“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
The summer I was about 6, my friend, Stevie, and I rode bikes to the park at the end of our street. The park was a wonderland worthy of Christopher Robin. The woods along one side of park were full of mystery. Behind them was a creek where we’d catch turtles and have all sorts of adventures. On that day, standing next to a clump of trees at the edge of the woods, I saw a large, burnt black hose that curled out from under some brush and went back in again. I bent down to get a better look at it. As I reached for it, the hose suddenly moved – snake! I screamed, jumped on my bike and raced home, Stevie trailing me, in a confused blur over what had just occurred.
I still shudder to think what might’ve happened if I’d picked up that hose/snake as I’d planned. The result could’ve been deadly. Nor did it matter what I’d believed the snake to be. It was a snake. Had I grabbed it, it would surely have grabbed me. Even if it hadn’t been poisonous, its sheer size meant that it could’ve inflicted a serious bite with potentially devastating consequences.
To stray from the truth is no small thing. It’s a matter of eternal life or death. Either we live in the truth of Christ’s righteousness or we will die in our sins. There’s no middle ground. No one is sort of saved or a little lost. James used a word that meant to be severed from the truth. It bore the idea of being deluded or deceived. To err, wander, or stray from the truth meant to be led away into error, heresy, and sin. We play a dangerous game when we pretend that some sins are “peccadillos,” minor offenses that just aren’t very serious. “The wages of sin is death” – period (Rom. 6:23).
In the body of Christ, we’re to look out for one another. When we see a brother or sister in Christ straying from the truth, we’re to love them redemptively. We’re not to gossip about them and call it prayer. Nor are we to snub them or beat them down and call it discipline. We’re to seek to bring them back to the truth of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.
To bring back means to convert. Conversion is a change of heart that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. We can’t actually convert anyone, but the Spirit of Christ can and does use Christ’s disciples to accomplish His work of conversion and restoration.
I recently had the privilege of witnessing to someone who was struggling with faith in Christ. He later told me he’d started attending a Bible teaching church and was growing in the faith. I was simply an instrument that God used to work His grace in his life.
When someone plants a beautiful garden, no one praises the rake, the hoe, or the shovel. Instead, they praise the gardener. When God saves and sanctifies someone, He gets all the glory, but what a thrill to be a tool in God’s hand.
It’s important to note that our role is to turn them to Christ, not ourselves. We don’t bring someone simply to church, but to Christ. If all we do is get them to church or to ourselves, we’ve failed. We must bring them to Christ. He alone can save and sanctify them.
We don’t actually cover anyone’s sins. Christ alone does that by counting His righteousness to the one He restores. Again, we’re simply the instrument that God uses to accomplish His ends.
“A multitude of sins” conveys the idea that sins rarely travel alone. A single lie is often easily spotted. So, we tell other lies to cover up the previous ones. David began by indulging in a simple lust and ended up committing adultery and murder.
I wonder what would happen if we took seriously the command to restore Christ’s straying sheep to their rightful place in His flock; not making excuses for sins, but genuinely restoring people to fellowship with Christ. It’d surely be a new day in the body of Christ.