Bringing Back a Wandering Believer

James 5:19–20, Part 1

Some of the most heartbreaking moments in a Christian’s life are watching other believers wander away from the truth. In this lab, John Piper tackles a couple verses that help us understand a Christian’s identity and give us great hope in pursuing a wandering brother or sister in Christ.

Principle for Bible Reading

The way James uses “brother” and “sinner” in James 5:19–20 might trip up some readers. It seems to contradict our basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian. When you face problems like this, search the immediate context carefully, then search the book in the Bible and the Bible as a whole for relevant words or phrases.

Study Questions

  1. Look throughout James for other instances of the phrase “my brothers”. What do they say about them, and about his feelings for them?
  2. If James is speaking about a genuine believer, why would he call them a sinner in James 5:20? Is that an appropriate way to talk about saved people?
  3. Why would bringing someone back from their wandering cover a multitude of sin? What is it about that exchange that could cover sins?
Piper: “Do we have an attitude that wherever Christians are they are family to us?”

Introduction/Prayer (00:00–01:45)

Brother or Unbeliever? (01:45–04:30)

  • “My brothers” appears eight times in James (James 5:19). Even though James is not writing to a particular church, he treats his readers as family.
  • Do we have an orientation that wherever Christians are, they are family to us?
  • If you see a professing believer wandering, earnestly pursue them like you would pursue a brother. (James 5:19)
  • How they respond to your earnest, brotherly pursuit will prove whether they are a brother or not.

The Ways People Wander (04:30–07:56)

  • This person is wandering “from the truth.” (James 5:19)
  • You can wander from the truth by believing something false or by not believing something true (doctrine).
  • Or you can wander from the truth by living in a way that’s contrary to the truth they believe or profess. (Galatians 2:14)
  • Human beings are used by God to keep his people. People bring back sinners (“someone”). (James 5:19)
  • This should make the returning sinner grateful, and should encourage those pursuing the wandering sinners. (James 5:19)

Sinner or Saint? (07:56–10:29)

  • Are you uncomfortable with James’s use of “sinner” in James 5:20? Is it ever appropriate to call a “brother” a “sinner”?
  • Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
  • Clearly, here in James 5:19–20, “sinner” (5:20) is the “him” in 5:19, who is the “anyone” in 5:19.
  • Therefore, it seems appropriate to still describe true believers as sinners.
  • That being said, since Paul almost always calls us saints, and not sinners, we ought to allow “saint” to be our primary identity. Our sinning is not our most fundamental identity anymore.

What’s at Stake? (10:29–12:25)

  • What’s at stake in bringing a sinner back from his sinning? Eternal life and death.
  • How does bringing him back from his wandering cover a multitude of sins?
  • If you bring him back from wandering from the truth, you bring him back into the truth of the gospel. And only there are all of our sins covered.
Piper: “God uses people to keep his people, to bring back sinners from their wandering.”