James 5:20 Explained – How Our Eternal Salvation Can Never Be Lost
In this video, we’re going to look at James 5:20, a verse that has been misused by many to supposedly prove that a saved believer who willfully sins can be judged by God and sent to hell. Is that what this verse is saying? Now way! Let’s look into it.
Here’s the verse from James and we’ll include verse 19:
“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20 KJV)
This verse is actually an encouragement to believers to watch over each other and to help each other to walk in holiness and obedience to God, to care for our brothers and sisters in the Lord and to take the initiative when we see another believer stumbling into sin. God has placed upon us the responsibility to reach out, care for and try to restore a sinning believer to a place of obedience. That’s what this verse is about.
But there are many out there, especially in the Lordship Salvation movement, who have taken this verse as a proof text that, according to them, shows that a sinning believer can lose their salvation and be sent to hell. The phrase that convinces them of this is the phrase, “shall save a soul from death,” referring to how the sinning believer’s soul is saved from death. Their reasoning is that an eternal soul can only be destroyed in hell, so if James is talking about the death of an eternal soul, it must mean eternal judgment and eternal destruction in hell. Therefore, this verse is, according to them, proof text that a saved believer who engages in willful sin can still end up under God’s judgment, lose his or her salvation, and be sent to hell, which would totally contradict the the teaching of eternal security.
This is, quite simply, just a bad interpretation of this phrase and this verse.
The correct meaning is that the word “soul” is simply referring to the life, the physical life, of the sinning believer and “death” refers only to the physical death of the sinning believer, not an eternal death. The principle being taught here is that if a saved believer goes on sinning, he or she can reach a point where God decides to end their physical life early and take them home.
So James 5:20 is speaking to the stronger believer, saying that, by helping a saved believer turn back from sin, you may help spare his or her life so that God will not judge that person and end his or her physical life early. This verse is NOT speaking of eternal death or salvation being lost.
In this video, I’m going to prove to you why this interpretation is correct, that James is NOT talking about how it is possible for a willful sinning believer to be sent to hell, and thereby reaffirming our eternal security in Christ.
I’m going to prove this in two ways, depending on how you view the topic of whether it is even possible for a soul to die. This topic of whether a soul can die has been debated throughout the history of Christianity. There are saved Christians on both sides of this issue It is not a salvation issue, but a matter of how you interpret Scripture on this topic, so it’s ok for Christians to disagree on it.
So let’s start with the position that it is not possible for a soul to die, which is what I personally believe. I believe it because we see the eternality of the soul in hell in Scripture. Here are a few verses, beginning in Revelation 20:
“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10 KJV)
Here, we see the final judgment of Satan, where he will be thrown into a lake of fire and be tormented forever and ever. But it also says that that’s where the beast and false prophet are. The beast is the antichrist and then there’s the false prophet. Both are human. So we see at least two instances of human souls in the lake of fire, where there is torment day and night forever and ever.
The same is true in Revelation 14:
“… If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:9-11 KJV)
Again, we see human souls in the lake of fire and their torment endures forever and ever. Some who don’t believe that our soul is immortal point out that it says only the smoke of their torment rises forever, indicating that after their soul is destroyed, the smoke will continue to rise forever. But as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Plus, it then says that they will have no rest day or night. Sounds like their soul will endure forever to me.
Then there’s the testimony of Jesus in Matthew 25:
“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:46 KJV)
Jesus said that unbelievers will go away into everlasting punishment which, to me, indicates the soul continues forever.
But, as I said, there are two sides to this argument of whether it’s possible for a soul to die. Those who say it is possible for a soul to die would interpret Matthew 25:46 as saying that their punishment of death is what is everlasting and that, once their soul is dead, they’re not coming back. Their death lasts forever.
They would also point out other verses like Matthew 10:28, where Jesus said:
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 KJV)
Or 2 Thessalonians 1:9, talking about unbelievers:
“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power;” (2 Thessalonians 1:9 KJV)
These two verse seem to indicate that the soul is destroyed and not eternal. However, looking at the Greek as to what this word “destroyed” means, you could argue the issue either way.
The word “destroy” is the Greek word apollymi, which means:
- to destroy
- to put out of the way entirely,
- put an end to
- render useless
- to kill
- to declare that one must be put to death
- metaph. to devote or give over to eternal misery in hell
- to perish, to be lost, ruined, destroyed https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g622/kjv/tr/0-1/
From this definition of the word destroy, the Greek text does support the idea of eternal misery in hell, so you could argue both positions.
I’m not going to try to settle this issue here. Again, what you believe about whether a soul can die is not a salvation issue.
But getting back to James 5:20 and the phrase “shall save a soul from death,” if it is not possible for a soul die, which is what I believe, then that’s the end of this argument of what James is saying. For if the human soul is eternal and it’s impossible for a soul to die, then James 5:20 can ONLY be referring to physical death. So that would prove that James is NOT saying that a willfully sinning believer could be sent to hell, because a soul simply cannot be put to death.
But let’s say you are on the other side of this issue about whether a soul can die. How would you still prove that James 5:20 is NOT saying that a willfully sinning believer could be put to eternal death?
To answer that, here are 5 reasons why James 5:20 STILL CANNOT MEAN that eternal death is possible for a sinning believer, that what James is really talking about is saving the physical life of a sinning believer from physical death.
Reasons 1-4 will show how it is possible, even probable, that James 5:20 refers only to a physical life being lost and not an eternal life. Then reason 5 will show why it is mandatory to interpret it this way. So let’s get started.
- The Greek word psyche (G5590), translated as “soul” in James 5:20, is primarily used in Scripture to mean “life, breath of life, physical life” and is most often translated as simply, “life.”
Psyche (G5590) is used in the New Testament 105 times
45 times (the predominant use of the word) to mean “physical life, breath of life”
4 times to mean “mind”
7 times to mean “moral being”
27 times to mean “eternal soul”
So right off the bat, we can see that Scripture uses this Greek word, translated into English in James 5:20 as “soul,” in ways that do not necessarily mean the “eternal soul” of the believer. And in fact, the predominant use of this Greek word is to simply mean “life.”
Let’s look at a few examples:
“Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life (same word Psyche G5590) a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 KJV)
“For whosoever will save his life (psyche G5590) shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life (psyche G5590) for My sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” (Luke 9:24 KJV)
“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth His life (psyche G5590) for the sheep.” (John 10:11 KJV)
“And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, (psyche G5590) died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.” (Rev 8:9 KJV)
- “Soul” is often used as a synonym for physical life and, therefore, does not necessarily have to mean our eternal soul.
“Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls (psyche G5590).” (Acts 7:14 KJV)
“And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls (psyche G5590). (Acts 27:37 KJV)
“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls (psyche G5590) were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:20 KJV)
“And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul (psyche G5590) died in the sea.” (Rev 16:3 KJV)
Even in English, it is customary to use “soul” to mean “physical lives”
Example: “The ship when down and 100 souls perished.”
BOTTOM LINE: The Greek word psyche, translated as “soul” in James 5:20, can easily mean physical life and that is, in fact, the predominant translation of that Greek word in Scripture.
- Greek word thanatos (G2288), translated as “death” in James 5:20, is primarily used in Scripture to mean “physical death” not eternal death.
Used 118 times in the New Testament:
95 times referring to physical (not eternal) death
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death (thanatos G2288)” (Matthew 20:18 KJV)
“And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: (thanatos G2288) tarry ye here, and watch.” (Mark 14:34 KJV)
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, (thanatos G2288) nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38 KJV)
The predominant way (by far) that Scripture uses this Greek word for “death” is to refer to physical death.
- Throughout the New Testament, we see warnings of physical death (not eternal death) as a possible penalty for a sinning believer, corroborating this interpretation of James 5:20.
I won’t go through these in detail, but here are some references:
- Acts 5:1-10 – Ananias and Sapphira losing their lives because they lied to the church. It never says they lost their salvation and were eternally damned.
- 1 Corinthians 11:30 – believers who were put to death by God after partaking of Communion in an unworthy manner
- 1 John 5:16-17 – John speaks of “a sin that leads to death”
- 1 Corinthians 5:5 – Paul delivering an immoral believer over to Satan for the destruction of is flesh (so that his soul may be saved!)
5. Harmony with other Scripture requires James 5:19-20 be
interpreted as “physical death,” not “eternal death”
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and SHALL NOT COME INTO CONDEMNATION; but is passed from death unto life.” (John 5:24 KJV)
If James is saying a believer can be condemned because of sin, then John 5:24 cannot be true, which means God’s Word is in error. But Scripture never contradicts itself so James 5:20 cannot mean eternal condemnation. Numerous verses would contradict James if James is saying that a believer could lose salvation because of sin. The ONLY way to maintain harmony with other Scripture is to interpret James 5:20 as referring to physical death. Other verses that would contradict James would include:
- John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 KJV) – If you have everlasting life, you cannot die. And by the way, the word “should” in this verse does not mean everlasting life is conditional (i.e. you “should” not perish, but you might). The word “should” is not there in the original Greek. The Greek says, “whosoever believeth in Him not perish.”
- John 3:36
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36 KJV) – you have everlasting life the moment you believe.
- John 6:35
“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 KJV) – Never means NEVER, so you can’t lose it.
- John 6:39-40
“And this is the Father’s will which hath sent Me, that of all which He hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of Him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:39-40 KJV) – The Father’s will is that none be lost and Jesus Himself said that every single person who believes in Him will have everlasting life.
- Acts 16:30-31 – the jailer asked Paul and Silas:
“…Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31 KJV) – There’s only one condition for being saved: BELIEVE!
- Romans 8:1-2
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2 KJV) – There is no condemnation any more for a believer in Christ. The phrase “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” is presented as a description of a believer, not a condition for salvation. How do we know this? The very next verse: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Sin can no longer cause eternal death for a believer. We are free in Christ. We are free from the law of sin and death.
- Romans 8:38-39
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39 KJV) – Nothing can separate us from Christ. We are eternally secure.
- Hebrews 10:14
“For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 KJV) – As soon as we place our faith in Christ, we are sanctified by His blood. If by this offering we are perfected forever, then we can never lose our salvation.
- 1 Peter 1:3-5
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again (BORN AGAIN)
unto a lively (LIVING) hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 KJV) – Our salvation is incorruptible (we cannot corrupt it), undefiled (by sin or anything else), fadeth not away (it is everlasting), reserved in heaven (we cannot lose it). We cannot lose it because it is protected by the power of God.
- Plus so many more verses I could list that would conflict with James 5:20 if James is speaking about a believer possibly losing salvation. He’s not.
If God’s Word is true, there can be no conflicts, for God never contradicts Himself.
As a bonus, let me give you two additional reasons why James 5:20 must be referring to physical death:
- The absence of terminology describing hell – If James 5:20 is referring to eternal death in hell, then why didn’t he include terms that Scripture typically uses to describe hell, terms like “outer darkness, unquenchable fire, eternal separation from God, everlasting destruction, torment, etc.? None of those terms repeatedly used in Scripture to describe hell are used in James 5:20. That’s because James is not talking about the possibility of a believer going to hell.
- James 5:20 is not presented as a warning to the sinning believer. It’s not even addressed to the sinning believer. It’s addressed to the stronger believer who is helping a sinning believer turn from sin. The verse is presented as an encouragement and blessing to the believer who helps another believer turn from sin. If James is speaking of eternal damnation for the sinning believer, that’s a REALLY BIG DEAL. Why would he just mention this in passing as his last statement of the letter and not even address the comment to the sinning believer to warn them, but instead, address his comment as a blessing to the one who restores the sinning believer? That’s because he’s not talking about eternal damnation.
“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way
shall save a soul (physical life) from death (physical death),
and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20 KJV)
In conclusion, the correct interpretation of James 5:19-20 is that of a mature believer rescuing an immature believer from sin, thereby possibly saving his physical life from God’s judgment. Eternal salvation is never in jeopardy.
The message to us is twofold:
- As saved believers, we have a responsibility to watch over our weaker brothers and sisters in the Lord and to take the initiative to help correct them if we see them stumbling into sin. We are to do this gently and with love, as prescribed in Galatians 6:1:
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness (GENTLENESS); considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1 KJV)
- To the sinning believer who is engaging in ongoing sin, the message is to take your sin seriously because God could decide at any moment to end your physical life. When we sin as believers, God treats us as His children. He first warns us – that’s why those warning verses are there in Scripture. If we still don’t respond, He’ll start to discipline and chasten us. If we still don’t respond, He may decide to end your life. Your salvation won’ t be lost, for it is a free gift based on what Christ did, not on what you do, but you will lose the rest of the life that you could have had, lose eternal rewards and be ashamed when you stand before Him.
If you are a believer who is engaging in sinful behavior, now is the time to stop it. God has given you His Holy Spirit to help you stop it and will provide you with the strength to stop it. But by all means, make the decision today to stop it before it goes any further, to the point where you are tempting God to end your life. This is serious. Don’t take this lightly. God loves you and will never abandon you. But fearing and respecting God is a healthy thing. He is a holy God, so commit today to start walking in holiness before Him.
Finally, if you are not 100% sure that you are even saved and that God would welcome you into heaven, I urge you to turn to Him today and trust in Jesus for your salvation. Here’s a prayer for salvation that you can pray, but keep in mind that a prayer does not save you. You are saved only when you place your trust in Jesus alone, believing in your heart that He died to pay your debt of sin to God and that He rose from the dead to show you the eternal life that He offers. This prayer, then, is just a way of formalizing that decision, putting a stake in the ground, saying that you are trusting in Him and never going back.
Or, if you know you are saved but you have strayed so far from Him that you just need to repent and turn back to Him, then I urge you also to turn to Him now. Salvation can never be lost so we’re not saved multiple times, but you can still use this prayer as a prayer of repentance to turn back to God and reaffirm your faith in Christ. God is willing to forgive and return you to a place of blessing if you will take that step of repentance and return to Him.
If that’s what you would like to do, please pray with me:
“Lord, I have sinned and I need you to save me. I have not lived the way You desire me to live. Against You and You alone have I sinned. I am so sorry. From this point forward, I want to dedicate my life to You. I believe that Your Son Jesus shed His blood and died on the cross to pay for my sins, that He was buried and that He rose from the dead to show me the new eternal life You have for me. I believe solely in Jesus to save me, that He paid my debt of sin 100%. Thank you for this forgiveness. Please save me, live inside of me, be my Savior and Lord, and enable me to live for You. In Jesus Name I pray. Amen.”
If this expresses what you truly believe in your heart, know that you are eternally saved. God gives you this assurance:
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13 KJV)
Thank you for watching.