Brothers, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;…
These words are so plain and pointed that we can turn to them without any explanation or introduction. One fact, however, is worthy of notice. They were written by James, the direct teacher of daily duty and of Christian practice. It is a mistake to suppose that a sense of morality loosens a man's hold upon the essential doctrines of Christianity. No one will charge James with being unpractical. This letter is full of stinging, ringing sentences, in which he brands the faith that is "without works" as an accursed thing. Yet it is he who here sets before us the absolute necessity of repentance and conversion as the sum and substance of the whole matter.
I. "THE ERROR OF THE SINNER'S WAY." There is no doubt about whom James means by "the sinner." He had in view men and women who, although nominally Church members, paid no real regard to the gospel or to the commands of God. Of such people James says that their way of thought, and of feeling, and of life is an error. Now, this is not the light in which such a man regards his own way. If it were, he would change at once, and cease to be a sinner. On the contrary, it usually seems to him that he would be losing something if he changed, and that his present plan is natural, judicious, and successful. It does not occur to him that be is wandering, erring, going on the wrong road. His error lies in this, that he is not walking in the road in which God intended him to walk, and on which God's blessing rests. To refuse to lead the life which our Maker intends us to lead is a foolish blunder, because that is the life for which we are best suited. With God, it has not been a matter of mere intention, but of action, of creation, and of endowment, if you saw a man using bank-notes to light a fire, you would be sure that he was committing an error. He might tell you that the banknotes were his own, and that he chose to use them in that way; but he would not persuade you that he was acting prudently. There is a definite value in the notes; and his error would be none the less glaring because he chose to forget their value. There was an Eastern queen, in olden times, who loved extravagance. She took costly pearls, had them ground to powder, and mixed the powder in the wine she drank. No one could interfere; but that fact did not lessen her folly. It is the same with the sinner. He turns to base uses a nature which is fitted for the highest purposes. Capable of true thoughts and pure feelings, and charitable, honourable actions, he wastes his capacity. And, just as in these cases, his choice, his wish, does not make his error less. But there is another and deeper sense in which the ways of a sinner are one great error. He is going in the wrong direction — down-wards instead of upwards, towards the dark land of death instead of towards the bright world of love. In truth, if men were cautious, if they were prudent, if they were wise — there would be no such thing as sin. It is only because we are foolish, and imprudent, and rash, that we choose the way of sin — only because we are slow to learn where our true interest and our safety lie. And yet, thank God, that constantly, every week and every day, sinners are discovering the error of their ways — discovering that they have been blundering, and growing eager to return to God. How marvellous is this steady, unseen work, this descent of the wise Spirit into our hearts — when the young and heedless become serious and earnest; when worldly men and women start, and turn, and live; when hardened sinners, whose blunders seemed to be beyond recall, grow weary of their sins, and see their folly, and stretch out desperate hands for help. It is strange that we should err so grossly; but it is stranger still that, when we confess our error, God is always ready to forgive.
II. JAMES SPEAKS TO US HERE OF THE DEATH OF THE SINNER'S SOUL — "He shall save a soul from death." Even in this world there is a deadness that comes upon the soul which has long been a slave of sin. Torpor, dulness, and indifference creep over the godless heart till it becomes almost impenetrable. But the form of the words which James uses proves that he is thinking not of the soul's ruin in this world, but of the Judgment Day, when sinners receive the wages of sin, which is death. It is not only from the Bible that we learn that sin will be punished beyond the grave. This is what we call a truth of natural religion — a truth which men reach by conscience and by reason, apart from revelation, Many of the most fearful descriptions of future punishment have been written by poets and philosophers who knew nothing of our Scriptures, and never heard the name of Jesus. When we turn to the Bible, two glimpses are given us of the future state of the sinner — or rather, two sets of glimpses, two kinds of view. On the one hand, we are told that it will be a time of incessant suffering and of miserable torment. It is set before us under most appalling images — as a fire that is never quenched, and a worm that never dies. If we had only these passages to guide us, we should be forced to conclude that the soul will suffer in some such way to all eternity, But in other passages of the Bible we learn that the sinful soul will be destroyed — that it will be lost, that it will die — as if only good men were immortal. There are some strange expressions which do not disclose their meaning at the first. For example, we read of "everlasting destruction"; that is a common Bible phrase. What does it mean? Does it simply mean that the sinner will be destroyed, never to live again? Or does it imply that the act of destruction will go on always — that the sinner will always be being-destroyed? It is hard to answer, hard to say whether the New Testament, as a whole, affirms the one of these doctrines or the other. Therefore we rather take those two views — the one that the soul suffers continually, and the other that the soul is destroyed — and, when we fail to reconcile them, we must conclude that this is a subject upon which God has not thought fit to disclose the truth to us explicitly. He has left us to the law of conscience, and to that belief in the eternal laws of righteousness and recompense which the revelation of redemption has entwined with our belief in the unity and eternity of God. He has left us to a "certain fearful looking-for of judgment," and the assurance that we shall receive according to the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or whether they be evil. But beyond this He has given us a truth which underlies those divergent views, and is included in them both. At death the unrepentant sinner is separated from God, banished from His presence, cast away from His gracious sustaining power, and left alone in the vast wilderness of eternity.
III. HE WILL HIDE A MULTITUDE OF SINS. Here we see that the word "sinner" is not a term invented to suit a system of theology, not a fancy figure of some heated pulpiteer, but a real description of lives that men and women actually live. It gives us a definition of a sinner; he is a man who has committed "a multitude of sins." It implies not one transgression only, nor one offence, but a multitude that cannot be counted, rising, as Isaiah says, like a thick cloud between man and God. It is this infinite unmeasured character of human sin that makes it so hard to persuade men of its reality. If a man steals, or drinks, or ill-treats his wife and children, we can argue with him about his sin, we can expose him publicly or privately, we can try to convince him of his special guilt and special danger. But to go deep down into the heart and point to its pollution, to go away back with you into your past, and lay a finger upon every sin you have committed, to follow you into the watches of the night and the privacy of your homes, and then to present you with a full list of your sifts, and say to you, "There, you have done all these things, all that multitude" — that is not the work of man; the multitude of a single soul's offences baffles knowledge. It is wonderful how God teaches this lesson — there is a mystery about it — how a man begins to feel that it dries not matter much what his neighbours think about him, and that there is a reckoning which he must make with the eternal justice. Sometimes slowly, but sometimes in a moment, it dawns upon him that every page and every line of the buck of his life must be read aloud. And then, dear friends, when that truth gets hold of us, when we see what a shabby, shameful, damning story it would be, how we should be stung with shame and filled with remorse as one secret sin after another was disclosed, how absolutely helpless we should be to justify ourselves — then we feel how blessed a thing it is to have all "hidden," all that multitude hidden through God's great mercy and the merits of our Saviour. Fellow Christians, before we close, notice the beginning of this verse. Read it: "If one converteth." Read it again. We sinners may convert other sinners from the error of their way; we may save souls from death; we may hide a multitude of sins. God knows it is not easy; but if we are earnest and loving and persistent, He will help us. Remember there are sinners around us, at home, in church, and in the world, and there is no joy so deep, no reward so great as to lead one sinner on the road to God.
(A. R. McEwen, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;