The book of James reminds us that faith involves action (James 2:14–18). One way believers express their faith in action is by working to win back other professing Christians who have lost their way: “My brothers and sisters, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let that person know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20, CSB).
James is speaking to fellow believers (“my brothers and sisters”) when he makes this promise: anyone who successfully turns a sinner from his sin covers a multitude of sins. “Covering sin” refers to the forgiveness of sin through the act of atonement. It means to put sin out of sight through the provision of a sufficient sacrifice. Psalm 32:1 says, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
When a wandering sinner turns from the error of his way back to the truth, that person is forgiven many sins. The word turns in James 5:20 indicates repentance from sin (see 2 Chronicles 6:24–25; Psalm 51:13; Luke 1:16). Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross covers the sins of those who repent and receive His forgiveness (Luke 24:46–47).
What might James mean by “a multitude of sins”? When a person comes to know Jesus Christ as Savior, every sin is forgiven, the entire quantity of sins, of which God is fully aware of every one. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ covers them all. Our motivation behind winning back wanderers is love for those who are stumbling. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins,” states 1 Peter 4:8. James wants Christians to look out for each other and encourage one another to remain steadfast in their commitment to Christ and obedience to God. If we see someone getting tangled up in sin, we ought to consider ways to lead that person to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.
James doesn’t tell us how to go about restoring the one who strays from the truth, but we can start with prayer for the sinner to repent (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:13–18). We can also ask God to show us the best ways to support, encourage, and “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24–25; see also John 13:34–35).
When a sinner repents, he is saved from spiritual ruin. For this reason, James 5:20 says, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death.” Sin is the great destroyer of lives. James explains that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). When a person persists in a lifestyle of sin, he will eventually experience eternal death and separation from God (Romans 6:16, 23; 8:13; Galatians 5:19–21). Putting our faith in action to recover such a person is a worthwhile endeavor.
It’s essential to understand who James is talking about as “the sinner” here. James is writing about people who profess to know Christ. These are people who stray from the truth into doctrinal error and sin because they were never truly submitted to Christ’s lordship. They are like the seed thrown on shallow or rocky soil that withered with no root (Mark 4:1–9; Luke 8:4–8). These wanderers never accepted the authority of God’s kingdom over their lives by confessing faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Jesus spoke of such people not as true disciples, but as those who are deceived: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23). When a Christian successfully turns a wandering sinner from his or her sin, covering a multitude of sins, that sinner is making a genuine conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, true believers can be enticed by Satan and entangled in sin (Hebrews 12:1). God calls mature Christians to come alongside weaker brothers and sisters who are struggling with sin (1 Thessalonians 5:6–11, 14–22; Philippians 2:4). If we can help them see the error of their way and turn from sin, they will avoid the devastation and destruction of a life of disobedience.