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The Cover of the Lover

Why do James and Peter in their respective epistles both make statements that claim that some human action or another can "cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:20, 1 Peter 4:8)?  If we are reading straight through the Bible, by the time we've come this far (almost to the end), we've pretty much been convinced that the only way that sins are "covered" is by the blood of Christ's sacrifice.  We're acutely aware that we have no hope apart from Him and His imputed righteousness, and we've been warned many times from thinking that we can somehow purchase our own redemption.  But now, here at the end of the book - a mere two flips of the page distant from each other - are a pair of statements that irritate my mind, which likes everything to be clean and simple. In trying to solve this mystery, I think that the 1 Peter passage is the easiest to explain.  It is more or less a paraphrase of Proverbs 10:12.

1 Peter 4:8 - Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

Proverbs 10:12 - Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.

It is easier to see the intended meaning of the word "covers" when we see it juxtaposed with what hatred does.  If you hate someone, conflict is going to keep flaring up whenever the two of you are together, because the tiniest offenses are going to be amplified.  If you truly love someone, however, you overlook most of that person's faults, and you try to help them through the larger ones.  Think of all of the things that love does not do according to 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 and you'll quickly understand how love can "cover all offenses" or "cover a multitude of sins".  It's not that the love of the lover is somehow meritorious of atonement for the lover's sins, but his love excuses (or "covers") the sin of the one that he loves.  In other words, we are talking about a "covering" that is horizontal - taking place between human beings - not vertical - taking place between man and God.

The James passage is a little more difficult to decypher.  We are told in James 5:20 that if a person tries to correct his brother or sister in Christ and ends up bringing that wandering individual back to the truth, that such a person has "saved his soul from death" (we understand that it's Christ who has actually saved the person, but his brother has brought him back to the faith) and "will cover a multitude of sins."

The whole key to understanding the right meaning of the passage has to hinge on whose sins are being "covered" by this action: those of the one who is brought back, or those of the one who brought him back.  If we take the latter approach, then we are going to end up with a kind of sacrament that can truly cover sin: bringing back lost sheep to the fold.  But if we understand the sins being covered as belonging to the one who is brought back, then everything smooths out.  Of course a multitude of his sins are covered - he has returned to faith in Christ!  Christ's blood covers his sins, not the act of restoring him to the truth.  That act has simply showed him the way back.

So we don't seem to actually have any meritorious works here in these two examples after all, but the fact that the Holy Spirit chose to use the same words that we normally associate with salvation does indicate the absolute importance of the two ideas.  Loving one another and bringing wandering souls back to the truth are two of the most Christ-like actions that we can enjoy.  And they're both intimately related as well.  If we're not doing one, we're not doing the other.

Assembly Required

I met a man on the streets of East St. Louis last year during a one-day mission trip out there.  He looked like he was in his sixties or early seventies, lived in a nice house, drove a nice car, and mentioned something about a few grandchildren.  He was a nice guy.  Further, when I asked him about his own spiritual beliefs and what he thought about Jesus, he told me that he was a believer, that he asked Jesus to save him decades ago, and that he was a member of a Baptist church. After a few minutes of nice, friendly conversation, I asked him how often he attended his church.  "Well, I haven't been lately", he said.  So I asked him how long it had been since the last time he went.  That's when he started to tell me about something his pastor said that made him mad back when Nixon took office, and he hadn't been back to church since!

What?!  That was literally forty years ago!  This guy had not just "not been to church lately", he had lived the majority of his rather long life completely avoiding the worship of a God that he claimed to believe in.

And this guy was in no way unique.  I see it all over the place out here where I serve as pastor.  Ninety-eight out of a hundred people will tell you that they believe in Jesus, that they 'got saved', that they joined a church, got baptized, etc.  Maybe ten out of that ninety-eight actually regularly attend church somewhere.

My first thought about this always goes back to what Jesus said was the first and greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).  It sure doesn't seem possible that a person can love God with all of his heart, soul, and mind and never care to be a part of His worship (which He commanded).  What that guy in East St. Louis has done is tantamount to saying "I do" to some marriage vows and then living apart from his wife for the next forty years.  If that were to happen, the husband may say "I love her" all he wants, but his actions will tell the opposite story.

The Bible says, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  Faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:14, 26).  To continue the analogy of marriage, individual physical acts like hugs and kisses are not what 'makes up' the essence of love, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that you love your wife if you never kiss her, never hug her, never talk to her, never look at her.  True love overflows into actions.  The same is true with faith.

Even though faith and salvation are not created by actions such as church attendance, baptism, tithing, etc., real faith will certainly overflow into such actions.  A person who claims to trust Christ to be his all-sufficiency for salvation and who claims to love Him and want to serve Him isn't fooling anyone when he won't show up for an hour once a week to praise His Name.  His claims of faith ring really hollow when he can't give a tithe because then he thinks won't have enough to live on.  Thus, James says, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (1:18).

In the very next verse, James says, "You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe - and shudder!"  Good for you!  You're just like the demons!  You have a demonic faith!  In all seriousness, that's the kind of faith that the guy I met had.  He was as good as a demon.  And yet, somehow, I bet that he thought that his destiny would be different from theirs.  We need to stop helping guys like this think this way by teaching that faith can exist apart from works.  Let folks know the difference between genuine and false faith, and let those folks who come forward in a church service for salvation know that their future actions will prove whether the decision they're making is real and lasting or not.

What He Gives

According to the Bible, when I receive a blessing in my life, God is behind it (James 1:17).  Also according to the Bible, when I walk through horrendous trials in my life, God is behind it (James 1:2-4).  In fact, according to the Bible, just about the only thing that we can say that God is not behind is the temptation to sin that we experience.  James 1:13-15 makes it very clear that such temptations come from the sin that dwells within us.  We dare not cast the blame for our sinful desires on God!  It is our own indwelling sin that rises up and produces fruit - God does not implant some alien sinful desire in us - it is wholly natural. What is fascinating about all of this, though, is that God is very much in control of the consequences of the fruit of our sinful desires, and our sin leads us into various trials.  For what trial or hardship would ever have arisen outside of the sinful state of humanity?  Would we suffer hunger or sickness or loss of loved ones?  No, all hardship is a result of our transgressions of God's perfect law.  But apparently, not all hardship is an actual wrathful, just punishment for our transgressions of God's perfect law.

In fact, in James 1:2, we are even told to "count is all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds."  We are told that such trials produce steadfastness, which - when allowed to exercise its full effect - makes us "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (verse 4).

So, trials are good, but trials comes as a result of sin, and sin is born through the ripening of temptation.  The start of this chain reaction takes place in our own wicked hearts, and the end is a pure product of God - something that verse 17 of James 1 calls a "good and perfect gift from above, coming down from the Father of Lights."  But if that's the case, then why does it feel like He's punishing us?

I think this is where we have to make a distinction between loving discipline and just punishment.  A just punishment for our sins would be an immediately enforced, eternally enduring Second Death.  This was the wrath that Christ took for us on the cross when He suffered in our place (if we are truly believers).  A loving discipline, however, is a measure designed by a loving Father to keep a child away from a just punishment.

When I discipline my daughter for taking away something from her sister, it is not because I hate her.  It's not even really because I'm angry with her.  I discipline her because I want her to learn how to live righteously so that she will avoid a just retribution (from God and from the state) for a crime like stealing.

So, in a situation like that, my daughter actually ought to thank me for her stinging backside.  It was a good gift coming from her father.  It was meant to produce steadfastness, which, if allowed to have its full effect, would lead her toward perfection and completeness.  It was given completely in love and ought to be received with total thankfulness.

I sin, but God still just keeps handing out the good and perfect gifts.  Sometimes they seem to come in response to something I've done, and sometimes they just seem to come out of the blue.  But all of the time they are loving gifts, designed by a perfect Father to accomplish a perfect purpose in my life, whether they be heapings of joy-filled blessings or long valleys of soul-crushing trials.  One is just as good as another in God's perfect plan, and so I have to learn to "count it all joy."