When Jesus told us in Matthew 12:34 that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” He made it clear that our tongues can serve to reveal the state of our hearts. As we have seen in the book of James, if our works reveal whether or not we possess true faith (2:14–26), then certainly the works we perform with our tongues demonstrate the authenticity of our profession.
Having commanded his audience to submit their tongues to the wisdom of God (3:1–4:12), James describes a few practical ways to do this in the final verses of his epistle. When our speech is trustworthy and we use our tongues to pray for and to comfort others (5:12–18), we demonstrate that our profession of faith is genuine and live according to the “royal law” of Scripture (2:8).
In today’s passage, James concludes his epistle with a call for believers to use the tongue wisely in order to restore wandering believers to the truth (5:19–20). This work of true faith is very much in keeping with earlier exhortations to pray for one another (v. 16) and to use the tongue to bless and encourage others (3:9–10). After all, is it not our prayers and encouragements that God uses to help other believers maintain their faith in times of great difficulty?
In addition to prayer and encouragement, the proper and loving confrontation of others involved in sin can also restore wandering believers to the truth (Matt. 18:15). However it is accomplished, James makes it clear that bringing back a sinner from wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (5:20). It is the sinner’s soul that is saved from death since only a “righteous” person will be able to restore a wandering brother or sister. The sins that are covered probably refer to sins that the wandering person may have committed were he not restored.
At the end of his epistle, James powerfully reminds us that true faith — the faith that lays hold of heavenly wisdom — displays itself in love and mercy. When church members cease using their tongues to tear down one another and instead use them to call others to repentance, the body of Christ fulfills her call to be a doer of the Word.
All of us have an important part to play in the salvation of others. While we ourselves could never save another soul, God uses us as tools to help place His Word in the hearts of His elect. As Calvin says, “we must therefore take heed lest souls perish through our sloth, whose salvation God puts in a manner in our hands. Not that we can bestow salvation on them; but that God by our ministry delivers and saves those who seem otherwise to be nigh destruction.”