Am I My Brother's Keeper? (reflections on James 5:19-20)1
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Here James envisions a believer intervening in the life of another, wayward, believer. The result is that you will “save his soul from death” and will “cover a multitude of sins.” Does this mean there is the potential for a Christian to sin so severely that if someone doesn’t intervene to restore him/her that this person might “lose” their soul to “death,” i.e., lose their salvation? No. Several points need to be made.
First, to “wander from the truth” (v. 19) refers to any form of departure from biblical standards, whether in thought (belief) or conduct. James probably has in mind someone who is rebellious and disobedient to the truths that he has set forth in this epistle.
Second, to “bring him back” means to restore him/her to the path of obedience and truth. James envisions one believer, any believer, helping another believer get back on the track of repentance and obedience. This requires both boldness and tenderness in confronting sin in a brother or sister, calling them to biblical fidelity, and holding them accountable to walk in accordance with the revealed will of God.
Third, whose “soul” is “saved” and whose “sins” are covered? Many say that the soul saved and the sins covered are both those of the sinner who is being restored. Some contend that both these clauses refer not to the restored sinner but to the Christian who is the means of the restoration. In other words, the salvation of his soul and the covering of his sins are in some sense a reward to the Christian for his work of restoring a wayward brother/sister. Still others separate the two clauses: the one whose soul is saved is the restored sinner, but the one whose sins are covered is the Christian who has been the means of his recovery.
It is unlikely James is telling us that if we will help restore a wayward brother that our soul will be saved from death. After all, we are not straying from the truth and hence are not in danger of death! Most, then, agree that the one whose soul is saved is the brother who formerly strayed. Also, since it is a “sinner” (v. 20) who has strayed and is now restored it seems only reasonable that the sins which are covered are his. It doesn’t make much sense that James would encourage the good work of restoring an erring brother in order that we might obtain forgiveness of our own sins. Therefore, the first view above is the most likely: the soul saved and the sins covered are both of the wayward/restored brother.
Fourth, the term “save” referred to in v. 20 and the “death” from which he is delivered must be identified. Just a few verses earlier in 5:15 James used the term “save” to describe physical restoration from illness. The “death” here, therefore, is most likely physical death, not spiritual death. Again, in vv. 14-15 it is deliverance from or the prevention of a premature physical death that is in view. See also James 5:12. Thus, James is here encouraging us to be diligent to restore to repentance any brother or sister who has strayed from the truth. In doing so, we will have been instrumental in delivering or saving them from premature physical death (under the discipline of the Lord; cf. 1 Cor. 11:30-32; Acts 5). There is nothing in this passage that might lead us to believe a true Christian could lose his or her salvation.