The last two verses of the book of James leaves us with an admonition to repent. In particular, it calls upon believers to cause sinners to repent.
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.
This admonition ought to be linked to the previous verses that describe Elijah's ministry. Elijah was best known for his showdown with the prophets of Baal, wherein he called upon the Israelites to repent. 1 Kings 18:21 says,
21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord [Yahweh] is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word.
Israel had been led astray by the 450 prophets of Baal (18:22), who had been hired and supported by Jezebel. (She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the high priest of Baal and king-priest of Tyre and Sidon, according to 1 Kings 16:31.) The people had strayed from the law of God because of those prophets. Elijah called upon them to repent—that is, to turn from the error of their way (or the Path of Error). When Elijah won the contest, the people did indeed turn to the right path.
Elijah's prayer in 18:37 says,
37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O Lord, art God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again.
It is really all about repentance, a change of mind and a change of direction.
James uses the example of Elijah in the climax of his letter, wanting to leave his readers with the most important point of his discussion: true repentance is necessary to turn people from the path of error and to be saved.
Most of James' teaching was to show that expressing faith in Christ is not necessarily true faith. True faith results in works. Faith causes change. Without evidence of change, faith is an empty claim. This change comes about by repentance—turning to a new direction or path.
Elijah brought about a change, even if only temporarily. The change in his day was evident in that 450 false prophets lost their lives (1 Kings 18:40). We do not know how many of the people actually remained believers in the God of Israel for the rest of their lives. If this had been recorded, we would have a better idea of how many of them had true faith. It is likely that a large proportion of them were acting in the heat of the moment after being persuaded by the fire from heaven.
Faith and persuasion are two different things. To be persuaded by seeing a miracle is too often only a matter of walking by sight. It has some temporary value, perhaps, but only faith itself will endure the test of time. The “works” that James advocated were the long-term evidence of genuine faith.
Therefore, if any of us succeeds in turning a sinner from his error, and this results in a permanent change in his direction in life, then (James says) his soul will be saved from death, and his sins will be covered (veiled, hidden, or pardoned). Why? Because only genuine faith can save us.
James and Paul were in agreement. Paul concludes that faith alone justifies all men. He says that once justified, we are to make a big change. He writes in Romans 6:19,
19 . . . For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
This change of “masters” means that we obey a different set of commands, or laws. Having been justified, the person immediately enters the realm of “sanctification,” which is the change of life style as a daily walk of faith-obedience (Rom. 1:5). Paul says we are no longer “slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6), but rather are now bondslaves of Jesus Christ and His law. The clear implication is that if we remain in “lawlessness” (Gr. anomia), then we are yet slaves to sin and are yet in need of the genuine faith explained more fully by James.
James fully agreed with Paul in this. James says that such faith must be genuine and not merely words without repentance. Without appreciating James, many have thought that they could be saved by reciting a formula that they call a “prayer of faith.” Once they have been assured of their ticket to heaven, they go back to their normal life style with little change in their lives. James and Paul stand shoulder to shoulder, united against such assumptions.
In conclusion, it is clear that James teaches the importance of works as evidence of faith. On the other hand, Paul teaches that one cannot attempt to be justified by doing good works, because justification is by faith. Both advocated faith. Both advocated repentance. Both advocated holy living as a fruit of faith.