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"Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know that be which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins."-James v. 19, 20.
A SUBJECT of present duty and of great practical importance is brought before us in this text. That we may clearly apprehend it, let us-
I. What constitutes a sinner?
1. A sinner is, essentially, a moral agent. So much he must be, whatever else he may or may not be. He must have free will, in the sense of being able to originate his own activities. He must be the responsible author of his own acts, in such a sense that he is not compelled irresistibly to act one way or another, otherwise than according to his own free choice.
He must also have intellect, so that he can understand his own relations and apprehend his moral responsibilities. An idiot, lacking this element of constitutional character, is not a moral agent and can not be a sinner.
He must also have sensibility, so that he can be moved to action -- so that there can be inducement to voluntary activity, and also a capacity to appropriate the motives for right or wrong action.
These are the essential elements of mind necessary to constitute a moral agent. Yet these are not all the facts which develop themselves in a sinner.
2. He is a selfish moral agent devoted to his own interests, making himself his own supreme end of action. He looks on his own things, not on the things of others. His own interests, not the interests of others, are his chief concern.
Thus every sinner is a moral agent, acting under this law of selfishness, having free will and all the powers of a moral agent, but making self the great end of all his action. This is a sinner.
3. We have here the true idea of sin. It is in an important sense, error. A sinner is one that "erreth."He that converteth a sinner from the error of his ways." It is not a mere mistake, for mistakes are made through ignorance or incapacity. Nor is it a mere defect of constitution, attributable to its author. But it is an "error in his ways." It is missing the mark in his voluntary course of conduct. It is a voluntary divergence from the line of duty. It is not an innocent mistake, but a reckless yielding to impulse. It involves a wrong end -- a bad intention -- a being influenced by appetite or passion, in opposition to reason and conscience. It is an attempt to secure some present gratification at the expense of resisting convictions of duty. This is most emphatically missing the mark.
II. What is conversion?
What is it to "convert the sinner from the error of his ways?"
This error lies in his having a wrong object of life -- his own present worldly interests. Hence to convert him from the error of his ways is to turn him from this course to a benevolent consecration of himself to God and to human well-being. This is precisely what is meant by conversion. It is changing the great moral end of action. It supplants selfishness and substitutes benevolence in its stead.
III. In what sense does man convert a sinner?
Our text reads, "If any of you do err from the truth and one convert him" -- implying that man may convert a sinner. But in what sense can this be said and done?
I answer, the change must of necessity be a voluntary one, not a change in the essence of the soul, nor in the essence of the body -- not any change in the created constitutional faculties; but a change which the mind itself, acting under various influences, makes as to its own voluntary end of action. It is an intelligent change -- the mind, acting intelligently and freely, changes its moral course, and does it for perceived reasons.
3. The truth is also said to convert sinners.
Again, let it be considered, no man can convert another without the co-operation and consent of that other. His conversion consists in his yielding up his will and changing his voluntary course. He can never do this against his own free will. He may be persuaded and induced to change his voluntary course; but to be persuaded is simply to be led to change one's chosen course and choose another.
Even God can not convert a sinner without his own consent. He can not, for the simple reason that the thing involves a contradiction. The being converted implies his own consent -- else it is no conversion at all. God converts men, therefore, only as He persuades them to turn from the error of their selfish ways to the rightness of benevolent was.
So, also, man can convert a sinner only in the sense of presenting the reasons that induce the voluntary change and thus persuading him to repent. If he can do this, then he converts a sinner from the error of his ways. But the Bible informs us that man alone never does or can convert a sinner.
It holds, however, that when man acts humbly, depending on God, God works with him and by him. Men are "laborers together with God." They present reasons and God enforces those reasons on the mind. When the minister preaches, or when you converse with sinners, man presents truth, and God causes the mind to see it with great clearness and to feel its personal application with great power. Man persuades and God persuades; man speaks to his ear -- God speaks to his heart. Man presents truth through the medium of his senses to reach his free mind; God presses it upon his mind so as to secure his voluntary yielding to its claims. Thus the Bible speaks of sinners as being persuaded, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." In this the language of the Bible is entirely natural. just as if you should say you had turned a man from his purpose, or that your arguments had turned him, or that his own convictions of truth had turned him. So the language of the Bible on this subject is altogether simple and artless, speaking right out in perfect harmony with the laws of mind.
IV. What kind of death is meant by the text -- "Shall save a soul from death."
Observe, it is a soul, not a body, that is to be saved from death; consequently we may dismiss all thought of the death of the body in this connection. However truly converted, his body must nevertheless die.
The passage speaks of the death of the soul.
By the death of the soul is sometimes meant spiritual death, a state in which the mind is not influenced by truth as it should be. The man is under the dominion of sin and repels the influence of truth.
Or the death of the soul may be eternal death -- the utter loss of the soul, and itsfinal ruin. The sinner is, of course, spiritually dead, and if this condition were to continue through eternity, this would become eternal death. Yet the Bible represents the sinner dying unpardoned, as "going away into everlasting punishment," and as being "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power." To be always a sinner is awful enough -- is a death of fearful horror; but how terribly augmented is even this when you conceive of it as heightened by everlasting punishment, far away "from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power!"
V. The importance of saving a soul from death.
Our text says, he who converts a sinner saves a soul from death. Consequently he saves him from all the misery he else must have endured. So much misery is saved.
And this amount is greater in the case of each sinner saved than all that has been experienced in our entire world up to this hour. This may startle you at first view and may seem incredible. Yet you have only to consider the matter attentively and you will see it must be true. That which has no end -- which swells utterly beyond all our capacities for computation -- must surpass any finite amount, however great.
Yet the amount of actual misery experienced in this world has been very great. As you go about the great cities in any country you can not fail to see it. Suppose you could ascend some lofty eminence and stretch your vision over a whole continent, just to take in at one glance all its miseries. Suppose you had an eye to see all forms of human woe and measure their magnitude -- all the woes of slavery, oppression, intemperance, war, lust, disease, heart-anguish; suppose you could stand above some battle-field and hear as in one ascending volume all its groans and curses, and take the gauge and dimensions of its unutterable woes; suppose you could hear the echo of its agonies as they roll up to the very heavens; you must say -- There is indeed an ocean of agony here; yet all this is only a drop in the bucket compared with that vast amount, defying all calculation, which each sinner, lost, must endure, and from which each sinner, converted, is saved. If you were to see the cars rush over a dozen men at once, grinding their flesh and bones, you could not bear the sight. Perhaps you would even faint away. Oh, if you could see all the agonies of the earth accumulated, and could hear the awful groans ascending in one deafening roar that would shake the very earth, how must your nerves quiver! Yet all this would be merely nothing compared with the eternal sufferings of one lost soul! And this is true, however low may be the degree of this lost soul's suffering, each moment of his existence.
Yet farther. The amount of suffering thus saved is greater not only than all that ever has been, but than all that ever will be endured in this world. And this is true, even although the number of inhabitants be supposed to be increased a million-fold, and their miseries be augmented in like proportion. No matter how low the degree of suffering which the sinner would endure, yet our supposition, if the earth's population increased a million-fold, and its aggregate of miseries augmented in like proportion, can not begin to measure the agonies of the lost spirit.