“Love each other fervently,”
Peter writes, “because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8). Given Peter’s very personal experience of Christ’s love in response to his sin, it is no wonder that Peter would call the Church to express this reality. This simple phrase is not only a good encapsulation of our experience with Jesus, but it also describes our call to be Christ’s agents of love in the world.
Peter was a man who knew about sin. From the first moment Jesus stepped into his boat, Peter was confronted by his waywardness. “Get away from me Lord,” he exclaimed, “for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Things did not get much better as time went on. As Peter journeyed with Jesus he continually ran head-long into the stumbling block of his own failings. He cowered in fear because of the waves, even though Jesus called him out of the boat; he attempted to rebuke Jesus moments after declaring him the Messiah; three times he denied allegiance to his Lord. Yes, Peter knew about sin. But Peter was a man who also knew about love. Peter experienced Christ’s refusal to dismiss him after confessing his sinfulness. He experienced the saving hand of Jesus reach out while drowning in the ocean. Most significantly, Jesus wiped away every one of Peter’s denials with the simple yet profound question: “Do you love me?” Yes, Peter knew the healing power of love.
What Does ‘Love Covers a Multitude of Sins’ Mean?
Every Christian person, in some way or another, has experienced the love of God covering sin. This is not simply Peter’s story, this is our own. Christ’s love brings redemption, full redemption. The love of Jesus relentlessly overcomes the sinfulness and failings of human life. Love covers sin. However, covering sin is not the same as covering up our sin. To cover up our sin is to hide our waywardness. We mask our mistakes and pretend that we have not transgressed God’s holy commandments. Think of Adam and Eve in the garden. The two wayward souls hide amongst the bushes in a misguided attempt to flee from the presence of God. Furthermore, Adam and Eve, quite literally, cover themselves up. Covering up our sin only serves to lock us in the dynamic of spiritual oppression and damage. Covering up our sin does not do away with sin, it simply removes it from our eyes. Sin still exists within and, eventually, it will destroy us.
Covering sin, however, means forgiveness. Covering sin means the negation of sin’s power in human life. Covering sin means God puts the power of sin to death. You see the interplay between the two concepts beautifully displayed in Psalm 32. This Psalm details David’s struggle with his own sinfulness. David declares “When I kept silent, my bones were wasting away through my groaning all day long. Day and night your hand was heavy upon me, my strength was sapped” (vs 3-4). As David remains silent, sin eats away at his spiritual vitality. Guilt, remorse, shame – these begin to dominate his life. More and more, David feels overcome by the negative spiritual weight that hangs on him.
The turnaround comes when David refuses to “cover up” his sin. David writes, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover up my iniquity. . . you forgive the guilt of my sin” (vs 5). David acknowledges his sin before God. David uncovers his sin to allow God to “cover it’ – to redeem it, to forgive it. In doing this, David experiences the full liberation wrought from God’s love. For David, to uncover his sin would be to make a formal confession and sacrifice before God.
In the ancient world, the language of covering sin referred to the cultic practice of sacrifice as the means for forgiveness. Forgiveness was pronounced through the blood of the sacrifice. One left the sacrificed freed from their sins, as the sin was understood to be covered by the blood of the animal. Thus, the book of Hebrews declares “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22) The blood of animals covered the sins of the penitent. For Israel, it would be fair to say that sacrifice covers a multitude of sins.
Everything changes with Jesus. Jesus is the true Pascal Lamb whose blood covers sin once and for all. In fact, 1 John 1:17 states that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin. John’s point is the same as Peter’s. Forgiveness of our sin is found in the sacrifice of Jesus. We no longer need to cover up, to hide, to mask our failings. Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice in which sin is finally, and fully, dealt with. Jesus redeems and he redeems fully. The love of Jesus covers over the entirety of our sin. This is the biblical reality in which we live our lives. It is the promise of God for every one of us. Each of us, as followers of Jesus, claim that truth that the incarnate love of God has covered the totality of our sin.
How Can We Love Others?
Peter experienced Christ’s boundless love in his life again and again. Furthermore, when we meditate on this, we come to the same realization. The radical thing about this passage, however, is the Peter is not being self reflective. As much as the declaration that love covers sin describes his own experience before Jesus, in this letter Peter is not actually talking about himself. Instead, Peter is encouraging the Christian community to express this very love in the world. Peter calls the church to embody the full and radical nature of Christ’s love. Peter writes “Above all, love each other fervently, for love covers over a multitude of sins.” Peter then issues the call to hospitality, service, and speaking the words of God. For Peter, the love that covers a multitude of sins is the love the Christian community expresses outwards. We love as Christ loved us.
Embodying the love that overcomes the multitude of sins involves a commitment to intimacy and vulnerability. It is to recognise the frailty and the brokenness of the Christian brother and sister, and the frailty and brokenness of our selves. We welcome the other as beloved of God regardless of whatever faults and failings we may see within them.
This means we love the other as they are, not as we wish them to be. Attempting to mold another into the image of who we believe he or she should be is to place a limitation on love. It is to step outside the love of Jesus. This is because we effectively deny that our brother or sister is someone worthy of the same forgiveness, grace, and love that we have received. We place a condition upon their acceptance in the community, a condition that Christ has not placed on us. Such a refusal to live out the love of Christ destroys the Christian community.
When we “cover sin” through the love of Christ in us, we boldly accept the Christian brother or sister. We willingly forgive as opposed to holding one’s sinfulness against them. We refuse to partake in the negative and destructive habits of gossip, backtalk, or insult. We choose to allow the love of Jesus in us to respond to the love of Jesus in the other. As we receive the reality of Christ’s unyielding love for ourselves, acknowledging that Christ covers our sins, we must radically claim that truth for the other. We cannot recognize Christ’s love covering our sin and then wilfully withhold that love for another. This is antithetical to the gospel. The love of Jesus, free and unrestricted, becomes the measure of how we treat one another.
How Can We Practically Implement ‘Love Covers a Multitude of Sins’?
The choice we have as Christians is twofold: we can either cover up sin or cover it. To cover up sin is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Within ourselves, it means that we make justifications for sin. Or, in those times when we know we cannot justify our sin, we hide from God and pretend that God just doesn’t see what has transpired. In each case, sin festers within us and destroys us.
When it comes to our fellow members of the Christian community, we cover up sin by refusing to acknowledge the frailty of human life. We hold another’s sin against them as justification to push them away from Christian community, and from our lives. We allow another’s failings and mistakes to dictate our vision of their very identity. In doing so we make the Christian community nothing more than a dream, a wish. Our version of Christian community becomes an exaltation of our own selves, where everyone is called to be who I wish them to be and does what I wish they would do. Yet here there is no love for there is no acceptance.
To “cover sin” is to recognize that the love of Jesus forgives sin, within ourselves, and within others. It is to root ourselves on the solid basis of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Thus, we make the love of Jesus the ground upon which we all stand – and thus the ground upon which we accept, embrace, and serve the other.
What might it look like to allow Christ love, flowing within us, to overcome another’s weakness, sinfulness, or imperfection? How might we allow the love of Jesus to change the way we view those who are different than us? Love covers a multitude of sins because it embraces the other. It receives the other, it serves the other. This is not something that we as members of the Christian community are to only say, we are also to express it with our lives and express it radically. Living in this way, Peter reminds us “glorifies God in all things through Christ Jesus, now and forever” (4:11).
A Prayer for Overflowing Love
Search my heart. Reveal in me the people and places in my life that need love. Reveal to me the faces that I need to love, even when I don’t want to. I pray, Father, that you send a blatant overflow of your unparalleled love.
I pray that you use me as an instrument of your love. Lord, soften my heart where it has grown hard, push me out of my comfort zone, and allow me to show love far past the circle that surrounds me. When I am frustrated with someone, let love be my first thought. When I am disappointed with someone, let love be the first reaction.
When I am hurting, broken, defeated, belittled, let your love overflow from the depths of my soul. Please let me love as much like you as humanly possible. Equip me for this emotion and prepare my soul for the overflow.
You are a good Father who wants to lavish your love upon me. Thank you for being the ultimate example of love by sending your Son to die in my place; may I use the time I have left on this earth to never take for granted the love you demonstrated in that moment.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.