A Winner of Souls / W A Criswell

Preached: 1/12/75
Text: James 5.19-20

On the radio, we welcome you; and on television, we welcome you.  This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled A Winner of Souls.  It is an exposition of the last verses of the Book of James.  In our preaching through the Book of James, we have come to the last chapter and the last verses.  Next Sunday we will conclude our long series on this letter of the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, and it will be entitled The Coming of the Lord.

In this last chapter, the pastor writes, “Be patient, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord” [James 5:7].  That will be the message next Sunday.  And this sacred hour it is entitled A Winner of Souls.  The reading from the text is this: “Brethren, if any of you do err, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” [James 5: 19, 20].

Isn’t that a strong and poignant way to place the truth of God?  The man, the winner of souls, saves that one from death and hides a multitude of sins.  He does it.  The Scriptures say that.  The Scriptures avow what all of us immediately acquiesce in, that only God can save.  It is the Lord Who converts us.  How could we do it?  The Book says, “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord” [Psalm 3:8].  God does it, and all of us immediately say, I could understand that.  God only is able to save us.  He alone can raise us from the dead.  He alone can forgive our sins.  He alone could write our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  It is God who regenerates the soul.  “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord.”

But at the same time, the Scriptures avow that we, also, do it.  In God’s hands we are the instruments of God’s salvation.  We do it.  For example, Paul writes to his young son in the ministry, Timothy, who is pastor now at the church at Ephesus.  He writes to him, “Take heed therefore unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee [1 Timothy 4:16].  Timothy, if you will be true to the faith and preach the doctrine; the teaching of the Lord; you will save yourself.  But what is more, you will save those who hear you.”  What a glorious encouragement to a pastor and to a preacher.  If a man will be faithful to the faith, to the doctrine, to the teaching and preach the Lord, he will save himself and he will save others—those who listen to him.

That is why it is so unthinkable to me that a minister would stand in the pulpit and preach something else—preach about economics; preach about current events; preach about politics; preach about all the social issues that frustrate us.  You can listen to a commentator on the radio.  He could do the same thing.  You can read an editorial.  It will concern the same thing.  But the minister is called of God to deliver the Word of the Lord that can save our souls from death and can forgive our sins and can present us some day to God in heaven.

Is there a word from the Lord?  Is there a doctrine or a teaching from Him?  That is the great call and mandate and assignment of the minister of Christ, “for in doing this”—the Apostle avows—“thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”  Coming to listen to those who proclaim the Word of God, the man listening is saved for faith cometh by hearing and hearing the Word of the Lord.  So God saves us.  But we also do it. 

Look again here in the Holy Scriptures, “What knowest thou”—talking to a man who is married to a woman who is not saved, and talking to a woman whose husband is not saved—do not break up your home.  Do not divorce.  “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” [1 Corinthians 7:16].  You do it.  We do it; the husband saving her, his wife, and the wife saving her husband.  This is the whole Word of God.  The Lord has a part and we have a part.  God does it and we do it.

It is like a man walking to a deep abyss.  And just as he is about to step over the precipitous cliff, a man seeing it, calls to him and saves him from death.  And in testifying, the man says to a friend, “This man saved me from an awful death.”  Then later, at a prayer service—in a testimony service, the man stands up and he says, “I was saved from death by the gracious goodness and providence of God.”  Both of them did it.

I remember a young doctor, unsaved, who joined a clinic, and the elder doctor in the clinic was a devout Christian.  And he prayed for the young man and won the young physician to the Lord.  And in a service at the church, he stood up and in his testimony, said, “I was saved by the preaching of the pastor on John 6:37: ‘He that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out.’  I was saved by the pastor’s sermon on John 6:37 and by the tears of this doctor here.”  God does it and we do it.  We both do it.  God and we both win souls, save souls.  So the passage reads like that, “If any one of you err, . . . and one convert him; let him know, that he that converteth the sinner shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

We now look at the text a piece at a time.  First, here is a reference made to the greatest tragedy that can overwhelm and overtake a man’s life: Let his soul die and that he be buried beneath a multitude of sins.  You see, life in the Bible refers not to existence, but to our communion with God.  Life in the Bible is our being joined to God.  And death in the Bible is not nonexistence, nonbeing; but death in the Bible refers to our separation from God, existence away from God.

Paul will say in Ephesians 2:1: “You who were dead in trespasses and in sins.”  But the man is walking among us.  The Book says he is dead in trespasses and in sins; that is, he is away from God.  The man’s soul is dead.  Take again, in 1 Timothy, Paul refers to this, “She that liveth in pleasure”—in sin—“is dead while she liveth” [1 Timothy 5:6].  Why?  The woman is in a harlotry.  She is in a house of prostitution.  She is very much alive; but the Book says she is dead, dead in pleasure, in sin.  She is separated from God.  The first death in the Bible is the separation between the soul and the body.  But the second death is the separation of the soul from God.  And that is the greatest tragedy that can overwhelm a man’s life: to lose his soul, shut out from God.

Oh the awesome and sad and terrible words that are used to describe that estate of a man whose soul is shut out from God!  It is called, “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” [Mark 9:48].  It is called a place where, “The smoke of their torment ascendeth forever and ever” [Revelation 14:11].  It is described as an agony where one cries for a drop of water to cool the tongue tormented in that flame.  That is why we sing “Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain Who hath redeemed us;” [Revelation 5:9] that is, Who hath bought us, brought us, saved us from so awesome a tragedy.

We shall never know the wrath of God.  Christ has intervened.  We shall never be separated from the Lord.  He has joined us to God.  Nor shall we ever know the agonies of suffering in eternal torment and damnation because He has died to save us.  The greatest tragedy that could overwhelm a man is that his soul die and he be buried beneath a multitude of sins.

But we look again.  Here is the greatest work, “Let him know, that he that converteth the sinner saves that soul, and hides a multitude of sins.”  Let him know, look, ponder, consider it.  This is the greatest assignment one could accept, the greatest achievement one could ever aspire to, the greatest work that one could ever do, to save a soul from death.  If we were on a sinking ship and one manned the lifeboat, oh how blessed to save those in the lifeboat.  If a house were burning down and one dashed through the flames to rescue the perishing, how preciously, blessedly did the man act.  But nothing comparable to one who saves a soul from death.

In the last century, there was a far-famed scholar and preacher named Lyman Beecher.  Somebody asked him upon a day, “Mr. Beecher, what is the greatest thing that a man could ever do for somebody else?”  And the great scholar-preacher replied, “to bring another to Jesus.”  That is according to the Word of the Lord.  In the judgment of God, there is nothing so marvelously great as to bring somebody to Jesus.  The wisest man who ever lived wrote this proverb: “He that winneth souls is wise” [Proverbs 11:30].  If a man is wise in his own conceits, he’s contemptible.  If a man is wise in the wisdom of the world, he is acceptable.  But if a man is wise in the judgment of God, he is of all people benedictorially, heavenly blessed.

Did not Daniel write it like that?  “Then they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn others to righteousness as the stars for ever and forever” [Daniel 12:3].  It is thus in the Holy Word.  It is thus in the example of Christ and the apostles.  The greatest thing they ever did is bringing souls to Jesus.  John, the great Baptist preacher, pointed out the Savior, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29].

Look upon Him.  And listening to him, John, the son of Zebedee, and Andrew followed the Lord.  And having found Him, Andrew brought his brother Simon to Jesus, and John brought his brother James to Jesus.  And when Philip was introduced to the Lord, he brought his friend Nathanael to Jesus.  This is the apostolic way.  The Apostle Paul said to the Jew:

I am become as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to those under the law, as being one under the law, that I might win those under the law; To those who are outside of the law, as one beyond the law, . . . that I might win them that are not under the law. . .  . I am become all things to all men, if by any means I might win some. [1 Corinthians 9:20-22]

This is the spirit and the attitude all of us ought to have who name the name of our Lord.  Sometimes we are inclined to gather our righteous robes around us and to say to those on the outside, “you sinners, touch me not.  Come nigh me no, never, for I am in a class all by myself and you sinners there don’t know all of the wonderful things that I know.  Condemned and damned and lost, you stay there and I will stay here.”

I do not deny that even God puts a great difference between the Egyptians and the Israelites, between the saved and the unsaved, between the lost and those that belong to God.  I know that.  But at the same time, I also know that when the Lord looked upon that difference, He wept.  And seeing the city He burst into tears and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that stonest the prophets, and killest them that are sent unto thee, how oft would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her brood under her wing and ye would not!” [Matthew 23:37].

Was it a cause of rejoicing or superiority or supercilious gladness?  It was a cause of sadness, and weeping, and lamentation.  I think that ought to be our attitude toward the world; never one of superiority, “You vile sinner;” and never one of condemnation, “You lost and damned;” but always one of deepest sympathy and understanding and forgiveness, “Here I am just by the grace of God; that is all.  A sinner just like you; lost just as you; but the Lord had mercy upon me.  And I pray that God shall have mercy upon you.”

Like that seventy times seven that Pat Zondervan referred to in the Holy Scriptures; never a spirit of condemnation or of superiority or of holier than thou-ness; but always one of loving sympathy and understanding and forgiveness.  This is the Spirit of the Lord.  No greater thing does one do than to bring somebody to Jesus.  I know that certainly because of what makes heaven glad.  What rings the bells of glory?  The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel Luke says that: “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who turns, than over a whole multitude, who think that they need no turning” [Luke 15:7].  What makes heaven sing?  What makes the corridor of glories ring?  It is when somebody comes down this aisle and says to the pastor, “Today I turn.  I give my heart to Christ.  I take the Lord as my Savior.”

We must look once again.  Not only the greatest tragedy that a soul die and be buried under a multitude of sins; and not only the greatest happiness and assignment and work let him know, that He who does it.  Oh, how blessed of God.

Now a third; who is this one that is so signally blessed?  Who?  Look at the text, “My brethren, if any do err, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death.”  Did you notice the emphasis?  It is singular, never plural.  Every pronoun and every reference of every substantive in the text is singular.  There is not a plural in it.  Every time it is, “If any and one convert him; let him know, that he hath converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul.”

Every pronoun and every substantive is singular.  Well, who is that so blessed a person?  Does it say, “If a minister convert him;” or “If an eloquent divine convert him;” or “If a great theologian convert him;” or “If a glorious ecclesiastic convert him;” or “If a pastor?”  No.  It does not even approach such a suggestion.  It says, “one;” one anybody, one; one you, one you; just anybody one, “If one does it,” just one.

Now, to whom does that one address his soul-saving efforts?  It is still one to one.  It is still “one.”  The singular is still there, “If any do err, and one convert him; let him know that he that converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul.”  One, just one.  Oh how many times maybe some of us have told God, “If I had the eloquence of a John Chrysostom; if I could preach like George Whitefield; if I were a great soul winner like D. L. Moody—like Dwight L. Moody, or like Billy Sunday, or like Billy Graham; if I could just sway the thousands—oh how glorious in the presence of God.  I do not deny it is glorious.  I would to God we all had the power to win souls as those marvelous preachers.  But the text does not even refer to it.  It refers to one; just one anybody you; just one winning any sinner, any lost one—just one, anywhere, anywhere.  “Let him know, that he that does it shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

I look closely at that, “shall hide a multitude of sins,” and as I looked at it, it came to my heart that that refers to two different things; “He shall hide a multitude of sins.”  First, it refers to somebody who is saved who has been steeped in sin, and when he’s saved; God clothed him with the robe of righteousness and hides the multitude of sins.  They are covered, the word cover is translated sometimes “atonement,” atonement is the word for the translation of the word “cover.”  One steeped in sin, when he’s saved God gives him a robe of righteousness and hides his sins.  They are covered. 

One time I was shut up in prison, in Alcatraz, a little island in the San Francisco Bay, with one of the most famous, noted sinners, convicts, in American history.  And there we gave our hearts to the Lord.  And he said, “If I ever live beyond these prison walls, the first thing I’ll do, I’m going down the aisle at your church and confess my faith to the people, and I want you to baptize me.”  And after the passing of the years and the years, he was given his liberty and he came down that aisle and before you confessed his faith in the Lord, and I baptized him, and he’s been rejoicing ever since, and testifying all over this land, to the grace of God.  A vile sinner, covered with God’s robe of righteousness, hiding a multitude of sins. 

Like the prodigal when he came back home to the father, the first thing the father did, bring a new robe and put upon him; cover those old rags and the marks of the pig pen, put a new robe upon him.  It refers to that, “let him know that he which converts the sinner, saves his soul from death, and hides a multitude of sins” [James 5:20].  A robe of righteousness, it means something else too, I think.  It refers to saving a soul before it is steeped and lost in sin, and hiding a multitude of sins, shutting them out.  They’re buried, they never rise.   They never appear.  They are hidden away.  They never enter the man’s life. 

My brother it is wonderful to save the prodigal.  It is a thousand times more wonderful to keep him from being a prodigal.  It is a marvelous thing to win a thief to Christ; it’s a better thing to keep him from being a thief.  And if you can win maybe the child, there may be a thousand hosts, a multitude of sins that are covered over; they never appear in the child’s life. 

You know, after the service this morning, there came up a man to me who was saved in later years, in after years, and he said to me, “You never preached a truer thing in your life than you did just now; for I lived a life of sin, and I was saved from by the grace of God.  But,” he said, “you know, the scars of those days, and the awful judgment I feel in this wasted years.”  He said, “Satan has them on file, and sometimes in the night, Satan pulls that file and shows me those sins.”  And he says, “The weakness of them is with me today.  I have to struggle and agonize.”  He said, “How much better it is!  How infinitely better it is for one to give his life to Jesus in the days of his youth, and he never taste of the bitterness, of the dregs of violating the word and commandment of the Lord.”  I think that’s what it means.  If we are able to save a child, a youth, not only do we save his soul from death, but we hide a multitude of sins.  They never come.  They never appear.  He never knows them.

 Ah, the message of the Book is, the best time to give your life to God is now!  Not some other day, some other year, some other tomorrow!  But now, while I have this day, this time, this life, this year, this is God’s time!  Behold, now is the day of salvation.  Behold, now is the day of the Lord.   In a moment, we shall stand and sing our appeal, and while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just one somebody, that somebody you.  On the first note of the first stanza, “Here I am, pastor, and here I come.”  If you’re in the last seat on the topmost balcony, there is time and to spare.  Come, come.  Down a stairway, down an aisle, “Here I am, preacher, I make it now.”  To put your life with us in the church, to take the Lord as your Savior, to answer God’s call, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart.  Make the decision now, do it now.  And in a moment when we stand to sing, stand up answering with your life.  “Here I come preacher, here I am.  God help me, I decide for Jesus.”  Do it, come, while we stand and while we sing. 

Copyright © 2014 The W. A. Criswell Foundation.
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