Hopefully the answer we give is a resounding, “No!” Yet there is growing pressure on the church to stop turning others from sin in certain circumstances. The UK Government has extended its public consultation on banning conversion therapy in relation to LGBT people. This vague term lumps coercive and abusive practices already illegal alongside any kind of talking therapy with the intention of changing them from being LBGT. Some want to take this as far as possible in order to silence anyone from dissuading others from a harmful lifestyle through prayer, conversation or any kind of teaching. This simple call to Christ, conversion and biblical ethics could become criminalised. How does Scripture guide us on this matter?
Around 2000 ministers and others have recently written a letter and consultation response on this subject that gives more background.
In the context of prayer, James 5:19 tells us of the importance of seeking to turn others from sin. Those who do so save a soul from eternal death and hide a multitude of sins. Thomas Manton explains further what this means. He says that those who seek to turn others from sin are instrumental in their conversion and pardon. To convert a sinner is God’s work (Ephesians 2:10). Yet individuals are used in this (Acts 26:18; Daniel 12:3) and it is a great privilege and responsibility to seek to save others (Romans 11:14; 1 Timothy 4:16). “Shall we not contribute a few endeavours to win others from death?” Manton asks. This passage has much to tell us not only about our duty to turn others from sin but how and why we should do it. It does not merely single out one kind of sin but shows that we must lovingly seek to draw alongside others to turn them from all kinds of sin. It opens up the heart of the gospel and the free mercy and grace that is able to cover any and all sin. We cannot deny this to those who need it, whatever others may say. This should be clear from the following updated extract.
1. It is our duty to turn others from sin
We are not only to watch out for our salvation, but for that of others. The apostle says, “If any of you…” God has made us guardians of one another. It expressed godlessness when Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As God has set the conscience to watch over the inner person, so in regard to behaviour he has set Christians to watch over one another (Hebrews 3:12). There must be a constant watch kept not only over our own hearts but also over the congregations to which we belong (Hebrews 12:15).
Straying would have been greatly prevented if we had been watchful or if we reasoned together in a Christian manner. As no one is born for himself, so no one is born again for himself. We should “provoke one another” (Hebrews 10:24). It is dangerous to partake in other people’s sins, to draw that guilt on your own head. You need to be established in the way that you promote with zeal; you need to have a high assurance that it is true. But usually in those who promote errors you may see either a blind and rash zeal or a corrupt aim (2 Peter 2:3); they propagate their opinion with heat and earnestness, so that they promote their own gain.
2. It is vital to turn OTHERS from sin
“If any of you…”, if there is only one, there is none so contemptible in the church that the care of their safety does not to everyone. One root of bitterness defiles many by infecting and stumbling. One spark may cause a great burning. We are to “take the little foxes” (Song 2:15). It is good to watch with wise foresight against the first appearances of sin and error in a congregation.
Sin is described as both erring from the truth and the “error of his way.” Errors in doctrine usually end in sins of life and practice First men dream and then defile themselves (Jude 8). We often see that impurity of religion is joined with uncleanness of body, and spiritual fornication is punished with bodily (Hosea 4:12-13). Truth awes the soul and right belief guides the outward life.
3. It is necessary for everyone to turn others from sin
The words “and one convert him” are not limited to the office-bearers in the church, though it is chiefly their work. Besides the public exhortations of ministers, private Christians should mutually converse for comfort and edification. They not only may but must keep up a Christian fellowship among themselves (Hebrews 3:13). They are to stir one another up by speech that tends to expose sin and prevent hardness of heart and apostasy. God has dispensed his gifts in different ways, so that we might be indebted to each other (1 Peter 4:10).
4. It is loving to turn others from sin
To “convert him” means to bring him back from his error. Among other acts of Christian fellowship this is one of the chief to bring back those that are gone astray. We must not only exhort, but reclaim. It is a duty we owe to our neighbour’s animal (Deuteronomy 22:4; Exodus 23:4) much more if your neighbour himself has fallen in sin. It is a thankless task but must not be refused. We are usually loath to do that which is unpleasant. Well, then, if it is our duty to admonish, it is your duty to bear a reproof patiently, otherwise you oppose your own salvation. Error is touchy; sinful affections are loath to have the understanding properly informed; they take away the light of reason, and leave us only the pride of reason. None are so angry therefore as those that are seduced into an opinion by self-interest, their sore must not be touched.
It says “convert him” not destroy him. The work of Christians is not immediately to accuse and condemn, but to counsel and convert an erroneous person. To call down fire from heaven argues some hastiness and impatience of revenge; first burn them in the fire of love. Before any rigorous course is taken, we must use all due means to inform the conscience and understanding.
5. It is a privilege to turn others from sin
To spur ourselves on to a good work, we should consider its dignity and benefits—to consider what a high honour it is to have a hand in such work. The apostle urges us to have patience for this reason (Romans 5:3; Colossians 3:23-24). So then, learn this wisdom when you feel disinclined to do something, direct your thoughts to the worth and success of your duties. There is no such relief to the soul as that which comes from thoughts at the right moment: whom do I serve? The Lord? Can any labour undertaken for his sake be in vain?
Man under God has this honour, to be “workers together with God” (2 Corinthians 6:1). He is pleased to take us into fellow labouring in His own work and to give our efforts the glory of His grace. It is a high honour that the Lord gives us. We should learn to give the honour back to God again, to whom alone it is due (1 Corinthians 15:10). When God puts the glory of His own work on the head of the creatures, they certainly have great cause to lay the crown of their excellence at the feet of the Lord. Such is the grace of God, that when you have used the means, he will count it as part of your spiritual success (Matthew 18:15).We lose nothing by being employed in God’s service. Let us strive and be painstaking in His work. Paul would be anything that he might win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). Christians must not neglect the means (Job 33:24). It is remarkable that though the work of conversion is strictly speaking the Lord’s, it is sometimes ascribed to ourselves, to show that we must not be negligent. Sometimes it is ascribed to ministers and others who are instrumental, to show that we must not hold their help in contempt; and sometimes to God, so that we may not be self-confident or unthankful.
6. It is dangerous not to turn others from sin
To turn others from sin is to turn them from death. Errors are deadly to the spirit. The wages of every sin is death, especially of sin countenanced by error, for then there is a conspiracy of the whole soul against God. The apostle Peter calls heresies “damnable heresies.” Some heresies are more destructive than others, but all of them have a destructive tendency. Only the way of truth is the way of life.
7. It is possible to turn others from many sins
It says, “cover a multitude of sins.” Justification consists in the covering of our sins. Sin is removed out of God’s sight and the sight of our own consciences—chiefly out of God’s sight. God cannot choose but see it in His omniscience and hate it in His holiness, but he will not punish it in His justice because he has received satisfaction in Christ. Sins are so hidden that they will not be brought to judgment; nor will they hurt us when they do not please us (Psalm 32:1).
Suitable expressions are those of “remembering our sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25) and casting them behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). God will remove them out of the sight of his justice. God will cast them into the depths of the sea (see Micah 7:18). That which is in the depths of the sea is lost and forgotten forever; the ocean is never likely to be drained or dried up. All these words the Lord uses to persuade us that once sins are pardoned it is as if they were never committed. Men forgive but do not easily forget; if the wound is cured, the scar remains. But God accepts us as if there were no breach.
It also says, “a multitude of sins.” Many sins do not hinder our pardon or conversion. God’s “free gift is of many offences unto justification” (Romans 5:16). “He will multiply to pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). For these six thousand years God has been multiplying pardons, and yet free grace is not tired or grown weary. Mercy is a treasure that cannot easily be spent. We have many sins, but God has many mercies, a multitude of compassions (Psalm 51:1). Mercy is an ocean that is always full and always flowing. Free grace can show you large accounts and a long bill, cancelled by the blood of Christ
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.