My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
Last words are lasting words, as they say. So James leaves us with an enduring word of encouragement-to seek and save those who through suffering, sorrow and perpetual yielding have given up and drifted away. This is an echo of Paul's words, "We urge you, brothers... (to) encourage the timid, (and) help the weak" (1 Thessalonians 5:14). God forbid that in the pursuit of our own holiness we should ever leave anyone behind. As one of George MacDonald's characters asks, "Havna everybody the care o' the others?"
James is concerned here with the rescue and restoration of fellow-travelers who have fallen away (cf., James 5:13-18). The "sinner" is one who has made a good start and walked with God for a season, but who has struggled in vain against his or her sinful predilections and in weary discouragement has surrendered to them.
The "death" of which James speaks is soul death-the death-like state that enshrouds those who have give in to their shame. It is slavery, frustration, confusion, and overwhelming sadness. It is what another generation of Christians called acedia-spiritual torpor and apathy. It is a "weariness of effort that extends to the heart and becomes a weariness of caring" (Melvin Maddocks). It may have happened, or it may be happening, to you.
Here's the thing: we're called to be something more than we can be. We're inclined to talk about the "simple teachings of Jesus," as though they're easy to do, when in fact his sayings aren't simple at all. They're "hard" as his first disciples used to say. There isn't a man, woman or child who can keep them. Who of us can be as good as God (Matthew 5:43-48)? Is there any reason to doubt that some, when faced with the impossible demands of the Christian life, get discouraged and fall away?
Sören Kierkegaard, that strange and sometimes hard to understand Danish philosopher of a century ago, somewhere says that the way to become authentically Christian is to take any one of Jesus' precepts and try to keep it. He didn't mean it would be easy to do and all of us would become better believers as a result. He rather meant that if we try to follow any particular teaching we'll be driven to confession of our own sinfulness and the need for continual forgiveness. "It is a consoling idea," wrote Kierkegaard, "that we are always in the wrong."
Defeat, judgment, consternation, bewilderment, weariness, despair-these are the legacies of dedicated self-effort and unrealistic expectations, but we're not intended for this. Beyond the bad news of our failure and frustration is grace-that incredible gift of God.
Grace means that God forgives us, no matter what we have done, are doing, or will ever do. It means that our sins are gone forever-replaced by Love. "To say that (grace) is free unmerited favor only expresses a little of it's meaning. It is the unhindered, wondrous, boundless love of God poured out to us in an infinite variety of ways without stint or measure, not according to our deserving, but according to His measureless heart of love" (Hannah Whitehall Smith).
Grace also means that God in himself has given us the resources to make a beginning, to take our first steps in godliness. The question is not, "Can I make it? Am I able? Can I overcome my sin? The question is always, "Is he able?" Can he transform me?" He says he can, though it may take awhile: "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it" (1 Thessalonians 5:24). We can never be all we were meant to be in this life That awaits heaven. But we can begin, we can make steady improvement, and we can accept our failings and ourselves while we're underway.
That's the good news. That's the gospel we need to pass on to those who, through habitual failure, have fallen away. That's the gospel for all of us who have difficulty struggling upward into the light. That's the comfort we need to give to ourselves and to others.
At first, however, we don't need to say much to those who have fallen away. We just need to be a good friend. Certainly, we must not chide them for their sin. They're already busted; they know. "When one has the least thing on his conscience," said our friend Kierkegaard, "he is immediately conscious of the infinite weight of God."
It's better, therefore, to say little or nothing to our fallen friends at first and listen long enough to know what's on their hearts. Reality rarely lies on the surface, but is found deep down in the inward person. If we wait long enough we will find it.
Furthermore, if we will quell our compulsion to talk, if we will wait and watch and pray until they're sure of us, we will begin to hear the pathos and misery in their soul, and once we've heard that pain we cannot but speak in pity.
How often do I jump to conclusions about others and begin to orate and moralize without sensitivity and understanding? How often do I fail to feel my own faults as I hear theirs? How often do I speak without pity or compassion because I do not have the patience to hear others out? How often do I think I know and yet do not know the inner person, never enter that holy sanctuary? Consequently, my words have no weight at all.
Consent, if it is gained at all, must be gained by understanding, pity and love. Until others know our love no words will do-not even God's word. Paul put it this way, "The Lord's servant must...be kind to everyone... He must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:23-25). Those enslaved by sin are victims of the evil one, who has taken them captive to do his will. If they are to be won they will be won by those who speak deeply and convincingly through love.
It occurs to me, therefore, that the worst argument for repentance is to argue for it. No amount of debate can convince a man or woman until the time for truth has come. Far better to join them in their journey, if they will have you, and wait for God's time to speak. People will stand in line to tell others what they should do, but there are precious few who will sit with those who are struggling in sin, who will be patient, prayerful companions, who will help sinners bear their burden of sin and thus fulfill the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
And then, when we do speak to other's sins, we must quickly speak of God's mercy and grace, for that is their salvation; they must know that his loving-kindness is everlasting.
"Nothing but infinite pity is sufficient for the infinite pathos of life," wrote Amy Charmichael. God understands human misery as no one else does. He knows those who have been trampled underfoot as children, bent and broken by abuse. He grieves with those who are bending under a load of rejection and shame. He pities those whose hopes and dreams have been reduced to a flicker (Isaiah 42:3). His understanding is infinite. It is this "kindness," that draws men and women to repentance (Romans 2:4).
God's love, James insists, "covers a multitude of sins." Because Love has paid its price, a multitude of sins-all the sins we have accumulated over a lifetime-have been put away forever. "A most comfortable passage of scripture is this," says Matthew Henry of this text. "We learn hence that though our sins are many, even a multitude, yet they may be hid or pardoned...never to appear in judgment against us."
We must assure sinners that the most outrageous and repeated sins are forgiven according to God's mercy and grace. No one has gone so far that God will not have her or him again. We cannot drift beyond his love and care.
Furthermore, we must assure those who have wandered away that God's love will continue to cover their sins, for many yearn to come home, but are afraid they will only fail again. We must assure them that God is never disappointed, nor is he surprised by human frailty and failure, but long ago made provision for it. Before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, our dear Lord paid for all their sins-those that were, those that are and those that shall be. Thus his love "covers a multitude of sins"-even sin and guilt not yet acquired.
And in the meantime, despite false starts and failures, God is at work conforming some small part of all of us to his likeness, making us his portrait, his reproduction, his work of fine art. We can be confident of this: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). God is never in a hurry when goes to work, but he does mean business. He will never give up until his work is done.
This is the good news we must pass on to those who have themselves given up and wandered away. This is the remedy to which we must resort for the correction of their faults.
Not all will receive it. Sin cleaves to individuals more or less, according the inclination they have for it. It's not sin as such that holds them, but the love of sin. If they do not want purity, they will not have it for God does not foist anything on those who do not want it. That would be neither kind nor wise. But if sinners hate their sin, if their love of truth is pure and simple, if they are willing to turn toward the light, even if they've fallen into utter ruin, they can be thoroughly saved. It's not what they are, or what they have been that matters, but what they want to be.
And even if they must struggle with besetting sin for a season-God's inscrutable wisdom for some-it cannot dominate them forever. They will learn humility, they will see progress in holiness, and though always in process they will know the relief of full and final forgiveness. Their fear and pain will be transmuted into happiness and joy-both theirs and ours.
And so James ends his book on this brief note, leaving us with this simple, sublime benediction ringing in our ears: "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). This is the highest calling; the holiest healing.
To save a soul from death, to help another rise above sin and shame to become better, wiser, and more like God. Who could ask for anything more?