Here’s a question for you. Can you remember a time when you lied to your parents? I’m guessing most of you can. You did something that you didn’t want them to know about, for fear that they would punish you, or yell at you, or roll their eyes at your stupidity. What was it you did? Did you ever tell them?
And why do you still remember it?
Both of my parents are gone now. They never found out some of the things I hid from them. Mostly, it was just that I broke things — even at other people’s houses! — when I was goofing around by myself, like the time I shot a BB gun through a closed window. I just put the gun down, walked away, and never told a soul. I covered it up, pretending it never happened. No one never knew. And I’ve never forgotten.
The news is full of cover-ups, shocking stories of some new revelation about what people in power hid from the public. Emotionally and in spirit, it’s not fundamentally different from what you or I did when we were kids. But the stakes are significantly higher and the damage more far-reaching than a broken window.
We’ve all done things we don’t want others to know. We can hide things from the public. We can hide things from our parents. We can try to hide things from ourselves.
We can’t, however, hide anything from God.
And yet James seems to say that it’s good to cover over our sins. Indeed, it’s the final note he strikes in his letter:
…remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:20, NIV)
It’s a fact of life, this side of the resurrection: people stray. We turn away from the truth; we fall prey to the deceit of others; we deceive ourselves. But that’s not the end of the story. The first part of that sentence could be translated more literally as “The one who turns back a sinner from his wandering way will save his soul from death.” In the Greek, the second “his” could mean either the sinner or one who turns them back. But the NIV sides with the majority opinion: it’s the former, not the latter.
But the last phrase is trickier. When James says that this act of spiritual care and compassion will “cover over a multitude of sins,” whose sins does he mean? Is this just another way of saying that the sinner’s soul will be saved from death? Or are other people’s sins “covered” too, especially the one who reached out to the sinner in the first place? And how and why are they being covered?
First, when James uses the word “cover,” he may have in mind the Jewish Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur. Kippur is derived from the Hebrew word kaphar, which means “to cover.” On that day, the high priest would make atonement for the people’s sins by sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial goat on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.
Second, James may also be thinking of Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” That doesn’t mean that it’s loving to help people cover up whatever evil they’ve done. Nobody should say, “I know I’ve done something terrible. But if you love me, you won’t tell anyone.” The point, rather, is that hatred wants conflict, but love wants peace and reconciliation; hatred wants to expose and accuse, but love wants to forgive.
Peter, in fact, seems to have a similar thought: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). His language of “covering sin” is the same as James’, and like Proverbs, it’s linked with love (agape).
Bringing all of that together, here’s what James seems to be saying. Remember that he’s writing to churches where people are constantly quarreling from envy and ambition, trying to gain more social status for themselves at the expense of others, toadying to the rich and disrespecting or even abusing the poor, and speaking to each other in ways that are angry, hurtful, and deceitful. I believe that this and more, pragmatically and directly, is the “multitude of sins” to be covered.
Throughout the letter, James has tried to give his readers a vision for loving Christian community. And here at the end, what he wants people to know is that as brothers and sisters to one another in Christ, they have some responsibility to each other. Specifically, love — which cannot be separated from true faith — should take the form of caring about each other’s spiritual well-being. If they see someone straying from the path, they should do what they can to bring them back.
Given what James says about the rampant arguing and abuse of words, I can well imagine that people were only too happy to air each other’s dirty laundry. Love has the opposite intent. To “cover” sin is not to hide or bury it. It is to lovingly prioritize the sinner’s wholeness and healing. It is to desire atonement and reconciliation.
Still, I suspect that the idea that we should “turn sinners from the error of their ways” might give some of you hives. You’ve endured church contexts in which some took it as their God-given mission to correct others, to self-righteously call out sin and bad behavior.
But that’s not at all what James envisions. And that point is important enough, I think, to merit one last post.