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Bring Back the Erring One -
The Duty of Soul Winning

James 5:19,20

by
Gary Young

The epistle of James finishes even more abruptly than it began. Unlike many of Paul’s letters, which conclude with a long series of personal greetings, James’ letter lacks such salutations entirely. Instead, James concludes with an exhortation that is both sobering and exciting: the duty, privilege and joy of being a soul winner. Although of course souls winning applies equally to the duty to take the Gospel to the lost, who have never yet heard it (Matthew 28: 19-20), the context of James’ comments in this particular instance make it clear that he is talking about the one who has once known the truth and has wandered away from it (James 5: 19-20). The actual words James uses are an exhortation to those who are yet in the truth, that they should actively pursue those who wander away from God, and bring them back to Him. If we do that, James assures us, we will save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins. Surely such an exhortation should make us all desirous of reaching those who are in error and helping them in any way we can.

The first question we need to ask is that of to whom this verse is referring. Who are those who have wandered away from the truth? The New Testament, despite the errors of some, unquestionably teaches that it is possible to fall from grace, as we see for example in Galatians 5: 4, as well as in the verses that we have under consideration today. Those who have once learned and obeyed the truth, but who then apostatise, are in a worse state than if they had never even heard the Gospel and obeyed it (2 Peter 2: 21-22). Clearly then, these people are lost, and it is the duty and privilege of the Lord’s faithful people to restore those who err from the truth.

We have an example of just such a person in Acts 8, where Luke recounts the story of Simon the Sorcerer. This man was converted among the Samaritans, but later sinned when he offered money to Peter to receive the ability to pass on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8: 18-21). Peter immediately went about the process of restoring this man who had obeyed the truth but then wandered from it - he administered a sharp rebuke, which appears to have caused a change of heart in Simon (Acts 8: 22-24). We do not know the subsequent history of Simon, although there are unsubstantiated traditions that he again left the truth and founded a Gnostic sect. However, what concerns us today is the restoration of his soul, and the part that Peter played in it. Peter evidently saw both a need and a possibility to restore Simon to the truth, and therefore he acted. We too must recognise the need to restore the erring, and act to bring this about as Peter did.

When someone wanders off into the world, there may be a variety of reasons that caused them to do so. Some may be simply weak and unlearned in their faith, while others may become hardened against the truth due to a carnal attitude in their heart, a desire to continue in some sin, or the desire to promote some false teaching. We cannot simply put down a detailed plan of action that we apply in all circumstances regardless of the situation. Instead, we must show judgement and charity as we prepare to restore such an one.  The one option, however, that is emphatically not open to us is the option of doing nothing. The methodology of winning back the wanderer may vary on different occasions, but in each and every case we must make an attempt to win him or her back! We are absolutely required by God to reach out and warn the erring one of the eternal consequences of his actions, for if we do not then God will hold us responsible for that man’s soul (Ezekiel 3: 17-21).

The Bible clearly speaks of making a difference according to the spiritual state of the erring one. Is he wandering because he is weak, or deliberately unruly? Is he someone in emotional and spiritual difficulty, who needs above all else compassion, or is he a false teacher who needs to be rebuked. We see such differences being made in, for example, the following:

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men (I Thessalonians 5: 14).

A similar idea is found in Jude, who speaks of “making a difference” when we are restoring those who are in error (Jude 22-23). In all cases, then, we must look to the spiritual needs and situation of the one who is wandering. Clearly we are to show great compassion and support to those who are weak in the faith. A new Christian, for example, who is having difficulty with a concept would not be treated in the same way as one who is well educated in the truth and who is well equipped to be able to discern the truth himself. On the one hand we would carefully and patiently explain the truth to them, possibly over a great length of time. Particularly if the studies and teaching appear to be making headway, we must show patience and forbearance as we teach the erring one. On the other hand, however, one who is well grounded in the faith and who ought to know better will be treated differently, especially if such a person is in a teaching position. Such people would fit under the category of the “unruly” (I Thessalonians 5:14). While we still must show patience, such an one must be immediately removed from any opportunity to teach or otherwise promote his error, for the safety of the congregation. We must not give place to false doctrine for even an hour (Galatians 2: 5), and in such cases the elders or the men of the congregation must act quickly. 

Similarly, our approach will differ depending on whether the sin which has been committed was a public one or was committed in private, against just one brother. When the sin is against one individual, then God requires that individual to approach the sinner himself before anyone else is involved at all. Only when the sinner refuses to heed the truth and continues in the sin is the error to come to the notice of the Lord’s people (Matthew 18: 15-17). When error is committed in a public way, however, the corrective action is to be public also (I Tim. 5: 20), although in these instances too multiple approaches are to be made and space to repent must be provided (Titus 3: 10). Notice, however, that the number of admonitions required in Matthew 18 and in Titus 3 are different: clearly Matthew 18 is only applicable in private matters between individuals, and is not to be seen as a general pattern for church discipline.

Whatever the specific action required by the Scriptures, it must be applied in love and with the object of winning back the erring to the truth. There is never any excuse for a harsh, bitter, confrontational and violent approach to this process! Those who do so are committing a serious sin themselves, and need to repent of this - even if the message we preach is true, we invalidate it when we do not preach it in love (Ephesians 4: 15). It is very sad when we encounter actions of church discipline or rebukes for sinful conduct which are conducted in an unloving manner, because when we do this we give occasion to the sinner to speak against the truth (Titus 2: 8), and so make his restoration infinitely less likely. When we give in to hurt feelings or the desire for personal revenge, we subvert completely God’s intention of winning back the erring, and instead we drive him still further away from the truth.

When the exhortation and admonition which God requires has been done, often we will find that the one who was wandering from the truth will come back and be restored. This is truly a wonderful thing when this happens, and we can  certainly appreciate the words of James when this takes place. However, it is an unfortunate fact that not always will the sinner see his error and come back to the truth. Sometimes he will become hardened in error (I Timothy 4: 1-2), and drift further and further away. As long as our admonitions are being heard, we are justified in continuing to make them, but there comes a time when it is apparent that the sinner has no intention of mending his ways and returning to the truth. Sadly, in such instances the Bible gives us no option but to withdraw ourselves from that person in recognition of the severed fellowship that exists (Matthew 18: 17; Romans 16: 17; I Corinthians 5: 5; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6; Titus 3: 10; 2 John 9-11). We cannot then have an ordinary social relationship with that person, because to do so will embolden that person to sin more (I Cor. 5: 1-2); it will bring a bad influence into the church (I Corinthians 5: 6-7); and it will bid Godspeed to error (2 John 9-11).

The time and the occasion at which the Lord’s people must take this step will vary from case to case. We must only do this when the person has beyond doubt severed their relationship and fellowship with God and with fellow Christians by their unrepentant sin (I John 1: 7). This is true whether the sin is  false teaching, gross immorality, causing of division or other matters. We should be very careful, however, to determine that this action is appropriate before we take it. Has the person received proper Scriptural admonition, and been given space to repent of his sin? Is it simply a personal matter which would best be overlooked, or is it such that action must be taken? On this point, it is instructive to compare Paul’s attitude to sound preachers with whom he had a personal difference (Philippians 1: 15-16) with those who preached false doctrine (e.g. 2 Timothy 3: 1-5). Evidently personal disputes between preachers who are doctrinally sound are not used as a basis of church discipline.

Even when such action is necessary and has been taken, however, the process of admonition does not end. When we have opportunity, we ought to still teach and admonish our erring brother with the same love and patience that we showed before (2 Thessalonians 3: 15). Sometimes there is a tendency to see the “disfellowshipping” (not a word that is found in Scripture) as the end of the process of admonition, but it is not. We never “write off” our brethren; we should continue to take opportunities to maintain contact so that we can admonish them properly and teach them the way of truth. There is no Scriptural foundation whatever for practices such as “shunning” , or acting in a harsh or unpleasant way. Why would they ever want to come back if we acted like that to them? The act of withdrawing ourselves requires that we cease to have ordinary social contact with that person, but that is all: nowhere are we told to shun them, or to avoid talking to them or teaching them. They are still our brother, we still want them to come back, and we must always leave the door open so that they can.

Another issue that should be touched on is that of mishandled withdrawals. What happens when a church badly mishandles its obligations to teach and admonish the erring? What if they had motives of revenge or hate in their action? Does this then invalidate the action that has been taken, and are other brethren then free to fellowship the sinner? Virtually every brother who has been withdrawn from and who still claims to be a faithful member of the Lord’s church has a sob story about how they were mistreated, or how the action taken against them was taken out of hate, or something similar. They thus contend that the action taken is invalid, and should not be followed by the Lord’s people.

In such cases, which undoubtedly do exist, we should examine I Corinthians 5: 11. In this verse, Paul tells us quite simply that we must not keep company with a brother who is a fornicator, covetous etc. Similarly, we are told that we must withdraw ourselves from every brother that walks disorderly (2 Thessalonians 3: 6). In neither of these cases is there any conditional aspect: if a brother is involved in such a sin, we must withdraw ourselves, it matters not whether that man’s local congregation has fulfilled its duty to him properly or not. The matter is simple: if a brother is unrepentantly in sin, then faithful brethren must not have association with him. If the local congregation has mishandled the matter or acted from improper motives then they must repent of that immediately and confess their error: but this does not affect the relationship of the church at large with the brother who is in sin. Until he repents, he is outside the fellowship of God and His church, for it is sin that breaks that fellowship, not the local congregation or the church at large (I John 1: 7). We misunderstand Scripture if we imagine that it is our job to declare someone “disfellowshipped” or not: the Scriptural teaching is that the fellowship is already severed by unrepentant sin, and in recognition of that the Lord’s people withdraw themselves from the sinning brother.

Finally, we come to the matter of restoration. This is the aim of all exhortation, admonition and even withdrawal. What happens when the sinner wants to come back, and how does this take place? The Bible tells us when in this situation that we must repent (Acts 8: 22) and confess their sin (I John 1: 9). These are the only conditions which are placed by God in this matter, and we must be very careful that we are not so presumptuous as to add more. While “going forward” and/or writing “letters of repentance” may be expedient manners of doing this and making it known, we cannot and must not bind them as the only acceptable way of restoration. Who are we to make such conditions? If a brother has ceased from his sin and apologises for it, then Jesus bids us accept such an apology (Matthew 18: 21-22). We may harbour personal doubts about his repentance, he may not express his confession in the words that we ourselves would have chosen or that we feel he should: but none of this is relevant. If he has ceased from the sin and has acknowledged, in some form, his error, then he has met the Scriptural requirements for restoration. We act in a presumptuous and unforgiving manner if we yet refuse him, and this is expressly condemned by Jesus (Matthew 18: 23-35). This way of restoration, moreover, applies whether the brother has been withdrawn from or not: the Scripture makes no distinction.

The restoration of the erring is a vital part of the work of the church, and James rightly gives it prominence as the closing part of his letter to the Lord’s people. We must resolve to go forward with this important work with vigour and determination, because this is the Lord’s will. We must with patience and love bring back the erring, and be careful to put no stumbling block in their way as we do so. When we fulfil this command, we can know, as James puts it, that we are saving souls from death, and covering a multitude of sins.

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