Rescue the Fallen

James: A Faith That Works – Part 14

James 5:19-20

What do you do when a Christian friend is drifting away from God?  Let’s say you become aware that a fellow believer has developed a drinking problem.  People are whispering and you can see the damage that is being done to their influence and career and family.

Or suppose you have an older child who’s living with a member of the opposite sex to whom they are not married.  Your child became a Christian when they were younger, and you tried to rear them knowing the Lord.  But in recent years you’ve detected a lack of spiritual concern and now your child is living in what the Bible call fornication.  They call it a “mutual agreement.”  Do you courageously discuss this issue, or do you just casually ignore it?  After all, the times have changed.

What if a member of your Sunday school class is absent for maybe six weeks in a row and they never used to miss?  When you ask them about their whereabouts they say, “Well, we’ll be back.  We’ve just been so busy lately.  We bought a place up on the lake, you know, and we’ve been going up every weekend.”  And, “We’ve enjoyed our time away on the boat.  And we listen to sermons on the radio anyway.”  Do you respond supportively and pretend that nothing is wrong?  Or do you seek, in some way, to warn them of the danger of their drift?

How do you react if your sister’s children are never disciplined?  Now, we all know that kids will be kids, but her children are openly defiant, hitting people, deliberately breaking things, using profanity, sassing their mother.  Your sister just tolerates it and says, “It’s best to let children express themselves so that eventually they’ll bring out their innate goodness.”  Do you breathe a sigh of relief when she leaves and talk about it behind her back, or do you tactfully say, “Hey sis, this isn’t right.  That’s not the way we were reared”?  Or, “Would you listen to this excellent podcast from Focus on the Family about disciplining your children?”  Do you do something to help her?

David Augsburg has written an excellent book entitled Caring Enough to Confront.  And that’s what James is writing about in the final two verses of his letter. 

James writes, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).

Now here is some much needed counsel for today’s church.  We know those verses about “don’t judge” and “don’t cast the first stone,” but we don’t hear much about bringing one back who has wandered from the truth or turning a sinner from the error of his way.

And I think it’s important for us to note that James is not addressing the elders of the church.  He’s talking about anybody who is part of the church.  He says, “Whoever….”  “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way….”  That means we’ve got to care for and shepherd one another.  We can’t be a pyramid where just a few people at the top try to minister to the needs of everybody.  We’ve got to be a circle where we care for each other.  And there does come a time when people are wandering away when someone needs to step in, make contact, and redirect the wayward Christian to return to Christ.

So, let’s look a James’ counsel and think about how it’s to be done.  I want us to see the reality, the responsibility, and the reward.


The reality is that some Christians are going to wander from the truth.

Now we all stray to a degree.  But James is speaking of those who go on a prolonged drift away from God.  Their habits, their language, their attitudes reflect a wandering so far that they are in extreme danger.

Now this wandering takes place in a couple of areas.  First Timothy 4:16 says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely.  Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

You see, some people wander away in behavior.

Like Judas, who drifted from Christ to the point that he sold out for thirty pieces of silver, some may stray into materialism.  The riches, the cares, the pleasures of this world kind of choke out the “good seed.”

Some drift into sexual pleasures and refuse to deny themselves, like Demas who left Paul because he was “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10).

Some may leave and drift away because they’re disillusioned like John Mark, who left Barnabas in the middle of a missionary journey.  They begin to Christian life with a naïve belief that everything is going to go smoothly.  When they encounter difficulty they’re disappointed and they bitterly drop out and return to the former way of life.

Many wander away out of carelessness, like the lost sheep that Jesus told about in Luke 15.  It just quit paying attention to where the others were.  And there are Christians who get involved in other things and neglect the fellowship of the church.  And eventually they are in grave spiritual danger and they don’t even know it.  It doesn’t seem nearly as bad as others say.

Have you heard that Country and Western song, “I only miss you in days that end in ‘Y’”?  It’s worse than it appears when you really stop and think about it.  And some people drift away, and they’ll say, “It’s not really as bad as others say.”

But 1 Corinthians 10:12 says, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

Others wander away in their belief, which eventually affects their behavior as well.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:17, “…Hymenaeus and Philetus have wandered away from the truth.  They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (vv. 17b-18).  And he says, “Their [false] teaching will spread like gangrene…” (v. 17a).

Now there are a few Christians who get sucked away into the cults.  They’re listening to the teachings of false teachers like Harold Klemp and are studying about things like “soul travel” and mastering the 131 spiritual exercises of ECK.  And they’re not well enough grounded in scripture to keep from getting blown here and there by every wind and doctrine.

But there are thousands of believers who are getting sucked into the intellectual humanistic philosophy of our day, and they’re wandering away from the truth.  Mentally they go into circles that insist that the Bible isn’t a reliable standard anymore, that there are no absolutes.  And we don’t have a right to try and impose our values on anyone, our culture says.  Everybody has got to determine their own values.

A remember several years ago going with an elder of the church I was serving at the time to visit in the home of a couple who were in their mid 60s.  They were church-going people; nice people.  And in the course of the conversation I said something about the pro-life movement and the woman immediately said, “Well, I’m pro-choice!”  And I said, “Really?”  I was kind of surprised and I said, “I’d be interested in hearing why.”  And she said, “Well, I’m sure you would!  I don’t think this is the place to talk about it, but I don’t think the government ought to be interfering in the private affairs of people.  And I think a woman has the right to do with her own body what she chooses.”

And all of a sudden, the atmosphere got really heavy.  And I faced a choice of whether I would speak up and get into an argument, or whether I would be extended an opportunity to come back to this couple’s home again someday.  And I wanted to say, “Hey, you don’t want the government to interfere in private affairs, but do you have the same philosophy about drugs?  Do you have the same philosophy about child abuse?  And you say that a woman ought to have the right to do with her own body as she chooses, but a Christian’s body isn’t their own.  We belong to God.  We’ve been bought with a price.”

And I know that there are complications like incest and rape, but we weren’t talking about that.  And I opted, since she asked me not to, not to discuss it.

But I am amazed at how many people say they believe in Christ, but they wander away into the intellectual philosophy of this age and they get farther and farther from the truth of scripture.

Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

And James warns us that it’s extremely dangerous to drift away from the truth.  These two verses we’re looking at today say, “If you rescue them, you will save them from potential death.”

Some people think that means that God is going to strike them dead before they do much damage, or that maybe you will save them from AIDS, or a murder, or a drunk driving accident, or something.

Some people think it means their dead spiritual condition; that they’re saved, but they’ve lost

I take it to mean that they are in danger of losing eternal life and experiencing the second death.

First John 5:16 says, “There is a sin that leads to death.”

Or listen to Hebrews 10:26, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (vv. 26-27).

He doesn’t say, “Now, if you sin after you become a Christian.”  He doesn’t even say, “If you deliberately sin after you become a Christian.”  He says, “If you deliberately keep on sinning eventually you will reach the place where you’ve drifted so far that there’s no sacrifice for sin, because you don’t want to repent anymore.

Or listen to 2 Peter 2:20, “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.  It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their back on the sacred command that was passed on to them” (vv. 20-21).

He doesn’t say, “If you sin.”  He doesn’t even say, “If you get entangled in sin.”  But he says, “If you get entangled in sin and overcome, the last state is worse than the first.”

When a person gradually drifts from God, they quench the Holy Spirit in their life, and they are negating their witness.  And in my opinion, they are endangering their salvation.  They are in grave spiritual danger, sometimes without even knowing it.

Christian author Bernard Johnson tells of a time when his little 4-year-old boy got separated from him in a large shopping mall.  The boy was nowhere to be found.  He retraced his steps, but to no avail.  And he panicked.

Then came the welcome announcement over the PA system: “Will the parents of Jeffery Johnson please come to the manager’s office of Toys-R-Us.  Your little boy is here.”  And Bernard Johnson said he ran through the mall, hurried up the escalator, and went into the manager’s office.  And there sat his little boy.  He was sipping on a soft drink the manager had given him and smiling.  He wasn’t even aware that his dad was looking for him.  It was only when he saw the look of fear, mixed with relief, and felt his father’s hug of panic, that the little boy began to cry.   The truth was he didn’t know he was lost … until he was found! 

And there are some Christian people who wander away and don’t understand how dangerous the position is that they’re in.  They’re smiling, apparently having a good time, and thinking all is well.  But all is not well, James says.  They are in danger of spiritual death!


That’s why we Christians are given the responsibility of restoring those who are drifting away.

James says, “…someone should bring them back…” (5:19b).

Somebody should turn the sinner from the error of his way, James says.  You see, our temptation is just to ignore the problem.  “Who am I to judge,” we say.  “I’m not perfect myself.  I better not get involved.”  Or, “It won’t make any difference.  They’re going to have to come back on their own.  They know all the arguments.”

Or, we argue, “When the right opportunity comes along, if it’s feasible, I might say something.”  Or, “I tried it once and it didn’t work.”  Or, “It’s the elder’s job.”  Or, “The minister ought to say something.”  Or, “I don’t want to lose a friend.”

We’ve got all kinds of excuses because it’s unpleasant to confront.  We all want to be liked and we fear being alienated by people.

We’re kind of like the little boy who told his parents at dinner that there was a small PTA meeting after school the next day.  And the mother said, “Well, if it’s so small, do you think I really need to go?”  And the little boy said, “I think you should, because it’s just you, me, and the teacher!”

We hate those small, intimate confrontations.  And most of the time we can find excuses not to participate.  But if we really care about people, and they’re in danger, we’ve got to do something.

A father had a son who was constantly getting into trouble.  All efforts to change his behavior seemed futile.  And finally, one of his friends said, “If that were my son, I’d wash my hands of him!”  And the man said, “If that were your son, I’d wash my hands of him too.  But he’s not your son, he’s mine!”

You see, love makes a difference in how we react to rebellion.  And 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “Love … perseveres….”

Now the question is, how can we effectively rescue those who are drifting into danger?  How can we do it without appearing legalistic, and severe, and judgmental?  A well intentioned, but untrained medic might do more harm than good.  A well-meaning, but abrasive Christian can alienate people even more.  It’s important that we approach people in the right spirit.

I want you to look at several scriptures this morning and follow along in them as we study together a little bit.

Look at Matthew 7:1-5.  Jesus begins by saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

And by the way, this is one of about three verses of scripture that people who don’t know the Bible know.  They know the one about, “Don’t judge or you’ll be judged.”  And they know the one about, “Don’t cast the first stone.”  And they know the one about, “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake.”  But they don’t go beyond that.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  …For with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you” (vv. 1-2).

Now, he’s not saying don’t ever make any kind of discernment.  He’s just saying to be careful what standard of judgment you use.  You use God’s standard and you be strong on mercy.

Verse 3: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then [forget your brother and let him suffer]” (vv. 3-5).  Oh, that’s not what it says?  What does it say?  “…and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Oh!

That means before I make any kind of judgment or confrontation, I had better get my life right.  Because usually the sin we spot in the other person’s life is the one that’s the most flagrant in our own life.  How many times over the years have we seen some TV evangelist make judgmental statements about another fallen TV evangelist, only to see them fall from the same sin down the road.  Such hypocrisy. 

So, before you try to rescue somebody else, you examine your own life and mace certain you make the necessary corrections.

Now another passage is Matthew 18:15-17“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”

Now when you confront the problem personally and early, there aren’t so many hurt feelings.  And when just the two of you are involved, there’s not so much pride either.  You’re less defensive.  And you don’t have to go and prove yourself to somebody standing in the wings, waiting for a report.

Jesus went on in verse 16, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”

Let’s say that you have a Christian friend you see flirting with somebody who’s not their mate.  And you see the two of them after church standing around together time after time and touching a little bit.  And one day you see them together in the parking lot when not many people are around and they get in, and they drive off together. 

Now what do you do?  Well, instead of mumbling about it to other people, I think this scripture is saying that you go to that person and say, “I don’t want to be judgmental, but I think you’re toying with fire.  And I think you’re going to hurt your witness if you keep doing this.”  And they may say, “Buzz off!  It’s none of your business.”  Or they may say, “Thanks.  I didn’t realize it was such a problem.  I really hadn’t stopped to think about it.”

But Jesus said if they don’t listen, then you wait until you hear some other Christians mentioning it and then you say to those other Christians, “Would you go back with me to talk to that person?  Maybe he or she will listen to three or four of us who go.”

And then Jesus said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (v. 17).

Now, how do you treat the tax collector?  Well, you are courteous, but you don’t treat him as a member of the family.  And that’s the way it is with the way we’re to treat people who refuse to repent.  And the idea here is not revenge, the idea is restoration.  The difference is motive.  Revenge is what I’m doing for me; restoration is what I’m trying to do for them.

Now a third scripture is Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin (the King James says “overtaken in a sin”), you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

Again, you’ve got to examine yourself.  But the key word here is “gently.”  Don’t go in anger, trying to give them a piece of your mind.  Be very sensitive to the feelings of the Christian in sin.  Don’t go with a judgmental spirit, telling them how wicked they are.  You go gently.  People respond much better to humility and compassion then they do anger and condemnation.

One other passage for us to consider is 2 Samuel 12.  This is a passage where King David had wandered away from the truth.  He had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then he tried to cover it up by arranging for her husband to be killed so that he could marry her.  Now David had been “a man after God’s own heart,” but for almost a year now he had been wandering away from God in concealment and pretense.

But then God commanded a prophet by the name of Nathan to confront David with his sin and try to rescue him from his error.  Nathan must have dreaded going.  It was a dangerous thing to tell the king that he was wrong.  But Nathan went.

Listen to 2 Samuel 12, beginning with verse 1: “When [Nathan] came to him, he said, ‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought.  He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children.  It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms.  It was like a daughter to him.’

‘Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him.  Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity’” (vv. 1-6).

Alexander White said that “Nathan’s sword was at the tip of David’s conscience even before David realized that he had a sword.  And with one sudden thrust David was at Nathan’s feet.”

I think Nathan said very compassionately, “David, you are the man!” (v. 7).

  “David, God gave you so many riches.  He’s blessed you with this kingdom.  He’s withheld nothing from your hand.  He’s even given you beautiful women.  But, David, you went next door and stole the only wife of your neighbor.  And then you killed him to cover it over.  And God is very disappointed, and he says he’s going to judge.”

I think Nathan’s heart must have been pounding at that point, waiting for David’s response.  But David’s countenance dropped.  His shoulders drooped.  His eyes filled with tears.  And he said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (v. 13).  And immediately he pleaded for forgiveness and restoration.  And Nathan was instrumental in leading David from his waywardness.

Now I want you to notice several facts about Nathan’s effort that we need to emulate if we ever try to rescue somebody.

Number one, he mustered the courage to go.

That wasn’t fun.  It wasn’t something he looked forward to doing.  He went because he was more concerned about David and the nation than he was his own welfare.

Now if you ever enjoy going to somebody and trying to rescue them, don’t go.  You have the wrong attitude.  When you go you will probably tremble, and your knees will wobble, ad your voice will quiver.  But remember that courage is not the absence of fear, courage is being afraid and doing it anyway because it’s right.

Secondly, Nathan went in the right timing.

It was almost a year before he approached David.  He didn’t run over and jump him the first time that he heard a rumor that David was sleeping with Bathsheba.  He waited for God’s timing.  He waited for David to feel guilty and his defenses to break down.

When you confront somebody don’t barge in immediately, and don’t wait so long that it’s irreversible.  You pray that God will give you the right moment.

Thirdly, Nathan went with the facts.

He knew exactly what had transpired.  He didn’t depend on rumors or false accusations.

And before you go you may need to do a little quiet research to make sure you’ve got the facts straight.  

First Timothy 5:19 says, “Do not [even] entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.”

So, if you don’t have the facts, don’t go.  Or maybe sometimes we ought to go and say to a person lovingly, “I want you to know some of the rumors about you that I’m hearing.  And I want to be able to defend you with truth.  Will you help me?”

Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy” (NLT).

And fourthly, Nathan went tactfully.

He chose words carefully.  Solomon said, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  He didn’t go in to David and say, “Hello sleaze ball!  You adulterer.  You murderer.  I’m here to nail you.  You’re going to burn in hell!” No.  He chose a clever parable with an irrefutable application.

Now we might not be that creative, but we can choose words carefully.  We can go over them in advance and se can be gentle.

Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

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And fifthly, Nathan maintained communication.

When David repented, he didn’t storm out never to see him again.  He stayed in touch.  Nathan encouraged him.  We read in 2 Samuel 12:25 that a year later Nathan was still there speaking with David and talking about how he was going to name his next child.

If someone is gracious enough to repent and return to the Lord, you stay with them.  And you minister to them as a friend.


Now James promises a dual reward for those who seek to rescue the fallen.

“Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

Now let’s be honest.  Not everyone is going to turn from their error.  Jesus tried to get Judas to turn around, but he was unsuccessful.  And some people are going to resent you coming and accuse you of meddling in their affairs and being hypocritical no matter how loving you may be.  Not only will they be angry at you, but they will persuade some of their friends and family members to be angry at you.  And they will give you the cold shoulder.  Or maybe quit coming to church.

But if you have done your best to confront and you are unsuccessful, remember you are not responsible for results, you’re responsible for being obedient.  And sometimes results aren’t realized until years later.  Maybe your confrontation will be unsuccessful with that individual, but maybe it will serve as a deterrent to others.

Let’s say you say to your son, “Son, we would love to have you home for the holidays.  But if you bring your live-in mate, one of you is going to have to sleep on the couch.”  You’re not alienating them, but neither are you endorsing their behavior.  You’re hopefully, tactfully reminding them of the error of their way.

And they may have a condescending spirit about your old-fashioned ideas, and they might laugh at you as being puritanical, and you think you’ve accomplished nothing.  But maybe his younger brother will see the situation and be reminded that there’s still a remnant in Israel who stand for the truth of God.

But if you are successful, if the sinner turns from his error, there will be a dual benefit.

First, he says they will be saved from death.

I take it they will be saved for eternity and they will be grateful to you forever.

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And second, you will cover a multitude of sins.

I don’t think that means you build up indulgences.  In other words, you save somebody then go out and sin and God will cover it over for you.  We are only covered by the blood of Christ.  What it means is that the sin of the other is covered no matter how serious or how prolonged those sins have been.

First John 1:9 is still open as an offer to us: “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (NLT).

In his book No Wonder They Call Him Savior, Max Lucado tells of a woman in Brazil, a widow, who raised her daughter to know the Lord.  And the young girl grew up to be very beautiful.  And she was a good girl in a way, but she had an independent spirit that both attracted people and repulsed them.  And instead of talking about settling down and getting married, this lively girl would talk about going to town and getting rich and experiencing the pleasures of the city.  And the little girl, as she grew up, learned to resent the poverty conditions of her mother.  And it kind of turned off some of the suitors that came to call.

Well, there came that day, when Christina was only 15, that she ran away and crushed her mother.  The mother knew that her daughter had no money.  And when hunger and pride meet, she knew that she would be too proud to come home.  When hunger and pride meet, there would be no end to what she would do.

The disappointed, godly mother got together as much money as she could gather and took a bus to downtown Rio de Janeiro.  She went into a drugstore and had photographs of herself taken, as many as she could afford, and then she went into the area where the runaways go – the prostitutes, the drug addicts – and she began to paste the picture of herself on phone booths, on bulletin boards of bars, in hallways of apartments.  And on each picture, she would scribble a note on the back.

Months later Christina, exhausted, came to her apartment.  The laughter was gone from her eyes and her eyes were filled with pain and fear.  And there were many times that she would have traded those countless beds for the security of that little pallet at home.  But she was too proud to return.

But as she walked through the hallway, to her amazement she saw the picture of her mother on the hall mirror.  As she went and picked it up and looked at it, and looked on the back, on the back of the picture was this inscription: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter.  Please come home!”  And she did.