The emphasis on prayer brings James to his closing message: As you hold onto the truth and trust God in prayer during your trials, keep helping others to do the same. In making this the conclusion of his message, James is explaining his own letter. He began the letter saying he was "a servant of God." Now he adds the complementary calling: he is a servant of sinners. He has written forthrightly, insistently and passionately about what is sinful and what is righteous. In fact, someone has called James's letter "the Ouch! book" because it is so pointed. James makes no apology for that. But why such a passion for righteousness? Three concepts that appear in these closing verses reveal James's heart.
James has written about a God who is personal and good; he gives good gifts and gives them generously (1:5, 17). James has also written about a God who is absolute; his word is true and his judgments are supreme (1:18; 4:12). In this context, it is possible for human beings to know absolute truth. It is also possible to "wander from the truth" and to be brought back to the truth. James understands this wandering especially in moral terms; his passion is for righteousness, not merely correct doctrine. "Truth is a way to go, a way of life" in both Old Testament and New Testament thinking (Davids 1982:199).
This concept forcefully thrusts the church today into confrontation with the world. Surveys indicate that two-thirds of American adults believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth (this percentage is 74 percent among people 18-25 years old) and that it does not matter which god or higher power is addressed when one prays. Even though serious Christians would not count themselves among those percentages, the assumptions of relativism tug at them daily and influence them subtly, because relativism is such an accepted part of our cultural worldview.
This cultural context makes it all the more urgent that the church be absolutely clear about this: Absolute truth is available and knowable. There are absolute moral standards. God's will for our lives is holiness. Salvation is to be worked into our character and daily life in the form of righteousness.
James's conviction is that sin represents a life-threatening danger, not just a harmless blemish on our otherwise good character. Sin is not to be tolerated complacently; it destroys us. James may have in mind physical death from the illness associated with sin in 5:15. (Consider Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 11:30.) But when he speaks of saving the sinner's psychen, "soul," from death, he "appears to go beyond physical death and recognize death as an eschatological entity" (Davids 1982:200). The reference to covering a multitude of sins refers to gaining forgiveness and is a benefit parallel to the saving from death.
If we make this verse merely an occasion to argue whether Christians can lose their salvation, we will miss the real impact James wants to make on his readers. He is again, with passion and forcefulness, warning his readers that genuine faith includes repentance for sin and a life of obedience to Christ as Lord. What James is saying in 5:20 is simply consistent with his view throughout the letter. See the discussion of 1:15, where he first brought up the notion of death. His point is not that true believers may lose their salvation by sinning, but that sin full-grown ultimately destroys the sinner, and that genuine faith compels us to flee from sin and to help each other do the same. To the very end, James insists on the lordship of Christ as an essential part of the gospel.
Again the church is put into confrontation with the world. In America today, 83 percent believe that people are basically good. That view of human nature will make James's letter seem offensively harsh and ridiculously outdated. Yet when we believe the danger present in sin, we will begin to share James's passion for righteousness.
If truth is available, and if death does so threaten us, then love demands that we call each other to repentance. If I turn a fellow sinner from sin, I save that person from death and cover over that sinner's multitude of sins. Some commentators have tried to assign one or both of these benefits to the Christian who helps the sinner—for example, saying that Christians cover over their own sins when they turn a sinner from error. (See Adamson 1976:203; Dibelius 1976:258-259; Laws 1980:239.) Davids is right to reject this as unlikely logic for James to be using (1982:201). James is more probably thinking of the saving from death and the covering of sins as two parallel benefits coming to the sinner. Repentance is a necessary step of faith and is the only route by which one can be saved from death and freed from guilt.
The verb translated in 5:19 as "bring back" is epistrepho; it is the same verb in 5:20 as "turns." It can mean "convert," but there is no distinction made here between evangelizing a non-Christian and discipling one who believes. In either context, James wants his readers to see the urgency of bringing people to repentance. This is why he has written so severely to people whom he loves so dearly as "brothers." He has persistently called them to turn from sin. He concludes his letter saying, "I have called you to repentance; now you do this for others. Hold each other to righteousness just as firmly as I have held you."
This is what Douglas Webster calls "the work of spiritual direction" (1991:13). It is a ministry of cutting through the deceptive complexities of a relativistic culture and setting before others a clear path of obedience. It is a ministry that simplifies and clarifies life by defining godly commitments and directing people toward maturity (Webster 1991:15-19). It is a ministry of mutual discipling in the church, and it is based on one of the most crucial principles for effective church discipline: that the whole church is called to exercise discipline, not just pastors or elders. "For while God has given different gifts, the most basic training he gives is meant to come from fellow Christians in everyday encounters. Church discipline is the training of the church by the church. Trained professionals have their place, but they cannot and never were meant to be a substitute for the whole body" (White and Blue 1985:18).
These are the realities of life with which James concludes his letter: There is truth to be followed. There is death to be avoided. There is ministry to give to each other. James has called us to serve both God and sinners.