Thursday, 13 June 2019

James 5:19-20 and Apostasy

One area of disagreement among Christians concerns falling away from the faith, also known as apostasy. Some say that God will never allow a genuine, born-again believer to apostatise and finally end up in hell. Others say that this does sometimes happen.

Personally, I much prefer the view that genuine Christians do sometimes apostatise. I think this view fits best with the overall teaching of the Bible.

AN IMPORTANT PASSAGE

An important passage on this topic is James 5:19-20, where James says the following: 
19 My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) 
In what follows, I will argue that this passage is a very strong piece of biblical evidence that genuine Christians do sometimes fall away from the faith and lose salvation.

The discussion will proceed in two stages.

In the first stage, I will argue that in this passage James almost certainly refers to a class of people who move from a state of being saved to a state of being unsaved, i.e., they lose salvation. At this stage I will not yet be asking whether James is teaching that such people actually exist or if he is just referring to a hypothetical class of people.

In the second stage, I will argue that the class of people James refers to in this passage is not just hypothetical but that such people do actually exist.

DOES JAMES REFER TO A CLASS OF PEOPLE WHO LOSE SALVATION?

Let’s begin, then, by considering whether in this passage James refers to a class of people who lose salvation. As I have just said, at this point we are not asking if he is referring to people who really exist or to a hypothetical group of people. We are simply asking if the class of people he has in mind lose salvation.

Actually, in this passage James refers to an individual person who strays from the truth and is then turned back, so for the time being we will stick to thinking about a single person.

In this passage, then, James refers to a person whom he describes as a sinner, and who also strays from the truth, is turned back by someone, is turned from the error of his way, has his life saved from death, and has his multitude of sins covered.

A timeline

If we think about a timeline for what happens to this person, it is clear that there are three significant points on the timeline:

First, there is the state that the person is in before he strays from the truth. I will call this the person’s initial state.

Second, there is the state that the person is in after he strays from the truth but before he is turned back. I will call this the person’s post-straying state.

And third, there is the state that the person is in after he has been turned back. I will call this the person’s final state.

We need to ask whether this person is saved or unsaved in his initial, post-straying and final states.

The person’s final state

Let’s think first about the final state of this person, his state after he has been turned back. Is he saved or unsaved at this point on the timeline?

Note how his final state involves him having his life saved from death and his multitude of sins covered. This must mean that after he has been turned back, he is in a state of having been saved from his sins. So there is no doubt whatsoever that the final state of this person is one of being saved.

The person’s post-straying state

Next, let’s think about the person’s post-straying state, his state after he has strayed from the truth but before he has been turned back. Is he saved or unsaved at this point on the timeline?

Note that when this person is turned back and is turned from the error of his way, James says that his life is saved from death and his multitude of sins is covered. This clearly implies that one or other of two things must be true before this person is turned back, i.e., in his post-straying state:

Either (a) his life is not saved from death and his multitude of sins is not covered, which would mean that he is unsaved.

Or (b) he is currently saved but going down a road that will lead in the future to his life not being saved from death and his multitude of sins not being covered if he continues down this road. In other words, he is currently saved but going down a road that will lead to him being unsaved if nothing changes.

These are the only two possible ways of understanding the person’s post-straying state. Nothing else would make any sense at all of what James says.

I will come back to these two possibilities later.

The person’s initial state

Now let’s think about the person’s initial state, his state before he strays from the truth. Is he saved or unsaved at this point on the timeline?

There are some who say that this person is a nominal Christian, i.e., a Christian in name only, and that he is therefore unsaved in his initial state.

There are, however, no good reasons for identifying this person as a nominal Christian, and a number of reasons for identifying him as a genuine, saved believer:

(1) Note how James starts this passage by saying, “My brothers,” and then says, “if any among you.” Most naturally, we would expect someone among the brothers to be a genuine, saved Christian and not just a nominal Christian, although this point is admittedly far from conclusive.

(2) This person strays from the truth. This must mean that his starting point involved being at the place of truth. This sounds much more naturally as if he is saved than just a nominal Christian.

(3) If James is referring to a nominal Christian in the church, the way he has worded things is very strange. If this is what he meant, it would have been so much easier for him simply to have said something like:

“My brothers, if any among you shows signs of not being genuinely saved and one leads him to the truth, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.”

(4) I noted above that in his post-straying state the person must be either unsaved or going down a road that will lead to being unsaved if he continues on this road.

Importantly, the passage gives a strong impression that the reason why the person is in the mess he is in in his post-straying state is precisely because he has strayed from the truth. In other words, the passage seems strongly to imply that before he strayed from the truth, he was in a saved state. This is a very strong point.

(5) Note how the text says in v. 19 that the person is “turn[ed] back” when he moves from his post-straying state to his final state. When someone is turned back to something, this suggests that he is getting back to the state he was in to begin with. So it makes sense to think that this person’s final state is the same as his initial state.

Because, as we have seen, his final state is one of being saved, we would therefore expect this to be true of his initial state too.

It is true that the Greek verb here, epistrepho, literally means “turn” without any specific connotation of “back.” Nevertheless, it does seem good to understand the meaning in this context to be “turn back” or “bring back” as nearly all English Bible translations translate.

In view of the combined weight of these points, we should have no hesitation in saying that the initial state of the person James is referring to is almost certainly one of being saved. It is almost certain that before this person strays from the truth he is saved.

More thoughts on the post-straying state

I have already noted that in the person’s post-straying state, i.e., after he has strayed from the truth but before he is turned back, he must either (a) be unsaved or (b) be saved but going down a road that will lead in the future to being unsaved if he continues on this road.

Although James refers to a single person in this passage, let’s expand his thought to refer to a group of people who stray from the truth and reach the post-straying state. I need to do this to allow for potential differences in the salvation status of people in the post-straying state.

So, if we think about a group of people who stray from the truth, there are three possible options for how we understand their salvation status in their post-straying state:

Either (1) all those in the post-straying state are unsaved.

Or (2) some of those in the post-straying state are unsaved, and some are saved but going down a road that will lead to them being unsaved if nothing changes.

Or (3) all those in the post-straying state are saved but going down a road that will lead to them being unsaved if nothing changes.

If (1) or (2) is correct, then there are people in the post-straying state who are unsaved.

However, importantly, even if option (3) is the correct one, it is very implausible to imagine that none of those who reach the post-straying state would continue down the road until they were unsaved. In other words, the text seems quite strongly to suggest that some who stray from the truth don’t end up being turned back and don’t have their lives saved from death and their sins covered. So even if, as in option (3), none of those in the post-straying state are yet unsaved, it makes sense to think that some of them will continue down the road they are on and become unsaved.

This means that, regardless of whether (1) or (2) or (3) is the correct way of understanding the post-straying state, the text envisages people who are unsaved after straying from the truth.

So, given, as we have seen, that those in the initial state are almost certainly saved, the text almost certainly envisages people losing salvation.

Summing up

In conclusion, then, James is almost certainly referring in this passage to a class of people who move from a saved to an unsaved state. In other words, it is almost certain that at least some of those who stray from the truth in the way James describes lose salvation.

DO THESE PEOPLE ACTUALLY EXIST?

Next, we need to ask if the class of people who lose salvation in this way is just a hypothetical group of people or whether such people actually exist.

Reasons to think that they exist

There are a number of reasons to think that they do exist.

First, to suppose that James is referring merely to a hypothetical situation that never actually occurs looks a very unnatural way of taking his words.

Instead, he seems to imply that what he refers to in this passage will happen from time to time. He seems to think that now and again Christians will see those who have lost salvation or are on the road to losing salvation and that they need to try to do something about it. Nothing in the passage suggests that it should be taken as something merely hypothetical.

Second, if James’s concern is about nominal, non-genuine Christians in the church, then he has chosen a very strange way of expressing himself. Why would he say that a nominal Christian strays from the truth? Instead, we would expect him to say what he means and write something like:

“My brothers, if any among you shows signs of not being genuinely saved and one leads him to the truth, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.”

Third, if James’s concern is to try to stop genuine, born-again Christians sinning and he has no real expectation that any of them could fall away and lose his salvation, again, he has chosen a very strange way of expressing himself. Why would he say that a Christian who strays and is then turned back has his life saved from death if he didn’t believe there was any danger of this person losing salvation?

Fourth, if James is just trying to warn genuine Christians about what would happen hypothetically if they fell away from the faith, although he expects his readers to know that God won’t allow them to fall away, then the warning seems pointless. A warning is a psychological thing, and it is very difficult to understand how a warning is supposed to psychologically impact people if they know that God won’t allow the thing that is warned against to happen.

Summing up

It seems, then, that James did expect his readers to understand that the class of people he refers to, those who lose salvation, does actually exist.

CONCLUSION

All things considered, therefore, this passage is a very strong piece of biblical evidence that it really is possible for genuine Christians to fall away from the faith and lose salvation, and that this does sometimes happen.

Importantly too, there is nothing in the rest of the book of James that looks like it might conflict with this conclusion at all.

So we can say that the book of James stands as a very strong piece of evidence that it is possible for genuine Christians to fall away from the faith and lose salvation, and that this does sometimes happen.


For a broader discussion of this topic, see my article:



See also my articles:



Does 1 John 2:19 Prove That Genuine Christians Never Fall Away and Lose Salvation?