"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 and will cover a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20)James is not talking about a mental or theological straying from the truth but an actual wandering from the right way, from the truth we were called and meant to live. It is a straying in our behavior, actions, and deeds. Sin has a price, and those who serve to revert someone from their way of error back to the way of truth, delivers the erring from death, judgment, and the ravages of sin.
We live in a popular culture that seeks to deflect all judgment from ourselves. We live destructive lives and say to others, "Don't judge me!" Even in the church we are told that it is wrong to judge others and that we should live a lifestyle free from judging, even though Paul asks, "Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? ... Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?" (1 Corinthians 6:2-3) We speak of unconditional love as a love that would never judge us for our conditions when, rather, it is a love that continues to love even in spite of one's judgement on our conditions. Unconditional love is able to see the truth in other people and to judge the sin of others and yet continue to treat them lovingly in spite of what they've done or are doing. Love without judgment is worthless. Love requires judgment to be love!
The goal of what James is saying is that we should seek to save and restore those who are lost or who have wandered from the good and right way. The first step in restoring such a one is to judge ourselves. Jesus taught, "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye." (Luke 6:41-42) Jesus is not saying that we should ignore the speck in our brother's eye but rather that we should first consider our own lives and attend to them first. How can we help free someone from sin if we ourselves are caught in sin? However, if we free ourselves from sin then we will be able to free others from sin as well. I had a friend who was contemplating a corrective word from God and God spoke to him saying, "Before you run anyone through with that sword, make sure you run it through your own heart a couple of times first." We should seek to apply the word of God to our lives first before we try and apply it to the lives of others.
The second step us to judge ourselves. Paul said, "Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted." (Galatians 6:1) We must judge ourselves not only for our own behavior and sins but also for our proclivities. There is a pride that can creep in when we think we have it together; a pride that can weaken us towards temptation and cause us to fall even while attempting something good. Paul said, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12) When we judge others by saying, "I would never do that!" then we deceive ourselves as to our true nature. Someone once said, "There but for the grace of God go I." This truth we should keep before our eyes while seeking to save others. We are all sinners, we are all susceptible to falling, we are all merely human. Such humility will allow us to help others without endangering ourselves.
The final step is to reach out in the gentleness and love of God. Paul says that, "we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (2 Corinthians 5:20) When we see people who are lost, hurting, or caught in sin, sometimes our instincts are to rush in to help. However, we must stop and realize that what they need is God. They don't need us, our ideas, or our platitudes, rather then need God to intervene in their lives to heal then, set them free, and restore them back to right relationship with God. God wants to reach out and we are but His ambassadors; not proclaiming ourselves but Christ and His message of love. Our goal is not to restore them to us and our view of how their life ought to be lived, but to restore them to God that they may receive His message and find obedience to Him and His will. We must learn what John once said, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30)