God’s Word for You
James 5:19-20 To cover a multitude of sins
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, September 5, 2020
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever turns a sinner from his error will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
After love, the greatest good work a person can do is to turn another from sin and back to Christ. James takes us right into the scene of this kind of conversion. There is someone, “anyone among you,” who “wanders from the truth.” This is the picture of the sheep going astray used by Jesus (Matthew 18:12). James coaches us to turn them back, but we really should run back to Jesus’ words to be reminded how to do this. “Go and show him his fault,” the Lord said, “just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matthew 18:15). It’s as simple as that, and often, especially if we address a sin right away, that’s all that needs to happen. But we know that sometimes we need to do more. So Jesus goes on: “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matthew 18:16). This act of discipline has two further stages: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” This is the open rebuke of the whole congregation or its representatives, so that a person’s denial of sin will bring open shame and perhaps lead them back to repent. But “if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan” (Matthew 18:17). A sinner who refuses to repent of their sin has placed himself outside the fellowship of the church. He is no longer to receive the sacrament, and it is as if he has grabbed his sins and taken them all back on himself, as if he has scraped away the benefits of his baptism.
This excommunication is a terrible thing. It leaves a sinner outside God’s grace by their own choosing. By excluding the unrepentant, the church performs a final act of love by bearing witness to a life lost in sin, so that, we pray, the fear of hell and terror of the coming punishment will open their ears to the gospel of forgiveness, and draw them once again to the cross at some point before they meet their Judge.
To turn a sinner from sin is to “cover a multitude of sins.” How is this so? Repentance is most often over a single sin, something public that has been noticed by another Christian. But when a sinner is led to turn back to Christ and to trust in him for forgiveness, he shows that he trusts in God for forgiveness of all his sins, and he puts on Christ like a robe so that more than just the one public sin is covered. All his sins are covered. So turning a brother or sister from one sin covers over a multitude of sins, all through the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Savior.
James was separated from his readers by many miles, and it was likely that the Christians he wrote to were people he would never see again. Faced by such a permanent separation, a shepherd whose sheep were removed from his field, he coached them in shepherding one another. It was not the best solution, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances. He coached them and urged them to keep showing their faith with their actions, to bear up under trials, and to be careful with their words in every situation. He reminded them to submit to God, resist the devil, and to pray. To stay focused on Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins is to always keep our eyes on the prize, to stay in bounds, and finally to reach our heavenly goal. Pray for each other, and love one another.
Christ the Life of all the living
Christ the Death of death, our foe,
Who thyself for me once giving
To the darkest depths of woe—
Through thy suff’rings, death and merit
I eternal life inherit
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto thee.
Then, for all that wrought my pardon,
For thy sorrows deep and sore,
For thine anguish in the garden,
I will thank thee evermore,
Thank thee for thy groaning, sighing,
For thy bleeding and thy dying,
For that last triumphant cry,
And shall praise thee, Lord, on high. (Christian Worship 114;1,7)
Pastor Timothy Smith