James 5:20
Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
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(20) Let him know.—Or, as it rather seems to be, Know ye; be absolutely sure of this, in a knowledge better than all the Gnostic and Agnostic learning of the day. He which turneth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death—the means thereto being given him by the Saviour of all—and shall hide a multitude of sins; not, of course, his own, but those of the penitent, brought back by this good servant into the fold. So is it possible to be a fellow-worker with Christ (2Corinthians 6:1), and a sharer in His work of salvation, as, in another sense, we too vicariously suffer for the sins and faults of others. (Comp. Colossians 1:24, and Butler’s Analogy, part 2, chap. 5)

What St. James was in word that also was he in deed; for he “prayed fervently” for the pardon and conversion of those who killed him. “Hold,” said some of the by-standers. when the martyr sank upon the stones, “the Just is praying for you!” Stephen’s prayer won Saul for the infant Church: it can hardly be that James’s last breathings of pity were unanswered of God.

5:19,20 It is no mark of a wise or holy man, to boast of being free from error, or to refuse to acknowledge an error. And there is some doctrinal mistake at the bottom of every practical mistake. There is no one habitually bad, but upon some bad principle. This is conversion; to turn a sinner from the error of his ways, not merely from one party to another, or from one notion and way of thinking to another. There is no way effectually and finally to hide sin, but forsaking it. Many sins are hindered in the party converted; many also may be so in others whom he may influence. The salvation of one soul is of infinitely greater importance than preserving the lives of multitudes, or promoting the welfare of a whole people. Let us in our several stations keep these things in mind, sparing no pains in God's service, and the event will prove that our labour is not in vain in the Lord. For six thousand years He has been multiplying pardons, and yet his free grace is not tired nor grown weary. Certainly Divine mercy is an ocean that is ever full and ever flowing. May the Lord give us a part in this abundant mercy, through the blood of Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit.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.

20. Let him—the converted.

know—for his comfort, and the encouragement of others to do likewise.

shall save—future. The salvation of the one so converted shall be manifested hereafter.

shall hide a multitude of sins—not his own, but the sins of the converted. The Greek verb in the middle voice requires this. Pr 10:12 refers to charity "covering" the sins of others before men; James to one's effecting by the conversion of another that that other's sins be covered before God, namely, with Christ's atonement. He effects this by making the convert partaker in the Christian covenant for the remission of all sins. Though this hiding of sins was included in the previous "shall save," James expresses it to mark in detail the greatness of the blessing conferred on the penitent through the converter's instrumentality, and to incite others to the same good deed.

Of his way; of his life and actions, which is contrary to the way which God hath prescribed.

Shall save; men are said to save in the same way as to convert, viz. instrumentally.

A soul; the soul of him that is thus converted, 1 Timothy 4:16: soul for person, as Jam 1:21.

From death: eternal death, unto which he was hastening while he continued in the error of his way, which led him toward destruction.

And shall hide a multitude of sins; in the same sense as before he is said to convert and save his soul, viz. in being instrumental to bring him to faith and repentance, upon which God pardons, i.e. hides his sins, {Psalm 32:1} though not from the eye of his omniscience, yet from the eye of his vindictive justice, and so as not to bring them forth in judgment against him.

Let him know,.... And observe it for his encouragement:

that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way; who is the instrument of restoring a backsliding professor, for such an one is meant by a sinner, and not a profane person; or of turning a poor bewildered believer, who is got out of the way of truth and holiness, into the right way again; or of convincing him of the error of his way, whether it be in point of doctrine, or of duty; and so of bringing him to the fold of Christ again, from whence he has strayed:

shall save a soul from death; not efficiently, but instrumentally, as in 1 Timothy 4:16 for otherwise Christ is the only Saviour; and he will be the means of saving "a soul", which is of more worth than a world; and that from death, the second death which lies in the separation of the soul from God, and in a sense of his wrath; which apostasy threatens with, and leads unto, if grace prevents not. The Alexandrian copy and others, and the Vulgate Latin version read, "his soul"; but the common reading is more emphatic; the Syriac and Arabic versions render it, "his own soul"; and the Ethiopic version, "himself", as respecting him that is the instrument of the conversion of the other, and not the person converted:

and shall hide a multitude of sins; either "his own", as the same versions read; and then the sense is, he shall be blessed with a discovery and application of the forgiveness of all his sins, though they have been many and great; or rather the sins of the person converted. Sin is only covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ; and thereby it is so covered, as not to be seen by the eye of vindictive justice and in such manner as that the persons of those who are covered therewith are all fair, without fault and unreproveable in the sight of God; and though their sins are many, even a multitude, they are blotted out as a thick cloud, and are abundantly pardoned; yea, all their sins are covered, be they ever so many, for God forgives all trespasses, for Christ's sake; and the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin, and his righteousness justifies from all: and whoever is an instrument of bringing a backslider to a sense of the evil of his ways, and to true repentance for the same; as he, upon such repentance, has his iniquities caused to pass from him, or, in other words, to be covered, as from the sight of God, so from his own; he may be said to be the instrument of this also.

Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
Jam 5:20 forms the apodosis.

γινωσκέτω] The τις mentioned in the second half of the preceding verse is the subject—the converter and not the converted. The remarkableness of the repetition of the subject after ὅτι disappears, when it is considered that the idea to be taken to heart is expressed as a sentence which is universally valid.[1] Calvin rightly draws attention to the fact that the tendency of the verse is to excite zeal for the conversion of the erring.

The word ἁμαρτωλόν is to be retained in its general signification, and not to be referred simply to τὸν πλανηθέντα ἀπὸ τῆς ἀληθείας; it denotes the genus to which he that errs from the truth belongs as species.

ἐκ πλάνης ὁδοῦ αὐτοῦ] not = ex erroris vita (Schulthess); correctly Luther: “from the error of his way.” πλάνη states the nature of the way on which the ἁμαρτωλός walks, and forms the contrast to ἀλήθεια.

σώσει ψυχὴν [αὐτοῦ] ἐκ θανάτου] i.e. he will save a (his) soul from the death to which otherwise it would have fallen a prey. The future is here used because James “has in view the final result of such a saving deed” (Wiesinger). On ψυχήν, comp. chap. Jam 1:21; on the reading of the Receptus Estius remarks: absolute posita emphasin habet. But probably ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ is the correct reading. θάνατος, eternal destruction, as in chap. Jam 1:15. Lange strangely explains it as “the moral dissolution of the ontological life eternally self-generating itself.”

καὶ καλύψει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν] is to be understood not of the sins of the converter, who by his good work obtains forgiveness, whether on the part of God (Zacharias, ep. I. ad Bonifac.; Bede, Erasmus, Bouman, and others) or on the part of man (Augusti: “his own offences will not be remembered”), but of the sins of the converted (so most expositors). The words are an echo of Proverbs 10:12 (comp. 1 Peter 4:8), although it is doubtful if James had this passage actually in view; especially καλύπτειν here does not, as a strict translation of the Hebrew כִּסָּה,—see Neh. 3:36 (LXX. ed. Tisch. Jam 4:6); Psalm 32:1; Psalm 85:3,—signify to forgive, but the figurative expression is used by James in the sense that the sins of the converted are by the converter covered or concealed from the eyes of God, i.e. their forgiveness is effected. By ΠΛῆΘΟς ἉΜΑΡΤΙῶΝ are meant not the sins which the ἉΜΑΡΤΩΛΌς would otherwise commit (Jaspar: peccata adhuc patranda), and which were now prevented by his conversion (Pott: multa futura impediet), but the multitude of sins which he committed before his conversion.[2] Lange thinks: “this restriction misapprehends the progressive nature of guilt;” but how could sins which have not been committed be forgiven?[3] That the mention here is not of human, but of divine forgiveness, the close connection of the idea with the preceding σώσει ψυχὴν ἐκ θανάτου shows. Correctly Wiesinger: “καλύψει carries on further the σώσει ψυχήν, and states the ground of this salvation.”

[1] Wiesinger: “ὁ ἐπιστρέψας is not to be taken as equivalent to he who, in strict reference to the subject of γινωσκέτω, but expresses the general idea that every one who converts a sinner performs a great work; it is the general statement, under which he who is designated by γινωσκέτω subordinates his doing.”

[2] De Wette takes objection to the strong expression πλῆθος, as he thinks that the reference here is only to aberration, and not to a vicious life; and on this account he will consider, along with this, the sins of those who stand in reciprocal action with him who has erred, and were or might have been injured and led astray by him; but without reason; especially πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν corresponds entirely to the idea πλανηθῆναι ἀπὸ τῆς ἀληθείας, provided it be not arbitrarily weakened (so also Brückner).

[3] “In order to give prominence to the noble historical import of the Epistle, which has been only too much missed and neglected,” Lange maintains that James here, at the conclusion, invites the believing part of his people to engage in intercession and in “the work of salvation, that many individuals may be saved from death, and a multitude of sins might be atoned for.”

Jam 5:20. γινώσκετε: taking this as an indicative one may regard the words that follow as a quotation, a course which commends itself owing to the comparatively large number of quotations with which the Epistle abounds; at the same time it must be remembered that the weight of MS. evidence is in favour of γινωσκέτε.—καλύψει … (Hebrew כפר) cf. 1 Peter 4:8, one of the strongest of the many marks of Jewish authorship which the Epistle contains; according to Jewish doctrine good works balance evil ones; the good work of converting a sinner is reckoned here as one of the most efficacious in obliterating evil deeds; on the whole subject see Introduction IV., § 2.

20. from the error of his way] The noun always involves the idea of being deceived as well as erring. Comp. 2 Peter 2:18; 2 Peter 3:17; 1 John 4:6.

shall save a soul from death] The soul is obviously that of the sinner who is converted. Death, bodily and spiritual, would be the outcome of the error if he were left alone, and in being rescued from the error he is therefore saved also from death.

and shall hide a multitude of sins] The phrase is one of those which St James has in common with St Peter (1 Peter 4:8). It occurs also in the LXX. of Psalm 85:2, and in a nearly identical form in Psalm 32:1. The Hebrew, and English version, of Proverbs 10:12 present a still closer parallel, but the LXX. seems to have followed a different text, and gives “Friendship covers all those that are not contentious.” The context leaves hardly any room for doubt that the “sins” which are thought of as covered are primarily those of the man converted, and not those of the converter. There is, however, a studied generality in the form of the teaching, which seems to emphasise the wide blessedness of love. In the very act of seeking to convert one for whom we care we must turn to God ourselves, and in covering the past sins of another our own also are covered. In such an act love reaches its highest point, and that love includes the faith in God which is the condition of forgiveness.

The absence of any formal close to the Epistle is in many ways remarkable. In this respect it stands absolutely alone in the New Testament, the nearest approach to it being found in 1 John 5:21. It is a possible explanation of this peculiarity, that we have lost the conclusion of the Epistle. It is, however, more probable that the abruptness is that of emphasis. The writer had given utterance to a truth which he desired above all things to impress on the minds of his readers, and he could not do this more effectually than by making it the last word he wrote to them.

Jam 5:20. Γινωσκέτω, let him know) both the one who converts another, that he may be more intent upon it, and the one who is converted, that he may be led to grateful obedience.—σώσει, he shall save) The Future: it shall hereafter be evident.—ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ, his soul) the sinner’s. A great work.—ἐκ θανάτου, from death) which will destroy (swallow up) the sinners. The connection is: not only in diseases of the body, Jam 5:14, do you succour one another, but also drive away the death of the soul.—καλύψει, shall hide) impelled by that same love, under the influence of which he recalled him when in error; 1 Peter 4:8, note.[77]—πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν, a multitude of sins) either the sins which the person in error had committed, and which are known to him who converts him, or those which he was about to commit.[78] Steph. and Æthiop. read, of his sins. I know not why Steph. is inserted by Baumgarten. James concludes as though it were an ordinary book and not a letter.[79]

[77] Shall in love charitably hide, not reveal to others, but intercede with God for, the sins of his neighbour whom he converts.—E.

[78] And also the sins which either had been committed, or might still hereafter be committed, by the converter or others.—V. g.

[79] Bengel, J. A. (1866). Vol. 5: Gnomon of the New Testament (M. E. Bengel & J. C. F. Steudel, Ed.) (W. Fletcher, Trans.) (35–42). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Verse 20. - Let him know. So א, A, K, L, Latt., Syriac, B has γινώσκετε, "know ye." After ψυχὴν, א, A, and Vulgate add αὐτοῦ. B has it after θανάτου. And shall cover a multitude of sins (καλύψει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν). The same expression occurs in 1 Peter 4:8, "Charity covereth a multitude of sins." It is founded on Proverbs 10:12, תְּכַסֶּה אַהֲבָה וְעַל כָּל־פְשָׁעִים, "Love covereth all sins," where the LXX. goes entirely astray: Πάντας δὲ τοὺς μὴ φιλονεικοῦντας καλύπτει φιλία: but cf. Psalm 31:1; Psalm 84:3, in the LXX. It is difficult to believe that St. Peter and St. James independently hit upon the rendering πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν for the Hebrew כָּל־פְּשָׂעִים, as there was nothing to suggest it, the LXX. never rendering כֹּל by πλῆθος. Probably the one was consciously or unconsciously influenced by the other. The striking position which the words occupy here, as those with which the Epistle closes, would make them linger in the memory; and there is nothing to militate against the conclusion, which appeared probable on the occasion of previous coincidences between the two writers, that St. James is the earlier of the two (comp. on James 4:6). The expression used by the apostle leaves it undetermined whose sins are thus "covered," whether

(1) those of the man who is "converted from the error of his way," or

(2) those of the man who wins him back, and through this good action obtains, by the grace of God, pardon for his own "multitude of sins." It has been well noticed that "there is a studied generality in the form of the teaching which seems to emphasize the wide blessedness of love. In the very act of seeking to convert one for whom we care we must turn to God ourselves, and in covering the past sins of another our own also are covered. In such an act love reaches its highest point, and that love includes the faith in God which is the condition of forgiveness" (Plumptre). The Epistle ends abruptly, with no salutation and no doxology. In this it stands almost by itself in the New Testament; the First Epistle of St. John alone approaching it in the abruptness of its conclusion.

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