What To Do with the One Who Wanders – James 5:19-20

The final lines of this letter address a Christian who has “wandered from the truth.” Does this mean this brother has completely rejected the Gospel? In English, wandering has the sense of random meandering away from where you are supposed to be, perhaps aimlessness. But the Greek word translated “wander” (πλανάω) can have the connotation of deception. This brother could be misled by another, perhaps even a teacher or elder.

But the verb appears in Matthew 18:12-13, a sheep who wanders away from the sheepfold. It is also used consistently in the Old Testament for the apostasy of the nation of Israel. If the nation are the sheep of God’s pasture, then their persistent sin and rebellion is like a sheep wandering out of the safety of the pasture, putting them in danger from predators.

The truth can refer to doctrine and practice, but it is not specific (i.e., the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus as God, etc.) In a contemporary context, this is more than someone leaving our church and attending another, or shifting from a Calvinist to Arminian view of salvation, or any other doctrine within the larger world of Christianity.

Whatever the truth refers to, it is possible for another to restore the wandering brother to fellowship. James is addressing the responsibility of the one who has not wandered to restore those who have wandered,

If the tensions between Jewish Christians and the wealthy aristocracy are in the background of the letter, then perhaps the “wandering” James has in mind is a return to the synagogue, perhaps even a rejection of Jesus as the messiah. Remember the congregations to which James is writing are small Jewish Christian messianic communities which have not gone very far from the synagogue. It is possible pressure from non-Christians Jews have convinced some to worship in the synagogues and keep their belief in Jesus as Messiah secret.

James is speaking hypothetically, but this kind of defection from the faith was always a possibility for Jewish Christians. The grammar of the passage is a third-class condition. Whatever the case, James does not think any have actually wandered away from the truth, but if that should happen, they can be brought back. James says the one who brings back the wandering sinner “saves his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Does this refer to the wanderer, or the one who restores the wanderer?

The problem for the modern reader is how we treat those who have serious questions about their faith or how they live out their faith in the world. It is very easy to write-off a person who has wandered from their faith, those who appear to have rejected the core doctrines or now participate in behaviors we “insiders” consider sinful.

Perhaps it is best to return to the first of the commands in this paragraph, “If someone has wandered away, pray for them to be restored to fellowship.” But we ought to pray four our own sensitivity and grace toward those who have wandered in order to win them back.

17 thoughts on “What To Do with the One Who Wanders – James 5:19-20

  1. If the common person were to be considered wandering away from their faith, I always find it hard to ask the question, “Why are you falling from your faith?” Like the example above, James chapter 5 highlights this issue and alludes to the fact that God has a lot of patience. The idea behind wandering is often misunderstood. Right away, from experience, when someone wanders from the faith, other Christians are real hypocritical and making comments on them about them not actually taking the time to dive into their faith, or the comment on them not living it out and this is God’s punishment. Not a lot of people take the time to actually go talk to the person and find out the real reason behind them “wandering”. I admire what James is speaking on, because sometimes going to talk to that person won’t make the matter better; rather we are to pray for them to return to the faith. Like it talks about in 1 Thessalonias, we are to build one another up and offer prayers to those who need it. In my personal life, the idea of praying for someone is the best thing you can do. You may not have the answers in person when talking, but allowing God to work in and through that individual can bring a smile to your face.

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    • I like what you said about failing your faith. That is a powerful statement. Reading your post allowed me to think more deeply about the passage written. The wandering that James talks about is not aimless as many think today. I feel that the wondering mentioned is more similar to the Parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15:11-32. The son walked away from the father, but after a period of time he came back. I feel like wandering is like this in a Biblical sense. Wandering is walking away from God, sometimes by the leadership of a false teacher. However, it is possible to come back to Christ before it is too late, just like the son did in the parable.

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  2. I have a huge heart for the “wondering or lost” when it comes ministering or showing compassion along with the love of Christ. I think of Luke 15:1-7 when Jesus gives the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd in the parable risked loosing the other ninety-nine sheep in search for the one lost. Through that passage, Jesus teaches us how important all people, especially the ones who wonder, mean to him. Also, in James 4:1-2 it refers to the desires that battle within as the root of cause of strife. Jobes later points our that yielding to the evil desires within spirals into increasing greater into sin. For us, wondering can be avoided by commitment to the law and surrender to Christ (the royal law which is James’s main theme). Prayer as Trent mentioned is something we can do for ourselves and others. When dealing with others, not loosing a heart for them or their soul is vital and will help our heart become more like Jesus’s heart.

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  3. I agree that wandering could mean a few different things but not nessisarily someone who has rejected Jesus and the Gospel. That’s basically the unforgivable sin in Mark chapter 3. James is talking about the ones who have lost touch, went a different direction. I believe these people should be on the top of our lists among the unsaved. I believe just as it says in Philippians 1:6, “Being confident in this, He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Once God has started a work in someones life, if they ever had an encounter with God and he started to move in their life, He wont stop until that work is completed in that person. Sometimes God needs the ones who have a solid faith to encourage and bring back those people who have wandered, because God isn’t finished with them.

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    • I really love what you have to say here, Seth. I think that when God says that He is faithful to carry out what He has started within us–He means that as a promise that we can hold on to, and hold Him to. We should be relentlessly pursuing those who have “lost touch.” Not to say that a total unbeliever isn’t valuable or shouldn’t be ministered to, but because those who are wandering away from God are the ones who are hurting the most. They have known God they have just forgotten who He is temporarily.

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  4. A common example to compare to this is wandering into an “easier” faith. People that have given up certain major doctrines of faith due to not personally agreeing with them or being too hard to bear. This can be incredibly easy to fall into with some with serious addictions, as it can be easier to suggest a “compromise” with God compared to trying to completely turn away from incredibly difficult behaviors. The big problem with this lifestyle is that it ignores the hope that the Lord offers. All God desires is our hearts and that we keep fighting to overcome sin and continuing to follow him. The reward for belief in Christ is eternity with him, and thus we have an everlasting hope as Christians (1 Cor. 15: 54-58). If not even death itself is our enemy anymore, then do we truly have any reason to give up?

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  5. This passage does a great job talking about our responsibility to help those who are wandering away. We as fellow Christians do have a responsibility to help those who are wandering off the path, and to show them back to the truth and right ways (Jobes 175). I know for myself personally, when I came to grace I had a difficult time with my faith and started to doubt my calling, and even myself. I was starting to wander off the path and starting to give into temptations and was even letting my grades slip. It took some good friends of mine who are strong Christians to put me back on the right path and remind me of what is really important for me to stop wandering. This passage of scripture is crucial for even strong Christians to have a good grasp of.

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    • Sean,

      I was in the same boat as you were with wandering away from my faith. Before coming to Grace I completely neglected my faith. I started to falter in what I believed. But during these past 3 years that I have spent at Grace have been life changing and I have been able to reconnect with my faith. I also made friends that have helped in getting back on the right path. Also, you made a great point in saying that we as Christians have a responsibility to help others who have strayed from their path. Something interesting is that even though people have strayed from their path they can find it again and be redeemed. Job 22:23 states, “If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored.” This shows that we are always able to come back to God but it’s not something that should be abused. We cannot just simply pick and choose when we want to be with God. Overall, I am glad you got yourself back on the path to God, Sean! It’s awesome to have friends that can help you along the way as well!

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    • I really liked how this entire blog touched base on those specific steps God wants us to take if we are starting to struggle to start away from any faith as well Sean. Reading through your post, it made me think of a verse that with how you described it, makes it easily comparable. It says in Matthew 7:13-14 NIV it says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. I have seen this plenty of times in the past with working with kids over the last few years since I’ve been doing so. This can be used in general for pretty much anything and anyone, but still regardless, it is imperative that we as Christians need to help out those that are more in need of it.

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  6. Recently in my Apologetics class, we watched a video of a man who wandered away from his faith. He went to Moody Bible Institute to find the answer to, literally, one question. He never found his answer and turned away from God. While watching this video, all I could think is, I do not like this man, I do not think I could ever like this man. After really listening to the blasphemy that this man was saying, it really hit me. God still loves this guy. God is still pursuing him. Then I thought if we do not love on him, who will? That is what is James is talking about, in my opinion, as Christians are supposed to help bring the people back who have wandered away. “Come near me to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded,” (James 4:8). Once we washed our hands and purified our hearts it should be natural to want to help our brothers and sisters in need. As Jobes has made an emphasis on James talking about apostasy, it is obviously important to him. He does not want his brothers and sisters in Christ to keep wandering away from God. They need to see and know the truth about God’s love!

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  7. I think that Taylor brings up an interesting point to consider in her above comment. She called them brothers and sisters. How do we treat our biological brothers and sisters when they struggle? I don’t think I would abandon my biological brother or sister, why would I abandon my brother and sister in Christ? During times when believers are being lead astray is when we need to be showing them the love of Christ even more. This is our duty as fellow believers. (Jobes, p175) This is an issue my brother is facing now. A long time faithful Christian, but the flaws in the modern church have made him question his own faith. I hope that his church family and his fellow Christian friends would love him now more than ever.

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  8. This is an awesome post and after reading through some of the comments from others they have some powerful stories. I like the last statement made in the post, “but we ought to pray four our own sensitivity and grace toward those who have wandered in order to win them back”. I think it is extremely easy to let those who wander continue to wander and never make and effort to help. However, when someone who has wandered and finally approaches you and has questions i would want to have all the poise and heartfelt insight as possible. I had a friend who completely gave up on his faith after family issues. He pushed and pushed my family and me away because he was jealous of our family home. One day, he finally came to my whole family crying and basically saying he needs to get right with God again. That he needs to not feel empty anymore. Long story short he ended up getting baptized and had his amazing story be shown to the whole church during a service. I am positive that if it wasn’t for the continual amount of prayer from my family and myself for him he may never have made that choice. Colossians 3:12 states, “therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience”. Without praying for those qualities winning back my friend may not of happened that early or may have not happened at all.

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  9. When I was a younger Christian this deceptive wandering was something that I would have fallen for. I believe that this deception and loss of salvation is speaking to someone who is complacent. This Christian is okay with living in their sin, and not showing any remorse or observing how they act from a Biblical standpoint. In other words they are deceived and they do not care to examine how they act anymore. We will all be called to God’s judgment seat one day. The fact is that it is God’s judgement seat. We as Christians’ have no power to judge, and in this statement we should realize that just because a brother or sister is deceived does not mean that we can judge them for how they had been living their life. I think the story of the prodigal son relates to this passage in the same way that the son is welcomed home we should welcome our brother or sister who was lost and deceived home.

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  10. There’s some really good post. It seems like this post hits home for everyone. Everybody has a time where they wander outside their faith. It’s normal for us to believe that we can survive through life without depending on our faith. It’s easier for us to give up and do things on our own. But what people fail to realize at times, is if we try and fail, we can always depend on God to be there to pick us up. But if we disregard our faith then once we fall again, we won’t have anyone there to pick us up. I know personally, I have never been a vocal person that said anything that bothered me. I was the type person to brush things off and keep things inside. But over time, it can get exhausted holding things in. But the time that I have spent here at Grace has helped me to be more opened and get things off my chest if something is bothering me. This is one of many reasons why you create friendships, to have people by your side to hear your problems and help you find solutions. Proverbs 23:26 states: “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways”. Without fully opening my heart to others and God, I would still be a closed book with bitter feelings towards the world.

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  11. I think that Jame’s topic and concept of wandering is not a new one and it still can be an issue with belivers in the church today. I think that every Christian goes through a period of wandering or doubt in their life, and it is other fellow believers’ job to help them get back on the right track and encourage them. I think that believers going through doubt is not something that is really openly talked about in the church. I think that people are afraid of what others will think of them and they try to work through it themselves. I like when you say, “The problem for the modern reader is how we treat those who have serious questions about their faith or how they live out their faith in the world. It is very easy to write-off a person who has wandered from their faith,… (Long, 2018, para. 7). We need to be more open and supportive of those who have wandered and have doubts. We need to pray not only for them, but also for ourselves so that we may have a heart for that individual and the wisdom for what to say.

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