A Multitude of Sins Covered


I. Verses 1-6 – Warning to those whose greed makes them treat their workers unjustly. This is a word to the unregenerate rich concerning their oppressive policies to enrich themselves at the expense of the well-being, and even the lives, of their workers. The rich receive instruction in several New Testament passages. Paul warns those who are “rich in this present age” against haughtiness, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous and sharing, to put their hope in God and not their wealth (1 Timothy 6:17-19). James already has given godly instruction to the rich in 1:10 concerning the superior blessing of humiliation before God over exaltation among men. He also has warned about seeking to curry favor with the rich. Jesus warned against the deceitfulness of riches and the danger of damning idolatry through its allurement (Mark 10:23-25).

A. James described their sins. If they knew what judgment awaited them, they would “weep and howl.” Among the culpable offenses named by Job of which he was innocent, he stated, “If I have despised the cause of my male or female servant when they complained against me, what then shall I do when God rises up?” Either he may act with kindness now or weep and howl then. He added, “When he punishes, how shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one fashion us in the womb?” After considering other ways of acting unjustly, Job acknowledged, “For destruction from God is a terror to me, and because of his magnificence I cannot endure” (Job 31:13-23). These whom James addresses have no fear of God before their eyes, have no sense of their commonality with all humanity,

  1. They have collected a variety of riches which they flaunt in their manner of dress. They display in public the luxury of their lives and expect to be both admired and envied for their material extravagance. Riches, garments, gold and silver, lush banquets, exorbitant profits because of oppressed labor, and personal pleasure as their highest aim constitute their goal. Paul could say as a mark of his apostleship and Christian sincerity and full trust in the provision of God, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel” (Acts 20:33).
  2. Verse 4 – They love wealth more than they love honesty and integrity. They have increased the personal wealth by overworking and underpaying those who work their fields. For the sake of maintaining their expensive lifestyle they have made human life cheap (verse 4).
  3. Verse 5 – They have indulged themselves when horror is all around. They have sought their pleasure when human suffering confronts them at every turn. The contrast between “wanton pleasure” for them and the “day of slaughter” for others is striking. The image contains a severe warning, for their wanton pleasure has made their hearts perfectly fit for a future slaughter under the wrath of God. Like cattle being fattened for the slaughter, so these voracious consumers of pleasure are preparing themselves for perfect manifestations of the just wrath of God.
  4. Either by overwork or by false accusation to satisfy their acquisitive and insatiable appetites, like Ahab with Naboth, they have brought about the death of innocent people. These have done nothing worthy of death and had no means of defending themselves. This pattern however, should in itself be a severe warning to the rich and powerful, for in this manner Jesus Christ, the truly righteous man (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:2), was killed. Nor did he resist for his kingdom was not of this world. He will appear a second time in judgement and perfect justice will be done.

B. James chided them for such short-sighted vanity. Their gain covered them with a great deceit, for they were not earning pleasure but the wrath of the Lord of Hosts. Note how James telescopes the wages of wealth for the wicked rich.

  1. They may see them as plush and appealing, James looks at the riches as already rotten. He sees the evilly-obtained garments as moth-eaten. It is as if thieves already have broken in and have stolen, moths already have eaten their garments. James may have in mind Isaiah 51:7, 8, where the Lord says, “Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool.” Even more proximate would be the words of the Lord Jesus who said, “Do no lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
  2. Again, though they rejoice in the accumulation of wealth, James sees their gold and silver as corroded already for it hangs about their necks as so much weight to take them down to hell. Their continued accumulation merely builds more evidence and elicits more charges against them for the last day. Jesus worked with intensity to warn against being satisfied with gain in this life at the expense of eternal life. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

C. James pointed to the final judgment of God, which none can escape and none can resist. “Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” It is as if they themselves are gathering up everything for the last day when God shall put an end to history. He has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Jesus Christ] whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). As Asaph looked at the wicked who increased in riches and seemed always at ease, he felt like protesting against the justice of God until he “went into the sanctuary of God;” then he continued, “I saw their end.” James now reflects on that reality that all the apparent, power, comfort, ease, fatness, and pride of the wicked only is preparing them to fall to ruin and be destroyed in a moment when they are swept away utterly by terrors (Psalm 73:14-19).

  1. In light of the certainty of just judgment, James contends that even now the miseries are coming upon them (verse 1). Paul speaks of the unjust as “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Though delayed, it is coming moment by moment; and, if not presently displayed, its accumulation as a treasure of wrath will not lose one whit of its intensity for the delay.
  2. He looks upon their covetous and murderous gain as accumulating evidence against them and as witnesses for the prosecution. Silver is sturdy though it may tarnish, and gold is virtually impermeable to change but James sees them both as a kind of moral rust, flaking away and bearing a corrosive quality that not only is making them useless but consuming the flesh of their owners. So powerful is the witness of unjust gain that it destroys like fire. James has used the image of fire in 3:5, 6 to talk about the destructive power of the tongue; so does unjustly gained wealth bring its pursuers to destruction and act as exhibits of their wickedness.
  3. Instead of gain, such possessions were actually loss. If Paul considered his entire course of legalistic and Pharisaical obedience, his every pedigree of righteousness as loss, less than nothing, in light of his need for the perfect righteousness of Christ, then how destitute of hope must these gleeful oppressors be (Philippians 3:3-9). How susceptible to judgment and wrath and vengeance must a studied course of cruelty and covetousness be!
  4. These acts of malice are not unnoticed. They have “reached the ears of the Lord of heaven’s armies.”
  • All sin and injustice are known and noted by God and every aggravating circumstance of every point of transgression both in spirit and in action will receive the full measure of vengeance. The wicked may delude themselves while they luxuriate in the misery and oppression of others, and may think, “How can God know? Is there knowledge with the Most High?” (Psalm 73:11).
  • The omniscient, perfectly just judge hears and sees all. That God is full of mercy and patience does not mean that he will not execute perfect justice. God, in fact, will “on that day” judge “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Jesus, the Judge who himself took judgment for sins not his own, said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36,37). If this is so, and who can deny the truthfulness of Jesus’ statements about judgment, then one may know that the cries of the afflicted have certainly reached the ears of the Lord Sabaoth.
  • The history of redemption shows that God requires a perfect moral accounting for all and every transgression. He did “not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell;” he did not “spare the ancient world . . . when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;” and condemned Sodom and Gomorrah to extinction, then God certainly will “keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:4-9).
  • The perfection of God’s judgment is seen in that, for the salvation of his elect, he “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Not one sin of the elect will go unnoticed but all reaches the ear of the Lord of Hosts and already has received judgment in the substitutionary death of his Son. God will judge the secrets of men’s hearts “by Christ Jesus,” for not only is he omniscient and perfectly just, but he himself has endured the perfectly just judgment for sin (Romans 3:23-26). Jesus said, in light of the work the Father had sent him to do, “And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27). “Son of Man” is a way of designating his messianic status but also substantially identifying Jesus with true humanity in trials, temptation from satanic instigation, dependence on divine purpose and providence, and the enduring of divine judgment for the sake of others. By this one will judgment be executed.


II. Verses 7-12 – Christians must be patient in the face of injustice. James has not given his stinging rebuke of injustice in order to incite an organized rebellion on the part of poor oppressed Christian workers. Rather he has done it to assure them that Another will take up their cause in a way more fully and justly than they ever could, and that these things will work for their godliness in this life.

A. Christians must be patient until the coming of the Lord. Christians do not seek personal vengeance for wrongs done against them. They do not organize a protest and make demands. Rather, knowing that their cries have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts, they “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).

  1. James used an analogy from nature, even as the Lord did, about how apparently slow the process moves from the planting of seed until the reaping of harvest. But it happens almost unnoticed. Soon, when all the necessary factors have been consummated, the “precious fruit of the soil will appear.” Though slowly, the kingdom of God will come to fruition through faithful sowing and waiting, patience and doing good: “First the blade, and then the ear, and then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:26-29). The apostle Paul looked to this as an apt illustration also when he urged, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9).
  2. While being patient, do not complain or fret, but use the time to “strengthen your hearts.” This too is a grace that we seek to stir up, for we know that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Also, Paul knew that, not only then but now, Christians need to be strengthened and prayed that “according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” The constant awareness of Christ’s presence calls for spiritual strength. Such strengthening of spirit and mind results in a deeper and more profound grasp of the riches of divine grace, for it is so wide, deep, high, broad, long and so surpassing of all natural knowledge that we must “have strength to comprehend with all the saints” the fulness of its dimensions, the certainty of its full manifestation, and the perfection of its culmination to the glory of Christ in his church “for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3:16-21).

B. Christians must not grumble against each other.

  1. Times of difficulty sometimes cause internal tension in communities and can lead to grumbling and complaining against each other. If, however, we complain against another person we make ourselves susceptible to the same complaints. If we judge the actions of others we establish a standard according to which we must be willing to be judged. We have no right nor moral authority to establish a standard of judgment for, as we have seen, according to 3:11, 12, there is “only one lawgiver and judge,” and he is “standing at the door.”
  2. Instead, in times of tension and pressure, brothers and sisters in Christ should “consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10: 24, 25).

C. James called attention to the prophets as examples of suffering patience. They spoke in the name of the Lord but were maligned as trouble-makers. For example, Jeremiah was called when he was very young (Jeremiah 1:6) and was given a difficult mission to “root out and pull down, to destroy and to throw down,” (Jeremiah 1:10). God told him, “’They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you’ says the Lord, ‘to deliver you.’” (Jeremiah 1:19). Jeremiah did as God said, often was deeply distressed, but remained faithful and was delivered in spite of attempts to kill him (cf. Jeremiah 38).

D. James points to Job as an example of divine purpose in suffering. This is the only mention of Job in the New Testament. His humble acceptance of God’s doing in Job 1:21 and 2:10 are succeeded by apparent churlishness toward his friends and a posture toward God of questioning and almost combativeness. These events show, however, that Job was unwilling to accept the facile quid pro quo theology of suffering posed by his comforters. His desire to engage God was a call for understanding not an expression of disbelief. The layers of suffering and loss placed on Job led him to meditate and reason deeply about human sin and suffering. He had at last a powerful interaction with God that led him to trust God’s purpose and his good intentions for his people. He came to see that if he had no capacity to understand even the natural phenomena of the world, how could he think that he would understand the moral logic of God. That must await the full display of God’s wisdom in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. Paul presses the lessons beyond those perceived by Job when he declares, “Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us and eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16, 17).

E. Retain steadily your integrity of purpose and consistent credibility. A. T. Robertson comments, that this has “no connection with what immediately precedes.” This certainly cannot be the case since James says, “above all else.” James has admonished against complaining and has encouraged patience and trust in the wise purpose of God. Now he indicates how the tongue can betray an impatient, defensive, and complaining spirit. One need not resort to oaths either before men or in invocation of God as a pattern of relieving mental pressure or as a means of defending oneself. In this warning about our susceptibility to judgment through the undisciplined use of the tongue, James has in mind the tendency to use strong language and invoking God in a vain and flippant way about trivial matters or in an agitated spirit. This shows neither patience nor deep trust. James does not have in mind oaths taken in a measured and legal way in public situations (Hebrews 6:16). Paul would on occasion bring God to witness when he spoke of deeply serious admonitions or perhaps issues that were being disputed by opponents (2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; 2 Timothy 4:1). James is calling to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 where he instructs disciples not to take oaths, but let simple “yes” and “no” be sufficient. Any attempt to verify truthfulness beyond that in interaction with our neighbors and fellow church members is evil (Matthew 5:33-37).


III. Verses 13-20 – In all circumstances maintain your consciousness of dependence on God. Instead of seeking a redress for social wrongs, or increasing agitation through ill-chosen manners of speech, work to maintain godliness and worship in the community of believers.

A. Instead of the frustrated condition indicated by oaths, let your words be of a different sort. Discern what is fitting for different conditions of life (Verses 13, 14). “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

  1. The person who is suffering should keep on praying, not indulge in oath-taking, submitting his condition to the Lord. The Psalmist shows how to pray in such a situation: “Bow down your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy. . . . Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; and attend to the voice of my supplication. In the day of my trouble I will call upon you., for you will answer me” (Psalm 86: 1, 6, 7).
  2. The person who is cheerful, should recognize that all blessings and all joy of a lasting nature come from the Lord. He should sing praises.
  • This does not mean that the one suffering has no reason to praise, for even after whipping and being fastened in stocks, Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison (Acts 16:25). God seems to have attuned the vocal apparatus to the elevation of affection so that with the body we may express in fitting ways the exuberance, or the crushing despondency, of the soul. A shout, a groan, a prayer, a sob, a song—all of these give vent to one’s emotional state and may express confidence in the nearness of God.
  • How should one express lament in singing? As all expressions of confessions of sin and lowness of spirit in a felt absence of sustaining grace, they are to be countered by the conscious calling to mind of redemptive blessings—the triumph of forgiveness over guilt, eternity over temporality, hope over distress, and glorification over decay. The Psalmist looks forward to the redemptive solution to his downcast soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:11).
  • We must not, however, press praise upon people in a way that shows insensitivity to genuine sorrow and despondency over loss or seemingly insurmountable difficulties. James could have in mind the warning of Solomon, “Like one who takes away a garment in cold weather, and like vinegar on soda, is one who sings to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20). If one who is suffering chooses to sing, he does well and he does good. Others, however, should not force a song to the lips of one who suffers.
  1. If a person is sick, he should call for the elders of the church. This action means that the person recognizes that soul-care has been given by God to elders as an element of their ministry of the word. Paul told the elders at Ephesus to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Their main calling is teaching doctrinal truth and correcting error (Acts 20:30, 31; Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:9), but also to give an example of care and integrity (Acts 20:35). How do the elders approach this request from a sick person?

B. Verses 14b-15 – Instructions for praying for the sick. This shows the importance of looking to the Lord as the ultimate, and often the immediate, healer.

  1. The elders should pray over him. We are to expect that God, our Father and the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17) and the one who gave us new birth by sovereign discretion and power (James 1:18) should be called upon for a demonstration of his will in this sickness and his power for healing. Paul asked the Corinthians to pray for his deliverance from peril. “On him we have set our hope, Paul wrote, “that he will deliver us again.” Then he appealed, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). In the same spirit, Paul told the Philippians that he knew “that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philippians 1:19). By deliverance he meant either a release from prison for continued fruitfulness in ministry or death in which he would be with Christ.
  2. They were (and are) to “anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” This according to some was the same as the use of medicine in our day. Perhaps if there were a wound this would be so, but the case is not one of a wounded person but a sick person. External anointing with oil would have no effect as a remedy for sickness. Perhaps mixed with a combination of herbs and taken internally, it would be viewed as having curative power. But the call is for anointing. Parallel with Philippians 1: 19, this is a symbol of their reliance on the blessings of the Holy Spirit on faithful prayer. This action in the “name of the Lord” means that we confess that we live and have health only by the sustaining power of our Creator and Redeemer and according to his covenant purposes. This is an instruction given in the era of the new covenant and thus not a fulfilled aspect of Jewish ceremony; this practice is still a viable aspect of New Testament ministry.
  3. “The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” “Faith” does not mean that if we believe hard enough God will heal the person. Faith always has to do with a trust in the revealed word of God. Faith submits to God (4:7) and embraces the wise providence of God. Faith looks to the accomplishment of God’s will—“If we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14)—and is satisfied with the outcome. As Paul expressed when facing possible execution, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He promised that the “prayer of faith” results in the restoration of the sick person. The immediate expectation would be the healing of the person from the sickness that prompted the call of the elders. A deeper and more permanent level of healing could also be part of this event, that is the sanctification of the sick person, a deeper confidence in God’s goodness, and a renewal of gratitude for the blessing of forgiveness. What is at work is the confluence of prayer, the prevailing commitment to “If the Lord wills” (4:15), and divine determination to bring the outcome that is fully satisfying to faith.
  4. This is seen in the following phrase, “and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” If the sickness is a judgment for sin, this recognition of the need for spiritual help in sickness is tantamount to confession, and the forgiveness of sin will be accompanied by healing. Not all sickness, however, is a judgment or a chastening for sin. Some is for testing that we might develop endurance, trust, and hope in eternal things. Some is just to remind us that we live in a fallen world in which corruption reigns; the wasting away of the outer man is unexceptionable, and death is certain. At any rate, we should desire to be healed and affirm life; while at the same time submit to God for the ultimate healing, eternal life.

C. The need for continual confession of sin is accompanied by mutual intercession. In light of the relation of sin to every aspect of sickness and death, we should be in a constant readiness to confess our sins to God, and if personal offense is involved, to one another. John wrote, “If we are confessing our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The Christian is the person who knows that the only and the ongoing remedy for sin and its consequences is God’s own faithfulness to his covenant promises and his just recognition of the satisfaction given by his Son Jesus Christ. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2:1). “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). We pray, therefore, not only for personal forgiveness [“forgive us our trespasses”] but for one another for preservation from sin [“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”], and that healing from the results of sin may be a regular experience in the fellowship of believers. The use of the word for spiritual healing lets us know that these dual concerns in true prayer are tied to each other. “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24); “and understand with their hearts and turn and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15); “Lift your drooping hands . . . so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12, 13).

D. God delights in earnest prayer (verse 16b). According to Matthew 7:11, though we are evil and sinful, God delights to give “good things to those who ask him.” But of course, back to James’s other revealed aspect of prayer, we must not be double-minded or asking that we might simply satisfy our lusts (1:5-7; 4:2, 3). We ask as God’s people for the manifestation of his glory and his rule [“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”].

  1. It accomplishes much. The Bible encourages us to realize that prayer is one means by which God accomplishes his will. Even as the elect are not saved apart from the use of the means of preaching [“How shall they hear without a preacher?], even so God works to his glory in accomplishing his will through the prayer of the saints. In heaven, John saw that God’s will would be accomplished on the earth using, in part, the “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8). Believing in fervent prayer ties its hopes to the promise of God that the prayers of the saints return to them in the form of decreed answers.
  2. It is important that we pray in accord with revealed truth. James used the prayers of Elijah as an example. He prayed fervently for it not to rain and then again for it to rain. This he prayed according to the revealed will of God to him as a prophet (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1) He stood “before the Lord” knowing what God had revealed and prophesied in accordance with it. The he announced to Ahab that the drought would end and prayed accordingly (1 Kings 18:41-46). When we pray, we must seek conformity to the revealed truth of God whether it be in specific things we are told to obtain by prayer or in accord with principles of biblical truth that should govern all our requests before God.

E. Work to maintain unity in the profession of the truth. Even as Elijah confronted the false prophets during the time of drought, defeated them by the power of the one true and living God, and had them killed, so the manifestation of truth is conjoined with prayer for the preservation of God’s people and the refutation of heretics. If prayer for sickness brings confession and raises up the sick, then maintenance of the truth begets true faith and raises the dead in trespasses and sins from their spiritual death and gives them true life. “He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” If we preach no true gospel, we will see no covering of sin. The sins of the lost, when they are turned back from the error of their ways by the propagation of truth, are covered by the expiatory suffering of Christ. Their sins of commission and omission, their sins of the past the present and those they will commit in the future are removed from them as far as “the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

F. Throughout the book of James we discover his unrelenting revelation and condemnation of human sin in its origin in corrupt affections and its ugly aggravation in our actions. That makes this final proposition more astounding and grace-filled. That he ends the book with the hope that, by the truth, we have the ministry that will “cover a multitude of sins, constitutes a testimony to abounding grace.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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