"My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." -James 5:19-20 ESV
James is a curious book. Although it follows an epistolary style in its opening verses, the majority of the text seems to be something of a collection of James' teachings without some of the clear markers of a letter. To some extent, this is understandable - although Paul's letters, for instance, are often written to specific churches with the intent that those churches would later share Paul's words with neighboring congregations, James is written to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion," or to a number of churches scattered throughout the land. As such, we don't see any of the directives to individuals which are so characteristic of the letters of Paul and instead see directives aimed at larger groups of people and more generic tackling of issues which would have been prevalent throughout the Church. Most divergent from what we typically see in epistles, however, is the ending of the book - we find no "say hi to Bill!" moments and are left instead with a rather abrupt conclusion which can frustrate our understanding of sin and salvation if we're not careful in our reading and analysis.
If we've ever had a conversation about the history of the Church, you've undoubtedly heard me use the name Origen - in fact, a quote from Origen rests at the top of this site and has guided much of my study of Scripture. In the Greek, it reads, "Hopou Logos agei" - "Follow where the Word leads," or "Follow where reason/logic leads." Origen has something to say in a sermon on Leviticus which is particularly interesting, and which coincides with the passage for today: "A man who converts others will have his sins forgiven" (Homily 2.4). This seems remarkably similar to what James says in v.20 - "...whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." Let's follow the logic a bit here - is James saying we cover our sins a little bit more with every person we convert?
Grammar plays a key role in situations like this one, but numerous scholars have noted that James' grammar is uncertain here. What it really seems to boil down to is this: does the work of conversion cover our sins, or does it cover the sins of the one who is converted? There are biblical scholars who fall on both sides of this particular debate. I would propose a third option: James' grammar is indefinite because both are applicable.
The latter position is likely the easiest to defend, so let's tackle it first. When someone comes to Christ, they receive His gift of salvation. The redemptive work of the Cross becomes theirs, and the work of Christ is sufficient to grant forgiveness of sins. In this way, the work of conversion has covered a multitude of sins found in the one who was converted. This is the most common way we conceive of salvation in Evangelical circles.
However, there is sufficient reason to believe that the former position is tenable as well. Consider Scot McKnight's words from his commentary on James for the New International Commentary on the New Testament series:
"God tells Ezekiel that if he does not warn the wicked, both they and he will die; if he warns the wicked, they will not repent but he will save himself (3:16–21; cf. 33:9). Daniel 4:27 can speak of atoning for sins with deeds of righteousness, and 12:3 can say those who lead many to righteousness will be like the stars... And a similar idea is found in what Paul tells Timothy: 'Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers' (1 Tim 4:16)." (Scot McKnight. The Letter of James. Eerdmans, 2011.)
It's quite plain to see that a strong biblical case can be made which supports the idea that the work of conversion proves beneficial for both the one doing the work and the one who is saved because of it! So does this mean that we are saved by works?
We will frequently refer to the multiple tenses of the word "salvation" in the New Testament - namely, that we "have been saved" (cf. Eph 2:5; 2 Tim 1:9), we "are being saved" (cf. 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 2:12-13), and we "will be saved" (cf. Rom 5:9-10; 13:11; 1 Thess 5:8). We "have been saved" from sin by the work of Christ on the Cross, but we are also "being saved" by His Spirit's continued work in our hearts to make us more like Christ. The day will finally come when we "will be saved" ultimately from our flesh, from death, and so on. Each of these is applicable, and each is an accurate understanding of salvation. So James is not saying we are saved because of what we do; that is a work of Christ. But it is true also that we are being saved because the Spirit of Christ is at work within us, conforming us to His image.
So take heart! The work of evangelism and conversion is difficult, but it is worthwhile - both for you, Christian, and for the one who benefits from your labor!