Our Special Covering

By Ps Jeff O’Neil; first preached at PCC Morning Worship Service on 24 Sep 2005

"And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).

There is a saying that is used about those who have fallen in love with each other: "that love is blind." It does not see any faults in each other, and will not be shaken by any parental advice or friendly delicate warnings.

And there is in our text a similar blindness through being love-struck. The apostle has been at pains in previous chapters to stress what should be the relationship between those who name the Name of Christ. In chap. 1, v. 22 he writes of "unfeigned love of the brethren" and urges us: "see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently." Again in chap. 2, v. 17, he exhorts us to, "love the brotherhood." Then in chap. 3, v. 8, he says: "love as brethren." And here in our text we are directed: "And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins." Were I to string together all the texts and associate texts that deal with love to the brethren, then there would be sufficient for a sermon without any of my words!

Our text follows on from Peter’s reference to our Lord’s suffering (v. 1). His sufferings and death not only covered our sins, but also dealt with sin in the flesh. He suffered in His human nature to deal with sin in our nature. And our sufferings and afflictions are to be used by us to the mortification of sin in our members. The old man has been crucified, and being dead with Christ to sin, we should not live any longer in sin. We are "to arm ourselves with the same mind." Christ’s love effected this for us and works it in us, so we also should love fervently and cover the sins of others, and especially as the end of all things is at hand.

Now this thought expressed by Peter is taken from Proverbs 10:12, "hatred stirreth up strifes, but love covereth all sins." Which shows that the Old Testament has the same message and the same virtues.

Here we have:

1. An Exhortation to Love

"Have fervent charity among yourselves." Peter is not exhorting us to have a loose kind of if-and-but-love. For the word ‘have’ really means to hold—to hold it as a firm persuasion and practice. See to its maintenance and continuation within the family of God! Peter is exhorting us to practise the fundamental principle of Christian nature and Christian life, namely, the exercise of fervent charity.

Now, charity simply means love, or even a dear love. But it is expanded by Peter into a fervent love. It describes that which by nature has an intensity, constancy and perpetuity. And it has dimensions that makes it an intensive and extensive love. The thought is that of elasticity: it can stretch without breaking. It is vehement, impassioned, and so vigorous as to influence all powers of action, and is unceasing toward its object. John Brown comments, "The aim or end of true love is the happiness and good of its object." Now we are talking about a love that does not wax or wane, or switches off because of insult or grievance. "Charity never faileth" (1 Cor 13:8). It will continue throughout life and into the world to come, when tongues and prophecy shall vanish away.

This exhortation has a special relevance to the Christian community. There is a love that we bear to all men, for we are to love even our enemies. But here we are directed concerning a special and unique love that bonds believers. "It can only be exercised by them and to them," says John Brown. That is to say, only a Christian can be the agent and the recipient of such dear love. For it is "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us" (Rom 5:5).

See its quality. Peter exhorts to "an unfeigned love" (1 Peter 1:22), which means that it is without hypocrisy or dissimulation. There is a transparency, openness and honesty with this love. A selfless and self-sacrificing love, "That seeketh not her own" (1 Cor 13:5).

It has a unifying ability. It acts as a unifying bond in the church that distinguishes it from all other organisations and religions. It is not fear or finance; policies or personalities; traditions or ambitions; common interest or self-interest that holds the Christian community together, for these are the hallmarks of other groupings in society. But rather, it is solely and purely the love of Christ constraining every individual heart. The impulsive and compulsive power of love! The compilers of the WCF wrote, "All saints that are united to Christ the Head, being united to one another in love, have communion in each others’ gifts and graces. And therefore that rules out jealousy and envying of another brother’s superior gifts, because one is able to benefit and share from those graces that are God-given."

So we are exhorted to hold and maintain this blessed grace amongst ourselves. As virtue emanated from Christ by the mere touching of the hem of His garment, so wherever our lives touch as believers, this grace of love should go forth spontaneously and graciously.

2. The Intention of Love

"Charity shall cover the multitude of sins." The margin rendering states, "will," cover the multitude of sins. This love has an intention of selfless, caring consideration about the blemishes of another Christian. It also has the ability to forgive and forget, and to bury any differences and difficulties. Do you not find that you can sort of forgive, but you do not really forget? So that is not a full forgiveness. Children are often averse to saying sorry, sometimes they have to be cajoled or threatened to do so. But that is not a genuine confession, and only love can say sorry. And only love can forgive the child and also forget the misdemeanour. That is because the parent genuinely loves. So it should be amongst Christians.

Consider how love, here, is spoken of as a covering. An intentional blindness falls upon the Christian, and it is the blindness of love. We have not got to be long in each other’s company before we discover each other’s foibles, failures, faults and imperfections of nature and character. But the love of Christ should constrain us to cover them from view. That is not to say, that we are to condone sin, for love is both able to exhort and to receive correction. "Let the righteous reprove me, it shall be an excellent oil" (Ps. 141:8). We do have the loving liberty to exhort one another and to correct. But love will forbear to publicise another’s failures, and will hide the sins of others even though they be a multitude.

We are not, for instance, to carry them as tales; or denigrate the character and life of another believer to others, nor act in retaliation or with vindictiveness, nor rejoice over their weaknesses, "Love suffereth all things and is kind; rejoiceth not in iniquity; beareth all things, endureth all things" (1 Cor. 13:4-7). It has a resilience and is not easily provoked. It is able to overlook and avert the critical eye. Recall in Genesis 9:23, when Shem and Japheth, because they loved their father Noah, "took a garment and laid it on their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness [shame] of their father, and their faces werebackward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness." That exactly describes the Christian attitude. Sincere love will intentionally avert the gaze, and not lock on to another’s sin.

Consider the Extent of Covering. It is so extensive that it can cover the multitude of sins, or the throng of sins. Not just the occasional slip! Not just one or two misdemeanours! Not just a hiccough in life’s experience – but love’s forbearance will unceasingly cast a mantle of compassion and sympathy over someone else’s deficiencies or cloud of imperfections. Our Lord has a love that is limitless in height, length, depth and breadth, and ours is to function in imitation of His. Charity is so fervent that it has an elasticity that stretches with generosity of spirit to obscure numberless sins. It can stretch without breaking. Love expands the heart to believe all things and to pardon all things. It is quick to put the best interpretation and construction on many doubtful matters, and it will melt coldness, softnen hardness and expel selfishness. Such can be the multitude that is in the mind of Peter, for he is remembering another occasion when he asked our Lord, "Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Jesus said, till seventy times seven" (Mt 18:21). Seventy times seven is 7 x 7 x 10. So that is a continual repetition of the perfect number. A perfect number for an indefinite amount of times.

Consider our attitude to covering. Unfortunately, when it comes to the faults of others, the old man quickly returns in power. Are we not quicker in seeing the bad points than the good features in our brother or sister? Too ready to spot the mote, and not to be conscious of the plank in our own eye? Unconscious of our Lord’s dictum, "Let him without sin cast the first stone." James puts a question to us, which in the present climate we ought to face, and answer, "Whence come wars and fightings among you?" (4:1). Is it because love has decayed and withered in your own heart; or the flesh in its lusts and passions gains the victory; or relationships have become personalised as to sour and be contentious — or is it because there is so little love to Christ that there is so little of it to His brethren? Is it not remarkable that James asks that question not to the world, but to believers and to the Church?

In all disputes between Christians, there are generally faults on both sides, but it is noticeable that the one who is more vocal and clamorous is the more guilty. Generally too, the more critical is the more guilty. The more reformed a person is, the more knowledge has been attained. And the more knowledge that has been attained, the more love should be exercised. This is the great danger in a reforming church, that knowledge puffeth up. Love should care for the weaker vessel, and not cut itself off, or disassociate, or withdraw. Neither should it be impatient because others have not attained a higher level of understanding. What have we that we have not first received?

If love is warm and vibrant in our hearts, then it will overcome any sense of injustice, revenge or dismissiveness, and embrace the brother/sister, warts and all. "He that hateth his brother walketh in darkness" (1 Jn 3:11). But you may say, "I don’t hate my brother, I just don’t get on with him." Well now, is that hate or love? Really, love could not give that answer. The attitude of love withholds from exaggerating or exacerbating someone else’s faults or making an open show of them. For if through Christ’s love, our sins that were as a thick cloud between us and God, have been removed as far as the East is from the West, and hid from His eyes — who are we to expose and pass judgment on those He has likewise redeemed by precious blood. Rather, love suffers long. Philip Henry wrote, "It is a love that is not quick and tetchy with brethren that may offend and displease us." Martin Luther gave an illustration of two goats that had met upon a narrow bridge over deep water. Neither would back off, and they dare not fight because of the drop. After a short discussion, one of them lay down and allowed the other to walk over him, and no harm was done! Love will humble itself in order that a brother/sister can safely pass to the other side, and it will "hope all things." We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer with tongue in cheek, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us." The former depends upon the latter proposition in that verse.

3. The Determination to Love

"Above all things." This emphasises and shows the necessity and importance of it. We are to be determined to exercise love above all things. It is even greater than faith and hope. It is the supreme grace, so that our Lord makes it a commandment: "That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (Jn 13:34). He calls for an equivalence of love. A love that was free, not withheld, magnanimous and intense, even to the death of the Cross. The Cross is the pinnacle, the acme of love, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son." Many waters cannot quench that love. Samuel Rutherford sweetly penned, "O Christ He is the fountain, the deep sweet well of love." And Paul, writing to the Ephesians exclaims: "But God who is rich in mercy for the great love wherewith He hath loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ" (Eph 2:4). The Corinthian church was reminded of its supremacy by Paul instructing, "I show you a more excellent way" (1 Cor 12:21). The excellence of love! Without this, all our profession and confession, our arguments and doctrines, personal gifts and standings are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. Love always rises above all things; does not the cream always rise to the top? Christians must determine that love will prevail over pride, resistance and antipathy.

Love is a labouring grace. It is always active. Let me demonstrate that from the proverb "He that covereth a transgression seeketh love" (Prov 17:9). That is, the believer covers or conceals a variance in an offending brother and performs an act of oblivion, and so seeketh (or findeth) love. But it may mean this, "He that seeketh love covers a transgression." Love is not an idle virtue, does not stand still, it does not wait for the first move, but seeks an opportunity to vent itself. Loving not in word only, but in deed, and showing a faith that worketh by love.

And the reason why there should be a determination for love to excel above all things is given by Paul in a similar statement to the Colossians. There, he lists a number of graces, "Put on, bowels of mercies, kindness and humbleness of mind, meekness, forbearance, forgiveness — and above all these (these things), put on charity" (Col 3:14). A striking similarity with Peter’s expression. Why should Paul say this? All these things are good and lovely; why put on charity? Well, he continues, "For it is the bond of perfectness (or completeness)." This is the supreme virtue he counsels, without which all the others could not operate, for they would be just moral virtues unacceptable to God. ‘Put charity on as a garment,’ he urges, ‘clothe yourself with it.’ This is the livery of the Christian—above all things! Above our doctrinal differences – above our personal preferences – above our comfort zone – above our dispositions and disappointments – above our desire for a quiet life – above all things, fervently love. We can, and will be disappointed with ourselves and with other Christians, but we are not to withdraw into the hermitage of our own hearts or home.

But, such and such a person is so irritating and awkward – all things!

But, I’ve got no patience with obstinacy and a kind of wilfulness – all things!

But, whatever you say to this person, it is like water on a duck’s back – all things!

Love will labour, and not be dissuaded, nor will it hold a grudge or grievance that would besmirch its garment. Love will labour for self-denial. Richard Sibbes wrote, "It is a sign of strength when we see anything good in another, to bear with their weaknesses." All our infirmities will be buried with us, and so we should be determined to bury the weaknesses of others in the grave of forgetfulness. What then does this supreme grace do?

It preserves harmony, unity and peace amongst Christians. Not just those who think the same as us, but to all those who have known the new birth. But especially it is essential in the local church. There is something catching about love. It is more potent than bird-flu. John Mason says: "Love begets love. It is a flame that communicates itself. They that have much forgiven them; much done for them; much laid down for them, and much laid out for them, will love much." Who can resist the arguments of love?

A demonstrable love shows that we have the love of Christ in us. Again, a saying of John Mason expressively captures it: "The love of Christ has a height without a top; a depth without a bottom; a length without an end, and a breadth without a limit." Therefore, there should be no reservation upon our love.

It realises in us the sum and substance of the law. Recall Paul exhorting the Romans: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8). But again he writes, "Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10). The great expanse of the law is reducible to this, and both the law and the gospel are joined hand in hand.

It demonstrates that we are children of the most High. God is love, and that is not an attribute of His, He is love. "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments" (1 John 5:2).


O friends, it is better to be fervent in charity, than fervent in disputes. Moses had to break up a fight between two Jews, by saying, "Sirs, ye be brethren." Therefore, if we believe that there is such a thing as the family of God, then we must really view each other as brethren. Not just theoretically or theologically – but experimentally!

The love feasts that we prepare for every couple of months, ought to be such that eulogises and magnifies the love of Christ, but also testifies and will advertise, our love for each other. It is one cup and one bread of which we partake. Which not only symbolises Christ, but also that we are all members of the one body, and the one family. "All who believed were together." W