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James 5:19-20

Tonight we conclude our series of sermons on James, the New Testament’s only book of wisdom and the book that, more than any other, is dependent upon the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself, James’ elder brother. Throughout this little book, in a variety of ways, James has – as the OT’s wisdom literature so often does – reminded us of our obligations for others. Before the God who commanded us to love our neighbor as much, if not more, than we love ourselves, our lives will be judged by the extent that we cared for, looked out for, and took a loving interest in others. And it is with this subject, once more, that he concludes his letter or book. Here he considers one particular obligation we have for one another, one more among the many he has already mentioned in the letter, one among the many more he might have mentioned.

Text Comment

v.19     The Christian term of art for what James describes here is “backsliding.” To describe it as “wandering from the truth” captures the idea that it is both a somewhat thoughtless or careless departure and more gradual than sudden or precipitate. To wander from the truth doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has come to believe untruths, only that he or she is no longer living according to the truth. The truth is no longer commanding his or her steps. Here, as everywhere in the Bible, truth and life go together and the authentic Christian life is a life lived in keeping with divine revelation.

And, of course, anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time has observed the phenomenon. A convert or a grown up covenant child begins to lose the interest he or she once had, the edge on his or her Christian commitment is dulled, he or she begins to cool in his or her commitment to living the Christian life in ways that Christian family and friends can’t help but notice. Things are being said and done that would not have been before and, perhaps more noticeably, things that once were said and done are no longer. The person is not an apostate – if he or she were, there would be no coming back – he has not denied the faith, she has not repudiated the gospel, but his or her condition is dangerous precisely because it could become full blown apostasy. In the previous verses, the believer is described as having a problem – sickness or sin – and encouraged to ask for help. Here the believer probably does not recognize that he or she has a serious spiritual problem, so another Christian needs to help without being asked. [Motyer, 209]

The word translated “brings back” was rendered “convert” in the KJV. “If one convert him…” The same word is found in Luke 22:32 where the Lord assured Peter, after prophesying his backsliding, that he had prayed for him that his faith not fail and then said to him “when thou art converted strengthen thy brethren.” The ESV has “when you have turned again.”

“If anyone…someone…” suggests that this is hardly the duty only of ministers or elders, but belongs to us all.

v.20     To say that his or her sins will be “covered” means that God will treat them as if they had never been. [Tasker, 144] Remember David in Psalm 32:

            “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity…”

But his or her sins will not be covered unless the person is recovered to the life of faith. Peter says a somewhat similar thing in 1 Pet. 4:8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins,” itself a loose citation of Prov. 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” There the thought is that when we love others we are willing both to conceal the moral failures of others and to extend willing forgiveness for them. That is a like but not identical thought to what James gives us here, but equally important. In any case, the letter ends with James telling us that, in addition to our being doers of the word and not hearers only, we are to do our best to ensure that other Christians are as well.

The letter ends abruptly, no greetings, no blessing, no personal details, such as we find at the end of Paul’s letters. In this it is more like 1 John than an epistle of Paul. You remember how I John ends: “Keep yourselves from idols.” Period. It is one more reason to think, as we suggested in our first sermon, that what we have in James may be selections from sermons that James preached on various occasions. [Moo, 249]

Now, the letter concludes with James urging others to do what he has been doing in his letter, urging those who have in some way wandered from the narrow path, who are not living according to the truth as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Word of God, to return to the narrow way, to walk as becomes the followers of Jesus Christ. [Krabbendam, ii, 839]

There is a long-standing debate about whose salvation and whose sins are covered in v. 20. The pronouns are as ambiguous in Greek as they are in English. Is it the one who brings the wanderer back or is it the wanderer himself or herself? Origen, the early church father, for example, understood James to mean, “A man who converts others will have his own sins forgiven.” [ACCNT, XI, 63] On the contrary, if we had to choose between them, I would certainly believe the soul that is saved and the sins that are covered are those of the backslider. Clearly, his is the soul that must be saved from death, so equally his must be the sins that are covered. On the other hand, I’m not sure we have to choose between the alternatives. When Paul urges Timothy to watch his faith and doctrine closely for by them he will save both himself and his hearers it becomes possible to think James’ way of speaking is intentionally ambiguous. Both are saved and the sins of both are covered by a Christian recovering another Christian from backsliding.

The Lord Jesus, in somewhat similar teaching in the Sermon on the Mount which teaching James has referred to again and again and again in the short letter says that only if we forgive others their sins will our sins be forgiven. And, contrarily, if we do not forgive the sins of our neighbor, our own sins will not be forgiven. Everywhere in the Bible, what good we do for others is good for us, what kindness and faithfulness we show to others proves as well a blessing to ourselves. In keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward and many of those commandments concern our obligations to others, Christian or not.

It is a sad fact of life, we encounter it every day and find it alas in our own hearts, people tend to delight in the sins of others rather than be concerned about them. Rather than covering a fault they tend, perhaps in some cases secretly, to find satisfaction in another’s failures. We are vain creatures and the failures of others seem to lower them in comparison with ourselves. If something, even the moral failure of another human being, can be thought in some way to benefit ourselves, we are sorely tempted to welcome it. In fact, it is by far the easiest way to think of oneself as a better person: to see others as worse. And their failures enable us to do that, to credit ourselves with moral superiority. Paul may say that love does not rejoice at wrongdoing (1 Cor. 13:6), but that only demonstrates how little love there is in the world.

On the other hand, people know very well that they ought to cover the faults of others; they ought not to rejoice over them. Proof of that comes in two parts. First, they are quick to cover the faults of those they love, those they admire, those who are in some way connected to themselves, to find excuses for them, or to forgive those sins and quickly to forget them. We are given innumerable examples of this in our national life. The standard bearer of our political party, the presidential candidate we favor can do all manner of stupid or even nefarious things and we are very ready to deny any wrongdoing, or to excuse or extenuate it, or to blame those who have pointed it out, rather than face the fact of the lie or the flip-flop or the doubtful ethics. Second, we certainly want other people to excuse, mitigate, or hide our faults and failures. Human beings are, by nature, inclined not to care for the reputation or the well-being of other people, unless those people are in some way associated with themselves, but they care deeply about their own reputations!

People who are genuinely concerned for others, all the more when they receive no benefit themselves from showing that concern, are decidedly rare. That is simply a fact of life. I was reminded of this last week in reading an article that completely reversed what I had for years thought to be true about another human being.

Ty Cobb was, as many of you will know, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He still has the highest lifetime batting average of any player, he was the first player to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and so on. But, as we all know, he was a despicable man. A racist from Georgia, they said he would pistol whip any black man he passed on the sidewalk. It was common knowledge that he slid into bases with his spikes up – indeed, it was said that he sharpened his spikes – uncaring if he hurt another player so long as he gained that extra base. It was said that when children wrote to Cobb asking for an autographed picture, Cobb would steam the stamps off the return envelopes and never write back. It is even thought that he had murdered as many as three people! As I read that article I realized that that last piece of information should have raised red flags long before this. A famous baseball player who murdered three people? Really?

A 1995 film entitled Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones gave us this picture of Ty Cobb, a morally reprobate but highly successful athlete, as did Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball. If you ever saw the movie Field of Dreams, you may remember that Cobb wasn’t invited to play in the Iowa cornfield because none of the other players had liked him. But Charles Leerhsen, a journalist from New York, a sometime editor of Sports Illustrated, for years a senior writer at Newsweek, who has written for most of America’s major organs of opinion and commentary, set out to write a new book about the baseball star. He was fascinated by Cobb and thought he could sell the idea to a publisher. He knew he was a despicable man but no serious work of research had ever been done on Ty Cobb and he thought the world would welcome a new biography with even juicier details proving how monstrous a human being Ty Cobb actually was.

But as soon as he began doing his research, reading old newspaper and magazine articles, the picture of Ty Cobb that he had been given – as we all have been given – began to disintegrate. Was he widely hated? The Chicago White Sox (who weren’t even his team) once gave him an award – a set of books, for Cobb was known to be a voracious reader. He was also fun to be around. When Cobb’s Detroit Tigers came to town, Ring Lardner, Chicago’s famous sportswriter, would buy a cheap seat in the outfield so he could spend the game bantering with Cobb. Did he steal stamps from children? Letters in museums and private collections prove that he responded generously to young fans, sometimes with hand-written letters that ran to five pages! And he always told them that he was honored by their requests for his autograph.

What about his racism? Ken Burns called Cobb an embarrassment to the game and described him as the anti-Jackie Robinson. But all the supposed evidence evaporated under closer examination. The stories that were told had either been made up of whole cloth or had nothing to do with African Americans. Cobb was, in fact, descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a preacher who preached against slavery in Georgia and was run out of town for doing so. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate Army because of the slavery issue. His father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known for once having broken up a lynch mob. When interviewed about integration in baseball in 1952the first time anybody knows he was ever asked about the question, since he was long since retired in 1952 he said that black players should be accepted wholeheartedly and not grudgingly; that they had a perfect right to play in the big leagues. He had attended many Negro League games, sometimes throwing out the first pitch and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He was a particular admirer of Willy Mays and Roy Campanella, two of the early black major leaguers.

He was certainly not a perfect man. He had a hair-trigger temper, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was too intolerant of players who didn’t work as hard as he did. He wasn’t himself a natural athlete and had to work very hard to be as good as he was. But he wasn’t a racist and he didn’t try to injure other players. In fact, as Leerhsen continued his research he discovered that opposing players respected Cobb more than feared him. As one catcher who had to face Cobb sliding home said, “…he never cut me up. He was too pretty a slider to hurt anyone who put the ball on him right.” A teammate called him “a game square fellow who never cut a man with his spikes intentionally in his life…” Leerhsen couldn’t find a player from Cobb’s era who thought he was a dirty player. They all said he wasn’t.

So where did Cobb’s terrible reputation come from? Leerhsen finally concluded that it came from a man by the name of Al Stump, a hack writer who had been fired from newspapers before for making up stories. According to Stump – who needed sensation to sell his book about Cobb, a book that came out after Cobb’s death – he was so universally hated that only three people came to his funeral. Not true! Not at all true! The family had put out word that the service was private but four of his closest friends from baseball did attend and thousands of people filled the church for a public service and lined the route to the cemetery. Sportswriters rushed to Cobb’s defense when Stump’s book was published but to no avail. People wanted to believe it to be true and so the story lived on, being repeated by one journalist or film-maker after another. As Leerhsen put it,

“I knew going into this project – having been at one time an editor at People magazine – that human beings take delight in the fact that the rich and famous are often worse and more miserable than they are. What I didn’t understand before was the power of repetition to bend the truth.” [The above from “Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know that is Wrong,” Imprimis]

Now I give you all of that to remind you both of how disinterested we can all be in the lives of others and how easy it is for us to dismiss others, on the one hand, and, on the other, of how differently a Christian ought to think about others than unbelievers so often do. When I read that article I felt ashamed of myself. True enough, I hadn’t the time, opportunity, or interest to investigate the life of Ty Cobb myself, but I remember both thinking and saying that he was a despicable man, repeating, in other words, the lies that others had told about him. I think, as a Christian, I should at least have known enough to say, “I have heard that some think him to have been a despicable man, but I don’t myself know whether he was or not.” Even better, I should have both thought and said, “Well, we are all despicable men. If Ty Cobb was all the things people have said he was, well so am I with less excuse.” But, no, I glibly repeated a despicable man’s lies about a man who wasn’t at all despicable in the ways people were led to believe. When I finished the article, I was angry with myself, for allowing myself so easily to have been duped, and for having been complicit in the worst form of character assassination. If Christians refused to cooperate with the sort of utter carelessness toward other people, or the kind of contempt for others – the sort of contempt that is dominating our election season – there would be considerably less of it in the world and, I suspect, considerably more interest in Christianity!

James isn’t, to be sure, talking about ruining a man’s reputation to sell books, but he is talking about the obligation of believers to want the best for others, to believe the best and to hope for the best in the case of others, to work to bless them and help them, to protect them, and of the importance God himself attaches to our exercising real love for our neighbors. We, of all people, are to be the anti-Al Stump, in spades! If love is supposed to cover a man’s faults, as Proverbs says it is, obviously it will not ruin a man’s reputation. The Lord could ruin our reputations a thousand times over until everyone thought us horrible people. And he wouldn’t have to tell lies; only the whole terrible truth. But in love he covers our faults. But, more than that, love will strive to make another person better, to keep him from getting worse, and to protect him even from himself.

What we are given here, in the last two verses of James, is but one example of how we ought to care for others, how their lives ought to be important to us, and how we ought to be willing to take action on their behalf. And lest we fail to appreciate how important that sort of love and care can be in the life of someone else, James here says that we will save his soul from death. Al Stump was so little interested in saving Ty Cobb’s soul that he damned the man to make a buck. But we, you and I, are to be in the salvation business, rescuing people not only from others but even from themselves. Now a statement like that can bother us. How can we save a person? And, even more, how can we save a person who is already saved?

Well clearly James is talking instrumentally. He knew, of course, that only God can save sinners; that ultimately salvation is and must be of the Lord, as Jonah reminds us. He knew that Jesus Christ is the only savior of sinners. He knew that the word of God in the mouth of a Christian has no power to save a soul unless God grants it that power. But God uses means and one of those means is the loving interest of other Christians, their speaking the truth in love, their faithful bird-dogging of a backsliding saint, their refusal to let him or her remain unmolested as he or she wanders from the straight and narrow way.

In the same way, while it is absolutely true that a person who has been reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit, who has had implanted in his heart the imperishable seed of God’s word, in whom God has begun a good work, I say it is absolutely true that such a person will be found in heaven at the end of the day. But, as the Bible makes clear in a hundred different ways, that person will not be saved no matter what. Means are essential to the completion of the salvation of anyone and James is here talking about those means. We tend to think that since it is true that once a person is saved he or she is and must be always saved there shouldn’t be any need to say that we, of all people, must bring the sinner back lest he not be saved. But there is need to say it and the Bible does say it times without number. In Hebrews we read that unless we persevere in faith we will not be saved. And everywhere we are commanded to help one another persevere in the faith. As we read in Hebrews 10:23-27:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. [That is, don’t backslide!] And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works [That is, help others not to backslide]. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth [or your Christian friends do], there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment…”

The Bible’s most famous illustration of this phenomenon, saved people then being saved by the counsel and instruction of another, is the storm and the shipwreck of the apostle Paul recounted in Acts 27. You remember the story. The ship upon which Paul was being taken to Rome for his case to be heard before Caesar was caught in a great storm and driven for days before the wind. The sailors did all that could be done – lightening the ship by casting the cargo overboard – but they were helpless before the winds and for two weeks they were driven across the sea. They were without food and without hope. Then Paul rose to tell them that an angel of the Lord had appeared to him and had assured him that there would be no loss of life. “Do not be afraid, Paul,” the angel had said. “You must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.”

Shortly thereafter the sailors realized that they were nearing land and, fearing that the ship would run aground on the rocks, they cast anchors to keep the ship at sea. Then some sailors launched the ship’s boat on the pretext of laying some more anchors but were actually hoping to escape from the ship and make it to land. Paul said to the centurion in charge, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the ropes were cut away, the ship’s boat was let go empty, and, in time, all made it safely to shore. Now the sailors, had they been theologically minded, might have said to Paul, “Wait a minute. You said that God promised that all on the ship would be saved. How can you now say to us that if we don’t remain on the ship we will be lost and so will the others who remain on the ship? Was God’s word true the first time or not?”

But, of course, God’s word was true and proved to be true – everyone made it safely ashore – but it came to be true through the warning that Paul gave and the action that was taken on the basis of that warning. God, of course, knows not only who will be saved, but how he or she will be saved; by what means, by what interventions, by what friends speaking truth into his or her life. Lots of people who start the Christian life don’t finish it. The Bible is candid about that. The Lord told famous parables all about that. And, though God certainly knows, we cannot tell among all who profess the Christian faith and who begin to live the Christian life, who have been truly and permanently renewed by the Holy Spirit. But we do know that spiritual safety requires, by God’s own plan and purpose, constant attention to the life of faith, not only by the believer himself or herself, but by other Christians on his or her behalf. James assumes that here, as it is everywhere assumed in the Bible, and so doesn’t hesitate to say that by seeking and recovering a wandering brother or sister we will save his or her soul! We’ll keep him or her in the boat so that he or she can make it safely ashore. That we can have such a role in someone’s life, that we, you and I, can save his soul or cover her sins is supposed to solemnize us and make us determined to care for others in such a way, to protect them, and to bring them back when they wander away.

We began this series pointing out that one of the most interesting features of James’ letter is that, more than any other book of the New Testament, it reproduces the teaching of the Lord Jesus, sometimes virtually word for word. By the mid-40s when James was written, and before the Gospels were written, or, at least, written in their current form, people knew what Jesus had said, how he had taught the Christian faith and life. And James, who had not been one of his disciples during the ministry and so, it may be supposed, had not been present in most cases when the Lord delivered that famous teaching, had since learned it inside and out and word for word, so much so that the commentators all say that James seems to have absorbed the Lord’s teaching so completely that it was always hovering on the edge of his thoughts.

James, of course, was not your typical backslider, though who can really say. We know little enough about his home life, growing up with Jesus as his elder brother, Mary as his mother. We don’t know how old he would have been when his father, Joseph, died. But, given Mary’s piety and her knowledge of the identity of her son, we know that it was a devout home. But devout or not, James did not recognize the truth as it was embodied in Jesus before him day after day, the truth his mother had taught him when he was a boy growing up. We can’t tell from the little information we are given the Gospels the extent to which James actually rebelled against his mother and his brother, how far he wandered in other words, but we do know that he was no follower of Jesus during the days of his brother’s ministry. That must have been a heartbreak for his mother, but there it is. Knowing Mary we can well imagine that she spent many long nights praying for James and her other children, none of whom was a believer during the Lord’s ministry.

So I can’t help but wonder if James was thinking of his own case when he wrote vv. 19-20. Did the great man finish his letter with a piece of personal history turned into spiritual application? Was he thinking of himself as the wanderer, as the one who needed to be brought back. We know from the Apostle Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor. 15 that the Lord Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, some days after it appears. And that appearance, apparently, brought James back, saved his soul, and covered a multitude of his sins. As in so much else, the best example of the life of true faith and goodness, is always the Lord’s own. Was James honoring Jesus by finishing with these two verses, as if, having quoted Jesus at length in his letter, he concluded by pointing to him and urging us not only to obey his teaching but follow his example? An example that must have been precious to James who found his way on to the narrow road that leads to life because his brother came after him and brought him back.

The Lord Jesus did the same with Peter. After Peter’s failure in the courtyard of the high priest the night of the Lord’s betrayal, Jesus, upon his resurrection, went looking for Peter also, to assure his disciple that he was forgiven and to teach him and us that, if and when his disciples wandered from the narrow road, there would always be an on-ramp by which to return to it.

I suppose all of us who are serious Christians hope and pray that we will be instrumental in bringing some others to faith in Christ and to eternal life. Surely there can be no accomplishment so momentous in human life as that. But here we are reminded that bringing back the wanderer, the backslider, is a work of the same kind. It too represents the saving of a soul, the greatest thing, the noblest thing any human being can ever be said to have done.

Our worst disappointments in life are always our own sins. So let’s all look for opportunities to cover a multitude of sins, both ours and those of others. And in this case we kill those two birds with one stone. I guarantee you, nothing will give your greater satisfaction in this life and nothing will count for more on the Day of Judgment!