Restoring Those Who Have Left the Faith
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth . . . (James 5:19).
Perhaps you have a loved one who has left the faith. You are fearful, anxious, hurt, dismayed, and perhaps even angry. What can I write from God’s Word to encourage you? Why does this happen? What should you do? How can you ‘stay at it?’
James closes out his wonderful, hard-hitting epistle with an appeal to restore those who have strayed from the truth. Note four things from these two verses. First, there is an ever present possibility of apostasy “” My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth. He is writing to believers about professing believers “” the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad (James 1:1). Both Israel, under Jeroboam and their other kings, and Judah, under kings like Ahaz and Manasseh, left the covenant and went whoring after false gods. And Judas, one of the original twelve disciples, was given authority by Jesus to preach, cast out demons, and heal – yet he betrayed his Lord into the hands of godless men. To stray from the truth means to depart from the clear teaching in Scripture. The devil still uses the same strategy he used with Adam and Eve in the garden, placing doubt in people’s minds concerning God’s Word, ‘Did God really say that you cannot eat from any tree in the garden?’ (Gen. 3:1). Generally speaking, a change in one’s behaviour is the early warning that apostasy is taking place, but this is always preceded by a change in one’s theology. Never forget my friend “” doctrine matters. It goes like this “” did God really say that fornication, adultery, or homosexuality is sin, that stealing or bearing false witness is sin? One who denies, for example, the imputation of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12) – that Adam sinned and we sinned in him, justly deserving God’s displeasure – will believe man has the ability to redeem his culture, arrest people from poverty through a liberal arts, higher education. One straying from the truth is one who takes lightly the commands, the promises, the warnings, and the prohibitions of Scripture.
Second, there is an ever present hope of restoration “” and one turns him back. This has happened before. After David’s adultery and murder of Uriah, Nathan spun his beautiful word picture (2 Sam. 12:1ff) that moved David to repentance and restoration. Daniel tells us that those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and ever (Dan. 12:3). You may feel utterly discouraged about the prospects of restoration for your friend or family member, but never despair. There is always hope in Jesus!
And third, there is the ever present promise of glorification “” 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 error of one’s way is damnable false doctrine manifesting itself in damnable behaviour. The church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17) had gone after the teaching of Balaam who led Israel into cultic prostitution in the worship of Baal (Num. 25:1-3, 31:16) and the teaching of the Nicolaitans who espoused licentiousness.1 To save his soul from death may refer to the one who returns the wandering sheep to the fold (1 Tim. 4:16) but more than likely James is referring to the soul of the wandering sheep being saved from death. By death he means two things “” an early physical death, like what happened to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1ff), and the second death, the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-15). And the one who turns a sinner from the error of his ways also covers a multitude of sins. On the one hand, he prevents his friend or family member from sinning so severely against others (1 Pet. 4:8) but also is used of God to draw the person back to Christ where he receives forgiveness of sins by Christ’s work on the cross (1 John 1:7-11).
But why do people leave the faith? There are at least six reasons for this. First is indwelling sin. All believers in the Lord Jesus, though they have the heart of Jesus and hate sin, nonetheless still have an inward propensity to sin. Paul says the very thing I do not wish to do, I do, and when I do it, I realize it is no longer me doing it, but sin that indwells me (Rom. 7:20). This explains, for example, why a Christian man who loves his wife and children can still entertain the impulse of leaving them for another woman. Second is the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). If we refuse godly people to speak truth into our lives, if we resist correction by sincere brothers and sisters in Christ, then we can be so easily deceived by sin, convincing ourselves that there really is nothing wrong with looking at soft porn like the swim suit babes in Sports Illustrated. It’s not long before a man caught up in this is saying this is normal, that God understands, that it’s no big deal. Third is temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil (1 John 2:15-17). The world’s allure is constantly screaming at us to satisfy our own fleshly desires, and our flesh is more than willing to agree, and the devil and his minions are all too eager to convince us that repentance is easy, so go for it. Fourth is tribulation. Some see the trials of life and grumble, like Job, believing that God is against them. Others see the suffering of innocent people and the persecution of third world Christians and determine that God must not exist. ‘Why,’ they say, ‘would a loving God permit such horror!’ Fifth is bad theology. A rejection of the Bible as God’s Word casts doubt on objective truth. A denial of the Trinity makes it impossible for anyone to experience or give true love because love begins in the eternal Trinitarian love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And a denial of Jesus’ two natures as God and man opens people up to the notion that Jesus is merely one of many ways to find peace with God. And sixth is good theology gone bad. The glorious truth of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, through Christ alone, can morph into licentiousness where people say, ‘God is not really concerned with my performance. I can live any way I want, for God will never be angry with me again.’
I have known men who knew their Bibles, theology, and Westminster Confession of Faith backwards and forwards, who have left their wives and children, thumbed their noses at the church discipline of excommunication, and without remorse have left the faith as it is in Jesus. Do you have a friend or loved one who has left the faith? What should you do? I mention four P’s of action “” pray, purge, pursue, and persevere.
Pray for God to draw them back, especially asking him to remind them of what they know is true. I learned this from Jack Miller’s book Come Back, Barbara.2 Pray that your wayward son would remember all you taught him in the Bible, that the Bible is true, that Jesus is God, that he is a sinner, that Jesus died for him, that he must seek God in repentance.
Then purge yourself of your sin. Take the log out of your own eye before helping your loved one get the speck out of his eye (Matt. 7:3-5). Ask God to show you your sin, especially in light of how you may have mistreated your friend or loved one; and then repent, claiming the grace of reconciliation.
Then pursue your loved one. Move toward him in love. Resist the temptation to distance yourself from him. In saying this, however, you must never affirm, aid, or abet his godless behavior. While you should certainly allow your gay son to bring home his partner for a visit, you cannot allow them to be in the same bedroom under your roof. You cannot allow godless behaviour when it is within your purview and power to prevent it. You should indeed move toward your daughter’s child she and her lesbian lover are rearing (such an arrangement is not the fault of the child) but you cannot allow the lesbian couple to be in the same bedroom in your home. You should regularly visit your son who is in prison for selling drugs but you must refuse to bail him out of his misery. He must finally learn to accept the consequences of his evil deeds.
And you must persevere. Never, never, but never give up! Stay at it until you get an answer, until the loved one comes back to Jesus or until you or he dies. How? You can do this because Jesus sought you in your waywardness. He has given you his Spirit. You are united to him in his death and resurrection. You have the life of God in your soul. Ask him for grace daily, and trust the empowering and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
- William Barclay suggests a play on words, that Balaam in Hebrew and Nicolaus in Greek mean the same thing ‘to conquer the people’ and that they refer to sexual perversion in the name of god. See Barclay’s commentary The Revelation of John, volume one, page 81.
- Jack’s daughter had left the faith and he writes of the process of her restoration, while Barbara also contributes what was going on in her life at the time. This book will really encourage you.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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