Danger and Duty

Bible Book: James  5 : 19-20
Subject: Remembering; Faithfulness; Witnessing; Commitment; Ambassadors for Christ
Series: James - Believing and Behaving - Minnix
[Editor's Note: This sermon is one in a series of 10 messages on the Book of James entitled: Believing and Behaving.]

Danger and Duty

Dr. J. Mike Minnix, Editor, www.pastorlife.com

James 5:19-20:

"19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins."

Our passage today marks the end of the Book of James and the last sermon in our look at the series entitled Believing and Behaving. I come to this last message with joy for what we have experienced in our examination of this New Testament letter, and I thank God for this Book and all that it has meant to us across these past few weeks.

You will note when reading the Book of James that he closed this letter abruptly. He did not add greetings to different people, as Paul often did in his letters, nor did he add any superfluous material whatsoever. I believe this is because James wanted to be sure that his last words might linger in the minds of his readers without any interruption in thought or concentration. There is something here he wanted us to recall and he intended not to clutter up the matter with any unnecessary communication. What is it that concerned James so deeply and thus should concern us as well?

James mentions here a Danger and a Duty. The danger is a person slipping away from love for Jesus and local church fellowship. It is the duty of those in the local church to assist in averting the danger of people merely slipping away.

One thing we all do with our children is keep an eye on them. We know how easy it is for them to get out of sight and out of mind, and this can lead to disaster. We do this with adults as well. When a person doesn't show up for work, we check to see if they are okay. If you call a parent or sibling and can't get in touch with them, you start checking to see if something is amiss. For those who love and care about people it is a natural thing to do. Well, James is seeking to remind us in this final passage of the importance of being mindful of our fellow believers. This is certainly something that is not being done in many of our churches. It has been said that our church membership numbers do not remotely relate to the true number of people who consider themselves members of a local congregation. A Church may have 2,000 members but only 400 they can actually find on any given Sunday. I heard a preacher say years ago that he had people on his membership roll that even the FBI and CIA couldn't likely locate. This idea troubled James, the writer of the scripture we are considering. Love and fellowship in a congregation ought to prevent people from wandering away.

Now we know that the chief concentration and a central occupation in the life of a Christian is Christ. The chief focus of the believer is to be His Lord - Jesus, Jesus, Jesus – that is the theme of the Christian. When Paul's life was coming to and end, as we read in 2 Timothy 2:8, the great apostle wrote to Timothy saying, "Remember Jesus Christ." Yet, to love Jesus is to love those who have placed faith in Him. We are family and we must love as Jesus first loved us. Sure, some people leave the fellowship of the local church and all efforts to retain them proves impossible, but no one should drift away without our effort to help them remain faithful to Christ.

It might just be that missing zeal for Christ is the reason many are missing in our churches. Additionally, the reason many lose their zeal and depart is because they forsake a personal devotion to Jesus and a dedication to His purpose. I have never seen a person in love with Jesus who suddenly falls away from serving God in a local church. A departure from a focus on Him and a fondness for doing the work of missions and evangelism will lead to failure and the forsaking of a true walk with the Lord. In other words, people tend to "fade" away from the local fellowship in a church. Watching and caring can help us identify such people before they go "too far" and never return.

Look with me at this subject, and let's first consider ...

I. The Gradual Peril for the Wanderer

“…wanders from the truth…”

The fact that people wander away from faithful service to the Lord is not a new phenomenon, but one which we note from the earliest days in the Church of our Lord. James mentions it here because it was an issue in his day. What a sad thought – to wander away from the local fellowship of believers, the truth of Christ, and the truth of God’s Word.

A sad story is told of the mountain which stands near us here in Georgia - Stone Mountain - where some young people came to visit. I expect everyone here has been to Stone Mountain. I not only visited there with family and friends, but I used to go there to run the five miles around that mountain as part of my running regimen. It is a beautiful place to visit and has a great history for native Americans and for the people of Georgia. Well, some young people went to Stone Mountain to see the park and went up to the top of the mountain. they walked over to the edge of the mountain to look down. This was some years before a great fence was placed on the mountain to keep people from getting too close to the edge. So, they walked over to the edge to look down and one of the young men went a little further than the others. He called back to them, "Come on down, it is okay. You can see much more over here near the edge." Then suddenly, the young man realized that he had gone too far. Gravity took over and began to pull his body over the side. He slid off the side, crying out for help as he disappeared from view to the others with him. He had simply gone too far. The others were forced to stand there and listen as he fell over 800 feet down the side of the mountain to his death.

That is the way sin works in our lives. Sin leads people along a gradual, perilous, but almost imperceptible path toward ruin and death. James points that out to us in this passage. Note two things about this gradual danger for the wanderer.

A. This is an Incremental Process

The Greek word for “wander” means to “stray, straggle, roam, ramble, meander or drift.” James is warning us that it is possible for a person to drift or roam away from God's work and way by simply straggeling or meandering away. We know that the believer cannot drift from redemption, because he cannot glide away from grace or slide away from salvation, but the believer can drift away from close fellowship with Christ. He can end up in a wasteland where he does nothing of value for the Savior who died on the cross for him. A believer can cause great harm to self and the cause of Christ through the dangerous of act of walking to close the edge of the world.

Note in Hebrews 2:1, “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.” Seldom does a believer who is truly in close fellowship with Jesus bolt out the door of church fellowship – no, it is usually done through a series of neglectful steps. When we make this mistake we end up in Hebrews 12, where we read of God’s chastising hand.

Some people leave us because they never were of us. That is, they had never truly trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. They had a membership in the church but never had a relationship with Christ. The lost person can come to the very door of salvation and then drift away to be lost forever. It is not necessary to do this through rebellion - it can be done by neglect. In fact, neglect is one of the most dangerous things in human life. Neglect to change the oil in your car and you may have to purchase a new engine. Neglect to get a medical checkup and you may end up with a disease that has progressed too far to be relieved. Neglect of duty in the military may lead to death and defeat for an army. Worse still, neglect of one’s soul will lead to eternal separation from God.

I read a story somewhere years ago about a man came to his preacher one day and asked that the minister quit speaking of sin so often. He suggested to the preacher that he use the words like, "mistake, error, or human frailty," in place of the word sin. The preacher had some poison in his shed that he used to kill rats, so he invited the man to walk with him out to the building. Once there, the preacher pulled out the poison and asked, "Sir, here is a poison that can kill. Would you propose that I change the skull and crossbones on this jar of poison and put on it a label which reads, “Harmless” or “Wintergreen.” The visiting layman answered, "Why, no, that is poison. To mislabel it might lead some unsuspecting person to ingest it and die.” The preacher responded, “Exactly, and you can be sure that the devil has led our generation to take the danger label off sin and paint it as something acceptable and millions are dying only to end up in an eternal hell because of it.”

We must be careful to never change God’s Word to make it say what we think it ought to say in order not to offend our generation. James said that our duty is to lead people to the truth so that they the soul might be saved from death and a multitude of sins might be forgiven. The point is this – neglect is all that is necessary for the Christian to drift from faithfulness or for the lost to miss salvation and heaven.

But also we see here that …

B. This is an Individual Problem

Note that James speaks of the sinner as following the “…error of HIS way…”

James is speaking of a man or a woman, an individual, who goes astray. Sometimes a person wanders away because of something they don't like or aren't pleased with in a local church. It is so easy to find fault - to blame someone else for our own weaknesses. That is what Adam did when God confronted him in the Garden of Eden – he blamed Eve. Eve was no better, for she blamed the serpent. It is the nature of humans to find someone or some thing to blame for all thier failures. Let’s face the truth – we are all sinners. There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). No church is perfect - but that is because of it is made up of sinners saved by grace. A person looking for a perfect church is going to be a very disappointed person.

Some people wander away from the local church fellowship because of sin. The Bible speaks clearly concerning the responsibility for sin. Look at Ezekiel 18:20: ”The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” God tells me that I am not responsible for the sins of my father, nor is my father responsible for my sins – we must face our own sins individually.

Again the Bible states in Galatians 6:7, "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will reap." We cannot sow sin along the path of life and then pray for crop failure. No, sin is an individual problem and we must take full responsibility for our sins.

Yet, we are to help each other in this matter of remaining faithful to our Lord and His church. When we see someone slipping away, we are to reach out and seek to bring that person back into full fellowship.

But, not only do we see the gradual peril of wandering from God, but we also see …

II. The Grand Purpose of the Savior

We have a grand purpose given to us by our Lord and shared again and again in the Scriptures. James addresses it in the text we are considering today. The point James makes in James 5:19 and 20 is not something he is mentioning for the first time, for he states clearly that he wants us to “remember” this. The way that is worded means that he has already made mention of this before. He closes out mentioning it a final time because it is so important.

What is this purpose? James makes mention of “someone” turning back a person who has strayed from the truth. In other words, he is speaking here of witnessing for our Lord and sharing with those who need to be on God’s path for life. This is exactly what our Lord spoke of in His last message to the disciples. We see that in Matthew 28:18-20: 18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

Again we see this in Acts 1:7-8:

7 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Clearly the Lord wanted us to know that His purpose is for those who follow Him to share His love and direction with others. He even makes it transparent that He will empower us to actually do this work. It is not our power but His power that makes it possible for us to share direction or correction with others. We don’t do this because we know everything or are better than others, but because this is exactly what God tells us to do. In addition, this means that you and I must be open to correction and instruction in righteousness when someone points out ways in which we might be failing to follow our Lord correctly. This is a two-way proposition. I must be open to correction and willing to give correction – each as the Lord leads.

A. This is an Appointed Purpose

We have all been appointed to be witnesses for Christ. This is not just the task of the preacher or evangelist but is the task of every single Christian – every born again believer. A lay person can often reach people that no preacher can possibly reach.

L.C. Hester of Whitehorse, Texas is a plumber by trade and every time he goes out on a job he packs a New Testament in his toolbox. He has been dubbed, "The Witnessing Plumber,” by those who know him well. According to his pastor, he has lead hundreds of people to Christ that no preacher could have possibly even been in touch with. Each of us has our own sphere of influence and we are to use that for Christ.

You and I are appointed as ambassadors for Christ. We read in 2 Corinthians 5:20, ” 20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” What a wonderful passage of scripture. We are ambassadors for our Lord; thus we must never be ashamed to speak up for Him or negligent in sharing His love with others. Like a citizen serving in a foreign land, you are representing Christ in this world. Our true citizenship is in heaven and this earth is not our home - we are just passing through. Paul told Timothy that a good soldier never gets entangled with the affairs of this life but serves the Commander till he gets home. That is what we are to do for Christ. We are to represent our Lord and His kingdom while we are in this world – and that means that we are to share Christ and God’s direction for life with others.

According to James, what are we to be doing? We are to bring back people who have drifted from the Lord and help turn people back to the Lord who are drifting away from Him. We should bring back those on the precipice of danger in this world. We are to attempt to turn back those who have made commitments to Christ, but have slipped back into th world – those who have gotten too close the edge of the mountainside which is pulling them toward destruction. We must see ourselves as lifeguards in the Lord’s work. The songwriter penned the words:

“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,

Snatch them from pity, from sin and the grave.”

That is our duty. We are to: "Let the lower lights be burning." (Tell the story of Philip Bliss and the lower lights during a shipwreck which led him to write that great hymn.)

Note only is our sharing an appointed purpose, but …

B. This is an Anointed Purpose

Lest you protest that you just cannot talk to anyone about Jesus, let me assure you that God's Spirit is present to help the weakest among us. That is what Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1:8. The power of God’s Spirit is with us. When those early disciples acted upon God’s promise, thousands were saved and the growth of the Church of our Lord exploded. Great numbers of people came to trust and follow Christ. The Spirit will take care of the results, if we will but take care of our responsibility.

A layman was deeply burdened for a lost man in his community and he had tried to talk to him, but the lost gentleman put up some strong arguments against the idea. One such argument was that no one could be saved as easily as the witnessing layman made it sound. Surely the sinner had to do something himself to be saved. Finally, one day the witnessing layman went to the lost man's shop. This unsaved gentleman was a master cabinetmaker and the Christian layman saw a table which was clearly a finished product.  It was absolutely beautiful and flawless. The Christian went over to the tool area, picked up a plane, walked over to the table and said, "I am going to run this plane over this table here and round off the corners for you a little.” The unsaved cabinetmaker almost fainted. "No," he protested, "that is a finished table. Please, do not touch it with that plane, you will ruin it.” The Christian layman laughed, put down the plane and said, "Exactly, this table is finished. It does not need anything done to it by someone like me. You are a master cabinetmaker and you have made it superbly. Just so, Jesus is the perfect Savior. He died for you and rose from the grave. He does not need you doing anything, for all you could possibly do is mess up what Jesus has done perfectly.” The lost cabinetmaker knelt that day and accepted Christ. The Spirit of God had shown that layman how he could lead that man to faith. The Spirit will do the same for you and for me. We are anointed to be a witness for our Lord.

You see, there is a Gradual Peril for the Wanderer, and a Grand Purpose for the Savior, but now let’s look finally at …

III. The Gracious Promise to the Sharer

If we are willing to share with the lost and backslidden, what does God promise to do? He tells us that there will be forgiveness for them both. God will bring the lost to life eternal and He will pull back the drifting Christian to renewed, divine purpose. There is a great lesson here that must not be missed. Two important truths leap out of this last point.

A. Life is Revealed

A Life of Purpose for the saved is revealed through the witness of God's people.

A Life of Eternity for the lost is revealed through the witness of God's people.

For the saved, it means a renewed love for Jesus and a close fellowship with Him. It means that one will not go to the Christian (Bema Seat)  Judgment empty-handed. It means a joy in the heart and a purpose in life.

For the lost, it means a new birth – a life that Christ purchased for you at the cross. It means knowing your real purpose – the purpose God has for you in this life and in the world to come. It means a home for you with God when this life is over.

B. Sin is Concealed

James employs a play on words at this point. He emphasizes life on the one hand, but he also highlights a funeral on the other. Watch this: The sinner is raised to life, but the sin is buried and covered. What do we do with dead things? We cover them up. We bury them. Thank God, when he takes our sins, he buries them in the depths of the sea. They are covered. They will never be brought up against us. Life is granted and sin is buried. Hallelujah!


There is a story related to Leonardo da Vinci and the work he was doing while painting his masterpiece, "The Last Supper." Whether this is true or note, I’m not sure, but some believe that it is. He went looking for models to sit for the various disciples in the painting and especially a model to sit for the painting of Jesus. He found a handsome and innocent looking man in a choir in one of the churches in Italy. He painted him as Jesus in the great painting. The man's name was Pietro Bandinelli. Years passed as da Vinci continued to work on the painting. He left the face of Judas Iscariot till the last and then went out into the streets to look for a model. At last he saw the man whom he wanted for the disciple that betrayed Christ. His face was drawn and villainous, so he hired the man and brought him in to sit for the face of Judas. When he had completed the work he was about to dismiss the man when he asked, "By the way, sir, what is your name." The poor gentleman said, “Don't you know me? I am Pietro Bendinelli. I also sat as your model for the face of Jesus.”

You see, this poor man had drifted so far in his life that his face had gone from that of looking like a model for Christ to that befitting the scandalous face of Judas Iscariot. Dear friend, beware of drifting from God. Remain busy in God’s Work. Share the love of God with those who have never trusted Jesus and never allow a believer to drift away without reaching out in love to rescue them from wasting the wonderful opportunity of serving the Lord faithfully.