Christianity 201

July 12, 2015

Turning a Sinner — Who is Among You — From Error

NIV James 5:19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

The last two verses in the book of James are not typical of the way an epistle usually ends. They have been the subject of much writing. After clicking through more than a dozen options which I rejected (too long, audio link to sermons, forcing the text to address another agenda, etc.) I settled on these.

To kick things off, two short answers from a Catholic forum (yes really!) starting with:

This verse is somewhat ambiguous in the way that it’s written; given the way it’s constructed, it’s a reasonable question to ask “whose soul is saved? whose sins are covered? The revert, or the person who brought him back?”

Clearly, sacramental absolution — that is, ‘confession’ — is a necessary part of every Catholic’s life, and the letter to James isn’t suggesting an alternate path to forgiveness. With that in mind, and given some of the textual clues in the letter, it seems reasonable to suggest that a person who brings back a person to the faith is part of the process by which that person’s soul is saved, and is part of the dynamic by which that fallen-away Christian’s sins may be wiped away — none of which would have happened if that person didn’t bring the fallen-away Christian back into the fold!

And:

Scholars are divided to the exact meaning. What seems clear is the importance placed on the corporeal work of mercy of regaining a lost brother. “will save his soul from death” more likely refers to the lost brother’s not the re-gainer since the confession and apostasy seem to be chief concerns. “A multitude of sins”: some scholars say of the lost, some the re-gainer, some say both. The language is similar to 1 Pt 4:8 and Prov 10:12. These verses seem disconnected from the preceding ones. A practical thought might be that if your brother remained heretical, he may persuade others in his way, whereas due to your intervention, your brother returned and no longer persuaded others (that’s just a thought). But there is no question that the writers thought communally of both sin and benefit of fervent prayer.

Sorry, nothing definitive. Hope it helps.

Still with us?  Here’s a point-form outline from a local Church of Christ assembly that was simply immune to all attempts to copy and paste.

Finally, from the website Pure Unadulterated Grace, one more response. This is lengthier than I’ve reproduced here, so you’re encouraged to read it in context.

The word “save” in James 5:15 means exactly what it meant in verse 20.  Our opponents like to read, “save a soul” as meaning “saved from eternal damnation” but the context clearly does not allow for that rendering, as the “save the sick” in verse 15 clearly was not “saved from damnation.”  One can see that the “save” of verse 15 continued with the same meaning into verse 20.  The word “save” was already defined by the context (vs. 15), so if “save” in verse 20 referred to another type of saving then James would have made it clear.  The word “soul” had to do with the physical life of a person that flows consistently with the previous verses of one that was sick, and this was the saving in the context.  To read “saved or healed the sick” in verse 15, but “saved from eternal damnation” in verse 20 is simply being entirely dishonest with the context.

Verse 19 makes it clear that James was addressing “Brethren” who very well might “err from the truth.”  It would be another “brethren” (not God) to convert him from the “errors of his way” as it was not a “brethren” lost again being saved from eternal damnation.  This again flows with the context of restoration and not a person spared eternal damnation by hearing the gospel afresh.

People see the word “convert” and immediately assume that it refers to being saved by grace that is not in the context here, but rather it refers to the errors one has turned after.  It certainly can refer to one that is in darkness coming to see the light, but the context always determines that and never leaves us guessing.  Convert simply means to “turn back, to return.”  The brethren was to turn back to the truth and no longer the error he fell into, as this was not a “return back to eternal life.”  Nothing even states the loss of salvation.

Verse 20:  Who here is hiding a multitude of sins?  God?  No, He is not in the context here.  God forgives sins and not hides them.  Some try to say “hide” means forgiveness, but God does not merely veil our sins today but rather He takes them away.  You will find one parallel passage to what you read here in James 5:20 in 1st Peter 4:8:

8And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.

This paragraph is important: Was Peter saying that our love would cause God to forgive a multitude of sins of another believer?  No, so neither was James saying that our converting the “brethren” from error would cause God to forgive him of a multitude of sins, but that is what our opponents would like for us to think that James was saying.  This is not a brethren being forgiven again by God, but being restored by a fellow “brethren.”  This is not a believer being saved a second time from eternal damnation, but rather being restored by a fellow “brethren.”

…The person that erred was to be restored in love, and not with “turn or burn” type of nonsense.  This is a practice seldom seen in the church today, because the treatment a person receives for falling away can be quite abusive.  A person often is embarrassed to come back to the truth because of all the gossipers and the ill speech found in most religions today.  A person does not care to come back to the faith where they feel only judgment and glaring eyes await them.

I talk to people all the time that have been rejected by family and friends.  People do not want to stand before a large congregation and ask for forgiveness for whatever it was they did wrong, as religion abuses scripture and people.  These poor souls have no business confessing their sins before a large congregation, as they do not need reconciliation from Joe Smith that they do not know personally, and have not offended personally.  James 5:19-20 clearly was restoration and not preaching fear or guilt tactics.  The hiding a multitude of sins was the fellow brethren accepting the other brethren and their faults, and not God forgiving the person.

James 5:19-20 is not even remotely teaching eternal damnation, loss of salvation, the gospel, God forgiving the erring brethren, or saving him a second or third time from eternal damnation.  Once we stop adding words nowhere stated in the passage is when everything tends to clear up.  Our opponents focused on the words “saved from death…cover a multitude of sins” and have ran off with it ignoring the entire context.

It was the “brethren” that was doing the “converting,” it was the “brethren” that was doing the “saving,” and it was the “brethren” doing the hiding of a “multitude of sins” here.  Religion has allowed our eyes to see words and ideas nowhere presented in the context.  If this passage scared you before then read it again and notice that James preached no fear there at all, but loving restoration only.


I think that various commentaries can give us hints as to the meaning, but probably the framework through which you’re reading this may lead you to a more individual response. Like so many other scripture passages, I think this one is meant to challenge us to think! If you have any thoughts on this passage, be sure to leave a comment.

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