Most letters written 2,000 years ago concluded with personal greetings and blessings, but James ended his with a call to action:
My brothers and sisters, if one of you wanders from the truth and is brought back, know this–whoever brings the wandering sinner back will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James’s letter contains many warnings about sin, and one thing is clear: all of us are susceptible to it, so it is appropriate to close the letter with an encouragement to live in God’s truth. James speaks of truth in broad terms–anything and everything involved in the gospel. There will be times when we wander from the truth, and there will be times when friends and loved ones will go astray. When that happens, those still on the path are to extend a helping hand.
The source of James’s closing instruction is Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” People who live and worship together will witness one another’s sins, and it is human nature to judge. This, in turn, stirs up anger and hard feelings. Legalistic pronouncements often follow, and these sound the death knell of Christian unity. Love, on the other hand, is patient and kind. It’s not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It doesn’t demand its own way. It’s not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.
James is not talking about the kind of “love” that turns a blind eye and deaf ear toward sin; he’s talking about genuine love–the kind that knows people have faults and doesn’t keep score. The lesson in Proverbs 10:12 is important enough for God to state it three times. Peter said it this way in his first letter: “Most important of all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Peter then explained what this love looks like in everyday life: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:9-11).
The apostle Paul described this way of life as a ministry of reconciliation: “The old life is gone; a new life has begun! All of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this ministry of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!'” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
James says the fruit of this ministry is twofold: the sinner is turned away from death, and his sins are “covered” (i.e., forgiven, see Psalm 32:1).
James is realistic about the threat of apostasy and encourages his readers to be vigilant. Since inbred evil desires can easily drag any of us away (1:14–15), we must refuse to judge and condemn one another (4:11–12). Instead, let us be conduits of God’s mercy (2:13) and allow the Lord to use us as ministers of reconciliation (5:19–20).