This is the final message in the Creekstone sermon series in James, The Gospel for Real Life.
About four years ago, I was approached by three different members of the Creekstone staff about an issue that had them deeply concerned. They had not collaborated or discussed this issue with each other.
Their concern wasn’t our finances or any specific ministry that needed improvement. Their concern was me. They detected that I seemed discouraged, and in my discouragement, I had become relationally detached from the team… and they felt my distance.
At that point, they had several options. On one hand, they could have protested my detachment simply by quitting their role on staff. Or they could have gossiped about my detachment, seeking to gather support to have me ousted.
Either of those would have been easier and less risky than a third option, which was an intervention, where they approached me individually to share their concern.
I’m glad to report that didn’t give up on me, they didn’t gossip about me, and best yet, they didn’t quit. They came to me, personally, individually, and directly.
They loved me enough to intervene.
That really is the issue. Do we love each other enough to do the risky work of intervention when there is a clear and present concern for the spiritual well-being of a brother or sister in Christ?
Let me emphasize and reiterate that the kind of intervention we are talking about is driven by love, which means that the goal of the intervention is not to condemn and shame someone, but to restore and reclaim them.
This is James’ heart for the folks to whom he originally wrote. He had spoken some hard words, but the truth he spoke was not born out of anger. It was motivated by love. It was a love motivated intervention.
This is what we are going to learn how to do today. How to pursue a love motivated spiritual intervention.
The Need for Intervention
We see in verse 19 that, while he loves his fellow believers, affectionately calling them “brothers,” James is a realist and knew that even professing Christians may “wander from the truth” at times (like a sheep from its flock) and will need to be brought back.
Note that this ministry of intervention and restoration is not limited to elders or official leaders, as James says, “if someone [or, anyone] brings [the one who wanders] back.” The application here is for all of us.
However, let’s be careful not to go where James is not taking us with this. He is not in any way establishing a sin police for the church. It would be more accurate to say that he is enlisting us in specific search and rescue missions.
When hikers go missing and are lost in the mountains, what do we do? We send a search and rescue team out to find them—to bring them back.
We don’t beat them up for getting lost. Rather, we are overjoyed when they are found and returned safely home.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Sometimes, a Greek word will provide helpful clues as to what the author was thinking about his subject. For example, in verse 19, the Greek word James uses for “wander” is planēthē—p l a n e t h e—the word from which we get the word “planet.”
In the ancient world, planets were originally considered to be “wandering stars,” not fixed like other heavenly luminaries. Thus, the one who “wanders” is like a star that is out of orbit with the truth, where their lives no longer revolve around the person of Jesus, but around something else.
This out of orbit wandering may have an external, behavioral aspect to it. But the root problem is not behavioral; it is spiritual. It is a faith issue. Moral wandering begins with theological wandering, where my faith begins to drift, whether due to skepticism and doubt or through an outright rejection of the expressed wisdom and ways of God.
Yet we are not talking about planets or hikers, but rather believers. So, how can we know if someone is wandering and potentially lost? What are some signs?
- On one hand, their physical absence from the weekly Sunday gathering or lack of participation in small group life.
- We may notice a distinctive change in behavior or temperament.
- Emotional absence is another clue, which could be characterized by general withdrawal, maybe toward a new crowd. Conversations remain on the surface and lack depth with very little vulnerability. They seem to be in hiding.
When I detect these patterns, what should I do?
First, in order to take even a first step toward them, I need to be convinced that intervening in someone’s life is not an expression of judgment, but of love. What if a friend went missing and we didn’t go out to look for him? What would that say about me? Yeah, that I didn’t really love them.
After all, it is unloving to allow someone to continue on a path that will lead to certain death. This is also why we do not need to consider an intervention over every sin that is detected in someone’s life. As those who live moment by moment in the context of God’s mercy and grace, we are to extend the same grace to others moment by moment, as Paul says in Colossians 3, “bearing with each other and forgiving each other,” just as in Christ, God has forgiven us.
When James speaks of those who are wandering, there is a sense of real danger involved. This is not about falling down on the path, but about wandering down a new path—a path that will lead to harm and potentially ruin. Out of love, we are compelled to intervene.
So, let me ask you a personal question. Who in your life is in need of intervention?
Don’t worry about how to do it or even where to begin. Just answer the who question. Is anyone in your sphere of influence wandering?
Once we can answer that question, we are ready to discuss…
The Process of Intervention
It is true that James doesn’t give many specifics here concerning the how of a gospel intervention. In verse 19, he merely speaks of “bringing someone back.”
But we do have a context that gets us started in the right direction.
In the previous two verses in chapter 5, verses 17-18, James uses the example of the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, describing the supernatural, even miraculous power available to us through prayer, where we simply ask our Father for his strength to be manifested in and through our need—even the need of spiritual intervention and restoration.
Concerning the process of restoration, the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ [In John 13:34, the law is to love – to bless]. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
This passage in Galatians reminds me that I am as much in need of grace as the one whom God would call me to restore. Next week, the wanderer could be me.
Maybe this is why prayer is such a good place to start, because in prayer I am expressing my own dependency on God’s power in my life as much as I am expressing my dependency for God to work in theirs.
While an intervention begins with prayer, it needs to be followed up with a personal encounter in order to share the concern. This is where we probably are tempted to make excuses, convincing ourselves that we should not intervene. “It is his life… What right do I have to meddle? Who am I to say anything? I’m a sinner, too.”
There is something about that attitude that is healthy. After all, to approach a friend with a condescending, holier-than-thou attitude would be rank hypocrisy to which most people do not respond well.
This is why Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that, before an intervention, I should remove any log from my own eye before I share a concern about the speck in someone else’s eye. Jesus is saying that we must approach an intervention as the bigger sinner, not as if they are the bigger sinner. Yes, he or she needs grace, almost as much as I do. With this attitude, a spiritual intervention is not hypocrisy; it is a proof of my love for my brother.
Here is how this could play out.
After noticing that a friend who used to be a regular on Sundays is absent for weeks in a row, I contact him by email or text, asking for a time and place to connect and catch up.
When we sit down, we’ll probably talk about the weather and sports or our latest Netflix binge. But at some point, I need to address the deeper concern.
One way to begin that conversation could be to share a time in my own life when I wandered, became disillusioned with the church, had doubts, or just felt spiritually lost and distant from God, and what it meant to me for someone to care enough to reach out to me—not to judge me, but because they really cared for me.
Then, to put it back in their court, I may consider asking a question such as this: “I may be wrong, but is something going on in your life that is causing you to step away from God and the church?”
It may be that a simple question like that is all it takes for a fissure to open in their heart, prompting and enabling them to share their own story of wandering.
Of course, it may be that they have been providentially hindered from attending due to sickness or an extended vacation.
Or it may be spiritual disillusionment. It may be doubt. It may be a disagreement with the church’s theological positions. It may be an unresolved relational conflict that has driven them away. It may be a besetting sin for which they feel profound shame. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they are in hiding.
What did the LORD do when Adam and Eve went missing? He went looking for them and asked a simple question, “Where are you? What has happened?”
Unexpectedly, when they are “called out” and exposed, they were able to hear the Lord promise a Savior and they got to witness the first atoning sacrifice, where an animal is killed to provide a covering for their nakedness, guilt, and shame.
When someone has wandered, be encouraged to know that you do not have any power to restore anyone. But God does.
Since it is only God who is able to work at the heart level, don’t force it. If they resist your concern and questions and push back really hard, then they may not be ready. Again, don’t force it.
You’ll know if the fissure is opening or if the door is being slammed. If the door is closed, my suggestion is to back off. Don’t keep knocking, but consider saying something like, “Well, I’m glad things are okay. I was just concerned and wanted to ask because I really care about you and miss you.”
From my experience, what brings folks back from wandering is not well-reasoned arguments or pushiness. Rather, it is the simple, but powerful and compelling love of God revealed through you as you simply reach out to share, ask, listen, and be present.
This leads to…
The Result of Intervention
While there are no guarantees that the wandering soul will be restored, when they are, it is a big deal.
In verse 20, James says, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death…”
Saving someone from death is a big deal. James could be talking about the physical death that may result from a catastrophic sinful act. But note that he says that the sinner’s soul is saved from death, not just his body.
Since it is the soul that is being saved, I think James has in mind a professing Christian who is unregenerate— meaning that they are not born again and are still dead in their sins and under the just condemnation of the law.
Scripture tells us in places such as Ephesians 2 that all humans are born into the condition of spiritual death. We are by nature spiritually blind and deaf. The only way we will be able to hear and see the truth of the gospel is if God gives those new eyes to see and ears to hear. This happens in what we call regeneration. If someone has not experienced this new birth into spiritual life, we say that they are unregenerate.
The reality is that if someone is not given new spiritual life by the power of the Holy Spirit, the result of that spiritually dead condition is what the Bible calls eternal death, which is an everlasting state of serving the sentence for personal rebellion against the wisdom and ways of the King.
While God often does the work of regeneration in someone’s life through the public preaching of the gospel, it also takes place through the personal intervention that James is envisioning, where God himself intervenes to bring someone from death to life, enabling them to look to and personalize the crucifixion of Jesus, where his blood, as James says in verse 20, “covers a multitude of sins.”
But even with our best, most well-intentioned efforts, people are not always restored from wandering or born again. Sometimes an intervention is met with hostility. In these moments I am reminded that when speaking truth in love, I am not responsible for someone else’s response. I am simply responsible to do engage with the truth in love out of a concern for their soul.
And even when people do respond to an intervention with repentance and faith and gratitude, the process can be excruciatingly painful, requiring great emotional sacrifice.
Jesus knew this to be true. So did Catherine of Siene.
Catherine of Siene
Catherine was born in 1347 A.D. According to an article in the Smithsonian magazine by Charles Mee, that is the year that “a flea riding on the hide of a black rat entered the Italian port of Messina.… The flea had a gut full of the bacillus Yersinia pestis. With that rat, flea, and bacillus, came the most feared plague on record. In just three years, from 1348 to 1350, the Black Death killed more than one-third of the entire population between Iceland and India.”
Mee describes the plague in horrifying detail, saying,
“The first symptoms of bubonic plague often appear within several days, including headache and a general feeling of weakness, followed by aches and chills in the upper leg and groin, a white coating on the tongue, rapid pulse, slurred speech confusion, fatigue, apathy, and a staggering gait. A blackish pustule usually will form at the point of the flea bite. By the third day, the lymph nodes begin to swell… The heart begins to flutter rapidly as it tries to pump blood through swollen, suffocating tissues. Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing purplish blotches on the skin. The victim’s nervous system begins to collapse, causing dreadful pain and bizarre neurological disorders… By the fourth or fifth day, wild anxiety and terror overtake the sufferer—and then a sense of resignation, as the skin blackens, and the rictus of death settles on the body.”
Remarkably, the young Catherine survived the first wave of the plague.
Yet another wave of Black Death struck Catherine’s hometown of Siena just over twenty years later in 1374. It’s hard to blame those who fled. I think I would have headed for the hills, too. Yet while others fled, fully aware of the gruesome symptoms and almost certain death, Catherine stayed. Rather than running from the sick, she ran to them to care for them. 
She could have run from them, but she ran to them.
A Divine Intervention
Just like Jesus, whose incarnation was a divine intervention.
This is what we celebrate every year during the season of advent. Not the sacrificial, selfless love of Catherine, but the sacrificial, selfless love of Jesus.
Through his intervention into our world and into our lives, Jesus is the one who has saved our souls from eternal death and has covered a multitude of sins.
Upon a cross, Jesus endured the horrific plague of our sin, absorbing in his flesh the condemnation demanded by the law so that we could absorb into our souls the spiritual restoration offered in the gospel.
When we experience that grace afresh, we long for others to experience that joy as well. This is why it is being someone for whom Jesus has intervened that motivates and empowers us to intervene with grace and love in the lives of others.
When I asked the question earlier, “Who in your life is wandering and needs intervention?” “Who do you know who needs to be restored,” maybe you answered, “I am… the one wandering. I am the one who needs to be restored.”
If that is you, may this be your moment where God divinely intervenes in your life… right now… to reveal the greatness of his grace and kindness to you.
In the wake of experiencing his own divine forgiveness, the King and poet David wrote in Psalm 32:1, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
Look to the crucified and risen Jesus. Believe that his blood covers the multitude of your sins… believe this and be blessed!
 It may be noteworthy that in verse 20 James switches from the term “brother” to “a sinner.” Therefore, it may be that in some cases, the great need is not to be restored to the faith from which someone has wandered, but to a faith that they have never really had.