Bring Sinners Back

James 5:19-20 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.


For the 15th and final time in this letter, James addressed his readers as “My brothers”. As I’ve tried to make clear throughout our time in James, James cared deeply for those to whom he was writing. They were not enemies he needed to conquer. They were not strangers he was indifferent to. They were not even mainly disobedient children that needed to be corrected. Above all, they were James’s “beloved” brothers and sisters in Christ who he wanted to help and encourage to put God’s Word into consistent action—for God’s glory and their good. It’s fitting, therefore, that James closed his letter in the same way as he began it, by restating his affection for his readers.

Let that be a lesson to us all. Our primary relationship to one another as members of Grace Church is beloved brothers and sisters. Our first God-given disposition toward each other is love and our primary God-given duty is encouragement in Christ. And in our passage for this morning, James gives us one final, specific God-honoring way to love and encourage one another in Jesus: bringing each other back from sin. This is rarely easy or popular, but James (along with the rest of the Bible) makes plain that it is good and right.

My main hope and prayer is that God would use this sermon to do three things: 1) Convince you of, or further solidify in your mind, the biblical basis for confronting sin in one another, 2) Help you to do so in a gracious manner, and 3) Help you to receive that kind of correction in a gracious manner when it comes. Let’s pray for God’s help in all of that and whatever else He has for us.


Just a few verses earlier (5:16), James commanded his readers to confess their sins—to voluntarily admit the ways they were dishonoring God—to one another. In this passage, James has in mind sinners who have not yet done so. His main charge here, then, is that when Christians see other Christians walking in sin, we have a responsibility to help them come back to obedience.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Far from unique to James, though, this is the consistent teaching of the Bible.

In Luke 17(:3) Jesus taught, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…”.

In a similarly broad way, in Galatians 6, Paul wrote, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

Referring specifically to elders Paul also wrote, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

And in regard to someone who sins against you personally Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15).

Again, the main point is that Christian love means it is not an option for someone professing faith in Christ to sit idly by when they come across another professing Christian wandering away from Jesus. It is our privilege and responsibility to seek to bring them back—like a loving mother does with a lost child; James is calling for a spiritual amber alert. By God’s design we can be a critical conduit of God’s saving and sustaining grace.

Tragically, it’s all-too-rare for Christians to directly address sin in one another. More tragically still, it’s rarer still for Christians who do, to do it well. And most tragically rare of all, are Christians who receive the kind of “bringing back” James speaks of in a humble, godly way.

We often fail to confront because we don’t want to come across as unloving, legalistic, or hypocritical. Sometimes we fail to do so because we’ve heard people misinterpret Jesus so often about not judging (Matthew 7:1-5). Sometimes it’s because are legitimately humble and aren’t sure we understand everything perfectly. In my experience, however, the two most common reasons we fail to confront sin in one another are that (1) we fail to understand the seriousness of sin (James says that nothing short of soul-death is on the line), and (2) we fear man more than God; that is we fear making people upset with us more than the price of disobeying God.

On the other side of the equation, we don’t often receive correction well when it does come, mainly because we are prideful people who love our sin more that God. When we’re sure of ourselves and happy in our sin, it’s annoying at best, insulting on average, and infuriating at worst when someone asks us to consider whether or not we are walking in sin.

In other words, there are all kinds of reasons for our failure to correct and receive correction well, but none of them change the fact that it is a means of God’s death-saving, sin-covering grace when Christians bring Christians back from sin. Evidently, all of that was the case in James’s day just as it is in ours, which is why he wrote this passage.

Taking everything I just said into account, in practice, as you probably know, attempting to bring someone back from sin can be fairly intimidating and scary. It’s often a humbling endeavor. But if you’ve ever been a part of helping someone turn back to Jesus, you know that it is also remarkably exciting. There are few joys in life that match seeing someone come to Jesus for the first time and seeing them turn back to Him after wandering away from Him.

Before dive a bit deeper into this passage and its application, there are three things to be clear on right now. First, this passage is not referring to Christians confronting non-Christians in their sin. There are passages that speak to that, but this isn’t one of them. This passage is a charge to confront those who have wandered from the truth in order to bring them back, not those who have never accepted the truth and who need to come for the first time.

Second, this passage is primarily a word for Christians who have explicitly committed to one another, typically within a local church. Its main thrust is not that every Christian is equally responsible to address sin in every other Christian they come across. The local church is the main context where James’s charge is meant to be lived out. The local church has a significant and prominent place in God’s plan of saving and sustaining-grace distribution. That’s why one of the first questions we ask you in our membership class is whether or not you want to be held accountable for your doctrine and conduct and whether you’re willing to hold others accountable. Promising to watch out for one another’s souls is one of the most fundamental aspects of church membership.

And third, Grace, in this passage we have yet another reminder that what someone thinks they need is never the best indicator of what they really do need. That distinction belongs to God’s Word alone. In other words, just because someone says, “Why can’t you just be supportive?” or “Why do you have to be so judgmental?” or “Who do you think you are?” or “Love is love” or whatever other form their attempts to deflect the conversation away from their sin might take, God’s word remains true and every man a liar (Romans 3:4).

With that, let’s now consider the relationship between truth and sin in all of this.


A key observation we all need to make in this text concerns the relationship between truth and sin.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Grace, let’s not miss the fact that James essentially sees (1) wandering from the truth and (2) sinning as synonymous. Understanding that wandering from truth and falling into sin are one and the same is really important because it helps us to see the truly gracious nature of James’s charge.

If something is true, it is also good and beautiful. Which means that if something is false, it is also bad and ugly. Sin, every sin, is a lie at its core. To call someone back from sin, therefore, is not merely to call them back from something factually inaccurate. It is also to call them back from something that is bad and ugly as well. And more importantly, it is to call them to something that is good, beautiful, and true. That’s a gift whether the person we’re speaking with knows or believes it at the time or not.

In other words, what James calls his readers to do is not to be nitpicky or even merely to try to keep one another on the up and up. What he calls his readers to do in restoring one another from sin is to call them back to truth and therein, fullness of life and joy and purpose.


So let’s get really practical. Let’s consider how to correct sin well (first) and how to receive correction well (second).

The Right Heart and Motives

How do we address sin in others in a truly godly way? First of all, it is good to settle on the fact that sin is deadly and needs to be corrected to keep the sinner from falling further into great peril. Imagine someone falling overboard on a ship and unbeknownst to them, being circled by sharks. In that moment, their main need isn’t a sympathetic friend on the ship deck offering words of encouragement. Their main need is someone who will shout out the danger and throw them a rope or lower a ladder…fast!

Sin really is like that in some ways. There are definitely times when our sin puts us in such a perilous place that kind words, and even a kind heart from someone else is a distant second to what we need most—an immediate and harsh call to turn back.

With that said, however, the Bible is not silent on the kind of motivation and disposition that pleases God and is usually most helpful for the wayward sinner who needs to be brought back. Let me briefly offer four key heart-dispositions that make for godly correction.

  1. Above all, correcting sin in a manner pleasing to God and good for the sinner, flows out of love. That is, it flows from a genuine desire for that which is best for the wandering person. Before anything else, this means that sin-correction is not our primary interaction with one another. Addressing sin in love, when it does need to happen, will happen in the context of a relationship marked mainly by encouragement and investment. The opposite of this is generally stand-alone confrontation flowing from self-interest. That is, all too often when we do address sin in others, it’s outside of the context of an up building relationship and happens because the person’s sin annoys or inconveniences us, not because we long for them to be in a right and safe and fulfilling relationship with Jesus. One key easy to tell whether love or self interest is our motive is to consider whether we mean, as James says, to bring them back (into truth, righteousness, and fellowship) or simply stop their sin. “Stop being so angry” is different from “Let me walk with you back to peace.” Grace, under ordinary circumstances if we are going to address sin in someone else, it ought to begin with making sure we’re doing so because we mean to be conduits of grace for them; that is, because we love them.
  2. Second, and flowing from the first, rightly correcting others in their sin requires a good deal of humility. We really don’t know for sure everything going on in their hearts and minds. It’s always possible we’re mistaken about the facts or misinterpreting what they mean. What’s more, our correction ought always to be driven by the kind of humility that comes from knowing that we’ve sinned against God one million times more than the person in front of us has sinned against anyone else…and that He forgives us in Christ anyway. This kind of humility won’t keep us from addressing sin, but it will greatly inform how we do.
  3. Third, as we saw earlier in Galatians 6, our correction should normally be given in gentleness. “Knock it off, Bill. I can’t believe how destructive your anger is.” (< Bad) (Good >) “Bill, I’m not sure I’m seeing this correctly, and there’s a good chance I’m not going to say everything as helpfully as I’d like. In addition, I’d love for you to know that I’m in this with you no matter what. That said, I’d like for you to consider whether or not you’ve been sinfully acting in anger toward your wife and kids. I’ve seen several interactions between you guys that make me concerned for you and them. Above all, though, I want to walk with you in a manner that is pleasing to God.” Gentleness is the opposite of harshness and very similar to kindness. It comes from a soft heart and isn’t adversarial. Under ordinary circumstances any sin-address should be done in gentleness.
  4. Finally, we ought to correct out of a profound sense of dependence on God’s Word and Spirit. Our own standard of righteousness is not what others need. Righteousness as revealed in the Bible is what they need. Let’s be people who know this and share scripture with those we’re seeking to win back. Likewise, our own grasp of the Bible or persuasive abilities might temporarily halt someone for a particular action, but they are entirely impotent to bring about heart-change and genuine repentance. The Holy Spirit alone can do that. Again, then, when we speak to someone about their sin as James directs us to, it ought to be bathed in prayer and Scripture.

Different Approaches for Different Kinds of Sinners

To get even more specifically practical, we need to consider something you’ve undoubtedly experienced: not every sinner sees their sin the same way, which means that not every sinner responds to having their sin pointed out in the same way either. There are basically three ways professing Christians relate to their unconfessed sin.

  1. Sinners who don’t know they need to be brought back. I imagine we’ve all come across the person who is professing to be a Christian, but who is also walking in some kind of sin without really knowing it. They don’t realize that they have wandered from the truth. Within this group there are two significant (and significantly different) varieties as well. The first variety was never taught the specific truth they have wandered from. I’ve seen this quite a bit in people who did not grow up in a Christian home or who have not been a part of a healthy church. Typically, they carry some sinful aspect of their old culture into their new, Christian life without realizing that it. This might involve certain media intake or relationship dynamics or … Often, for people in this group it’s simply a matter of kindly and patiently showing them the biblical principle and they will quickly and remorsefully turn from it.

    The second variety of Christians who have wandered into sin in ignorance are those who do know the truth—that is, they have been taught it—but don’t believe it. They are ignorant in one sense, but are obstinate in a fuller sense. They’ve been taught that sexual relationships outside of marriage are sin, but they don’t believe it. They’ve been taught that cheating on their taxes is sin, but they have convinced themselves that there’s another way to look at it. They truly don’t know they are sinning even though they are and even though they’ve been told they are. This is a much harder group to confront. We need to bathe our attempts to address their sin in prayer (truly trusting in God to convict in His timing) and point straight to the clearest passage or two in the Bible. When someone already knows what we’re about to tell them, but simply disagrees, it’s usually best to use more words with God and less words with them.
  2. Sinners who don’t want to be brought back. This second group are those within the church, professing faith in Jesus, who know already know they are in sin but have no real desire to turn from it. This is grievous. It is an indication that they may not truly be trusting in Jesus. Our role here is primarily to prayerfully move further into the Matthew 18 process of bringing others into the discussion and, perhaps, tragically, telling the church and removing them from membership. This is not a declaration that they are certainly not saved (only God knows that for sure), but it is a declaration that there is no longer good evidence that they are. And the aim of this is not punitive. It really is gracious. It really is for their good—that they might begin to see the true seriousness of their sin.
  3. Sinners who want to be brought back, but seem stuck. Of all three types of wandering sinners, this one is often the most heart-breaking. Those who fall into this group know they are in sin, they know they are wandering from fellowship with God and Christian, and they want to turn back to Christ, but they feel stuck and powerless.

    Let me quickly say something before returning to this type of person. I’ve come across a number of people over the years—I’ve been one from time to time—who seem like they fall into this category. They know how to put on a show of remorse. That’s a different issue. In reality, they’re simply clever at disguising the fact that they’re in category #2 (sinners who don’t want to be brought back) and once we realize this, we need to treat them as such.

    But for those who have genuine disdain for their sin and can’t seem to kill it, we need to remember that sin is still sin, but a remorseful, repentant heart is strong evidence of genuine salvation. Therefore, we must not minimize the sinfulness of their sin, but we must maximize the amazingness of God’s grace. That is, we walk with those who seem stuck in sin, prayerfully encouraging repentance, while continually reminding them that God’s primary disposition toward them is one of mercy and grace. We let the Word of God wash over them with its many promises of God’s love and forgiveness and compassion and patience. Jesus is enough. His blood is sufficient to cleanse every sin. Our sin is great, but His grace is greater still.


Before I close, I want to say a brief word about how to receive sin-correction. So, what are you to do if someone confronts you about sin in your own life? Three simple things.

Make it Easy

First, make it as easy as possible for that person to come.

  1. Even if it turns out that the person misread the situation, and you hadn’t sinned in the way they thought, they ought to leave their encounter encouraged and thankful for your faith, not battered and bruised. Recognize it for the grace of God it is that someone would be willing to love you like that.
  2. Assume there is some measure of truth in what they say and focus on it when you see it, not whatever they might have gotten wrong. Take some time to pray about it if you need to, but do so under the assumption that there’s something there.
  3. Confess your sin as as quickly as you see it. Respond in a manner consistent with the Word of God. It ought to sound something like this, “Sally, to be honest, that kind of stung at first. My flesh made me want to deny and lash out. By God’s grace, however, I was able to quickly get past that and really consider what you said. I know I’ll appreciate it even more in the future, but even now I am thankful that you were willing to be honest with me and help me turn from my sin…and it is sin. I’m sorry for ____. Please forgive me. And please pray that God would grant me true and swift repentance.”

Ask For Help

Second, having heard what the person shared, ask for the Holy Spirit’s help to determine which of the three categories of sinners you are in. You need to be honest with God and yourself before you’ll ever be able to be honest with the brother or sister in front of you and find the help God offers.

Take the Initiative

Regularly ask godly people in your life if they see any sin in it. Give them a blank check to talk to you any time they catch a hint of sin you don’t see…and remind them of that blank check often.


In conclusion, let’s end where we began. When someone professes faith in Jesus, but has given themselves over to unconfessed, unrepentant sin, they are in a really, really dangerous place. Their souls, James wrote, need to be saved from death and their sins need to be covered. Of course, Christ alone can do that, and has done that for all who are truly trusting in Jesus. But once again, Jesus often uses means to accomplish His purposes. James tells us that addressing the sins of others is one such means. Our aim is their reconciliation and restoration. Our motivation is love. And our hope is that by being faithful to God’s will in the lives of those calling on Jesus’ name, we will be participants in God’s work to “save his soul from death and… cover a multitude of sins.”