Converting a Brother
Fourth kind of wholesome speech
In the closing verses of his epistle, James ceases to warn against worldliness, love of riches, destructive speech, and other evils. Instead of chiding hypocrites for all the sins showing that their faith is dead, he describes how believers can demonstrate that their faith is alive. Since speech has been one of his themes, he concentrates on speech again, this time by urging spiritual uses of the tongue. Four in particular he recommends: praying when we are afflicted, singing when we are merry, confessing our faults when we have sinned, and, in the last verses, converting a brother when we find that he has gone astray (vv. 19–20).
The term "convert" in the KJV does not bear the familiar modern sense. We limit its meaning to winning a soul for Christ. But the Greek word that James uses means simply to "turn around." The scenario he has in mind is a brother who wanders from the truth until another brother turns him back onto the right path. By "brother," James means, of course, either a brother or a sister. Likewise throughout his epistle, the brethren are the whole family of God, both men and women.
To the believer who is willing to neglect his own affairs so that he might restore his brother at whatever cost of time and loss of convenience, James offers two great rewards. Both raise significant questions, which have divided commentators down through the centuries.
Saving a soul from death
The first reward he promises is that the helpful brother will "save a soul from death." Clearly, the wayward person is a believer also, for James says, "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth." What then does he mean by death? Jesus said, "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28). Based on this and similar texts, we normally equate death of a soul with eternal condemnation. So, is James teaching that a believer can lose his salvation if he continues unrepentant in sin and rebellion? The answer must be, "No," for regeneration and the other consequences of salvation are irreversible. The impossibility of losing salvation is affirmed by the doctrine known as eternal security, commonly summarized as, "Once saved, always saved." Since many have cited this text in James when arguing against eternal security, we will briefly show that the doctrine has a solid Biblical basis.
We cannot doubt that God has promised to save all who believe. This is the message of more texts than we could list here, the most familiar perhaps being John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Notice that all who believe "have [present subjunctive] everlasting life." Everlasting life is the present possession of anyone who meets the condition of believing. In other words, if you believe in Jesus, you have unending life now. But to say that you have it now would not be true if you could lose it in the future. If you could ever cross over some boundary of permissible sin into impermissible sin, causing you to forfeit your salvation, then all the benefits you enjoy now, including new life in Christ, might be of temporary duration. They could not be described as everlasting. But since your life now is nothing other than everlasting, you know that your salvation is secure forever.
The permanence of salvation is a corollary of the power and love of God.
To comfort His disciples lest they fear for their eternal security, Jesus taught them, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:27–28). His sheep clearly represent all who believe, including ourselves. The promise means that He holds us with a determination never to let go, and with a strength that cannot be overcome by anyone who might want to snatch us away. "Man" is italicized because it is not in the original. Our chief enemy is not a man but Satan, so Jesus was assuring us that we are safe even from Satan’s power. No one, not even Satan, can rob us of our salvation.
Then Jesus said, "My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand" (John 10:29). Who then is holding us, the Son or the Father? Jesus’ answer was, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). In other words, they are one God. The persons of the Trinity, each being infinite in power and knowledge, cannot do otherwise than work together in perfect cooperation. Thus, we are held jointly by the Father and the Son. The wording suggests that when the Father gave us to the Son, He Himself did not let go of us. We are now in the hands of both.
Jude also speaks of God’s power to guard our salvation, but he is primarily thinking about His power not against our enemies, but against our own weakness and frailty: "Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24). The writer assures all among "you" that God will keep them from plunging into soul-damning sin. Exactly who belongs to this group? Jude begins his epistle by addressing "them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ" (Jude 1). "Sanctified" means set apart unto holiness through the work of the Holy Spirit at salvation.99 Then he says that he is writing to them "of the common salvation" (Jude 3), thus emphasizing that salvation is what he and his readers share. So, the promise of security from falling that we find in verse 24 applies to all who are presently saved. Verse 1 reinforces this conclusion by treating preservation as the natural, inevitable consequence of sanctification.
From Jude we therefore gain a fuller understanding of Jesus’ promise that once we are in the hand of God, no one can remove us. The potential threats He considered must have included the believer himself, for Jude teaches that we cannot remove ourselves from God’s hand. We are not strong enough to get out. Thus, we cannot lose our salvation even if we sin.
If we could lose our salvation, God would be a poor father even by human standards. We as human parents do not disown our children should they happen to disobey us. If we did, the streets would be full of homeless urchins. Instead, we persist as long as possible in every measure that might help our children do right.
What we can do for our children is limited, however. What God can do for His children is unlimited. There is no sin that a wayward child of God can commit that his infinite, all-powerful Father cannot correct and eliminate by means of chastening. Thus, since God our Father is perfect in love (Ps. 103:13; Heb. 12:6), He will, if we do wrong, chasten us rather than eject us from His family. We cannot do anything foolish or sinful enough to forfeit our salvation.
The death facing the sinner
Then what does James mean when he says that someone who graciously intervenes to restore a sinning brother will save a soul from death? We must remember that behind James’s words lies the background of his own experience. He was one of the original members of the church in Jerusalem. In its early days, God was jealous of its purity and took strong measures against sin. He struck down both Ananias and Sapphira when they had done no worse than exaggerate the generosity of their giving. After selling a piece of land, they said they contributed the entire proceeds to the church when in fact they contributed only a portion (Acts 5:1–11).
God's stern policy toward stubbornly wayward believers prevailed also in the churches that Paul established. Paul informed the Corinthians that God had dealt death to some who came with frivolous and unworthy hearts to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:29–30).
How thankful we can be that God is seldom so severe in our day! Yet even now, God may take the life of a believer who commits gross sin or who refuses to repent of lesser sin. James undoubtedly saw death in this sense as the ultimate result of being wayward. Therefore, the kind of death that he intends in verse 20 is cessation of life in this world. He calls it the death of a soul because the term "soul" is simply a common synonym for "living being" (Rom. 13:1; Acts 27:37; 2:41; etc.). John, another apostle of the early church, also viewed bodily death as a judgment that may befall a believer (1 John 5:16-17).
Covering a brother's sins
The second reward James promises to the helpful brother is that he "shall hide a multitude of sins." "Hide" is better translated "cover," with the meaning that he secures forgiveness for them. The debated question is whether the helpful brother covers his own sins or the sins of the erring brother. The best answer is that James is primarily referring to the sins of the brother he has just called a sinner. Such a man cannot return from his wrong direction except by repentance, and one assured result of his repentance will be the forgiveness of his sins. James sees this as a benefit not only to the sinner, but also to the brother who assisted him, for indeed his act of love will earn an eternal reward. Scripture teaches that special rewards await anyone who has turned "many to righteousness" (Dan. 12:3).
Our interpretation of James's second promise finds support in other Biblical texts. The wording "hide [or cover] a multitude of sins" recalls Proverbs 10:12: "Love covereth all sins," or, as restated by Peter, "Charity shall cover the multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8). Doubtless this is the source of James's words at the close of his epistle. The original proverb has several levels of meaning. One is that love is willing to overlook great imperfection in its object—that love is not conditional upon its object being sinless. Another is that love is always ready to forgive. Either way, the sins under consideration belong not to the loving brother, but to the sinning brother. We may assume that when James recalls this proverb, the sins he has in mind preserve the same sense.
The last two verses of James are in many ways a fitting climax to the whole epistle. One of its themes has been the proper use our tongues. Another has been the royal law, the law requiring that we love our neighbor and our brother as ourselves. Now, at the end of his discourse, he promotes the use of our tongues that most directly fulfills the royal law. What is the occasion? It is a brother straying from the truth. What is the purpose? It is to save him from terrible consequences, even death. What is the right method of help? It is speech, specifically in the form of exhortation. What is the motive? It is love and only love, for without love there would be no reason to help him. Such speech is therefore a perfect illustration of the brotherly love that is a special virtue of the church and of believers filled with the Holy Spirit.
The last verses are a fitting climax also because the author here unwittingly proves the great value of the book he has written. What has James been seeking to accomplish throughout his letter if not to turn sinners from the error of their way? Down through the centuries, the number who have read his warnings and taken them to heart must be legion. Therefore, the blessings that he promises the person who restores a fallen brother or sister have accrued perhaps in greatest measure to James’s own account. Yet we need not suppose that James means to congratulate himself. The reason he appeals so effectively for humility is doubtless that he was a humble man (Jas. 4:6). So, it is most unlikely that when he wrote the final verses, he saw himself as the best example of the good deed he commends. In fact, however, the verses are nothing less than a tribute to James. They appear as the closing benediction in his epistle because the Holy Spirit who inspired it wanted to exalt in our eyes the sweet and selfless younger brother of our Lord.