Did James say a believer could be in the Sin unto Death?
It seems incredible that a believer could even be considered in the Sin unto Death,1because a believer should be pursuing God’s righteousness and seeking to please the Lord in thought, words and actions. Yet, as seen in the Downward Spiral articles, a believer can continue in sin, even though he is still God’s child and going to heaven. James is one author that supports the view that a believer can enter the Sin unto Death.
The book of James is written to Jewish believers, who are in the dispersion (Jam. 1:1). Fifteen times, he calls his audience, “brethren.” James was written at a time when there were no church buildings. Christians were not kindly treated or respected. They were considered part of a new cult and ostracized by the mainstream population.
James gives a very practical letter on how to live with a divine perspective. At the end of the letter, James gave a call of hope for those who might stray from the truth of godly living. James exhorted believers not to trust in their riches (Jam. 5:1-6), to have patience with each other as they waited for the return of the Lord (Jam. 5:7-11), if they were suffering or struggling, to come together for support (Jam. 5:12-15) and to pray together as they worked through conflict (Jam. 5:16-18). Finally, at the end of his letter he gave these words,
- 19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back,
- 20 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. (Jam. 5:19-20)
Let us look at these verses.
This is a passage regarding believers who have strayed from the truth and have entered the Sin unto Death. First, he is talking to “brethren.” They are again affirmed as believers. Secondly, James highlights a believer who has strayed from the truth, “…if anyone among you wanders from the truth…”He is referring to a believer from among them and that believer has strayed from the truth of the faith they have believed. The word “strayed” comes from a word (planao-) from which we get planet, because the ancient people thought the planets wandered across the sky. Thirdly, “someone” refers to another believer who cares and is willing to risk rejection by being a part of the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 6:1). That person comes alongside and guides him to repent (turn him back). At this point confession of sin and restoration of fellowship is assumed.
Now in verse twenty, James summarizes the blessing the spirit-controlled believer is to the wandering, but now repentant believer, who has been delivered from the Sin unto Death. James highlights these godly actions. First, James exhorts believers to affirm the godly actions of the believer who was willing to restore the wandering, “let him know.” It’s a big deal to restore a believer to the truth, but it is a believer’s responsibility. Secondly, the believer is called “a sinner,” because that is the description of his life at that point. He is living according to sin, rather than according to the Spirit. It is a similar exhortation that Paul gives to those who are spirit-controlled in their godly actions toward a brother who has crossed the obvious line of sin, but is being restored. This is not referring to an unbeliever in this case for the reasons stated above (words gain their meaning from context more than their simple definition). Thirdly, the godly believer has “saved his soul from death,” which phrase must be examined.
Words have basic meanings. The word “saved” has a basic meaning of “deliverance.” When a person is saved, he is delivered from condemnation. When it refers to the believer who is “saved” from worldly viewpoint and living, it refers to the sanctification process and deliverance from self-control to spirit-control in life. Paul states, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18; cf. 2 Cor. 2:15). Paul said he was “being saved” (present passive participle) as an on going process which God was working in his life. Paul was talking about sanctification, not positional salvation.
In the same way, the word “death” has a basic meaning of “separation.” There are actually nine different meanings of death in Scripture, depending on the context. For example, it can refer to physical death (Gen. 24:67), or spiritual death (Gen. 2:17), or divinely operational death (Jam. 2:17). The context determines the meaning of the word.
When James says that the spiritual believer “will save a soul from death,” he is referring to deliverance from the Sin unto Death. The believer is already saved and so cannot be spiritually saved again. That wandering believer is also in the Sin unto Death, the condition where he is facing the misery of a life of sin before he is taken out of earthly living and enters into the heavenly realm. The godly believer will deliver that person from the final stage of the Sin unto Death. The godly believer also “covers a multitude of sins.”
When a person is in the Sin unto Death, he is living a life of sin in carnality. When that person is delivered from carnality, the person is restored to fellowship with God and spirit-controlled living, rather than sin-controlled living. Hence, the multitude of sins is discontinued (covered).
Does James teach a believer can enter the Sin unto Death? Yes. James not only teaches a believer can enter that stage, but can be delivered from that by a godly believer who is willing to risk coming alongside the scoffer. May God grant us mercy and love as we might be willing to help a believer return to the truth of God’s word in one area of life or in many areas of life.
1There are three articles posted on the Downward Spiral. One summarizes the Downward Spiral: http://renewingtruth.blogspot.com/2013/06/question-what-is-downward-spiral.html
The second records the Downward Spiral for the unbeliever: http://renewingtruth.blogspot.com/2013/06/question-how-sinful-can-unbeliever-get.html
And the third records the Downward Spiral of the believer: http://renewingtruth.blogspot.com/2013/06/question-how-sinful-can-believer-get.html