We began to look at this passage a few weeks ago. In this passage, James is bringing his letter to a conclusion. And he ends his letter by teaching his readers about prayer. Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is another happy? Let him sings songs of praise — and our songs of praise are a form of prayer to God, because in our songs of praise, we’re addressing God and giving thanks to him. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and to anoint him with oil. And we said that probably the idea behind anointing someone with oil was to signify that we were setting this person apart for special prayer.
And James went on to say that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well: the Lord will raise him up. And we thought about how James doesn’t forbid us from seeing the doctor when we’re ill, because God works through the doctor to make us well. But as well as seeing the doctor, believers ought to pray; and if they’re seriously ill, they should call the elders to pray on their behalf. And we ought to pray that the Lord will raise the sick person up from their sick bed, all the while acknowledging that the Lord always knows what is best in every situation; and that the important thing is not what I want, but what God wants. The important thing is not my will, or your will, but the Lord’s will. And so, we pray: ‘If it’s your will, Heavenly Father, please make this person well.’
Those are some of the things we thought about the last time. But I didn’t have time to say anything the last time about the connection between sin and sickness and forgiveness. And you’ll see that James mentions those things in verses 15 and 16 where he writes:
If he [the sick person] has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other….
That’s something we need to consider today. And then, I didn’t have time to say anything the last time about the last two verses which are about restoring the wandering believer. And so, that’s another thing for us to consider today.
So, we’re going to spend our time today on those two things. First, on sin and sickness. Second, on restoring the wandering believer.
Sin and sickness
The first thing to say about sin and sickness is to say that if it were not for Adam’s sin in the beginning there would be no sickness. When God made the world in the beginning, it was very good. It was very good. And there was no death, or course. And there was no sickness which leads to death. But then Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord’s clear command, forbidding them from eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They listened to the voice of the serpent, instead of listening to the word of the Lord, and they ate the forbidden fruit. And from that moment on, everything in God’s good world was spoiled. And it was clear, from the things the Lord said to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, that life in this fallen world would be hard and difficult and full of sorrow and suffering and pain and death. And among the painful things we now have to contend with is sickness and death. So, if it were not for Adam’s sin in the beginning — when God’s good world was spoiled by Adam’s sin — there would be no sickness now at all.
But, having said that, can we also say that every sickness we experience in this life is connected to my own personal sin? People who are ill often wonder whether God is punishing them for something they have done. They assume that they must have done something to deserve this illness. They assume there’s a connection between sickness and their sin. So, what should we say about these things? Can we say that every sickness we experience in this life is connected to my own personal sin?
We need to remember the book of Job, don’t we? Do you remember? Job was this rich man, with a big family. And then, one day, a servant appeared before him and said: ‘Your enemies came and destroyed all your cattle.’ And another servant appeared and said: ‘Lightning has destroyed all your sheep.’ And another servant appeared and said: ‘More enemies came and stole your camels.’ Another servant appeared and said: ‘A building has fallen on your children and they’re all dead.’
He’d lost his property; he’d lost his family; and not long after that, Job lost his health, because he was afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. And we read how he would take a piece of broken pottery and scratch himself with it. His life was miserable. And his friends came to console him and to comfort him. But his friends were useless, because each one accused him of doing something wrong. Each one said he must have done something wrong, because God is clearly punishing him. But what they didn’t know, but what the reader does know, is that Job had done nothing to deserve this and that the Lord considered him to be a righteous man. And what the reader also knows is that it was the Devil. The Devil was attacking Job precisely because Job was a righteous man and he wanted to turn Job against God. So, his friends thought his troubles were caused by his sin. But they were wrong.
And then there’s John 9 and the story of the man who was blind from birth. And the Lord’s disciples asked: ‘Who sinned?’ Who sinned that this man was born blind? Was it his parents who had sinned and as a result God gave them a blind child? Or was it the man himself who sinned and God is now punishing him with blindness? Who sinned?
And the Lord replied: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned….’ In other words, we can’t say that every sickness we experience in this life is connected to my own personal sin. The story of Job rules it out. The story of the blind man rules it out.
However, on the other hand, we need to remember what Paul said about the Corinthians. Some of them were abusing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They were coming to the Table of the Lord in an unworthy manner. And Paul said: ‘For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.’ We can’t say that every sickness we experience in this life is connected to our own personal sin. But sometimes, sometimes, the reason the Lord has sent this sickness is because of my own personal sin.
And that brings us back to what James wrote in verse 15. He’s referring to the believer who is seriously ill. He’s so seriously ill, he can’t go to see the elders; but the elders need to come and see him. And when they come, they’re to pray for him and for his healing. And then James adds: ‘If he has sinned….’ And the important word is ‘if’. If he has sinned. In other words, his illness may have nothing to do with sin. But perhaps, perhaps it is connected to his own personal sin. And so, whenever we’re seriously ill, we would be wise to examine our hearts to see whether there is any sin in our lives which we need to confess to the Lord. We need to examine our hearts and ask: ‘Is there some sin in my life which I have yet to confess and which I need to turn from?’
Listen to what our church’s Confession of Faith says about this. I’m quoting from chapter 17 and paragraph 3:
God’s people many fall into serious sins and continue in them for a time. The causes are the temptations of Satan and of the world, the corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means provided for their preservation. In this way God’s people incur his displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit. They lose some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened and their consciences wounded, [they] hurt and offend others, and bring temporal judgments on themselves.
And, of course, one of the temporal judgments we can bring on ourselves for continuing in serious sin is illness.
If we have examined our hearts and discover that yes, there is a serious sin in my life which I have yet to confess, then we need to read on in order to hear the good news, because James adds: ‘If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.’
He will be forgiven, she will be forgiven, because the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide; nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
What father would be unwilling to help his child? Well, our Heavenly Father is always willing to help us, and to forgive us whenever we confess our sins. And, of course, if you’re a believer, if you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, then that’s what God is to you. He’s no longer the judge who wants to condemn you forever for your sins, because he’s become your loving Heavenly Father, who loves you and who cares for you and who, like an earthly father, sometimes needs to discipline us for our good, to show us our faults so that we will turn from them. But he’s always, always, always willing to forgive us, because Jesus Christ our Saviour has already paid for all our sins by his death on the cross. So, when we have sinned, we ought to confess our sins and seek the Lord’s forgiveness.
And in verse 16 James instructs us to confess our sins ‘to each other.’ The commentators spend a lot of time discussing what James means by confessing our sins to each other. Is he referring here to the elders whom we have called to our bedside? Does he mean we’re to confess our sins to the person we have offended? Does he mean we’re to confess our sins to one another generally, so that whenever we meet together, we ought to spend time acknowledging our faults and shortcomings? What does James mean? Well, it seems to me that the point James is making is that instead of trying to cover up our sins, instead of trying to hide them from one another — which is what we naturally tend to do; we don’t like to admit to others our shortcomings — so instead of doing that, we should be open about the fact that we’re sinners. We’re all sinners. Every last one of us. So, instead of covering up our sins, we’ll confess them, because we know that if we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
James says to us about the sick person: ‘If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.’ Our sickness may be connected to our own personal sin; but it may not be connected to our own personal sin. We might be sick for various other reasons. I remember visiting a person who said to me: ‘Mr Gamble, I don’t know why this is happening to me. My legs are sore. My knees are sore. My hips are sore. My back is sore. I’m not able to do what I used to do. I don’t know why this is happening to me.’ I said to her: ‘Tell me: What age are you?’
‘Ninety-four’ she replied. ‘Well’, I said, ‘I think that’s got something to do with it.’ Sickness may not be connected to our own personal sin. But if we discover unconfessed sin in our lives, we should confess it to the Lord, trusting that he will pardon all who trust in his Son.
Restoring the wandering member
Let’s move on now to verses 19 and 20 where James refers to a member of the church — a brother or a sister in the Lord; remember the word translated ‘brother’ really mean ‘sibling’; it can be a man or a woman — so James is referring to a member of the church who has wandered from the truth.
The Bible gives us several examples of people who wandered from the truth. In 2 Timothy 2, for example, Paul refers to Hymenaeus and Philetus who wandered away from the truth. They became false teachers who taught that the general resurrection of the dead had already happened. And, Paul says, because of what they were teaching, they destroyed the faith of some.
And then there was Simon Peter. There was the time when he denied knowing the Lord Jesus, because he was afraid of what would happen to him. And then Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians about the time when he had to oppose Peter to his face, because Peter was clearly in the wrong. What did he do that was wrong? Well, he refused to eat with Gentile believers. And by refusing to eat with them, he was undermining the truth of the gospel which is that we’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. By refusing to eat with these Gentile believers, Paul was undermining the truth of the gospel that even uncircumcised, Gentiles could be saved.
And the saddest case, perhaps, was Demas. Paul refers to Demas in his letter to the Colossians and in his letter to Philemon. He was one of Paul’s companions and fellow-workers in the gospel. But then we read the sad news in 2 Timothy about how Demas had deserted Paul. Why had he deserted Paul? Because he was in love with this world. Instead of setting his mind on things above, instead of longing for the coming of the Lord, and instead of looking forward to the new heavens and the new earth and to the fullness of joy and pleasures for ever more which God has prepared for his faithful people, instead of waiting for that, he wanted what this world could offer him. And so, he wandered from the truth.
The Bible is full of examples of those who wandered from the truth. And no doubt everyone here can think of people who have wandered from the truth. Once they were with us on Sundays, giving thanks to the Lord and listening to his word. But then they turned away from the Lord and from his people. The were on the right road, the narrow path that leads to everlasting life in the presence of the Lord. But something happened in their lives, and they stepped off the narrow path; and it seems that they’re now on the broad road that leads to destruction.
How does it happen? Hymenaeus and Philetus wandered from the truth because they would not accept the teaching of the apostles about the resurrection. Peter denied knowing the Lord and he withdrew from eating with the Gentile believers because of fear; he was afraid of what would happen to him and he was afraid of what others would say about him. Demas went astray because of spiritual adultery; instead of loving the Lord, he loved the world instead. We can go astray because we don’t accept the truth of God’s word. We can go astray because we’re afraid. We can go astray because we love the wrong thing. We can go astray in many ways; and, of course, the Devil is always going about, like a prowling lion, seeking someone to devour.
Well, says James, if one of you should wander from the truth, someone needs to bring him or her back. And notice, that he says someone. He’s not saying it’s the responsibility of the elders. He’s not saying: ‘Just as the elders need to pray over the sick person, so the elders needs to bring this wandering person back.’ He’s saying someone, anyone, needs to bring him back. So, are you aware of someone who has wandered from the truth? Well, you might be the someone who is able to bring him or her back.
James doesn’t tell us how to bring this wandering person back. But we have the example of the Lord Jesus, don’t we? Do you remember that time when he said that the Devil wanted to sift Peter like wheat? We might say he wanted to put Peter through the wringer. He wanted to crush him. Flatten him. And then the Lord said: ‘But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.’ How do we bring the wandering person back? It begins with prayer, doesn’t it? We need to pray that the Lord will ensure that this person’s faith will not fail, but will last.
And then we need to pay attention to what Paul wrote in Ephesians 4 where he wrote about no longer being infants, but growing up into Christ and in the faith. And he said we do this by ‘speaking the truth in love’. So, is there something we can say to the person who is wandering? Is there some truth we can impart to them to help them? Well, if there is, let’s remember to say it to them in love. Or as Paul said it in 2 Timothy 2: let’s instruct them, gently, in the hope that God will grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth.
And look what James says at the end of his letter. He says: ‘Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.’
Here’s a member of the church who has wandered off the narrow way that leads to life; and he’s now on, she’s now on, the broad road that leads where? To death, says James. And he means eternal death. And it’s eternal death, because whoever turns away from Christ the Saviour has cut himself off, has cut herself off, from the only Saviour of the world. But whoever turns this wandering person back to the narrow way will save that person from this death. And all their sins — and they might have become guilty of a multitude of sins — all of their sins will be covered over with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who knows? Perhaps even today, there’s someone here and you’ve been wandering from the truth. Perhaps no one else knows, but you yourself know it’s true. Well, let me be the one to point you back to the narrow way, because the broad road leads to destruction, while the narrow way leads to life. And if you return to Christ, and give yourself to living your life for him once again, then you’ll find that he’s been waiting all along, he’s been waiting all along to pardon you and to re-assure you of his love and faithfulness. Though we are so often faithless and unfaithful, he remains faithful to all his promises; and he has promised to pardon all who come to him.