Lesson 35. The Reclamation Of Straying Christians (James 5:19-20) PART 1

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

19Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save la soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.


It's always an anxious moment, especially for families and friends, when someone is reported missing in the wilderness. Search and rescue teams spring into action. We wait expectantly for any word of locating the missing person. It's a moment of great joy if they find the person alive and well, but a time of great sorrow when they're too late.

If you are a Christian, then you're a member of God's search and rescue team. But even though every believer is on the team, I find that many never respond to the call to go out into the storm and look for the lost. Can you imagine being lost in the woods, but no one came looking for you? When you finally stagger out to civilization, you ask why no one came looking.

One member of the search and rescue team says, "It was frigid and stormy, and there was a good show on TV. So I just prayed for you to be okay." Another says, "I wanted to be sensitive to your feelings. I thought you might be embarrassed if we came looking." Another says, "I wasn't sure you were lost. It would be judgmental to imply that you were lost. Besides, it would be arrogant of me to say that I'm not lost. After all, we all have our paths on the journey." That's not the kind of search and rescue team that I would want if I were lost!I admit that what James tells us to do here is one of the most difficult things God asks us to do as Christians, namely,

Believers are responsible for helping restore straying sinners to the truth.

That task is often about as pleasant as trying to help a wounded dog—you're probably going to get bit no matter how gently you try to help. When you're successful, it's a moment of great joy, as when a search and rescue team announces, "We have found him, and he is alive and well." Yes! But even the hope of success doesn't make the task any easier. But since you're on God's search and rescue team, you need to learn how to do the job. Note three things:

1. Professing Christians stray from the truth both doctrinally and morally.

2. The search and rescue ministry is the responsibility of all believers.

3. The search and rescue ministry aims to restore the sinner to the truth, save his soul from death, and cover a multitude of sins.


19. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders1 from the truth, and someone turns him back,

Brethren — As if James had said, I have now warned you of those things to which you are most accountable. And in all these respects, watch, not only over yourselves but everyone over his brother also. Labor, in specific, to recover those that are fallen out of faith. For if any of you do blunder and fall from the truth — From the right way in which he ought to walk, if he is seduced by any means from the doctrine and practice of the gospel; and one — anyone; convert him — and become the means of bringing him back into that way from which he had wandered; let him know — he has been enabled to bring about such good work; that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way — From the false doctrine and bad practice to which he had turned aside, shall produce a much happier effect than any miraculous cure of the body; for he shall save a precious immortal soul from spiritual and eternal death, and shall hide a multitude of sins — Namely, the sins of the persons thus converted, which shall no more, how many soever they are, be remembered to his condemnation. "The covering of sin is a phrase which often occurs in the Old Testament and always signifies the pardoning of sin. Nor has it any other meaning here. For surely it cannot be the apostle's intention to tell us that the turning of a sinner from the error of his ways will conceal from the eye of God's justice a multitude of sins committed by the person who does this charitable office if he continueth in them. Such a person needs himself to be turned from the error of his way so that his soul may be saved from death. St. Peter has a similar expression (1 Peter 4:8,) "love covereth a multitude of sins"; not, however, in the person who is possessed of love, but in the person who is the object of his love."

The great difficulty for some in these verses is "in the thought of the doom of a Christian." Of course, the source of the problem is not in what James said but in the Calvinistic doctrine, which has no support in the New Testament, and which is contradicted on almost every page of it, including this one. There is no denying that the word "convert" used here is the same one used by Peter after denying the Lord (Luke 22:32). That usage merely confirms the thought that if Peter himself had not been converted even though he was a true believer, he still would have suffered eternal death.

Another question that surfaces about these verses is whether or not covering "a multitude of sins" applies to the sins of the converted or the sins of the one doing the converting. The primary meaning must undoubtedly be the former, although, of course, there is a sense in which those who win souls may Scripturally be said to "save themselves." Thus, Paul wrote Timothy, "In doing this thou shalt save both thyself and them that hear thee"

Many have commented on James' seemingly abrupt ending of the epistle, but this is altogether appropriate. He closed on the note of every Christian's concern for the backslider's reclamation, including the larger sphere of winning the alien (stranger ) lost to Christ.

No duty laid upon Christians is more in keeping with the mind of their Lord, or more expressive of Christian love, than the task of reclaiming the backslider.

Here there is no signature, no farewell greeting, no formal closure of any kind, just the bold, authoritative words of the inspired writer, standing starkly against the mists of fleeting centuries like a monumental inscription chiseled into a granite mountain. No pseudonymous writer, no forger, no impostor of later times would have dared to conclude a letter like this. James carries the inherent testimony of its truth and inspiration of God.

20. 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.

Let him know – Let him duly consider, for his encouragement, that he who is the instrument of converting a sinner shall save a soul from eternal death, and a body from ruin, and shall hide a multitude of sins; for in being the means of his conversion we bring him back to God, who, in his infinite mercy, hides or blots out the numerous sins which he had committed during the time of his backsliding. It is not the man's sins who is the means of his conversion, but the sins of the backslider, which are here said to be hidden. See more below.

1. Many think that hiding many sins is to be understood here to apply to the person who converts the backslider: this is a dangerous doctrine and what the Holy Spirit never taught to man. Were this true, that is, that one could hide another's sins, it would lead many a sinner to endeavor the reformation of his neighbor, that himself might continue under the influence of his beloved sins and conversion to a particular creed which would be put in the place of conversion to God. Thus the substance would be lost in the shadow. Some Bible translators contend "that the covering of sins causes God to look with greater tolerance on the character of the person that performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss." This from such authorities may be considered doubly dangerous; it argues, however, great ignorance of God, the nature of Divine justice, and the sinfulness of sin. It is besides completely anti-evangelical; it teaches in effect that something besides the blood of the covenant will render God favorable to man and that the performance of a pious action will persuade God's justice to show more lavish indulgence to the person who performs it and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss. On the ground of this doctrine, we might confide that, had he a specific quantity of pious acts; we might have all the sins of our lives forgiven, independently of the sacrifice of Christ; for if one righteous act can procure pardon for a multitude of sins, what may not be expected from a man. The Jewish doctrine, to which St. James may allude, was undoubtedly more sound than that taught by these Christian divines. They taught that the man who was the means of converting another had done a work highly pleasing to God and which should be rewarded, but they never insinuate that this would atone for sin. I shall produce a few examples:

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