Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
What did James mean in this passage when he spoke of saving the soul of a wandering brother? An analysis of these verses shows that something other than eternal salvation from hell is in view.
Anyone Among You
Eighteen times in his epistle James refers to his readers as “brethren.” The last occurrence is in 5:19: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders . . .”
The wanderer in question is identified as “one among you,” that is, as one among the brethren. Since James always uses the term brethren to refer to believers, the wanderer is a fellow Christian.
Wandering from the Truth
The reference to wandering from the truth concerns moral, not doctrinal defection. This is evident from the content of the entire epistle. James repeatedly exhorts his readers to live godly lives, on some occasions also rebuking them for practicing evil (cf. 1:22-27; 2:1-13,14-26; 3:14; 4:1-2,11-12; 5:9). Yet he nowhere evidences concerns as to their orthodoxy.
While some have no room in their theology for failure in the Christian life, James does. Believers are indeed capable of living contrary from the truths found in Scripture (compare also, 1 Cor 3:1-3; 11:30; Gal 5:13-26). The question is, what will happen to such a wanderer? James doesn’t leave us in doubt.
Death of a Soul
James’s words here are reminiscent to similar instructions by Paul and Jude. They instructed spiritual believers to attempt to bring carnal believers back to the Lord (cf. Gal 6:1; Jude 23).
James emphasized the gravity of the matter by pointing out that the believer who turns a sinning saint back from the error of his way will save a soul from death. James is saying that this is a matter of life and death.
As a matter of fact, the Greek word psyche, here translated soul, has within its fields of meaning both life and person (see The GES News, Dec 91, p 2). For example, the Lord Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life [Gk psyche] a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). Clearly Jesus Christ did not give up His eternal soul.
We could translate the clause in question, “he will save a life from death” or “he will save a person from death.”
Dr. Charles C. Ryrie writes, “The reference is evidently to Christians, and the death is physical death which sin may cause (1 Cor. 11:30)” (The Ryrie Study Bible, p 1863n). Others who hold this view include Warren Wiersbe, Be Mature, p. 173; Ronald Blue, James, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT Edition, p. 835; H. A. Ironside, Expository Notes on James and Peter, p. 63; Lehman Strauss, James, Your Brother, p. 226.
Of course, there are some who suggest that eternal salvation from hell is in view here. That suggestion, however, flies in the face of clear Gospel teaching all through the Bible. The sole condition of eternal salvation is faith in Christ, not moral reformation.
The wanderer who is brought back to the truth avoids premature death (cf. 1 Cor 11:30;1 John 5:16-17). He is also blessed to have his many sins covered, that is, forgiven in a fellowship sense (cf. 1 John 1:9).
Conclusion and Application
James’s reference to “soul salvation” in James 5:19-20 refers to deliverance of erring Christians from premature physical death.
We can not only be soul winners by leading unbelievers to Christ. We can also be soul winners, so to speak, if we lead fellow Christians back to the Lord.
The very Grace of God by which we are saved eternally opens the door for the possibility that we might abuse the wonderful gift given to us. If this happens the wandering saint will be disciplined by the Lord, possibly even taken home early by Him. That is why it is vital that if any of us spots a fellow believer who is AWOL we should endeavor to turn them back to the Lord. A life is at stake.