Preserving the Covenant Community In Spite of Sickness and Sin

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit. My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

What this texts makes clear is that sickness and sin happen in the new covenant community. Some day that will not be true (Revelation 21:3–4). But for now in this fallen age of futility and groaning and waiting, it is true. Belonging to the covenant community does not mean guaranteed health or guaranteed sinlessness now.

Paragraph Four of Our Church Covenant 

So the question rises: How do you preserve the covenant community in spite of sickness and sin? That's what this text is about. And that's what the fourth paragraph of our Church Covenant is about.

(4) We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling, and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.

What I want to focus on today is the preserving of the covenant community in spite of sin. We have talked a good bit about praying for each other in our sickness, and I don't want to minimize the importance of that. I want us to grow in our faith and our commitment to pray for the sick and see God do mighty things for the sick. He is not disinterested in our bodies. But with the limited time I have this morning I think I should focus this time not on verses 16–18, but on the last two verses of our text (James 5:19–20), and the issue of sin in the community.

Four Crucial Elements of the Text 

What I see here are four crucial things about preserving the covenant community in spite of sin. I'll treat them under these headings:

  1. Covenant truth.
  2. Covenant vulnerability.
  3. Covenant warnings.
  4. Covenant security.

1. Covenant Truth

The point here is simply (and yet profoundly and controversially) that there is truth. And since there is truth, there is error. And since there is truth and error, there is a way to walk that is called sin, namely, to walk out of sync with the truth, and in sync with error.

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

The Foundation of Our Church Covenant 

Notice the four key words. In verse 19 a person is straying from the TRUTH. Then in verse 20 this person is called a SINNER, his sin is called ERROR, and this is described as his WAY. " . . . he who turns a sinner from the error of his way . . . " So there is truth. And there is a way to live that is out of sync with that truth. And that way is error and sin.

This is the foundation of our church covenant. It exists because we endorse this notion that there is truth and there is error. There is sin and there is righteousness. There is good and there is bad. There is right and there is wrong. Our church exists because we have affirmed a covenant with God and with each other to walk according to truth. To turn from error. To forsake sin.

The Contemporary Attack Against the Notion of Truth

I stress this because the most destructive force against Christianity today is, I think, the pervasive attack against the notion of truth in contemporary culture. In other words, the main battle today is not being fought between those who say that the Bible is true and those who say that the Bible is false. The main battle is over whether there is such a thing as true and false. Whether these notions are bourgeois ideas left over from unenlightened culturally myopic times.

Let me describe two ways that this attack is being carried on.

One Form of the Attack

One goes like this. Modern secularists say that technology and science have shown that the Bible is irrelevant at best. It is part of ancient superstitions on a par with the Greek gods of Zeus and Hermes and Poseidon, or the animistic belief that rivers have spirits. So the claim that the Bible has unique authority is relativized. Its claim to universal truth won't stand the test of the modern scientific worldview.

One response to this in the last 100 years in America has been to keep the Bible at the center of our cultural life by arguing that, whether true or not, the Bible is crucial for understanding western culture. So up until maybe 30 or 40 years ago one could make a case for taking the Bible seriously because the university and high school curricula all assumed the indispensable, unifying value of western culture—centuries of art and literature and philosophy and moral tradition flowing from the biblical world through the middle ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the modern industrial age, and shaping who we are in the modern western world.

But in the last 30 years or so alongside scientific secularism there has arisen a radical multi-culturalism that says, in effect, "What's so special about this western culture?" It has no more claim to privilege than any other culture. So this secondary effort to defend the unique worth of the Bible as the foundation of western culture is collapsing today as the multi-culturalists deconstruct any claim at all that one culture or tradition is better than another.

Another Form of the Attack

That's one way that the truth claim of the Bible is being undermined. Another way is this: those who oppose the concept of truth say with increasing frequency that all claims to truth have been and are now politically driven, and should be rejected, not because they are false, but because they are oppressive. In other words, truth is not what its defenders say it is. But rather it's a political weapon by which men oppress women, and whites oppress blacks, and western culture oppresses eastern culture, and the rich oppress the poor, and Christians oppress Muslims, and straight people oppress homosexuals, and so on.

So the way that the claim to truth is attacked is not by showing that it's false or distorted, but by calling it names: chauvinistic or bigoted or parochial or racist or intolerant or homophobic. And of course there is enough misuse of truth to give some credibility to the attack. But the tragedy today is that thousands of power-brokers in our country endorse the attack uncritically without seeing that the very foundations of civilized life and beauty and goodness and justice and love are being swept away by this derision of the concept of truth.

Our Church Covenant as a Declaration

I dwell on this because I think nothing is undermining biblical Christianity today more than this attack on the existence of truth. If we yield to this attack, we are saying that the Bible is no more true and valuable than the Communist Manifesto, or Hammurabi's Code, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Buddhist sutras, or the Koran, or the sayings of Confucius, or an animist chant.

That is a high price to pay to be up-to-date and in step with the times. I want you to hear the first point of this message in very conscious distinction to this contemporary trend. There is truth. It is rooted in God, and revealed through The Bible. And there is a way to live that accords with this truth. We exist as a church on this foundation. And our church covenant is a declaration that we will not yield to the pressures of an all-destroying relativism. It is a pledge to each other to live according to the truth.

2. Covenant Vulnerability

The point here is simply that Christians living in the new covenant and committed to each other by a church covenant can and do sin. We are vulnerable to sinning. We are not yet perfect. Verse 19: "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth . . . " It is possible to stray.

What then becomes of the new covenant promises that God will write the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and that he will put his Spirit within us and cause us to walk in his statutes (Ezekiel 36:27) and that he will work in us that which is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21)?

The answer is that God does not transform his people overnight. He could. And we often wish he would. But for reasons known better to him than to us he allows us often to stumble in our own remaining rebellion and corruption—probably to show us how utterly corrupt we are without him and to make us desperate for him.

The new covenant promise is that God will change us. His Spirit does dwell within. He is the Sanctifier. All true virtue is his fruit not ours. But he does not do it overnight. And so we remain vulnerable to sinning. And we must not become presumptuous or proud, but constantly pray for more grace and give ourselves to the fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14).

3. Covenant Warnings

What we need to see here is sobering. The covenant warning here is that the path of sin can lead to death without a covering for sin. In other words, it leads to destruction and eternal lostness in hell. Verse 20:

He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

Utterly Crucial to See

If the sinner turns back from his slide into sin, he will escape death and will be in a relationship with Christ that covers all his sins. But if he does not turn back, then he will die, and his sins will not be covered. He will perish forever. 

This is utterly crucial to see. The New Testament writers do not assume that everyone in the church is necessarily going to persevere to the end and be saved. They treat people who have made a profession of faith as true members of the covenant community, giving them the benefit of the doubt. James calls them all "brothers" in verse 19. "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth . . . "

But he does not assume that everyone whom he calls a brother is in fact a brother. And so he warns the whole church that straying away from the faith into persistent sin will lead to death without forgiveness. The final proof of who is a brother and who is not is perseverance of faith, not profession of faith.

John's Explanation

James assumes exactly what John assumes in 1 John 2:19. Some people had left the faith and the church without being persuaded to turn back. John said,

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.

So John and James recognize that not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom (Matthew 7:21). Therefore even in the new covenant community—like Bethlehem—we must warn each other about the tremendous danger and deceitfulness of sin, and how it can become so attractive that it pulls a person beyond the point of no return. This is the covenant warning that we need from each other again and again.

There are far too many who play with sin and presume upon grace, and do not realize that they can make shipwreck of their lives and die without forgiveness, even though they claimed to be Christians and belonged outwardly to a new covenant community.

4. Covenant Security

Or I prefer to call it the community project of new covenant security.

Our Security Is Rooted in God's Keeping Power

Our security in the new covenant rests in God's keeping power. "He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ" (Philippians 1:6). "He will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:8). "He is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory" (Jude 24). "Those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:30; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23–5).

Our security is in God. Our security is the new covenant commitment of God to produce in us the faith and the obedience and perseverance we need to endure to the end and be saved. That is our security.

But God Uses the Means of Community to Keep Us

But what James makes clear is that God does his preserving work through human means. Look at the wording of verse 20 once more:

Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.

What's the subject of the verb, "will save"? Who is the saver in this verse? It's the church member who goes after the straying brother. "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him." It's like Paul saying, "I became all things to all men that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Eternal security is certain for God's elect. But eternal security is a community project. When a fish is caught did the hook catch it, or the bait, or the line, or the pole, or the fisherman, or the current in the sea that led the fish to the vicinity, or the boss back home that told the man to take the day off and go fishing. The answer is: all of the above.

And so it is in the new covenant community. Covenant security is not a mechanical automatic thing. It depends on God, and God uses means; so it depends on means—like going after each other when we are straying into sin.

Paul showed the combination of God's sovereign saving power and his use of human means in 2 Timothy 2:24–26:

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. [That's God's means. But here is God's sovereign prerogative:] God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

God uses means to keep us secure. And the measure of our security and our joy in this church will be the degree to which we use the means of grace to turn each other back from straying and keep each other safe in the love of God that covers the multitude of our sins.