Q – Please explain the following from James 5:19-20 –
“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 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. ”
Jim – Since you haven’t told me exactly what it is about this passage that concerns you, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions. I assume that you want to know what this passage means in light of our eternal security and the electing grace of God.
This passage has been used by people over the years to argue in favor of autonomous freewill, based on the errant idea that the phrase “save a soul from death” means the same thing as saving someone from losing their salvation. But, that’s not the case. What James was writing about was physical death that results from sin.
Here’s why I say that: James is writing to “brethren,” a term used exclusively of believers. Plus, James refers to the erring person as “one among you,” which would mean that they are part of the body of believers. James is addressing the issue of believers who have wandered “from the truth.” So, they must have been exposed to the truth and grasped it in some measure. The whole tenor of James’s epistle has to do with people wandering into sinful lifestyles or activities and he argues for moral purity. James is not talking, in this context, about people wandering into doctrinal error. In fact, throughout his epistle he never argues that the saints have wandered away from Christian orthodoxy. He is speaking of saints who act in unholy ways.
But, just as the author of Hebrews adjured the saints to “exhort one another daily” (Heb. 3:13), James instructs the Jewish converts he is addressing to watch after each other. If someone wanders into sinful activities then, out of love, another saint ought to address it with him and return him to the straight path. It’s very much like Jesus’ own instruction –
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Matt 18:15-17)
And Paul picked up on that concept:
“Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:1-2)
It is incumbent on the brethren to attempt restoring a saint who is living unrighteously. So, what are the consequences of such an effort? Well, James said that a successful venture would result in two things: saving a soul from death and covering a multitude of sins.
As for “saving a soul from death,” I conclude that James is talking about physical death, not eternal damnation. The Greek word translated “soul” is “psyche,” which has within its scope of meaning both “life” and “person.” For example, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life [psyche] a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). But, no one would argue that Christ gave up His eternal soul. He did not risk eternal judgment; He gave up His mortal life. So, we could safely translate that clause as “he will save a life from death” or “he will save a person from death.” In other words, by bringing a wandering saint back to the truth we help them avoid premature death – just as God brought death on people within the Corinthian church for participating unworthily in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30). It was a means of judgment, but not eternal separation.
This may be what the Apostle John had in mind when he wrote –
“If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” (1 John 5:16-17 NIV)
So, I conclude that James is telling us that even though we have been saved by the grace of God and once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, we are still sinners living in mortal bodies who have a tendency to wander off like silly sheep. So we are to watch out for each other and return each other to the truth of the Christian life, knowing full well that if we do not, God’s judgment may be meted out against the erring saint as a means of correction or even to maintain a level of purity within the Church. That judgment may take the form of sickness or even death.
By contrast, if we do reach out to an erring brother or sister in Christ, we are acting out of love, seeking to restore such a one. And as Peter wrote –
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:7-8 NIV)
I think that’s what James has in mind here, as well. Our love, demonstrated by our willingness to restore an erring brother or sister, serves not only to prevent judgment from coming their way, but also helps to cover the sin into which they fell.
Hope that helps.
Q – It definitely helps. The passage jumped out at me this morning, and I couldn’t let go of it — or it wouldn’t let go of me. Out of context, it made me think of why some people say they have to go out on a “sinner-saving blitz.” Then, I started thinking there’s nothing we do to save anybody, especially since that work is finished.
Jim – Right. Plus, in context, James is clearly not talking about saving sinners; he’s talking about restoring saints – two entirely different things.
Still, I would be remiss if I did not point out that while it is true that there is nothing we can do as sinful humans to actually save a person, we must continually point them to the One who truly can and does save, who finished His redemptive work and who joys in saving sinners. And that’s why we preach the gospel of grace.
Yours in Him,