(Jas. 5:19-20) Will we go to hell if we stray from the truth?

CLAIM: James writes, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20). If we stray from our relationship with Christ, does this mean that we will go to hell?

RESPONSE: This is certainly a very difficult passage to handle. However, there are at least three reasonable interpretations:

OPTION #1. Saving from physical death. Saving our “soul from death” might refer to physical death. When we read verses 14-15, James is calling on his readers to seek healing for physical sickness. Later, James refers to saving a sinner from death by leading them back to the truth (vv.19-20). Thus, in the earlier and later contexts, James is referring to physical death. While interpreters might think that this doesn’t fit with James’ mention of saving our soul from death, the Greek term for “soul” (psyche) is difficult to define. BDAG opens its entry by writing, “It is often impossible to draw hard and fast lines in the use of this multivalent word.”[1] While “soul” (psyche) generally refers to the immaterial self, it can also be used for our physical body in many instances (Mt. 2:20; 6:25; Mk. 3:4; Jn. 10:11; 13:37; 15:13, etc.).

Under this interpretation, when we urge someone to confess their sins and come under the healing of God (v.16), this saves them from death. Rather than dying in a state of sin (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30), they will continue on to serve Christ.

OPTION #2. Saving from spiritual death in the sense of sanctification. To “stray” from the truth does not imply total apostasy.[2] It could simply be that the person was deceived (Jas. 1:15-16). The straying more likely refers to falling into a “sinful practice,”[3] rather than denying their faith. After all, James has focused throughout the letter on being a “doer of the word,” not merely a “hearer who deludes himself” (Jas. 1:22).

Earlier in the epistle, James uses this expression in the present tense, rather than the future tense: “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21). Here he is not referring to the future salvation of the soul at death, but to our current sanctification through spiritual growth. James also refers to sin as currently producing death: “When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (Jas. 1:15). Likewise, in Romans 6-8, Paul frequently uses the term “death” to refer to our sanctification.

Under this interpretation, when we turn someone back to Christ, their lives are healed and they are able to get their walk with Christ going again. The term “saved” is used in this sense by Paul (1 Tim. 4:16). The rescuer is able to “cover a multitude of sins” by stopping them from continuing in a lifestyle apart from Christ.

OPTION #3. Saving from spiritual death in the sense of leading them to Christ. The person in question may “never truly believed”[4] in the first place. Notice that the person is described as being “among you,” but not necessarily a believer, and he is called a “sinner,” not a brother. Under this view, “saving” the person from death would refer to leading them to Christ (Rom. 11:14; 1 Cor. 7:16).

“Cover a multitude of sins…”

This could refer to forgiving the straying person by reaching out to them in love (Prov. 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13:5). Or it could also refer to the straying man having a less strict judgment at the bema seat (Jas. 3:1-2).

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1098). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Blomberg notes that the verb is in the passive (or possibly middle voice), rather than the active voice. Blomberg, C. L., & Kamell, M. J. (2008). James (Vol. 16, p. 248). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Adamson, J. B. (1976). The Epistle of James (p. 203). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[4] Blomberg, C. L., & Kamell, M. J. (2008). James (Vol. 16, p. 249). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.