James 5:19-20:

A Death Blow for Perseverance Theology1

By Jody Dillow

The idea that all believers persevere is contradicted by the biblical teaching of the sin unto physical death. A number of passages say that, when a believer fails to respond to discipline, God may take him home. For example:

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

—Jas 5:19-20 NASB

It is apparently possible for a “brother” who is “among” us to stray from the truth and be in danger of death. Regenerate people are certainly in view here. The reference to covering a multitude of sins is used elsewhere of covering the sins of the regenerate (1 Pet 4:8).

These sheep within the fold have “strayed” (Gk. planaō). The word means to lose one’s way. Our word “planet” comes from this word and suggests the idea that the planets, in contrast to the stars, are not fixed but wander about the heavens. The restoration of carnal Christians is in view. The intent is to “save his soul [= life] from death,” i.e., to intercept his downward path before the Lord brings the discipline of physical death. We recover a “sinner” (a backslidden brother) in this way, by intercession and exhortation (cf. Exod 32:30; Heb 3:13; 1 Thess 5:14-15).

Physical Death Is in View

“Saving a soul from death” was equivalent to “saving a life from physical death.” No doubt James had a similar concern earlier in his letter when he said, “And when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (Jas 1:15). “Death” ultimately refers to physical death, the final consequence of protracted sin. It is probable, however, that James includes all that is involved in the path to death: misery, spiritual impoverishment, and severe divine discipline. All of these things are death as well.

Another passage that refers to the sin unto death is 1 John 5:16-17: “There is a sin leading unto death.” That physical death is in view is suggested by the fact that it is contrasted with physical life. Elsewhere in the epistle, when “eternal” life is meant, the adjective “eternal” is included. John instructs his readers to pray for their “brother” that he might not experience death but “life.” How can we pray for a brother to obtain eternal life? A “brother” already has eternal life. But if abundant life is meant, then the phrase not only makes sense but fits well with the thrust of the epistle: fellowship and joy (1 John 1:3-4). Also it makes good sense to pray that God will spare a sinning brother and restore him to fellowship. There is no reason to suggest that by the term brother John means “professing” brother, no reason except a prior commitment to a Calvinist view of perseverance! Had John meant professing brother, he could have said so.

Examples from Scripture

Paul explained that of the Corinthians who became intoxicated at the Lord’s table “many [were] weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor 11:30). The brother in 1 Corinthians who was caught in adultery with his stepmother was turned over to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). No doubt Ananias and his wife Sapphira, regenerate members of the early church, experienced the sin unto physical death when they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). There are, then, ample biblical parallels to justify the doctrine of the sin unto physical death.

Paul’s warnings to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 10:1-13 contain one of the more obvious refutations of the Reformed view of the carnal Christian. With warnings from Israel’s history, he admonishes the Christians at Corinth that they face the possibility of sin unto physical death just as the believing, regenerate nation of Israel did. He addresses this warning to “brothers” (10:1) in whose life God can work and give them a way out of every trial (10:13). These “dear friends” are urged to flee idolatry (10:14). That the wilderness generation is similarly viewed by Paul as mostly regenerate is indicated by the fact that he says they experienced God’s leading (v 1), they were baptized unto Moses (v 2), and they ate “spiritual food” and drank “spiritual drink” from “that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ” (vv 3–4).2

Yet the wilderness generation experienced the sin unto physical death. The regenerate Corinthian brothers are warned not to set their “hearts on evil things as they did” (v 6). It is apparently possible for brothers in Christ to set their hearts on evil things! They are warned not to become involved in sexual immorality (v 8), and not to test the Lord (v 9), or to grumble (v 10). Paul says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us (v 11). Paul apparently thinks these warnings imply a real danger, a danger that can come upon regenerate “brothers.” What was the danger? In each case it was the sin unto death! Due to various acts of persistent rebellion, the wilderness generation experienced the death of twenty-three thousand in one day. Some were killed by snakes (v 9), and some were killed by the destroying angel (v 10).


When a Christian is judged by God and experiences the sin unto physical death, it is evident that he has not only sinned but that he has persisted in sin unto the final hour, precisely what the adherents of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance say cannot happen!


1This article, which has been slightly modified, was printed originally in The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man (Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Co., 1992), pp. 342-44, and is used by permission.

2Editor’s note: The argument does not hinge on the percentage of the people who were regenerate. Some would argue that only a remnant was regenerate. However, clearly the death in view is physical death.

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