is not simply a description of an unconscious drifting away it can also be purposeful. The truth is not doctrine only. We are called to do the truth. The truth here is the content of the faith and the behavior that should accompany the gospel. Succumbing to either doctrinal error or ungodly behavior are ways we wander from the truth.

We need to understand that the potential to wander from the truth resides in everyone here this morning. Paul wrote that he who thinks he stands should be careful lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). This potential is present because of the sin that remains in each of us. Indwelling sin’s number one weapon is the power for self-deception or self-deceit. Deceit by its very nature is contrary to the truth. Look with me to Hebrews 3:12-13.

The power of sin’s deceitfulness is to convince you that you are indeed believing, when functionally you are not. The writer tells us to see or take heed to see that none of you has an evil unbelieving heart. An evil heart is an unbelieving heart. But what is an unbelieving heart? It is one that turns away from the living God, or from the truth. Here I am turning away from the Living God due to my unbelief and I do not even recognize that I am doing it. That is why I need help. In verse 13 the writer basically does that same thing that James does. He calls us to exhort or encourage one another while we have the opportunity. What are we to encourage one another concerning? We are to encourage one another to keep on believing. This means that we are to keep the truth and the content of the Gospel before one another. The Gospel is both a comfort and a call. The comfort of the Gospel is the grace of acceptance with God. The Call of the Gospel is the grace of conformity to Christ. We need to see both elements of the Gospel. We can become blind to the powerful comfort that the Gospel offers to us. We can be so overwhelmed by our pain, sorrow, guilt, and discouragement that we find no comfort in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. This can cause us to turn away from the living God. But the Gospel is also a call. We can be blind to the call to live obedient lives. We can be so caught up in our selfish interests and passions that we live only for our own concerns. We may be swept away by the cares riches and pleasures of this life, that we are not living for the Lord. The Gospel is a call to conform to the character of Jesus Christ whereby we must be putting the flesh to death and living as an obedient son and daughter of God.

This passage warns against a subtle falling away from the Lord. The falling away is presented as a progressive matter. Look at the steps:

Sinful (subtle patterns of sin I allow in my life)

Unbelieving (subtle excusing of my sin, backing away from the clear words of Scripture)

Turning away (a loss of my spiritual moorings)

Hardened (heart crusted over with the scabs of sin – I am no longer tender to the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Word or the ministry of my brothers and sisters)

The responsibility to restore such a wanderer rests on each of you. James would say that you are your brother's keeper. All of you have a responsibility to restore a fallen and wandering brother or sister. Love compels you do take responsibility for one another. Rather than gossip about such a one, or stand in judgment over the wanderer, you are to seek to restore him/her to the truth.

The result is mentioned as a motivation to take such a ministry seriously. You will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. While the scriptures teach the eternal security of the believer, it does not teach the eternal security of the professor. Saving faith comes to expression in persevering faith. The warning against falling away needs to be taken as that: a warning. We all will wander and fall; yet the ministry of restoration and discipleship is a means of grace to aid in the work of perseverance. Indeed we can only have assurance of ultimate salvation as we walk in the light of the truth of God's grace in Christ. This walking doesn't mean that we must be perfect; rather we will take sin seriously by confession, repentance and renewed faith in the righteousness of Jesus for sinners. Yet, if we deliberately or carelessly wander from the Lord, we need to be warned that we are moving in a dangerous direction. Eternal judgment and death await those who do not live according to the truth. To turn a sinner from wandering away from the truth is indeed to save him from death.

This is accomplished through God's promised forgiveness and cleansing from sin. This is probably what James means when he writes about the second consequence of restoration: and cover a multitude of sins. Turning is repentance. Repentance always entails a change in mind/heart about the way one is heading (away from the truth) and a turning back in confession and faith.

Now while James has the fallen believer in view, the word turn is also used to describe how one initially comes to faith.

ACT 14:15 "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.

ACT 15:19 "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

ACT 26:18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

1TH 1:9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

Unbelievers are also wandering from the truth. In both cases, the need is that the wanderer turn from his wandering to the truth so that he will be saved from death by the covering (God provides in Christ) for sins.

How is this done? How are you to turn a wanderer to the truth? By ministering the truth in a truthful and loving way. The truth is God's way of living. The truth is Christ Jesus (his person and work). The truth is the Scriptures-God's Word. In the next several weeks we will be discussing this in detail. I will be preaching on the primacy and urgency of personal one on one ministry. Such personal ministry is not only for the sake of the wanderer but also for the sake of the struggling believer, the discouraged saint, the grieving Christian. Yet personal ministry is what James is calling us to do in order to turn wanderers to the truth.

What about the ministry of restoration of a wandering brother? Well, let me point out three different passages of Scripture that offer practical help in how to do this.

Galatians 6:1 teaches that the attitude you are to have when you seek to restore a fallen brother is one of gentleness and humility.

Galatians 6:1 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.

The word gentleness (the phrase is literally in a spirit of gentleness) carries with it the idea humility and courtesy. It suggests that you are not put off by the wanderer or his sins but are open to him and not passing judgment. You also are to do this ministry with the awareness that you too have the potential to fall and wander. You are in no position to be condescending.

1 Thessalonians 2:8.

1 Thessalonians 2:8 So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

Be prepared to share your life with the wanderer. Restoring the fallen means that you give yourself to him. It may cost you time, money, and convenience. The need is urgent. You must be prepared to roll up your sleeves and give your life away. This requires love. Paul said to the Thessalonians that he loved them so much that he delighted to share with them not only the gospel but his very life as well. This is what it takes if you are to restore a wandering brother or sister.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The restoration will mean that you will have to apply the scriptures to the brother. The Scriptures are not only God's word; they are useful in the work of restoring the wanderer. Knowing the Scriptures equips you to minister the truth to the wanderer and turn him to the truth.

The Scriptures are useful for teaching. Here the instruction in the truth is in view. It is teaching that brings the truth once again into the forefront.

Rebuking entails a firm (but gentle) warning of the danger and error that the brother is now in. It says to him "You are wrong." "You are disobedient." A good example of a creative rebuke is when Nathan came to David and described the account of how the rich man with many lambs took the only lamb the poor man had. David was indignant and cried out "who is that man?" Nathan responded, "You are that man." David saw his sin and was sincerely convicted and brought to repentance. Rebuke administered by the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin and error.

Correction. This is the pointing out of the proper path to now take. Correction is the actual turning from error to the truth. The shape it takes may vary. Correction may entail admitting that you have a particular problem, going back to church, or asking a brother for forgiveness. Correction shows the wanderer how to walk in the truth.

Training in righteousness. This is the work of helping the brother stay on track. Helping him grow in faith and obedience, until he is able himself to restore a wandering brother. It is training that actually leads to growth and change in attitudes, habits practices, etc. This is another way of describing a life of holiness and endurance. To be trained in righteousness is to be nurtured and to grow in the things of God. It enables you to stay on course.

We will return to some of these ideas in the weeks to come. The ministry of the church must be one of restoration. We are not a perfect society. We are at best a hospital with sick and recovering patients. The emergency ward is the restoration clinic (if you will). There we take in more sick and wounded. Restoring the wanderer (whether brother/sister or beloved unbeliever) is the fundamental work of the Christian church.

We all at times wander from the truth. This means that we all at times need help. We may not wander that far. I may have a difficult day and become discouraged that my plans were not realized. I may give way to discouragement. I may be engulfed in a pool of slimy self-pity. Do you know what you would say to me to help me move toward the truth? Do you know how you are to respond to me so that I would be willing to let you help me? This is what personal ministry is about. We want all of you to be able to answer three very important questions. We want all of you to care enough about one another not only to be able to answer these questions but to eagerly be willing with a sense of anticipation and faith-filled confidence in the power of the Gospel to risk engaging in personal ministry.

Here are the questions:

  1. Why do people do the things they do?
  1. How does lasting change take place?
  1. How can I be an instrument of change in the life of another?

In order to really answer these questions you are going to need to understand that in the church each one needs help and each one is called to be a helper. In order to interpret our situation accurately and to live in a way that please God we need help from outside ourselves. To be human is to need help outside of oneself to understand and live life. You will also need to understand that what rules your heart will shape and direct your behavior. You will need to understand your own heart struggles and how to apply the Gospel to your present situation. Then you will need to know and follow the pattern for personal ministry that Jesus gives to us in the Scriptures: How in love you can build relationships in which God’s work will thrive; learning how to get to know people so that you will discover where change is needed in their lives; by learning how to speak the truth in love and learning how to apply change to everyday life.

We finish James today. Remember that James is focusing on the fact that we are a pilgrim people. This means that we are to set our sights on the ultimate destination – an eternal relationship with the Living God. But God is not just our destination He is our guide on the journey. We do not journey alone but as a band. We need to be very concerned about our traveling companions, especially those who lose their way. We also will pass through many lands and we want to urge and welcome those who are estranged and separated from our God to be reconciled to Him through the person of Jesus Christ and join our wagon train which is bound for glory. To be faithful followers of our King we need to see that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We cannot turn our back on the Lord’s call to personal caring ministry.