James 5:19-20: Stay In the Truth

James 5:19-20: Stay In the Truth

Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends in Poland, OH on Sunday, August 16, 2020

Sin which is not dealt with is contagious, it is better to confront sin in love so that it doesn’t spread to others.

John Wesley [the founder of the Methodist movement which led to the United Methodist Church] preached on the 5th of February, 1738, at St. John the Evangelist, Westminster, he preached “On those strong words, ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.’” He later wrote, “I was afterwards informed, many of the best in the parish were so offended, that I was not to preach there anymore.”

The following Sunday he preached on 1 Corinthians 13:3 at St. Andrew Holborn, here, too, he was not allowed to preach anymore. This happened at several other churches. It also happened to his friend George Whitefield and John Wesley’s brother Charles (Charles has written many of our hymns). [1] They preached the Bible but the words of the Bible were offensive so they were no longer allowed to preach in those churches.

Wesley’s words were, “…many of the best in the parish were so offended, that I was not to preach there anymore.” They were offended by the Scriptures so they didn’t want John Wesley preaching there. Yet, they did want to continue as a church. Why? Was their problem with John Wesley or was their problem with God and His Word?

Our Scripture passage today comes from James 5:19-20. In this passage James wraps up his epistle. James wraps up his epistle by writing about confronting sin. Let’s read this passage. In this passage you will see confrontation, restoration, and salvation.

Let’s read James 5:19-20

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20 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.

  • In this passage I see the principle of confronting sin.
    • James writes to them as family. He writes, “My brothers.”
    • James describes a scenario, a case study, where someone wanders from the truth.
    • Now, we must question, “Was this man a genuine believer, or had he heard the truth when it really didn’t soak in?”
      • We really can’t answer that fully, but I believe in this scenario the man was not a true believer.
      • You will notice in the next verse James writes that anyone who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.
  • John MacArthur’s sermon on this passage points out that the Scriptures use “sinner” to refer to an unbeliever.
  • Sinner implies one who has not surrendered to Jesus Christ.
  • In 1 John 2:19 John talks of people who went out from them but were never part of them to begin with.
    • They might have appeared to be Christ followers, but they really weren’t Christ followers.
    • Wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15).
  • So, I am preaching this passage believing that James is writing about those who are not Christ followers, though they may have appeared to be for a while.
  • James writes of someone who wanders from the truth. Something I read about that verb says this: The word “to wander” or “to stray” is planetes from which we get planet which was a wandering body. It means to reject, to go astray, to apostatize, to wander. The term is used in Scripture many times to refer to physical wandering and many times to refer to spiritual drifting. And frequently it is used to refer to the condition of the unsaved. The unsaved are said to wander, or stray.
  • So, someone wanders from the truth and now someone else brings that individual back. This means at some point there is a confrontation.
    • At some point a Christ follower must go to this person and say, “Hey, you have left Christ, you are living in sin, this is unbiblical and this is wrong.” The Bible is the Christian’s guide (2 Tim 3:16-17).
    • That is what John Wesley did in his sermons. Wesley was a preacher that was not afraid to confront sin. Every sermon should offend some because the Bible offends people. Listen to Heb 4:12-13: 12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
  • Jesus taught a pattern for confronting sin in Matthew 18:15-17: 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 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.’ 17 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.
Old Testament quotation: testimony of two or three witnesses.
  • Paul also wrote about confronting sin in Gal 6:1: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
  • Why don’t we do this? How do we do this? Or, have you done this? Have you ever had to have a meeting with someone where you confronted the way they were living, something they were doing, or some way in which they offended you?
    • I know of situations where a church member (even someone who led worship at a church), was involved in an adulterous relationship. Even though people knew about it, or speculated about it. Instead of confronting the person or people involved, there was gossip going around. This could have been stopped by a conversation between those involved and the pastor. Instead, it greatly damaged the church.
    • I know this is not easy, but it is rewarding and it is necessary. The Scriptures teach us to do this and we must not ignore the Scriptures.
      • In this case I think it is someone who has strayed from the truth likely because they really didn’t know Jesus. If this was a real life scenario you may not know whether they really knew Jesus or not. All you know is they have left the church and they have rejected the message.
      • It is important not to let them go to the way of the world. It is important to confront them. You are to do this the way Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15-17.
        • First you meet with the individual alone. Actually, first you pray and pray throughout the process.
        • Then you and one or two others talk with the individual.
        • Maybe when another person is brought in you will realize that the person left the church for a legitimate reason. Maybe he/she was offended by a lack of love. This is why it is important to use two people.
        • Then the whole church decides the matter.
          • Also, always confront using Scripture and study so you are sure that you are using Scripture correctly.
          • That is why you bring in two or three witnesses and then the whole church. This is to bring in objectivity and make sure the Scriptures are used correctly.
  • What if the confrontation doesn’t work? What if they still stray from the truth? What if they will not come back to the church? Then you let them go; knowing they have made their own decision.
  • But what if you never confronted the person? What if you never approached them?
    • Rom 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    • That is referring to eternal death.
  • That is what happens if you never share the gospel, eternal death in hell.
  • But eternal life comes through the Gospel.
  • What we must be careful of is the fact that we will naturally take the easy way out. We will naturally make up any excuse to avoid a confrontation. Even pastors do this. We will naturally be passive aggressive. Maybe you will see someone at the store and you make a very passive, yet aggressive, comment.
  • Or, suppose you have to do another form of confrontation. Maybe someone has offended you in the church. Well, you may not like confrontation so instead you make those passive aggressive comments, or maybe you gossip. You both still go to the church. But you both have a torn relationship with each other.
  • All of you know what I mean with this. Passive aggressive people are all over churches, but it is wrong to gossip about someone, or not share your true feelings with the individual. This causes more trouble in the end. The best manner of response is Matthew 18:15-17 which I read earlier. Go and talk to the person. Also pray.
  • One other thing about confrontation. Remember, several times now I have talked about how we need prayer partners and accountability partners. You know that if we did this we would have a wonderful opportunity set up for each one of us to help each other grow in Christ. The Bible says as iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens his brother (Proverbs 27:17). We sharpen each other. This holds us accountable which builds us up before we reach the point where we have left the church or we are living in sin.
  • So, we see James exhorts us to confront those who have fallen away.
  • In verses 19-20 we also see restoration.
    • The person is confronted and he or she is brought back.
    • The goal of confronting is to restore the person into a relationship with you and others in the church.
    • The individual was a sinner in the error of his or her ways and now he or she is turned from them. He is restored to a right relationship with God. Restoration can’t fully happen without salvation.
    • What is a right relationship with God worth? It is priceless.
    • This is just like the commercials. A Big Mac from McDonalds cost about 3.00, a book from the book store cost about 10.00, a burrito from Chipotle cost about 15.00, a cup of coffee from Starbucks cost about 100.00 (obvious exaggeration), a relationship with God— priceless!
    • We can’t put a price on the intangible. This leads us to the last part of James.
  • James ends his epistle with salvation.
    • This confrontation leads to salvation. Salvation implies restoration.
    • James says this saves his or her soul from death. The person who wandered from the truth was heading to hell. Now, they are heading toward Heaven. They are saved from death and destruction.
    • James says this covers a multitude of sins.
    • Jesus died for all of our sins.
    • Sometimes this process is different, yet the reward is the same. Sometimes there is no restoration because you need to share the gospel with people who have never gone to church before.
    • It is not restoring because they have never been a part of the church.
    • We have got to be more passionate about sharing the Gospel.
    • This is eternal life. There is a real hell. Everyone is going somewhere. Someone described death like the escalators at the mall. You know how sometimes when you are going up one escalator you can see people going down another escalator? So, you have passed away, here you are going up the escalator to Heaven, yet you see family and friends going down the escalator to hell. They are looking at you asking, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Dr. Kalas was the president of Asbury Theological Seminary. He was also one of my seminary professors. He told a story of a Sunday school teacher that he had when he was a kid. Dr. Kalas was 86 years old when I heard this story, so this would be back in the 1930’s. Dr. Kalas said that sometimes the Sunday school teacher would get off topic and share a story. One day he shared the story of how he came to know Christ. The Sunday school teacher said that he was a drunk [Dr. Kalas said that is what they called it back then]. This man was a drunk and he was going to through himself in the river. But there was a church service going on. So, he ended up at church. That night, when he was going to commit suicide he ended up giving his life to Christ. He was lost but he was found by God. He was going to literally kill himself but instead he died to the world and became alive “in Christ” for the first time. Instead of dying he was alive. Then, years later he taught Sunday school to a student who would someday become a pastor and Seminary professor and president.

So, what did Wesley and Whitefield end up doing? They didn’t water down the message. John Wesley and Whitefield went to those who never heard and who appreciated the message. “The Chancellor of the diocese refused him [Whitefield] permission to preach in any consecrated building until the Bishop had given a ruling on the matter. Impatient with the delay, Whitefield resorted first to Newgate prison, and then to Kingswood… One Saturday afternoon, the 17th February, 1739, the evangelist walked out to the village. He climbed a hill and spoke to a couple hundred coalminers. ‘Blessed be God that I have now broken the ice!’ He wrote afterwards. By the month of March the numbers had risen to as many as twenty thousand.” Later on Wesley did the same. Many were saved and we have the United Methodist Church today.

So, as you have seen in this passage James call us to confront sin, share salvation and restore those who have left the church who have been confronted.

The epistle of James is all about Christian living. Now as he ends his epistle, quite abruptly, he writes about salvation.



[1] A. Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart, John Wesley: Evangelist (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2001) pages93-100.

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