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How should I understand or interpret James 5:20?

19 My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back,

20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will asave his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (ESV)

Does the one who "saves his soul from death" and the one who's "multitude of sins" coved refer to the person who strayed and turned back or is it referring to the person who helps steer the strayer back to truth?

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both refers to the one who strays –  tunmise fashipe Oct 29 '12 at 11:34
    
The soul which is saved is definitely that of the sinner, in terms of the Greek. However the "covering a multitude of sins" is not clearly specific to either person. I tend to believe it is in reference to both. In context with the preceding verses, this seems the most consistent. Also, James poetic language is ultra-precise, and the phrase "and will cover a multitude of sins" could have easily been clarified. When he is vague, I think he always means to include all the possibilities. In this case, he would mean it covers the sins of the one saving as well as the one saved, differently. –  Heath Hunnicutt Sep 17 '13 at 16:42
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2 Answers

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In this passage we need the Greek text in order to make an accurate interpretation. First, the pronoun αυτός, which means, basically, "him," is used three times. Let me highlight where it appears:

19 My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back,

20 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. (ESV)

The author of the text is not out to confuse his readers, and as a Greek reader one can therefore be sure that each time the pronoun is used it refers to the same person. The first "him" translated in verse 20 is very confusing and it surprises me that the ESV team translated it thusly. The pronoun used is τίς, as opposed to αυτός, and it means, more accurately "certain man."

Here's my translation from the Greek:

My brothers, if ever a certain one among you should error, away from the truth, and a certain one should turn him, know that the one who turned the sinner from the error of his way will save the soul of him out of death and will cover many sins.

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FYI: We've collected a few formatting tips that might help you in the future. Also, it's the custom around here to not use signatures. (See faq.) I've edited this answer to give you an idea of what we're looking for. Feel free to edit as you see fit. I'm glad to see you throwing yourself into the site! –  Jon Ericson Oct 30 '12 at 0:24
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This fits right in with what Jesus said in Matthew 18:15 - If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

So it seems that James is basically saying that if a Christian sees a brother falling into sin and confronts the brother and that brother turns from his sin, the Christian has saved his brother from death, (that is, from continuing in sin) and covered a multitude of sins (by turning him away from them).

In his commentary, Matthew Henry has this to say:

He that is said to err from the truth in v. 19 is described as erring in his way in v. 20, and we cannot be said to convert any merely by altering their opinions, unless we can bring them to correct and amend their ways. This is conversion—to turn a sinner from the error of his ways, and not to turn him from one party to another, or merely from one notion and way of thinking to another. He who thus converteth a sinner from the error of his ways shall save a soul from death. There is a soul in the case; and what is done towards the salvation of the soul shall certainly turn to good account. The soul being the principal part of the man, the saving of that only is mentioned, but it includes the salvation of the whole man: the spirit shall be saved from hell, the body raised from the grave, and both saved from eternal death. And then, by such conversion of heart and life, a multitude of sins shall be hid.

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