Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), but what does that phrase mean? Is Peter talking about hiding someone’s sin? Is he talking about overlooking sin? Is he talking about forgiving sin? What exactly does, “love covers a multitude of sins” mean?
Covering Over Sins in the Old Testament
The biblical culture was one of honor and shame. Sin was not just something that made one guilty but also brought shame. Sin was something from which not only God would hide his face, but other members of the community would hide their face as well. The only way for God to look upon someone, or for the community to look upon that person, is for their shame to be “covered.”
From the beginning, God took it upon himself to cover the sinful shame of his people. Before sending Adam and Eve from the Garden, “The Lord God made…garments of skins and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Their own attempts to cover their shame were embarrassingly inadequate. Only God could really cover their sin.
Every year, the people of Israel would celebrate the Day of Atonement. This was the day on which God would cover over his people’s sin and shame with a blanket of grace and mercy. This covering was accomplished through the shedding of blood, offering of sacrifice, and sending away the “scapegoat” into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16).
Therefore, “covering” is a metaphorical way of speaking about forgiveness and restoring someone who has sinned. Consider the words of these Psalms:
“Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin”Psalm 85:1-2
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”Psalm 32:1-2
God showed himself to be one who forgave those who wronged him, covered over their sins, and restored them to a position of honor. His people were supposed to adopt God’s character as their own. They were to extend this same sort of forgiveness to one another (see Proverbs 10:12).
Covering Over Sins in the New Testament
The ultimate act of covering over sins is what Jesus did at the cross. He suffered shame, humiliation, and death, so our sins could be covered. He was naked on the cross, so we could be clothed with righteousness.
Like Adam and Eve, our own attempts to cover our sin and shame are always embarrassingly inadequate. Our own obedience and righteousness can never atone for our sins. So, we must rely on the righteous character of God to spread a blanket of mercy and grace over us. Which he has done through Jesus (see Romans 4:1-8).
And because of what Jesus has done to forgive us, restore us, and cover over our sins, we are to do the same for others. When someone does something wrong, rather than shaming and permanently expelling them, we should encourage them to repent, forgive them, and restore them to a place of honor.
James, the brother of Jesus, explains this well:
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”James 5:19-20
We are to do for others what God has done for us, bring sinners back from their wandering and restore them to a place of honor.
The Context of 1 Peter 4:8
Finally, if we want to understand 1 Peter 4:8, it might be helpful to specifically consider the immediate context. This book is written to followers of Jesus who were grappling with persecution. Peter is encouraging them to be faithful in the face of persecution.
Peter’s instructions can be summed up with two words, “Do good” (1 Peter 2:14-15; 2:20; 3:6; 3:11; 3:17; 4:19). Even when you’re mistreated for it, do good. Followers of Jesus are to have a reputation in the community for being meek, kind, generous, loving, merciful, and virtuous people. Regardless of how unbelievers “malign” us (1 Peter 4:4), we are to “do good” to one another and to all people. It is within this context we read:
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.1 Peter 4:7-10
In order to faithfully survive persecution, these Christians would need to stick together in love. If anyone wandered from the faith, acted in a way that was out of step with the Gospel, or wronged others, faithful members of the community would need to lovingly restore that person to a life of faithfulness. There would need to be an abundance of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
We often speak of “covering up a scandal.” When someone does something wrong, friends and associates often help hide the evidence so the guilty party does not have to deal with the consequences. Even within churches, ministries, and so-called Christian organizations, horrible crimes of sexual misconduct and abuse have been covered up by those claiming to be Christians. This is not what 1 Peter 4:8 means.
Sometimes we even speak of “overlooking” wrongs. When someone unintentionally hurts us, it is our prerogative to overlook that wrong and not hold it against them. This is a good thing to do (see Proverbs 19:11), but even this is not what 1 Peter 4:8 means.
Peter is teaching his audience to do the same thing Jesus taught him to do. When Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). No matter how many times our brothers and sisters sin, even if it is a “multitude of sins,” we should continue to encourage their repentance, forgive them, and restore them to a right relationship.
This forgiveness and restoration will be costly to us. It will be messy. It will be difficult. But this is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus. At his own cost, he has encouraged us to repent, forgiven us our sins, and restored us to a right relationship with himself. This is what love does. Love covers a multitude of sins.
I love you and God loves you,