Chasing Strays (James 5:19-20)

Chasing Strays

Reaching the Make-Believer–the test of true faith  James 5:19-20

All of you have seen a cattle drive–the classic cowboy experience of moving a herd of cattle for a long journey in order to get them to market. And all of you know what it means for cowboys to be chasing strays–cows that wander off and need to be cowboyed back to the safety of the herd. Well today, as James concludes his letter, he encourages each of you to chase strays.

Open your Bibles to the last two verses in the book of James, as the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ commands you to take on the role of spiritual cowboy or cowgirl. You don’t need fancy boots or know how to line dance, but you do need a compassionate heart. This week, we exposit James 5:19 to 20 and next week we wrap up our study of James with a fantastic overview of the entire letter we have grown to love–don’t miss it.

But today, the author concludes the first letter written in your New Testament, with these words. Verses 19 and 20, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth–and one turns him back, 20let 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.” James is telling you to wrangle up the strays, the spiritual strays–those who’ve wandered away from faith that works, exposing a phony faith, a false faith, a faith that doesn’t pass the tests of this pointed letter.

James is saying, get concerned about those who drift away, those who are marginal, those who don’t live according to God’s Word, or those who don’t obey God’s commands–those who wander away from the truth of God’s Word. Pursue them, chase them down, love them to Christ and community with the Gospel–because there is a high probability that those strays are not God’s children and are headed to eternal death.

Two different hearts will be exposed by James in these verses today. One heart is the stray, and the other heart is those who muster after strays. What kind of heart do you have toward chasing after make-believing strays? Some of you love spending all your time not with strays, but with spiritual runners–those who demonstrate commitment, who seek to obey the Word and love Christ with all their heart. But others of you love chasing after strays. They don’t wear you out–you want them to be missional, not marginal–a certain, not uncertain Christian.

And all of us fall somewhere on the scale in our pursuit of the stray. Some of you give your life to chasing strays–usually the evangelist, the compassionate, the counselor, or the shepherd. Your heart is an 8, 9 or 10 on the compassionate scale. You go after those who live uncertain Christian lives and those who wander away. A friend of mine would surf with strays, those who were marginal in the Church. He’d do it every week for two years in order to win them to Christ. He was a 10. Others find chasing after strays painful–the leader, the trainer or the visionary. They are the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s on the compassion scale in their pursuit of the marginal. They think, “We have people to equip, to train, to disciple all who want to follow Christ, so who has time to chase after those who live like they don’t love Christ first?”

Thank God for those who pursue wandering sheep and seek to reach the make-believer with the true Gospel. James says excel still more. Those of you who find chasing strays painful—today, James commands you to grow, to mature, to pursue, to go after strays, to move from a 1 “I don’t care”, to a 5) “more care”! Maybe move from a 6 “sorta care”, to a 7 “really care”–why? If you want to be like Christ, then you will desire a more compassionate heart towards the lost, even strays.

Remember our Lord’s heart toward the woman at the well, His weeping over Jerusalem, His patience with the Pharisees and His compassionate heart toward the prodigal son? Our goal is not a decision but a disciple. Our faith is not a religion, but a relationship. If you come to Christ, you’ll become like Christ. If you’re real, then you’re regenerated. If you’re justified, you will be sanctified. James already taught us in James 2:20, “Faith without works is useless,” and 2:26, “Faith without works is dead.”

James calls those who live a faith without works a stray as he wraps up his letter. And here, he calls you to chase them down with the Gospel. Our Lord has incredible compassion for those who are lost, especially those who wander away. These verses are for you today, no matter who you are. And they’re for me today. As a young Christian, I was a 3 on the going-after-strays scale. I’m probably a 6 today, but I would like to die as a 7 or 8 on the compassion scale for the church-attending marginal, make-believing stray. How do we do it? James gives us five steps.

Verses 19 and 20, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth–and one turns him back, 20let 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.” The entire letter of James is made up of tests we will study next week one more time, to determine if you have a living faith, a faith that works–genuine saving faith.

Last week, in verses 13 to 18, James taught believers how to help the weak Christian. That’s the Christian who was wiped out by his suffering, or distorted by persecution, or shattered by torture. In verses 13 to 18, some professing Church-attenders were hurt so badly, they don’t know and others don’t know if they’re genuinely born again in Christ. Since eternal security is based upon a sovereign God, you can’t lose your faith.

But the Bible teaches that assurance of salvation is based upon an obedient direction of life. Second Corinthians 13:5 says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” Assurance is not based upon eternal security, it is based upon fruit–is Christ in you? Second Peter 1:10 adds, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things [what things?–the qualities Peter just described which are to be increasing in your life] you will never stumble.”

Assurance is based upon life direction, fruit, evidences that Christ is in you. James has been testing his readers for fruit, for faith that works, for doing the Word. James has been saying, those not living by the tests of this letter demonstrate a false faith. And in verses 13 to 18, some of those weakened by the trauma of torture were also adrift in their faith, and uncertain if they were real or phony. James shows you today that those who stray from obedience to the truth of God’s Word in their lifestyle are straying from the Lord and need a Spirit-filled cowboy/girl to wrangle them back to the Lord, His people and obedience to His Word. How do you do it?

Step 1  Look for the accurate EVIDENCE of straying

Having a bad day, an argument with your spouse, impatience with your kids, waking up sore, disappointed that Teslas are so expensive, or that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays doesn’t mean you’re a stray. A church-attender who is weary, struggling, or hurting doesn’t mean they’re a stray. James says, look for accurate evidence of straying in verse 19. “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth–he who turns a sinner from the error of his way.” Stray is the deception, error is the lie.

James makes it clear he is talking to Christians by beginning with, “My brethren”–and James wants born again, faith-working, fruitbearing, obedient Christians to behave differently toward those who are professing believers who have strayed from the truth. James is pointed and clear–they are among you. “If any among you”–they’re in your midst. They sometimes go to church, they say they belong to Christ, but they’ve strayed! They wander from the faith they once professed. They say they have faith, but it doesn’t work, bear fruit, serve, give, love, fellowship, worship, or disciple any more.

Hebrews 6 describes strays as those who were enlightened, tasted, even partakers–yet have fallen away. First John 2:19 describes strays as those who leave the faith, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

And Jesus reminds us that not everyone who says they are saved are genuine believers. Matthew 7:21 to 23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

To stray is to be an unsaved professor deceived about the truth. The stray is one who apostatizes from the faith they once professed–most often they don’t deny Christ, but they do deny biblical Christianity. They come up with their own form of salvation–usually a salvation by grace, free, easy, but a salvation that doesn’t produce works, obedience, discipling, giving, worshiping, dying to self, or suffering. They come up with a self-designed Christianity, not a biblically-defined Christianity.

Since the birth of the Church, there have always been tares among the wheat–rocky, shallow, thorny soils that produce no spiritual fruit. Those who draw near to God with their words, while their hearts are far from Him. Those who are hearers of the Word, but not doers of it. What is the evidence we look for to identify who is a stray to pursue? Notice how James states it, they “strays from the truth” and live a lifestyle of error—”the error of his way.”

The word strayed comes from the Greek where we get our English word planet. Unlike stars, which keep their place in relation to other heavenly lights, planets appeared to drift and wander through the night sky. James is describing individuals who have drifted and wandered from Christ and His Word. The sign of a stray is when they fail to live by the truth as a way of life. They live in error as a lifestyle. They violate the clear teaching of Scripture truth not once, not for a day or for a week, but as a way of life.

The truth here refers to the Word of God, and primarily an accurate Gospel explanation. Feel the weight of what James says here. The New Testament teaches us that truth is something a believer will love (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Truth is something a believer must obey (Galatians 5:7). Truth is something a believer must display in life (2 Corinthians 4:2). Truth is something which must be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). Truth is something which must be witnessed to (John 18:37). Truth is something which must be manifested in a life of love (1 John 3:19). Truth is something which liberates (John 8:32). And truth is something which is the gift of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus Christ (John 16:13 to 14).

And Christian truth is something which must be done John 3:21—truth is not something merely to be studied, but something to be lived. Truth is not only something you affirm with your mouth, but truth is something you submit to with your entire life—”Faith without works.” The stray not only ignores God’s Word, the truth, but embraces error as a way of life. And error is not only errant theology, but an errant lifestyle. Those are always linked.

John MacArthur says, “Despite any outward profession of faith they might make, those who live in open defiance of God’s Word do not belong to Him.” James teaches in verse 19 that true believers must turn the sinner from his error. Sinner is someone who is without Christ–even though they claim Christ, He is not in them. A sinner in the New Testament is someone in need of salvation. Yes, Christians sin, but their sin will not be the continual, unbroken practice of sin characterizing their life. Sin is a fight, not their fun–a problem, not an accepted pattern. A constant trouble, not an ongoing trait.

So when a so-called believer stops living as a way of life by the truth of God’s Word, then they are a stray you and I are to pursue. They are in the worst possible danger and the true Church, made up of born again believers, must call them to true faith.

Step 2  Be lovingly motivated to rescue strays from DANGER

Is there anything worse than thinking you are a Christian, but hearing from Christ today, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” in Luke 6:46, or even worse, in the future hearing, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” Matthew 7:23. Even though they don’t want to hear it. Even though they will call you judgmental. Even though you may no longer be friends, or close family–tell them the truth. Love them, yes–but tell them the true Gospel–why? James says in verse 20, he “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

If they are not living as a way of life by the truth of God’s Word, then James says their eternal soul is at stake. Their entire person, spirit and body, their soul is threatened with death. What kind of death is James speaking of? Because James describes the stray as a soul–body and spirit, James is talking about eternal death, the second death. Jesus talked more about Hell then he did Heaven, and James follows suit here–James is referring to eternal Hell, unending torment, the forever torture of the unrepentant sinner, also called the second death, like in Revelation 21:8.

One of the nightmare verses in your Bible, here is a terrifying truth which says, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death [physical death being the first death].” Those with false faith, who have chosen their own way over God’s way, must hear the warning of Proverbs 14:12, “or be damned for all eternity in hell: there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

The stray needs to be rescued from their sins. “The wages of sin is death”–and eternal death awaits all who try to save themselves. Hell awaits all who don’t turn to God’s narrow path of salvation. Hell is real and the torment forever, if you don’t submit to Christ. James clarifies by adding “the rescuing of your soul, will cover a multitude of sins.” The only way for God’s love to cover your multitude of sins is for you to turn to Christ, be transformed by Christ and be saved, body and spirit for all eternity.

Your sin must be judged. Even nice, church-going people have rebelled against God and their sins must be punished. The choice is simple–Christ takes the punishment on the cross in the past, or you take the punishment in the future forever. But when Christ is your substitute, taking the punishment for your sins upon Himself and giving you His righteousness which covers you in justification, genuine salvation also changes you. It regenerates you, transforms you, and gives you a faith that works–a faith that follows Christ progressively, not perfectly. He gives you a faith that wants to obey the truth of God’s Word, imperfectly yet intentionally. And that is why the obedient must pursue the disobedient.

Step 3  Embrace the IMPORTANCE of YOU chasing after strays

You can’t always wait. You can’t always make love your excuse. You can’t always hope your lifestyle will impact them. You can’t always rely on gentle hints to persuade them. And you must not use God’s sovereignty as an excuse to be passive. No, James says you must act–you must talk to them, you must pursue the stray. Look at verses 19 to 20 and see the direct call to you who have a faith that works to pursue those with a dead faith. “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth–and one turns him back, 20let 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.”

James says you in the Church–if you see a professing attender who claims faith but has no works, then one, him, he (three pronouns) tells you to reach the stray with the truth. This is your job, Christian–you have the ministry of reconciliation. This is not the elders’ job, or the shepherd, or the ministry leader, but all of ours–every one of you. Bringing wandering sinners to Christ is the duty of every believer. God is sovereign to save, but you are responsible to share.

James says, “Realize those who don’t have a faith that works, are in eternal danger of Hell.” Then let that spur you on to share pointedly with them. Don’t allow their profession to get in the way, because they are in the same danger as the lost pagan. Faith without works is dead. The heart of Christ is to seek and to save that which is lost, and few things bring greater joy in Heaven then when God’s enemy becomes His true, repentant friend.

Again, God is sovereign in salvation, but you are commanded to share. And James pointedly jabs you with his spurs in order for you to accept the responsibility to share with those who claim Christ, but don’t look or act or speak like Christ. James says to you who follow Christ, “Stop accepting the person who says, ‘Oh, I’m a Christian,’ from anyone who doesn’t live like it.” Don’t remain silent to those who live with dead faith. Be pointed with those who don’t follow Christ nor desire to obey His Word. Those who speak of salvation, but show no transformation. And those who say they have justification, but show no sanctification. They’re strays who must be pursued by you. What do you say to the stray?

Step 4  Invite strays to genuine CONVERSION

The book of James clearly tells you to say, “Your faith must work.” Genuine faith will result in you being a doer of the Word. You will want to be separate from the world and impartial in your love for others. If not, James says here at the end of his letter, you lovingly call them to turn back. If they are straying from those truths, then be one who seeks to turn him back, verse 20. 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.”

The Greek word for “turns” means to turn around and head in the opposite direction–a 180-degree reversal. That is why this word turn is often used in the New Testament to describe a sinner’s conversion, as in Luke 1:16, “He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.” Acts 9:35, “And all who lived at … Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” Acts 26:18 and 20, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me. . . 20kept declaring …that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”

Paul encouraged the Thessalonians with the reminder that they had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). James now calls you to invite strays to turn from their sin in repentance and turn to dependent faith in Christ for salvation. Be converted. Be turned. Turn is a verb of hope–James is hoping you might be used of God to genuinely turn them to Christ and His body. You are calling weak professors, make-believers, those whose faith is dead and useless, to turn to Christ in genuine conversion. You’re wanting God to turn tares into wheat. You’re calling them to stop living for things and start living for Christ. Stop worshiping idols and start worshiping the Lord. Stop doing things your way and start doing things Christ’s way. Stop following your feelings and start obey Christ’s Word.

James uses the word turn in this passage to speak of turning people from a faith that doesn’t work, turning to a faith that results in works. These church attenders are on the wrong path. See the phrase in verse 20, “from the error of his way”? The Greek word “way” is path–a road or a life direction. These pseudo-believers are on the wrong road doctrinally and behaviorally. To turn them, you have to be bold. You have to learn the Word and theology—why? You have to cut through all the phony “gospel teaching” and weak “gospel invitations”.

It is not about accepting Jesus into your heart, it’s about hating your sin and crying out to Christ to save you from your just punishment. It is not about praying a prayer once, it’s about Christ taking the punishment for your sin upon Himself on the cross and you being covered in His righteousness in justification. But it’s also about a fallen, depraved, sin-saturated rebel being regenerated by God, who transforms your inner man and indwells you with His Holy Spirit, so that you exchange all that you are for all that Christ is.

You want to obey God’s Word, you want to follow Christ, you want to do whatever Christ asks of you. James calls you who have genuine faith to share with those who have a phony faith. They must turn from their life and completely embrace Christ’s life. Go after strays. Why do you want this to happen? Because you want them to be genuinely saved.

Step 5  Long to see strays genuinely rescued with a faith that WORKS

You want verse 20, “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Only by turning from their life to Christ’s life, their way to Christ’s way, even rejecting their own life and fully embracing Christ’s life–only by turning from their will to follow God’s will in His Word can they be saved. Only conversion, verse 20, “will save his soul from death.”

The Greek word save is the most common word for salvation in the New Testament–four out of five uses of the word “saved” in James refer directly to salvation. You and I must be saved, kept from harm, rescued, delivered and preserved. But you and I can’t do it. The Bible is clear–you can’t be good enough, religious enough, giving enough, or spiritual enough to be saved. We can’t stop sinning, nor can we pay the price we owe for the sins we’ve already committed. Only God can save you, and only Christ did the work necessary to pay for sin. He died on the cross for the sins of His children, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven and now stands as the only way anyone on Earth can ever be made right with God. No other faith, no other religion and no other individual belief can save you.

So James affirms turning to God in repentance and faith alone results in salvation. Salvation is so glorious that it will lovingly cover an innumerable amount of sins. James says God can “cover a multitude of sins” that any repentant sinner has committed. God is so perfect, so holy, so sinless, so righteous that it takes only one sin to condemn a person to Hell. When James uses multitude, “will cover a multitude of sins,” he is emphasizing the hopeless condition of the stray make-believer, and any and all unregenerate sinners. But God can lovingly cover your sin when you turn to Christ. You can never be so bad, so sinful, that God cannot forgive your sin.

Right now, you are in the midst of a group of people who were massively sinful. To each one of these broken toys, God extended massive grace and forgiveness. The good news of the Gospel is, God’s forgiving grace (which is far greater and more vast than any sins or any multitude of sins)–that grace is available to those who turn from their sins and exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Your sin compared to God’s grace is the eyedropper of sin compared to the Pacific Ocean of grace. Once genuinely saved, you can sing with David in Psalm 32:1, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!”


A  CELEBRATE the blessings of genuine salvation

Every single one of your sins, past present and future, are forgiven. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ.” And your entire person, spirit and body, are going to be saved forever, eternally, perfectly in love, peace and joy forever–all because Christ chose you to be His child. Thank Him today for what He has done.

B  KNOW the Gospel and SHARE the Gospel with the lost and with the stray

Just like the Lord seeks the lost, so should you. Like the lost sheep, coin and prodigal son, help those who are lost become found. Show those deceived by a false gospel and fake faith, what real conversion looks like in and through your life. Catch strays like you catch fish. Let others know what it means to be home with Christ.

Be that ambassador of good news–how to be forgiven and made right with God. Like a lifeguard rescuing a drowning man, or a firefighter pulling a gal from the flames–do all you can to pull those wandering away from true faith to Christ.

C  STOP taking people’s ADMISSION as evidence–make FRUIT the issue

Demas lived with Paul and ministered to Paul, but walked away from Christ because he loved the world. There are people who seem solid, who are not born again. You know some who currently manifest a false faith–a faith that doesn’t work. Regardless, when you see someone straying, go after them.

Don’t be content with hanging with the herd, pursue the wandering make-believer and call them to repent and follow Christ with their whole heart. Make certain they cry out to God to give them a new heart that desires to turn from sin, follow Christ and manifest faith that works. Their profession must be backed up with heart-driven practice, or it’s not real faith. Don’t allow their confession of being a Christian end the conversation.

D  NEVER FORGET, true salvation is a NARROW PATH few find

The road to Hell is falsely marked. The sign says this way to Heaven, and the road is nice, easy and big–but it is a lie. Self-defined Christianity leads to Hell. It must be Bible-defined Christianity for it to be true. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:13 and 14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Will you be one of the few? Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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