Bring ‘em Back
Tonight we are finishing up our series on the Book of James. If you remember from last week we discussed the prayer of faith for those who are going through persecution, trials and tribulations. James asked three questions in 5:13-18—“Is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone among you cheerful? Is anyone among you sick?” Today James begins with another “anyone” statement which connects this passage to the previous passage. Open your Bibles and follow along with me in James 5:19-20, “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.”
I found it interesting, perhaps you will, too, the Greek work for “wanders,” or “strays” depending on what translation you are reading from is planetes, which is where we get the word planets from. Planets were originally considered to be wandering stars. They didn’t stay in one spot like most of the other stars, and certainly not as much as the North star. Because these celestial beings were not consistently placed, they were useless for navigational purposes. Similarly, if someone who claims to be a Christian, begins to wander from the truth, they are useless for others to navigate their way to God, and in fact become very hurtful. People may follow them thinking they’re on the path to God, but really are not. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 7:13, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.”
If this passage was a big, fat, juicy steak, would we rather nibble on the gristle on the outside, or dig right into it? Alright, so let’s cut it up a bit and start chewing. The first word, “Brethren.” What does he mean? My literal, familial brothers? My brothers from another mother? Brothers and sisters in Christ? Brothers from the larger Jewish family? The book of James was written by a Jew to Jews, so we can assume that he could have at least meant the members of the larger Jewish family, but also he is writing to fellow believers in Christ. There is a catch though—If James is writing to the fellow believers in Christ, he is acknowledging that some among them who call themselves believers do not really believe at all, which is why they need to be brought back. In Matthew 7, Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Some translations say they will cast out demons in His name, which is a pretty big deal, but they still missed it.
Today’s passage is all about the lost inside the church: those who have professed to be a Christian and have wandered off, and those who have professed to be a Christian but do things their own way. James says we need to reach them, and there is good reason to do so. Hebrews 10:29 says that the punishment will be worse for those who sit in church, who have heard the message, and still disregard it, than for those who have never had the same opportunity.
If you recall, two weeks ago we watched a video of Adrian Despres giving a talk entitled, “The Four Chairs.” Let’s recap the four chairs. Chair number 1 represents sold out followers of Christ. “Passion” is a word that describes them. They passionately read their bibles, passionately pray, passionately evangelize, and passionately worship. Chair number 2 represents people who have given their lives to Christ, perhaps grew up in the church, but have grown used to God. They don’t read their Bibles, pray, or get excited about worshiping God. They are just going through the motions. Chair number three represents people who look, and act exactly like those in chair number two, think they are going to heaven, but will actually end up in hell.. And lastly chair number 4 represents people who do not have a relationship with God. They know it and everyone else knows it. The passage today is written to chair number 1’s about chair number 3’s primarily and subsequently chair number 2’s. This is only because chair number 3’s exist only because chair number 2’s do. Chair number 3’s are in church mirroring what they see others doing. If they see 2’s who have grown used to God, don’t read their Bibles, pray, tithe, or worship regularly, what do you think they will do? They think they are Christians just like everyone else, except when they die, they will go to hell. Chair number 2 will go to heaven and receive very few rewards. Chair 3 will go to hell and receive many beatings. And unfortunately, the average person couldn’t tell a 2 from a 3.
Before we get much farther we need to figure out what chair you’re in. The safe answer is, “I’m in chair number 1.” The difficult answer is the one that requires you to be honest with yourself. I’m not the one who is going to be judging you when you die, God is. If you don’t read your Bible consistently and persistently, not out of a sense of obligation, but because you deeply desire to know the Word that God has for you; if you don’t pray on a regular basis; if you don’t have a passionate desire to worship God, not just on Sunday mornings when the music is good, but at all times; if you don’t have a burning to share the gospel with others; if you don’t financially support ministries dear to you with whatever amount of money you have, then you are not in chair number 1.
If you know that you don’t have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ; if you know that you will go to hell if you died right now, you are in chair number 4.
Now the difficult ones—chairs 2 and 3. Both go through the motions when it comes to churchy stuff. Both have grown used to God. Both feel uncomfortable around chairs 1 and 4. Both claim to be Christians and are confident that if they died they would go to heaven, except one is going to heaven and the other is going to hell.
If you’re in chair 1 James is talking to you and letting you know, “Hey there are sinners in the congregations that have wandered from the truth, and have sought out their own way of doing stuff—ways that dishonor God. If you bring them back from their sin, and lead them to Christ, you will save their soul from hell, covering a multitude of sins in the process.” People in chair number 1: James has given you your marching orders. We all know people who used to go to church, but don’t anymore. Perhaps they have given up on God altogether. Perhaps they have joined a cult. Maybe they decided they were going to do things their own way for a while. True Christians don’t wander off like this, and if they died, most likely, they will die apart from God and will go to hell.
If you’re in chair number 2, James isn’t talking to you, but I am so listen up. Do you know what you are doing? How can you get used to the God that created the universe like you get used to a song that gets overplayed on the radio? How do you not care that your apathy and lack of a passionate pursuit of God is leading so many people to follow a version of Christianity that makes God want to throw up? (Revelation 3:16) I don’t understand how you can know what Christ did for you, accept that gift, and then push him further and further down your list of priorities behind friends, Facebook, school, work, bf’s/gf’s. I just don’t understand. It’s like bringing a book to the Super Bowl. An enormous price has been paid for you to be there, and you could not care less.
If you’re in chair number three, you look and act exactly like chair number 2 except when you die, you get the surprise of going to hell. I wouldn’t take another step until I was absolutely certain I was going to heaven when I died, and there is a way to know. I don’t know how you can function in life believing you have a coin flips chance of going to heaven, or believe in some other lie like if you’ve done more good things than bad, so you’ll get in. It’s not true.
Finally, chair number 4. At least you don’t make God want to throw up, but God’s wrath is still upon you. According to John 3:18, you are already condemned and the only reason you are not dead and getting punished for your sins, is because God is merciful, long-suffering and wants you to turn from your sins.
So we come to the end of James’ epistle and we find an evangelistic note to it, but it is not a call to evangelism of those outside the church—it is a call to evangelize those inside the church. People call chair 1 Christians radicals and fanatics. Do you know what the Bible calls chair 1 Christians? Normal. And ironically enough, it is not chair 1 Christians who are turning chair 4’s away. Many chair 4’s will say they respect chair 1’s convictions and passion. They are turned away by chair 2 and 3’s. People who say they are Christians, but look and act like everyone else. Brennan Manning, Catholic Priest and author of one of the best books I’ve ever read, The Ragamuffin Gospel, said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." If you’re cool with being the reason other people are going to hell, then more power to you, but I could not live with myself if I believed I played a critical part in someone going to hell.