“…let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
James concludes his epistle with the subject of divine discipline because his main idea throughout the book is to bring the believer back into a living faith (into dynamic fellowship with God).
let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way
The word “turns” here does not mean to convert a lost person. The word “turns” comes from two words: back and to turn. The business of the believer is to turn backslid believers back to God. It is the responsibility of a believer in fellowship to bring a believer in a state of deflection from the truth back to a walk with God.
will save a soul from death
James refers to physical death here. This believer is susceptible to physical death because of his protracted rebellion against God. The word “save” does not refer to eternal salvation of the soul here but to the saving of a believer under severe divine discipline.
“Soul” here refers to the whole person. “Death” here is temporal death and not eternal death (1 Jn 5:16). James refers here to saving a soul from physical death, not eternal death. If this suggests eternal death, then returning to truth makes no sense. There is no suggestion of mortal sin here. James suggests the possibility of recovery.
1 Co 11:30-32, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [die]. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”
1 Jn 5:16-17, “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.”
and cover a multitude of sins
If a believer stays out of fellowship, his sins begin to pile up. The word “cover” means to blot out, cancel, forgive. This phrase “cover a multitude of sins” may allude to Proverbs 10:12. “Cover” is a Hebraism for the meaning overlook, forgive. God’s purpose is to reclaim fallen believers out of fellowship. God will not look at the sins of a forgiven believer anymore. God does away with any number of sins, for there is no limit to His forgiveness. He will not continue to put him under the sin unto death.
Mic 7:19, “He will again have compassion on us,
And will subdue our iniquities.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.”
The epistle of James comes to an abrupt conclusion. Both Paul and Peter give salutations and conclusions to their epistles but not James.
God calls us to the task of restoring fallen fellow believers.
There is such a thing as saving a sinner, and there is such a thing as saving a saint. Jesus continuously saves saints (He 7:25). God gives this task of restoring fallen believers to the believer in good standing.
God does not call upon us to censor other Christians, but He does challenge us to restore fallen believers. There is no place for a priggish, self-righteous believer imposing his opinions on struggling Christians. Instead of condemning fallen Christians, we should try to lift them up.
1 Pe 4:8, “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover [forgive] a multitude of sins.’”
Turning back to God can free us from the sin unto death.
So do you not believe in apostasy of Christians?
The reason I ask this is because in one sentence James refers to brothers and the brother who strays from the truth. On the other hand, James flat out calls them a sinner, which is not a term used to address believers. To be called a sinner and to be brought back from death can mean one who has apostasized but has been brought back to repentance and saving faith, can it not?
Steve, you are right in that the Bible uses the term “sinner” overwhelmingly of the lost. However, there is a problem here if we assign the one promise to one party and the other to another. This is illogical. James expresses parallel ideas in parallel phrases in 4:7-9. Both probably refer to the same person. The most likely antecedent, ?????, is the sinner (the ????? with ????? referring to the ????? with ????) and thus both phrases probably refer to his forgiveness: he is saved from destruction and freed of his sins through repentance. There is no other biblical precedent for saving ourselves by saving others.
This statement must not be read in isolation from the previous discussion about prayer. James has disclosed the fact that there are sick people among the churches he addresses guilty of sin, and that their need could be met through prayer. Others might go spiritually astray, who might not be physically sick at all.
James suggests that if he wanders from the truth, any believer in right relation to God could turn him back to fellowship with God. The preceding verses indicate that the elders of the assembly are to be used in the restoration of a sinning saint.
The author speaks to “brethren” who are in doctrinal error. We may render “err from the truth” as “misled from the truth.” The passive voice in no way excuses sin. And “one convert him” means return or persuade him back to the truth. Verse 19 describes a Christian brother who has wandered away from the truth, either in doctrine or in practice. A brother makes this a matter of fervent, believing prayer, and thus lovingly turns him back to fellowship with God and with his brothers in Christ.
The person who does this will save his erring brother from dying prematurely under the chastening hand of God. Secondly, “he will cover a multitude of sins.” His sins will be forgiven and forgotten by God. Fellow believers will forgive him and veil him from the gaze of the outside world.
Anyone “who turns a sinner from the error of his way” (hodos: “road”) turns him aside from a sinful path that can lead to physical death (see 1:15). If successful, he “will save a soul” (psych?: “life,” “person”) “from death.” But he will do more than that, since a restored sinner receives the forgiveness of God. Thus the many sins created and multiplied by a man who turns away from God are all removed when that man turns back to God. The word rendered “cover” here (kalypt?) means “conceal.” Since the word “soul” (Gr psych?) may mean “life,” the clause may be taken as a warning that extensive carnality may result in physical death (I Cor 11:30).
There is a sense in which a believer can apostatize but we should use this term carefully. We use apostasy in today’s parlance as someone who rejects biblical truth. The idea of “err from the truth” carries the idea of apostasy.
Thank you very much for the clarification on this issue. I appreciate your insight and knowledge!
Thank you for your scholarship and insight about James 5:19-20.
Jeff, thanks for the word of encouragement.
Just came across your page as i was looking for such as a result of our SS discussion yesterday. Your commentary on this verse is fine , but where is the practical application.
1.Are we to be "sinner police"?
2.Are we to confront people (believers and non-belivers) everytime we see sin in their lives?
3. Am I to approach my next door neighbor and teel him that he should stop drinking beer? Or be a more godly husband and father?
4. David said it is a sin if I don't pray for you. Should I go to my fellow church members and tell them they are sinning by not attending weekly prayer meetings?
5. Where do you draw the line? One sin, two sins……………?
I think we are missing something in this verse, otherwise we are totally failing in the instruction that James has given us.
Please email me with you answer to my previous questions. Thanks
Jim, thanks for your blog.
I see no biblical evidence for a fellow Christian being the "sinner's police." The context here is dealing with something which casts a blight on the church as a whole. More particularly, the issue is "wandering from the truth." That is a doctrinal issue of enough significance to cause the sinner to "wander" away. This issue had enough import that it might have brought "death" upon the believer and covered a "multitude" of sins. Therefore, most of your applications above do not apply to this verse.
There is a place for a believer confronting a fellow Christian over a personal issue. There is a biblical process for this: 1) go to the individual personally, 2) take 2 or 3 with you, then 3) take the issue to the whole church (Mt 18). Yet even this does not allow for fellow Christians invading the privacy of fellow believers.
Thanks for the speedy and wise reply. But permit me to ask one more question. Does scripture require me to point out sin in another believers life? If this person is a neighbor, friend, family member but does not attend my local church, and the sin was not committed against me, am I required to confront that person??? Thank you in advance for your help.
There are two kinds of rebuke in the Bible: 1) personal, and 2) church. There are very few instances of personal rebuke. Paul rebuked Peter publicly due to his reversion into legalism in Ga 2:11-14, however, he did this under the authority of his apostleship. Most rebuke has to do with the church rebuking individuals, especially those who are hardened in sin. A church is to do this with these qualifications:
Before all 1 Tim. 5:20
With long-suffering 2 Tim. 4:2
Sharply Titus 2:15
With all authority Titus 2:15
This is not to say that a stronger Christian is not to encourage a weaker Christian to walk in a godly way.
The prayers of the righteous availed much. Yokes are broken because of the anointing. Share the gospel and the Holy Spirit will do the converting. We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all because He is our High Priest. The preserver of our soul. So let the believer know that because of the finished work of Christ his sin is done away with forever.
Hi, can you please point me to some scriptures talking about believers leaving the faith? (apostacy).
C, here is an article on the subject: Apostasy is a continual danger to the church, and the NT contains repeated warnings against it (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1–3; 2 Thes. 2:3; 2 Pet. 3:17). Its nature is made clear: falling ‘from the faith’ (1 Tim. 4:1) and ‘from the living God’ (Heb. 3:12). It increases in times of special trial (Mt. 24:9–10; Lk. 8:13) and is encouraged by false teachers (Mt. 24:11; Gal. 2:4), who seduce believers from the purity of the Word with ‘another gospel’ (Gal. 1:6–8; cf. 2 Tim. 4:3–4; 2 Pet. 2:1–2; Jude 3–4). The impossibility of restoration after deliberate apostasy is solemnly urged (Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26). Wood, A. S. (1996). Apostasy. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 58). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Thank you Grant! I appreciate your response.
Did you mean to add a link to an article?
Hi, so these people lose their salvation after having been saved? Sorry, i just want to make sure i understand you correctly.
C, no, I did not intend to link to the book. It was not a hyperlink but a text from a book.
C, these people are clear believers as the context shows. “Death” is physical death, not spiritual or eternal death. “There is a sin unto death” is physical death. If you study the verses leading up to this one, you can see the connection to Christians.
Thank you Grant for always explaining so clearly.
Thanks for a clear explanation, I’m preparing for my Sunday sermon…God bless you more!