“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death.”
James admonishes believers (1:18) to accept trials as a tool that hones maturity (1:1-12), not to blame God for their sinful leanings (1:13-17), to put aside behavior that is inconsistent with righteousness (1:21), to avoid favoritism (2:1-13), to avoid falling into the deception that faith is the absence of good deeds (2:14-26), to avoid possessing a loose tongue (3:1-12), shun jealousy and selfish ambition (3:16), to sidestep lust through humility and submission to the will of God (4:1-17), to choose heavenly riches over earthly gain (5:1-6), and to protect one another from spiritual weariness through effectual prayer (5:7-18). James is exhorting believers to avoid or overcome sinful behaviors. But, does James suggest that the failure to overcome such behavior can result in eternal condemnation or spiritual death, that is, the loss of salvation?
Death is eternal separation from God (spiritual death) or separation from the body (physical death). The fact that Christians are always in a state of spiritual maturity and daily struggle with the “old self,” argues against the interpretation that some addition sin will result in spiritual death or eternal damnation, though certainly one’s fellowship with God and others is weakened, often significantly. The Bible is clear: eternal condemnation of a Christian is impossible (Romans 8:1). “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10. Eternal life is an unconditional benefit of being in Christ!
The Greek word, psyche, is translated variously: soul, person, life (physical), self, i.e., one’s innermost being. The point to consider is that psyche is used to refer to both spiritual and physical death. Upon the occasion of Jesus making his disciples aware of his coming death, Peter vows to “lay down my life (soul) for you” to prevent such a thing (John 13:37). Is Peter suggesting that he is willing to have his soul eternally damned? Hardly! He is declaring his willingness to die physically for the Lord. The apostle Paul asks the believers in Philippi to receive and hold in high regard Epaphroditus “because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life (soul) to complete what was deficient in your service to me” (Philippians 2:30). Is Paul insinuating that risking one’s life for Christ could lead to eternal condemnation? Unthinkable! Epaphroditus was willing to serve Christ to the point of sacrificing his physical existence. So, it is consistent to suggest that James is referring to saving a person (life) from physical death in 5:20. In James’s only other use of psyche, he refers to spiritual maturity (“receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” 1:21), not to spiritual or physical death.
Believers who take lightly their responsibility to mature spiritually are susceptible to temptations and failings that more knowledgeable believers can avoid. They also find suffering for the Lord insufferable. Lacking spiritual understanding, they lack patience and endurance (5:7-11). The consequence of such immaturity is falling away, which is accompanied by sinful behavior, weariness, risky behavior and illness that can lead to death (5:13-16) or, potentially, death as a divine punishment (cf. 1 John 5:16). The effects of sin are physically and spiritually debilitating, therefore, believers (Lifesavers) are responsible to and for one another. Through intercessory prayer, interaction, and instruction, we can help turn those who, through ignorance or intent, engage in risky sinful behaviors. An effective church body ensures that its members know the word of God and apply it broadly. Such involvement produces an abiding fellowship with God (1:21), and limits sinful behaviors, which might lead to a premature death (5:20).
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