Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Mar 2023

Love Covers Sins

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As Peter considers the coming eschatological end of all things, he appeals to his readers to “above all have constant love for one another” (1 Pet 4:8). The statement, “above all” indicates that this is the most important principle out of those he provides in this context.

The centrality of love is not surprising. Of course, the Old Testament could be summarized with the statement, “Love God and love your neighbor” (Matt 22:37–39). In addition, Jesus noted that his new community would be known by this unique identifier—they love one another (John 13:35). John’s epistle places love so central in the life of the redeemed believer that to lack it is to give evidence that one lacks a salvific relationship to God (1 John 4:7–8).

There is some debate concerning the word “constant.” The Greek word (ἐκτενής) is alternately translated “fervent” (NASB, ESV) or “constant” (CSB, NRSV). The difficulty is magnified by the recognition that, if asked, Peter would likely say that both are important. In my estimation, Peter would more likely refer to the frequency of their loving acts than the depth, but a strong case can be made for the alternative.

Though we might be able to enumerate multiple reasons the readers should devote themselves to constant love, Peter draws their attention to one in particular: “because love covers a multitude of sins.”

This phrase raises numerous questions: whose love does the covering, whose sins are covered, and what does “covering” sins even mean? Let’s start with the final question and address what the covering of sins refers to.

The word Peter chose (καλύπτω) refers to “covering something” by “hiding” it or “removing it from sight.”[1] This could imply the forgiveness of the sin (cf. Js 5:20). Alternatively, it may simply mean overlooking something, so that one’s offensive action or word is simply passed over.[2] Before deciding, let’s look at the other two questions.

The questions “whose sins are forgiven” and “who does the forgiving,” lead to three options:

  1. When one loves, others tend to overlook that one’s sins.
  2. When one loves, he sees his own sinfulness, repent of his sin, and refrains from sin.
  3. When one loves, he overlooks the offenses of the one loved.

These first two are possible, but there is support from the Old Testament (especially the LXX) for the third option.

1 Peter 4:8 is a quotation of Proverbs 10:12:

Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs

Hebrew poetry is known for its parallelism. In this case, we have a contrasting parallel. The Proverb informs us that when hatred is present, there is conflict. Using this as a grid for understanding the second line, the principle is that when love is present, wrongs are overlooked.

The proverbial contrast is easily recognized. When bitter tension exists (let’s say in a marriage), then even the smallest offenses (leaving a dish unwashed) can be the source of a large quarrel. On the other hand, when love abounds and harmony is the default, then such small offenses are overlooked. One can easily say, “he/she did not mean it,” whereas, during tension-filled times, spouses doubt their partner’s motives.

Coming back to 1 Peter, the principle then is this: in light of the coming eschatological end of all things, believers must love constantly, for in this way there will be harmony among God’s people. Perhaps the quickest diagnostic tool for determining the health of a congregation is seeing the love that is among the community. And the easiest way of discerning whether there is love in the community is by observing the amount of internal fighting that exists within the congregation.

[1] Walter Bauer et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 505.

[2] One might argue that these two overlap in that the second involves the first. This is true, but it involves forgiveness in a less technical sense. The first requires a reparative process, whereas the second avoids it altogether by refusing to be offended.