on James 5 :20
Let him know - Let him duly consider, for his encouragement, that he who is the instrument of converting a sinner shall save a soul from eternal death, and a body from ruin, and shall hide a multitude of sins; for in being the means of his conversion we bring him back to God, who, in his infinite mercy, hides or blots out the numerous sins which he had committed during the time of his backsliding. It is not the man's sins who is the means of his conversion, but the sins of the backslider, which are here said to be hidden. See more below.
1. Many are of opinion that the hiding a multitude of sins is here to be understood of the person who converts the backslider: this is a dangerous doctrine, and what the Holy Spirit never taught to man. Were this true it would lead many a sinner to endeavor the reformation of his neighbor, that himself might continue under the influence of his own beloved sins and conversion to a particular creed would be put in the place of conversion to God, and thus the substance be lost in the shadow. Bishop Atterbury, (Ser. vol. i. p. 46), and Scott, (Christian Life, vol. i. p. 368), contend "that the covering a multitude of sins includes also, that the pious action of which the apostle speaks engages God to look with greater indulgence on the character of the person that performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss." See Macknight. This from such authorities may be considered doubly dangerous; it argues however great ignorance of God, of the nature of Divine justice, and of the sinfulness of sin. It is besides completely antievangelical; it teaches in effect that something besides the blood of the covenant will render God propitious to man, and that the performance of a pious action will induce God's justice to show greater indulgence to the person who performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss. On the ground of this doctrine we might confide that, had he a certain quantum of pious acts, we might have all the sins of our lives forgiven, independently of the sacrifice of Christ; for if one pious act can procure pardon for a multitude of sins, what may not be expected from many?
2. The Jewish doctrine, to which it is possible St. James may allude, was certainly more sound than that taught by these Christian divines. They allowed that the man who was the means of converting another had done a work highly pleasing to God, and which should be rewarded; but they never insinuate that this would atone for sin. I shall produce a few examples: -
In Synopsis Sohzar, p. 47, n. 17, it is said: Great is his excellence who persuades a sick person to turn from his sins. Ibid, p. 92, n. 18: Great is his reward who brings back the pious into the way of the blessed Lord.
Yoma, fol. 87, 1: By his hands iniquity is not committed, who turns many to righteousness; i.e. God does not permit him to fall into sin. What is the reason? Ans. Lest those should be found in paradise, while their instructer is found in hell.
This doctrine is both innocent and godly in comparison of the other. It holds out a motive to diligence and zeal, but nothing farther. In short, if we allow any thing to cover our sins beside the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, We shall err most dangerously from the truth, and add this moreover to the multitude of Our sins, that we maintained that the gift of God could be purchased by our puny acts of comparative righteousness.
3. As one immortal soul is of more worth than all the material creation of God, every man who knows the worth of his own should labor for the salvation of others. To be the means of depriving hell of her expectation, and adding even one soul to the Church triumphant, is a matter of infinite moment; and he who is such an instrument has much reason to thank God that ever he was born. He who lays out his accounts to do good to the souls of men, will ever have the blessing of God in his own. Besides, God will not suffer him to labor in vain, or spend his strength for naught. At first he may see little fruit; but the bread cast upon the waters shall be found after many days: and if he should never see it in this life, he may take for granted that whatsoever he has done for God, in simplicity and godly sincerity, has been less or more effectual.
After the last word of this epistle ἁμαρτιων, of sins, some versions add his, others theirs; and one MS. and the later Syriac have Amen. But these additions are of no authority.
The subscriptions to this epistle, in the Versions, are the following: The end of the Epistle of James the apostle. - Syriac. The catholic Epistle of James the apostle is ended. - Syriac Philoxenian. The end. - Aethiopic. Praise be to God for ever and ever; and may his mercy be upon us. Amen. - Arabic. The Epistle of James the son of Zebedee, is ended. - Itala, one copy. Nothing. - Coptic. Nothing. - Printed Vulgate. The Epistle of James is ended. - Bib. Vulg. Edit. Eggestein. The Epistle of St. James the apostle is ended. - Complutensian.
In the Manuscripts: Of James. - Codex Vaticanus, B. The Epistle of James. - Codex Alexandrinus. The end of the catholic Epistle of James. - Codex Vaticanus, 1210. The catholic Epistle of James the apostle. - A Vienna MS. The catholic Epistle of the holy Apostle James. - An ancient MS. in the library of the Augustins, at Rome. The end of the Epistle of the holy Apostle James, the brother of God. - One of Petavius's MSS., written in the thirteenth century. The same is found in a Vatican MS. of the eleventh century. The most ancient MSS. have little or no subscription.
on James 5 :20
Let him know - Let him who converts the other know for his encouragement.
That he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way - Any sinner; anyone who has done wrong. This is a general principle, applicable to this case and to all others of the same kind. It is a universal truth that he who turns a sinner from a wicked path does a work which is acceptable to God, and which will in some way receive tokens of his approbation. Compare Deuteronomy 12:3. No work which man can perform is more acceptable to God; none will be followed with higher rewards. In the language which is used here by the apostle, it is evidently intended not to deny that success in converting a sinner, or in reclaiming one from the error of his ways, is to be traced to the grace of God; but the apostle here refers only to the divine feeling towards the individual who shall attempt it, and the rewards which he may hope to receive. The reward bestowed, the good intended and done, would be the same as if the individual were able to do the work himself. God approves and loves his aims and efforts, though the success is ultimately to be traced to himself.
Shall save a soul from death - It has been doubted whether this refers to his own soul, or to the soul of him who is converted. Several manuscripts, and the Vulgate, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic versions, here read: "his soul." The most natural interpretation of the passage is to refer it to the soul of the one converted, rather than of him who converts him. This accords better with the uniform teaching of the New Testament, since it is nowhere else taught that the method of saving our souls is by converting others; and this interpretation will meet all that the scope of the passage demands. The object of the apostle is to present a motive for endeavoring to convert one who has wandered away; and assuredly a sufficient motive for that is furnished in the fact, that by this means an immortal soul would be saved from eternal ruin. The word death here must refer to eternal death, or to future punishment. There is no other death which the soul is in danger of dying. The body dies and moulders away, but the soul is immortal. The apostle cannot mean that he would save the soul from annihilation, for it is in no danger of that. This passage proves, then, that there is a death which the soul may die; that there is a condition which may properly be called death as a consequence of sin; and that the soul will suffer that unless it is converted.
And shall hide a multitude of sins - Shall cover them over so that they shall not be seen; that is, they shall not be punished. This must mean either the sins which he has committed who is thus converted and saved, or the sins of him who converts him. Whichever is the meaning, a strong motive is presented for endeavoring to save a sinner from the error of his ways. It is not easy to determine which is the true sense. Expositors have been about equally divided respecting the meaning. Doddridge adopts substantially both interpretations, paraphrasing it, "not only procuring the pardon of those committed by the convert, but also engaging God to look with greater indulgence on his own character, and to be less ready to mark severely what he has done amiss." The Jews regarded it as a meritorious act to turn a sinner from the error of his ways, and it is possible that James may have had some of their maxims in his eye. Compare Clarke, in loc. Though it may not be possible to determine with certainty whether the apostle here refers to the sins of him who converts another, or of him who is converted, yet it seems to me that the reference is probably to the latter, for the following reasons:
(1) Such an interpretation will meet all that is fairly implied in the language.
(2) this interpretation will furnish a strong motive for what the apostle expects us to do. The motive presented is, according to this, that sin will not be punished. But this is always a good motive for putting forth efforts in the cause of religion, and quite as powerful when drawn from our doing good to others as when applied to ourselves.
(3) this is a safe interpretation; the other is attended with danger. According to this, the effort would be one of pure benevolence, and there would be no danger of depending on what we do as a ground of acceptance with God. The other interpretation would seem to teach that our sins might be forgiven on some other ground than that of the atonement - by virtue of some act of our own.
(4) and there might be danger, if it be supposed that this refers to the fact that our sins are to be covered up by this act, of supposing that by endeavoriug to convert others we may live in sin with impunity; that however we live, we shall be safe if we lead others to repentance and salvation.
If the motive be the simple desire to hide the sins of others - to procure their pardon - to save a soul from death, without any supposition that by that we are making an atonement for our own sins - it is a good one, a safe one. But if the idea is that by this act we are making some atonement for our own offences, and that we may thus work out a righteousness of our own, the idea is one that is every way dangerous to the great doctrine of justification by faith, and is contrary to the whole teaching of the Bible. For these reasons it seems to me that the true interpretation is, that the passage refers to the sins of others, not our own; and that the simple motive here presented is, that in this way we may save a fellow-sinner from being punished for his sins. It may be added, in the conclusion of the notes at this Epistle, that this motive is one which is sufficient to stimulate us to great and constant efforts to save others. Sin is the source of all the evil in the universe: and the great object which a benevolent heart ought to have, should be that its desolating effects may be stayed; that the sinner may be pardoned; and that the guilty soul may be saved from its consequences in the future world. This is the design of God in the plan of redemption; this was the object of the Saviour in giving himself to die; this is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in renewing and sanctifying the soul; and this is the great end of all those acts of Divine Providence by which the sinner is warned and turned to God. When we come to die, as we shall soon, it will give us more pleasure to be able to recollect that we have been the means of saying one soul from death, than to have enjoyed all the pleasures which sense can furnish, or to have gained all the honor and wealth which the world can give.
on James 5 :20
5:20 He shall save a soul - Of how much more value than the body! Jas 5:14. And hide a multitude of sins - Which shall no more, how many soever they are, be remembered to his condemnation.