« Prev Chapter XXIX. The Work of Converting Sinners; Its… Next »



"My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins."—St. James v. 19, 20.

ST. JAMES has just been speaking of the case of a man who is sick, and needs the prayers of others for his healing, both in body and soul; for it may be that the sick man has sins to be repented of as well as ailments to be cured. This leads naturally enough to the common case of those who, whether sick in body or not, feel their consciences burdened by sin. They are to make known their trouble to one or more of the brethren, in order that efficacious prayers may be offered to God on their behalf. But these cases do not by any means cover the whole ground. Besides those who feel and make known their bodily sickness, and those who feel and make known their spiritual sickness, in order that their fellow Christians may pray to God for their healing, there is the common case of those who either do not feel, or if they feel do not confess, that their souls are sick unto death. There are many who have left the path of life, and are going steadily, and perhaps rapidly, to destruction, who are 351 ignorant of their piteous condition; and there are others who are aware of their peril, but are either too hardened to desire any serious change, or too proud to own their condition to others and ask their help towards recovery. Are such unhappy persons to be left to themselves, and allowed to go on their way to perdition, for want of the aid which they are too insensate or to haughty to ask?

Certainly not, says the writer of this Epistle. The reclaiming of such sinners is one of the noblest tasks which a Christian can undertake; and the successful accomplishment of it is fraught with incalculable blessings, the thought of which ought to move us to undertake such work. To save one immortal soul from eternal death is worth the labour of a lifetime. If to lead one soul astray is to share the devil's work and incur guilt to which a violent death would be preferable (Matt. xviii. 6; Mark ix. 42; Luke xvii. 2), to lead one soul back from death is to share Christ's work (2 Cor. vi. 1) by blotting out from God's sight the sins which cry for punishment.

We shall obtain a clearer view of the meaning of St. James in these concluding verses of his Epistle if we begin with the last words of the passage, and from them work back to what precedes.

"Shall cover a multitude of sins." Whose sins? Not the sins of him who converts the erring brother. This view, which is perhaps the one which most readily occurs to those who merely listen to the passage as it is read in church, but have never studied it, may safely be rejected, although it has the sanction of Erasmus and to some extent also of the Venerable Bede. There are two reasons, each of which would suffice to condemn this explanation, and which taken together are 352 almost unanswerable. (1) Nowhere else in Scripture do we find any such doctrine, that a man may cover his own sins by inducing another sinner to repent. On the contrary, it is one of the terrible possibilities which attend the work of the ministry that a man may preach successfully to others, and yet himself be a castaway (1 Cor. ix. 27), and may move many hearts, while his own remains as hard as the nether millstone. It is altogether misleading to quote Matt. vi. 14 in connexion with this passage. There Christ says, "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." What has that to do with converting sinners from their sins? Is "Forgive, that ye may be forgiven," even parallel to "Convert, that ye may be forgiven"? It is very far indeed from being equivalent to it. The exact parallel would be, "Convert, that ye may be converted;" and where in either the Old or the New Testament do we find any such teaching as that? What we do find is the converse of it: "Be converted, that ye may convert. Cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye" (Matt. vii. 5). And this brings us to the other reason why this interpretation ought to be set aside. (2) We cannot suppose that St. James would contemplate, not merely as a possible case, but as the normal condition of things, that a Christian would undertake the task of converting others while his own conscience was burdened with a multitude of sins. He no doubt assumed, and meant his readers to assume, that before taking this very glorious, but also very difficult work upon themselves, Christians would at least have repented of their own sins, and thus have won the assurance that they were covered 353 and forgiven. As we have seen, St. James shows an intimate personal knowledge of the teaching of Christ, and especially of that portion of it which is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. It is difficult to believe that any one who was acquainted with the fundamental principle involved in the saying just quoted, about the mote and the beam, would end his exhortations to the Church with a declaration which, according to the view of Erasmus and others, would mean that it is precisely those who have a beam in their own eye who should endeavour to convert sinners from the error of their ways, for in this way they may get the beam removed, or at least overlooked.

It is the sins of the converted sinner that are covered when a brother has had the happiness of converting him. The saying "cover sins" is a proverbial one, and seems to have been common among the Jews. St. Peter also makes use of it (1 Peter iv. 8); and this is one of the points which make some persons think that the writer of this Epistle had seen that of St. Peter, and others that St. Peter had seen this one (see above, p. 59). The source of the saying appears to be Prov. x. 12, "Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all transgressions." It is, however, by no means certain that St. James is consciously quoting this saying, although his evident fondness for the sapiential books of Scripture would incline us to think that he is doing so. But the Septuagint of the passage in Proverbs has a different reading: "Friendship shall cover those who love not strife." A similar expression to the one before us occurs twice in the Psalms: "Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of Thy people; Thou hast covered all their sin" (lxxxv. 2): "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (xxxii. 1). The 354 fact that the phrase occurs so frequently renders it impossible for us to determine the precise passage which suggested the use of the words in this place. (See note at the end of this chapter.)

The statement that the converted sinner had "a multitude of sins" which are covered by his returning from "the error of his way" shows us plainly what is meant by "the error of his way" and by his "erring" or "being led astray100100   πλανηθῇ. This aorist passive may have a middle signification, but it is simpler to allow it to be passive: the man has been led astray by evil influences, and he is led back by good influences. It matters not whether we regard him as led astray by sin (Bengel), or Satan, or wicked companions. from the truth." St. James is evidently not thinking of purely dogmatic error, about which his Epistle is almost, if not entirely, silent. It is conviction as expressed in conduct with which he deals throughout. As we have seen again and again, the evils which he denounces are those of a sinful life: with the evils of erratic speculation he does not deal at all. Quite in harmony, therefore, with the practical character of the Epistle, we find that with him to "err from the truth" means the apostasy that is involved in a life of sin. "Of His own will God brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (i. 18); and those who allow themselves to be seduced into sinful courses dishonour their Divine parentage and desert their Father's home. To recover such from the path of destruction is the blessed work to which St. James wishes to incite and encourage his readers.

It is important to recognize the fact that it is the lives of notorious sinners, and not the views of those who differ from us, that we are urged to correct. The 355 latter interpretation is not an uncommon one. The expression "err from the truth" seems at first sight to countenance it; and to many of us the work of winning over others to accept our religious opinions is much more congenial employment than that of endeavouring to reclaim the profligate. But the duty to which St. James here exhorts us is one of universal obligation. It is one which every Christian must recognize, and according to his opportunities perform; and it is one which every one, however ignorant, simple, and insignificant he may be, is able in some measure to fulfil. But comparatively few of us are qualified to deal with the erroneous opinions of others. Not infrequently those which we think to be erroneous are nearer the truth than those which we hold ourselves. Even where this is not the case, the errors may be much less hurtful than we suppose, because, with happy inconsistency, men allow the goodness of their hearts to direct their conduct, rather than the erratic convictions of their heads. And again, our efforts to change the erroneous opinions of others may do more harm than good, for it is much more easy to unsettle than to establish. We may take away a plank, without being able to supply an ark; and an inadequate or even faulty principle is better than no principle at all. The man who endeavours to act up to erroneous convictions is in a much healthier state than the man who has lost all convictions whatever. And this is the danger which always lies before us when we attempt to win others over from sincere and steadfast beliefs which seem to us to be untrue. We may succeed in shaking these beliefs; but it by no means follows that we shall be equally successful in giving them better beliefs in exchange for them. We may accomplish no 356 more than the miserable result of having convinced them that in religion everything is uncertain.

Of course there are times when it is our duty to do what we can to bring others over to opinions which we are persuaded are much sounder and safer than those which they at present hold; but such times are very much less frequent than many of us are inclined to believe. It is obviously our duty to undertake this difficult task when other people consult us as to their religious convictions; but the mere fact that we know what their convictions are, and that we hold them to be perilously unsound, does not establish a right on our part to attempt to change them. And as regards the passage before us, it is quite clear, both from the context and from the tenour of the whole Epistle, that the rare occasions on which we are under the obligation of endeavouring to convert others to our own ways of thinking are not the occasions to which St. James refers in these concluding sentences of his letter.

The duty of reclaiming the lost grows out of the condition of brotherhood which is assumed all through the Epistle as being the relation which exists between those who are addressed. This is manifestly the case here. "My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth." If it be right to clothe and feed the naked and hungry brother, to pray for the sick brother, and for those who confess their faults to us, much more must it be right to do all that is possible to bring back from the way of death those who are walking in it, to convert them, turn them right round, and induce them to go in the opposite direction. To believe in God, to believe that we are His children, and yet to act as if the bodies and souls of others, who are equally His children, are in no degree in our keeping, and that their condition 357 is no concern of ours—this is indeed to have that faith which, being apart from works, is dead.

How is the conversion of the erring brother to be effected? St. James gives no explicit directions, but leaves all matters of detail to the discretion of the worker. Yet he does not leave us altogether without guidance as to what are the best methods. One of these is intimated by what immediately precedes, and the other by the general import of the letter. These two efficacious means for the conversion of sinners are, not rebuke or remonstrance, not exhortation or advice, not anger or contempt, but—prayer and good example. It is by prayer that the sick may be restored to health; it is by prayer that sinners who confess their sins may be healed; and it is by prayer that sinners, who as yet will not confess and repent, may be won over to do so. And here the appropriateness of the example of Elijah becomes evident. Elijah was a prophet, and he knew that when he prayed for drought and for rain he was praying for what was in accordance with the will of God; and it is such prayers that are sure of fulfilment. We are not prophets, and when we pray for changes of weather we cannot be sure that what we ask is in accordance with God's will. All that we can do is to submit humbly to His will, and to beg that, so far as they are in harmony with it, our desires may be granted. But when we pray for the conversion of sinners we are in the same position as Elijah. We know from the outset that we are praying for something which it is His will to grant, if only the rebellious wills of impenitent sinners do not prove insuperable: for He forces no one to be converted; He will have voluntary service, or none at all. When, therefore, we ask Him for the assistance of His Holy Spirit in 358 bringing back sinners from the error of their ways, we may have the greatest confidence that we are desiring that which He would have us desire, and are uniting our wills to His. This, then, is one great instrument for the conversion of our erring brethren—the prayer of faith, which can remove mountains of sin out of God's sight, by bringing the sinner, who has piled them up during years of sinning, to confess, and repent, and be forgiven.

The case of St. Monica, praying for the conversion of her sinful and heretical son Augustine, will occur to many as a beautiful illustration of the principle here indicated. He himself tells us of it in his immortal Confessions (III. xi., xii. 20, 21); how that for years, especially from his nineteenth to his twenty-eighth year, he went on seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving, in various lusts; and how his mother continued to pray for him. "And her prayers entered into Thy presence; and yet Thou didst leave me to wallow deeper and deeper in that darkness." Then she went to a certain bishop, and entreated him to reason with her son; but he declined, saying that the time for that had not yet come. "Leave him alone for a time; only pray to God for him." But she was not satisfied, and continued to implore him with tears that he would go and see Augustine, and try to move him. At which he somewhat lost patience, and sent her away, saying, "Go, leave me, and a blessing go with thee: it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish." Which answer, as she often told her son afterwards, she accepted as if it were a voice from heaven; and all Christendom knows how her prayer was heard. He himself attributed all that was good in him to his mother's tears and prayers.

359 The other great instrument in accomplishing this blessed work is a good example. A holy life is the best sermon, the most effectual remonstrance, the strongest incentive, the most powerful plea. Without it words are of little avail; with it words are scarcely necessary. This is the instrument which St. James throughout this Epistle commends. Not words, but works; not professions, but deeds; not fair speeches, but kind acts (i. 19, 22, 27; ii. 1, 15, 16, 26; iii. 13; iv. 17). Nothing that we can say will ever make such impression upon others as what we do and what we are. Eloquence, reasoning, incisiveness, pathos, persuasiveness, all have their uses, and may be of real service in the work of winning back sinners from the error of their ways, but they are as nothing compared with holiness. It is when deep calls to deep, when life calls to life, when the life of manifest devotion at once shames and attracts the life of flagrant sin, that spirits are moved, that the loathing for vice and the longing for virtue are excited. The man whose own habitual conduct most often makes other men ashamed of themselves is the man who not only has the best of all qualifications for winning souls to God, but is actually accomplishing this work, even when he is not consciously attempting it. And such a one, when he does attempt it, will have a large measure of the requisite wisdom. The earnestness of his own life will have given him a knowledge of his own heart, and that is the best of all keys to a knowledge of the hearts of others.

There is something fatally wrong about us if we have no strong desire to bring back sinners to God. We cannot be Christ's disciples without having it. The man who would go to heaven alone is already off the road thither. The man whose one consuming 360 thought is to save his own soul has not yet found out the best means of saving it. The surest road to personal happiness is to devote oneself to promoting the happiness of others, and the best way to secure one's own salvation is to devote oneself to the Divine work of helping forward the salvation of others. Let the fear of giving scandal to others keep us from sin; let the hope of being a help to others encourage us in well-doing; and let our prayers be more for others than for ourselves. As Calvin says, on this passage, "We must take heed lest souls perish through our sloth whose salvation God puts in a manner in our hands. Not that we can bestow salvation on them, but that God by our ministry delivers and saves those who seem otherwise to be nigh destruction."

What is the reward which St. James holds out to us to induce us to undertake the work of converting a sinner? He offers nothing; he promises nothing. The work itself is its own reward. To win back an erring brother is a thing so blessed, so glorious, so rich in incalculable results, that to have been enabled to accomplish it is reward enough—is a prize sufficient to induce any true hearted Christian to work for it. It is no less than the "saving of a soul from death;" and who can estimate what that means? It is the "covering of a multitude of sins."

There is no need to make this last phrase include the sins which the man would otherwise have committed had he not been converted. Sins not committed cannot be covered. It is quite true that by conversion a man is saved from sins into which he would certainly have fallen; and this is a very happy result, but it is not the result pointed out by St. James. The sins which have been committed during the daily walk 361 towards destruction are what he has in his mind; and they are not one or two here and there, but a multitude. To aid a brother to get rid of these by confession and repentance is an end that amply repays all the trouble that we can take in attaining to it.

"But the number of renegades is so enormous; the multitude of impenitent sinners is so overwhelming: how is it possible to convert them?" St. James says nothing about converting multitudes; he speaks only of converting one. "If any (ἐάν τις) among you do err from the truth, and one convert him." To bring over one soul from eternal death to eternal life may be within the power of any one earnest Christian. Is each one of us making the attempt? Are we making our lives as beneficent, as sympathetic, as unselfish as our opportunities admit of? Do we give a generous, or even a moderate share of encouragement to the numerous agencies which are at work to lessen the temptations and increase the means of grace for those who are living in sin, and to help and encourage those who, in however feeble a way, are making a fight against it?

"Know ye,101101   This is probably the true reading. that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins." With these words St. James abruptly takes leave of those whom he addresses. The letter has no formal conclusion; not because it is unfinished, or because the conclusion has been lost, but because St. James wishes by means of a sudden close to leave his last words ringing in the hearts of his readers. In this respect the Epistle reminds us of the First Epistle of St. John. "Guard 362 yourselves from the idols" is the only farewell which the last of the Apostles has for his "little children;" and a very summary statement of what the conversion of one sinner means is the farewell of St. James to his "brethren." In both cases it is the abruptness of emphasis, as if the writer said, "If all else that I have written be forgotten, at least remember this."

How beautiful to find one noble soul, and enter into frequent communion with it! how happy to be the means of preserving it from defilement! but most blessed of all to be instrumental in rescuing it from degradation and destruction! "I say unto you, That there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, which need no repentance."

Note.—It is by no means impossible that in the phrase "cover a multitude of sins" neither St. James is quoting St. Peter, nor St. Peter St. James, nor either of them quoting Psalms or Proverbs, but that each of them is reproducing a saying of Christ's which is not recorded in the Gospels. The phrase occurs in both Clement of Rome (XLV.) and Clement of Alexandria (Strom. I. xxvii.; II. xv.; IV. xviii.; Quis Div. Salv. xxxviii.), in all which places it may be a quotation from 1 Peter iv. 8. But in one place (Pædag. III. xii.) he seems to give it as a saying of our Lord's, for he couples it with a saying which is certainly His (Luke xx. 25). Clement's wording is as follows: "Love, He saith, covereth a multitude of sins; and respecting citizenship, Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's;" where one and the same "He saith" (φησί) covers both sayings. In the Didascalia (II. iii.) the saying is explicitly attributed to Christ: "Because the Lord saith, Love covereth a multitude of sins." See Resch, Agrapha; Aussercanonische Evangelienfragmente (Leipzig, 1889), pp. 248, 249.

« Prev Chapter XXIX. The Work of Converting Sinners; Its… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection