For many of us, the parable of the sower is well-known. Matthew 13 is one of the passages that describes the seed that was sown. The first fell on hard ground and was snatched away. The last fell on prepared ground and produced a harvest. It is the seeds in the middle that often cause the most debate. Some seed fell on rocky ground. There wasn't much soil and the seed grew for a short while and then was killed by the strength of the sun because it didn't have strong roots buried deeply enough to draw moisture from the ground. Other seed fell among thorns and was eventually choked.
In explaining the parable to His disciples, Jesus said that the seed that fell on rocky ground represented the person "...who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away" (13:20, 21).
Then Jesus described the seed falling on thorny ground as "...the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful" (13:22).
It's about these two groups of people that James writes in his epistle. He finishes his short letter with this: "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner away from his error will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:19, 20).
Who among us has not known someone who made a profession of faith and then wandered away?
There is little doubt that the mission of those who are walking in truth is to encourage those who once did, and now aren't, to return to that truth.
We back away from confronting those who have fallen away. We don't want to be accused of being judgmental. But where Scripture has already made a judgment call, we stand on what God has already said, not on what we personally have determined is right or wrong. What God says is sin, is sin, and we only speak for Him. As always our speech is to be flavoured with "salt" or grace (Colossians 4:6). Truth is to be delivered with love (Ephesians 4:5).
Very little comment was made by the Biblical scholars I researched about the meaning of the last part of James's statement. I suppose there is room for interpretation. We don't always know the spiritual condition of those who once professed faith and then fell away. Perhaps they never made a genuine confession of faith in the first place. Perhaps they did, but didn't have the opportunity to put down the roots that were necessary to keep them strong in the faith when temptations or troubles came.
In any case, the restoration of one of these who has wandered saves them from either eternal death, in the case of the those who never made a genuine decision in the first place, or a life of fruitlessness which is the uselessness, or death, of a life that could have been lived well.
The restoration of one of these who has wandered also rescues that person from adding sin upon sin as he or she moves farther and farther away from the Lord.
It's hard to speak to one who is wandering. It costs us. And we know that only the Spirit of God can ultimately save and/or restore. But we, the hands, feet, and voices that He has chosen to work through, have a responsibility to demonstrate the love we have for Him and for those whom He loves, to care for those who are fallen, or who have fallen—to care enough to speak the truth in love.