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.