James 5:19-20: Closing Arguments
“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
These are the last words that James, the half brother of the Lord Jesus and elder of the church in Jerusalem, writes to the Jewish believers scattered abroad (1:1). This conclusion seems to be abrupt. But when read in light of the entire letter, these final verses are the perfect conclusion for what amounts to a letter pleading for fidelity. These last two verses summarize and conclude the entire letter. In other words, we first need to create some context.
What is James about? For what purpose did James pick up his pen to write to these Jewish believers scattered abroad? How do we even begin to answer that kind of question? One of the first things we can do is to compile a list of things we already know.
Audience: To whom is James writing?
James’ greeting names the addressees as “The twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (1:1). The mention of “twelve tribes” is a clear reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. The early church was nearly entirely made of Jewish converts until Paul and Barnabas took the gospel to Asia Minor and then into Europe. We might ask the question why these Jewish believers are “dispersed abroad” but need to look no further than Acts 6-9 to answer that question. Persecution drove the church out of Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth. It’s important to keep in mind that James is writing to Jewish believers. You should notice the often-repeated phrase “Brethren” or “My brethren” and understand that the reference is much more than physical kinship alone. These Jews are also (at least professing) Christians.
Content: What does James tell them?
Most of the substructure within James can easily be traced by keeping track of the repeated phrase “Brethren/My brethren.” James gives the following exhortations to his dispersed believing brethren:
1. Respond to trials and temptations with endurance (1:1-18)
2. Respond to Scripture with obedience (1:19-27)
3. Respond to each other with informed and impartial love (2:1-13)
4. Understand that saving faith is observable (2:14-26)
5. Understand that “wisdom’s” source is objective (3:1-18)
6. Understand that to love the world marks you as an enemy of God (4:1-5:6)
It’s one thing to boil all of James down to a few bullet points, but what is the common thread running through them all? In a word: Faithfulness.
Faithful believers will always endure under trials and temptations
Faithful believers will strive to obey Scripture
Faithful believers will demonstrate love for one another
Faithful believers will produce fruit in keeping with repentance
Faithful believers will reveal their faith comes from above, not below
Faithful believers shun worldliness as they pursue God
Purpose: Why does James say what he says?
James writes in a manner that is utterly black and white. You are either pleasing God with your conduct or you are not. You are living in obedience or sin. James never gives any middle ground. But it’s important to understand that James is not trying to lay a guilt trip in order to create submissive navel gazers. Rather, James is in the business of exposing sin so that A) True believers would repent from the sin and continue a life of obedience; or B) Those who professed faith only yet are only faking the funk would be exposed and thus repent in earnest and thus be saved. James calls for faithfulness by revealing what faithfulness truly is. Anything less than this line in the sand requires repentance. So how might one conclude such a letter?
“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back”
As we’ve stated before, “My brethren” refers to believers. James’ final words are to the believing community to which he is writing. In this verse is a hypothetical situation. This is not a repetition of an actual account, yet it is a situation that every church has faced. What’s the situation?
Believer A (James states that the individual in question is “among you.” This indicates that at the very least we’re dealing with a professing Christian) “strays from the truth.” The idea is that of one who wanders from the path. “The truth” is a reference to the whole counsel of God, but certainly there’s some emphasis upon the gospel itself. This guy has strayed off course, wandered from the path. He’s living a life that is not consistent with Scripture. To put it as plainly as possible, Believer A is living in sin. But then comes Believer B.
Believer B, in this hypothetical situation, turns Believer A back. There is a cessation of wandering and a continuation of traveling along the path of truth. There’s a return to fidelity. Because of Believer B’s effort, Believer A has confessed and repented of his sin and is now following Christ as before.
Not a big deal, right? This is what happens in a church family. When a brother sees another brother in sin, we confront him so that he might repent and be restored. But it is a big deal. Not only due to the fact that hardly any churches in America have even dared to actually confront sin, but also because of the implications of these actions and how large they loom.
“Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
This verse actually begins with an imperative. “Let him know” is better understood as “He must understand/recognize.” It’s vitally important that Believer B understands the implications of his actions. Anyone who turns a sinner from wandering (Believer B) will save his (Believer A’s) soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. Believer B is credited with exposing the genuine salvation of Believer A.
How do we know that a person is truly saved? Is there a test we can give them? A scan we can subject them to? Will genuine believers look a certain way? Dress a certain way? Speak a certain way? How can we know?
Simple. Genuine believers repent. Not just once, but every time sin is revealed. To be a faithful believer is to live a life of repentance. That is the entire premise on which Christ prescribed church discipline in Matthew 18. Most of us are hard headed sinners that require more than a single rebuke. That’s why Jesus, in His grace, gives many opportunities for repentance. But what’s the conclusion we are to reach if there is never repentance? Treat them as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17).
James has been calling professing believers (just like Believer A) to repentance for 106 verses now. These last two verses are an exhortation for these believers to continue this call for faithfulness. Identify and call out sin so that sinners might repent and be restored. If sinners repent: The genuine believer will be reconciled to Christ and to His body and the one hiding in the shadows will be redeemed. Both will be saved from eternal and spiritual death and both will have their multitude of sins covered.
What a beautiful conclusion! James exhorts the believing community to continue calling sin for what it is. But the purpose is with restoration in mind. To that we should all say, “Amen!”