What Does it Mean That Love Covers a Multitude of Sins?
What Does it Mean That Love Covers a Multitude of Sins?
Dawn Wilson Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Context helps us understand what Peter meant when he wrote “love covers a multitude of sins” in 1 Peter 4:8. It was a weighty statement, considering what believers were going through at that time. Consider the historical context. Approximately 64 years after Christ’s crucifixion, Emperor Nero destroyed Rome by fire, leaving many Romans homeless and angry. Believing an uprising was at hand, Nero convinced the Romans that Christians were to blame for the fire.
Peter instructed the early church to “love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). This teaching is sometimes misunderstood or rationalized, but when followed, it builds relationships and unity in the Body of Christ to the glory of God. It’s helpful to know how love covers sin, how is it distinguished from “covering-up,” and what the grace of covering looks like in the believer’s life.
What Does Peter Mean by ‘Love Covers a Multitude of Sins’?
Context helps us understand what Peter meant when he wrote “love covers a multitude of sins” in 1 Peter 4:8. It was a weighty statement, considering what believers were going through at that time. Consider the historical context. Approximately 64 years after Christ’s crucifixion, Emperor Nero destroyed Rome by fire, leaving many Romans homeless and angry. Believing an uprising was at hand, Nero convinced the Romans that Christians were to blame for the fire. The Jews hated the Romans, and because of their association with the Jews, the Romans persecuted Christians. The believers fled Rome and dispersed throughout the ancient world, many in hiding.
Peter likely wrote his first epistle in 64 AD to believers scattered throughout northeastern Asia Minor. He addressed them as “exiles” because they stood out as aliens in these cultures. While strengthening their faith and offering hope, Peter encouraged perseverance and exhorted them to live victoriously, responding in Christ-like ways.
Consider the context of the passage itself. Earlier in the epistle, Peter helped believers process their suffering—their new homelessness and unfair treatment. He called them to “sanctify Christ as Lord” in their hearts. A clear conscience and self-control in the midst of suffering were ways they could bring glory to God. Peter was also concerned about temptations that might arise during their severe suffering (4:1-2). Counselor Brad Hambrick notes, “When suffering intensely, there is a strong tendency to ‘run from’ something (i.e. the pain, the oppressor, or reality itself). Self-control is the opposite. It is ‘running to’ something intentionally because you still believe in hope.” Covering love is a “run to” approach when offenses cause personal suffering.
The kind of love Peter referenced is profound, fervent. The Greek word is ektenés, meaning stretched, zealous, earnest, intense love. Fully extended love, demonstrated in covering a multitude of sins, points others to the fathomless love of God. It forgives offenses and dispels hate (Proverbs 10:12). We see profound love in the life of Joseph—loving and forgiving his brothers who betrayed him. We see it in Jesus, manifesting profound love from the cross. Christians may not be able to change their circumstances, but they can overcome the barbs of evil—what Satan intends in offensive situations—with godly love and forgiveness.
What Is the Difference between a ‘Cover-up’ of Sin and Covering Sin?
To cover up sin is to pretend it doesn’t exist—to look the other way or ignore it. Mature Christians know concealing personal transgressions does not lead to mercy. Concealing or ignoring offensive sins will not help offenders. Dr. David Jeremiah addressed cover-ups in “Love: Take the Leap!” He wrote, “‘Cover-up’ has gained a negative connotation in our cultural conversation—and rightfully so. The phrase usually implies that someone hid something that should have been exposed to the light of truth and justice. Usually, cover-ups occur when something significant is at stake when someone would stand to lose status, power, or reputation if the truth was revealed.” Grave offenses like adultery, embezzlement, and sexual abuse should be exposed appropriately and dealt with biblically.
In contrast, to cover daily slights is a sign of Christian maturity. Dr. Jeremiah wrote about the “love leap” of biblical covering that occurs when a person chooses to cover slights of others with “a veil” of love. “Yes,” Jeremiah said, “the truth is being concealed, but only from those who have no stake in the matter, from those who don’t need to know. When a person sins, repents, confesses, and makes restitution to the injured party, the matter is done.” God demonstrated this for us. He extended grace and forgiveness while we were “yet sinners,” sending His Son to die for us as an atoning sacrifice. In love, the Father forgave us, and He wants us to forgive others through the power of His love.
We see God’s covering of sin in many Old Testament passages, such as Psalm 32:1 and 85:2. The word “atonement” is sometimes used—from the Hebrew word kaphar, meaning to cover over, pacify, or make propitiation. When Peter tells the suffering Christians to extend covering love, that can’t be compared to God’s amazing covering of our sin; but our actions are to flow from His example. God’s love does not take into account a wrong after it’s been dealt with biblically—covered. That should be our attitude as well.
Jesus warned about stumbling blocks in our relationships. As we bump into brothers and sisters in the family of faith, we will not always be loveable. We might aggravate or offend one another often. Learning to express the pain of a slight and then extend love and forgiveness is crucial for continuing unity and ministry. The writer of Proverbs wrote, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” When we love others enthusiastically, abundant grace allows opportunities for repentance so relationships can be preserved or restored, and sinful habits broken.
When Is 1 Peter 4:8 NOT the Right Approach to Offenses?
Some believe love covers everything or nearly everything, and believers just need to toughen up and handle sins with patience or tolerance. These Christians say they love people too much to talk to them about sin, but others would argue they love too little. Some believers insist they don’t need to deal with grave sins at all since God is the judge. A “multitude” of sins is not the same as all sins. A believer can continue to show compassion but sometimes must pursue the process of confrontation and exposure, all with the motive and goal of restoration. In these cases, not to confront or rebuke would be considered unloving, because dealing with an offense is about a person’s sanctification, restoring unity and peace (if possible), and bringing glory to God.
D.A. Carson wrote, in Love in Hard Places (p. 85), “moral indignation, even moral outrage, may on occasion be proof of love—love for the victim, love for the church of God, love for the truth, love for God and His glory. Not to be outraged may in such cases be evidence, not of gentleness and love, but a failure of love.” Righteous outrage in these cases should lead to confrontation and rebuke.
Blogger Tim Challies wrote, “The great majority of offenses are to be overlooked, covered in love, and forgotten. But sometimes the offense is serious and the harm grave, and in these times we are to follow the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17.” But a word of caution: in the process of dealing with grave sins, the process can be used improperly. “It can be used too seldom, and a culture of fear-of-man can grow up in which people refuse to confront even the most egregious sin,” Challies said. “It can be used too widely so it is applied to criminal offenses that are rightly the jurisdiction of the state, not the church. It can be abandoned altogether in favor of worldly methods of peacemaking that eschew the divine wisdom behind this one. But it can also be used heavy-handedly, and this is where it’s important to set it within its context.” In other words, God calls for personal humility, self-examination, and wisdom as much as confronting others’ serious sins.
Note that in James 5:19-20, the same phrase, “cover a multitude of sins” is used, and in this case, the covering of offenses comes at the end of confrontation, not at the beginning. Even then, the process is all about love. As Challies further explained, rebuke is not to be used as a hammer, a means of gaining power, or for manipulation. Rather, it is a “tender pursuit of another person’s good with the offense merely providing the necessity and opportunity… It’s expressing humility and protecting unity. It’s love, and to be done in love.”
What Does 'Love Covers a Multitude of Sins' Look Like?
In a multitude of offenses, Christians can simply let go of slights and allow God to work in a person’s heart. Think about daily interactions with people—so many occasions for tense moments, misunderstandings, and knee-jerk reactions rather than wise responses. These are the times to cover others with love and forgiveness, and pray others do the same for us. Peter learned the lesson of forgiveness from Jesus Himself. In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus upped the ante in answering Peter’s question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus likely shocked Peter when He said, “seventy times seven.” Jesus knows we will be both offenders and the offended in our Christian relationships. He calls us to forgive, not from smug self-righteousness, but sincerely from the heart. He wants us to cultivate fervent, compassionate love.
After Peter denied the Lord three times, Jesus in great mercy restored his humbled disciple. Peter can help us understand covering love because he understood the deep love of the Savior. He encouraged Christians to “love each other deeply.” Fervent love is a sign of maturing character. Wise King Solomon said in Proverbs 19:11, “it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense”—to let it pass by. While we don’t build a whole theology on a single verse, that proverb reminds us not to become reactive. Having a love-covering attitude also precludes gossip. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love,” Solomon said, “but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Love does not delight in the sins of others, spreading the shame of offense. Instead, it protects (1 Corinthians 13:5, 7).
What Are Biblical Principles for Applying 1 Peter 4:8?
People may rationalize reasons for not applying 1 Peter 4:8. They might say things like, “It’s not my responsibility,” “I don’t even notice their sin,” “It’s water under the bridge,” or “Hey, no one is perfect.” But God wants us to see offenses so we can take the initiative in dealing with them by covering those slights with love. Some love-covering principles can help.
Remember that all sin is serious to God, and all sin is ultimately an affront to Him (Romans 6:23; Psalm 51:4). Sin’s nature is to separate us from God, but it also separates believers from one another. Fervent love-covering can restore these relationships and bring unity.
Understand that God’s purpose for every believer is to cultivate personal holiness in us and conform us to His Son (Romans 8:29). Responding in love is a beautiful picture of godly behavior. Though the world may not see sins we have covered, the offender will experience God’s grace, and that may change future behavior.
Watch attitudes. Be humble, reflective—examining your heart, patient, gentle and kind. Seek peace, and pursue restoration. Practice 1 Corinthians 13 love. Put God’s love on display; showcase His glory.
Pray for discernment to know when to cover and when to confront. An insightful scripture is 1 Thessalonians 5:14. We are to warn “idle and disruptive” believers—those who are unruly or rebellious and likely needing church leadership intervention or discipline. But the verse also says to “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”
Ask questions to better understand the facts (Proverbs 18:13). Be sensitive and careful about timing. Take time to search for scriptures that could be applied.
Above all, we need to remember each of us is profoundly human. We will fail one another, often when we are tired, discouraged or frustrated. But if we truly love, we will help one another in our weaknesses, and cooperate with God in His sanctifying work.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kieferpix
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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