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 closes his letter in much the same way he opened it. He had told his Christian readers to find joy in trials and hardships by focusing on the spiritual benefits which come from them (1:2ff). Now he ends by focusing again on the importance of one’s spiritual state (5:19-20). Perhaps he knew that some of these early Christians who had been oppressed and persecuted (5:1-11) were not finding joy and spiritual strength, but instead were allowing their trials to spiritually weaken them to the point of apostasy. In such cases, he exhorts their stronger brethren to reach out to them and help them come back to the faith.
In light of passages like these, it amazes me that anyone could believe the Calvinistic teaching that once salvation is obtained it could never be lost regardless of one’s obedience and faithfulness to God. He’s writing to Christians, and in doing so clearly gives the possibility that “any among you” could “stray from the truth.” It is a Christian whom James describes as a “sinner.” It is a Christian whom James says needs to be turned “from the error of his way.” It is a Christian of whom James says other Christians need to “save his soul from death.” It is a Christian who, as implied by James, needs to repent and thus “cover a multitude of sins.” If it is true that once one is saved, one will always be saved no matter what, then why is this passage in the New Testament?
The danger of Christians falling away and thus losing their salvation is real and is continually warned against throughout the New Testament (1 Cor. 10:12; Heb. 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 2:20-22; Rev. 2:4-5; 3:15-16; et al). By pointing out that to stronger Christians that they can “save his soul from death,” God shows not only that an unrepentant Christian can fall away, but that he can also be condemned for all eternity (cf. Rom. 6:23a; Rev. 21:8). Thus, the need for “those who are spiritual” to “restore…in a spirit of gentleness” their brethren who are “caught in any trespass” is real (Gal. 6:1), as is the need to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, (and) be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14).
In order to be “spiritual” and thus be among those who “restore” their erring brethren (Gal. 6:1), one “must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim. 2:24-25a). The reason one must do this is not to prove yourself right and your brother wrong and thus “own them” with a “Bible mic drop.” Rather, the goal must be that “perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25b-26). Note again the directive to “be able to teach” (v. 24). That requires that the spiritual Christian have a good knowledge of God’s Word. God directed elders to “hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9). All who are truly spiritual must do likewise. It is impossible to restore the erring Christian if one does not know God’s Word well. Indeed, you are much more likely to be among the erring yourself if your knowledge of Scripture is and stays minimal.
Let me close this article and our study of James overall by sharing how much hope and comfort I get from God’s promise that bringing a straying Christian back to the faith will “save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Brethren, our God is gracious, merciful, and loving. We all sin, and we all have strayed in various ways. Yet, we can come back. We can be forgiven. We can still go to heaven. All we need to do is repent. Praise God for that!