There’s a lot of division on the issues of covering sin and forgiveness. I think I have seven books on my shelf on forgiveness, and they all land differently on this issue: What does it mean to cover sin?
Here I’ll attempt to introduce you to the issues at play in this topic, and I’m going to propose what I believe is not only an exegetical view, but also correlational view (all of what Scripture teaches on the subject).
I have been studying this particular topic for years. Forgiveness is a very everyday issue. We sin every day, multiple times—sins of omission and sins of commission. What do we do with that? When we sin against one another, what do we do with that? And what does God teach us to do when someone clearly sins against us?
I don’t look for sin in other people. We’re not sin hunters. Sometimes a caricature of biblical counselors is that people come in and they say, “We need help.” And we respond, “Okay, where’s the sin?” We don’t go looking for sin, but often it comes across our path or it’s against us in some way.
We’re taught in 1 Corinthians 13 that love believes the best. We want to think the best about other people. We want to put the best spin on things, even when it’s doubtful. But when it is a clear infraction of God’s Word against us or someone else, how do we respond to that as Christians one to another?
Early on I was taught in biblical counseling that what you do with a majority of sin is, “You cover it.” I was taught that you should overlook sin or ignore it. When I was taught that, I raised my hand in the class and said, “So what sins do you cover? And which ones do you deal with?”
That’s a common question. I mean, I don’t want to get that wrong. I don’t want to be dealing with someone’s sin against me if I should be overlooking it. My instructor replied, “You cover what you can cover, unless the sin blows the covers off.”
I remember my hand went down, but the look on my face was, “What does that mean?”
The Corinthian church was covering some pretty serious issues—even a man involved sexually with his stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5. Some people in churches can cover a lot, they ignore and overlook anything. Then there’s others who you just look at them wrong and they’re coming after you needing to talk about it.
“You cover what you can cover, until the sin blows the covers off.” I wrote it down. It didn’t make much sense to me, but it was my first exposure to the biblical counseling. I went back to the place where I was pastoring and I began to teach these biblical counseling principles—applied theology in the church. And in training others, when it came to this issue of sin, I taught that you deal seriously with sin. Then a hand would go up. Maybe sometimes multiple hands would go up. And they would ask, “How do you know what to cover what not to cover?”
And you know what my reply was? “You cover what you can cover, unless the sin blows the covers off.” I saw the same expressions on their faces that was on mine originally. Then I finally went out to Grace Community Church and I was on staff there, and I was teaching in the counseling training time.
I read 1 Peter 4:8, which says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” And I said to the class, “You don’t deal with every sin—just some sins, because love covers a multitude of them.” Then hands went up and I did not look up, because I was not going to say, “You cover what you can cover, unless the sin blows the covers off” one more time.
And at that point when I saw those hands go up in that class I said to myself, “I have got to look at what the Scripture teaches about what love covers and when.”
What does all of the Bible teach on it?
Second Timothy 2:15, says “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” That’s what I’m attempting to do. Not that I do that perfectly, but I want to study the Word well. I want to look at the relevant passages and the theme of Scripture as well. How does all of Scripture teach on the subject? Not just one verse. Sometimes people take one verse and make a whole theology out of it, and you get into trouble that way. The Bible has one divine author—the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t contradict himself.
If the Spirit’s bringing different verses up, then you put them all together.
In Acts 17:11, talking about the Bereans, Scripture says, “they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” I would encourage you to be a good Berean. As we get to the end, I’m going to attempt to say what you cover and when you cover sin. Study the Scriptures that I bring up. You take a look at them and you see if I’ve done something wrong, please let me know. I don’t want to exceed what’s written (1 Corinthians 4:6). God has given us His Word. We don’t want to go beyond it.
A case study can help us get our minds around this concept. Joe and Susan are both professing Christians since their teenage years. They’ve been married for 12 years and have three children (ages seven, five, and a newborn). Susan is a homeschooling mom. Joe has one of those management jobs that seems to be an all-consuming job with no end. He brings it home and works on things even at night.
This particular day he woke up late—no time in the Word or prayer in any devotional kind of way. A coworker misrepresented him at work that day. His computer had all kinds of problems—he lost some information that he didn’t save. One of his extended family members called during the lunch break, and so there goes his lunch. He had a very frustrating day.
He didn’t even get a third done on his to-do list. He doesn’t even focus or think about the Lord or pray for grace most of the day. On the way home, he can’t wait to get home and rest. Traffic is slow. He can’t understand why anyone is on the road when he’s going home. He can’t wait to eat one of his favorite meals that he hinted to his wife on the way out that morning that he would like that night. He’s expecting his wife and kids to have no problems when he arrives.
In his mind, he was thinking of how they all would greet them when he pulls up and say, “We’re glad you’re home. How can we serve you tonight?” He wants a trouble-free night with no inconveniences.
Susan has an equally rough day. She didn’t rest at all that night with the newborn. None of the children have been very cooperative all day. Especially the oldest boy, who was in need of discipline most all day. Homeschooling was a complete disaster. She doesn’t even have what she would need to fix the dinner that Joe hinted at on the way out in the morning. Half an hour before Joe arrives, a lady at church calls her, distraught.
She wants to talk about the problems that she was having and so Susan seeks to minister to her, and she is on the phone when Joe arrives.
Joe walks in—the place is a complete mess, the kids seem wild. No aroma of dinner meets his nostrils. Susan is talking on the phone and Joe assume she’s been on the phone all day. He hurries her off the phone and then asks, “What have you been doing all day?”
Susan responds, “I can’t believe you would ask such a thing.” And Joe responds, “Well, this is your domain. Obviously, you can’t handle it. Maybe you need to go back to work and we hire someone who can.”
Susan replies, “You self-centered jerk. You’re always thinking of yourself.” Joe responds, “Well, who else will think of me? Since when do you ever think of me? I guess I’ll have to just take care of myself.”
Susan begins to cry and walks away. Joe feels justified, so he just goes upstairs to the bedroom to change. Soon, it’s time for dinner. And so they both just focus on the kids—taking out their anger on the kids. Further, the oldest boy was forbidden to go outside and play since he was a complete mess all day, but Joe said to him, “Sure you can go out and play.” He undid everything Susan had been trying to teach him. Susan cleans up after dinner, gives the kids a bath, gets the kids to bed, then she retires herself to bed—watching TV before she falls asleep. Joe goes up to the den and works until late hours of the night.
Then when Susan is asleep, Joe goes to bed. The next day, neither Joe nor Susan bring up the previous day. They just press on with the next day.
Was there any sin committed? What do you cover? What do you what do you ignore or overlook? What do you deal with? And when do you deal with it?
Because in their minds, the past was the past. That was yesterday, we just press on now, it’s water under the bridge. Day after day, this is how their marriage is going.
Present Day Views
Now we’ll explore some different views on this issues of what love covers.
The first is a very liberal view: Love covers everything or almost everything. People with this view may say, “I’m just very thick skinned. I can handle all kinds of sin. It doesn’t bother me—like water off a duck’s back.” Or some would say, “I take the high road, so I don’t deal with much sin at all.”
As I mentioned, 1 Corinthians 5 would fit in here. The church was overlooking (maybe they thought they were covering) the sin of one Corinthian at church who was involved sexually with his stepmother.
A second, more moderate view is that love covers some sins, personal offenses for example. But not other sins—the major, weighty ones like adultery, embezzlement, or major abuse. In this category, there’s usually a man-made list. In the books on forgiveness, you’ll find lists—these sins you deal with, these things you don’t deal with.
I remember reading in one list, “Wait until a sin becomes habitual.” We know how hard it is to deal with sins that become a habit! Don’t wait until the sin comes a habit. That’s a deep ravine. Nip it in the bud. They use man-made lists because there’s no biblical list. Man has to come up with their own lists to instruct you what sins to deal with and which ones to cover, ignore, or overlook.
There’s a third view—not the most popular—that love doesn’t cover any clear sins, until the sin is first dealt with. You don’t overlook it. The Old Testament word to cover means to atone, to hide, or bury it.
And you bury it at the end of the process, not at the beginning of the process.
There are a lot of perplexities and questions that are raised in this issue.
How do you define various terms? For example, how would you define sin? As 1 John tells us, sin is lawlessness. Sin is any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God. How would you define immaturity? How would you define what real love is? Because it’s a sentimentality today, often it’s a therapeutic love in the church, but not a biblical love at times. Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
People may say, “I love them too much to talk to them about a sin that they just committed against me.” No, you don’t love them enough.
This is what’s going on in the church today. “I just overlooked that, I just cover it.” You don’t love people enough. It’s about their sanctification and God’s glory—that’s what we should be thinking about.
How would you define repentance and confession and forgiveness and different terms like that?
Secondly, who determines what sins to cover and what sins to bring up? Because the Bible has no list. Man may come up with a list, but God’s Word provides no list of what to deal with and what not to deal with when it comes to clear sins against a brother or sister in Christ.
How does the love covering principle fit into forgiveness? This depends on what your view is on forgiveness; there are different views on forgiveness. Some think forgiveness is unconditional—you forgive people regardless of whether they repent or not. Some would say you forgive your brother in your heart and then if it is a serious enough issue, you would go talk with them. But a lot of things you can overlook and let them go.
Or is forgiveness conditional? Where you have a heart that’s always willing to forgive, a heart that pursues forgiveness, a heart that loves people unconditionally, but seeks to remedy the issue that sin has caused. Then once it’s confessed and repented of, you cover it.
For example in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, how do you love someone who is unruly? Love admonishes the unruly, but don’t make love equal to admonishment. Don’t take that verse and say, “Every person you meet—no matter what’s going on in their life—you just admonish them.”
Love admonishes the unruly in 1 Thessalonians 5, but how does love express itself to people who are weak? You help the weak. Don’t help the unruly, don’t help the lazy sponger (the one who refuses to work who can work). Help the weak.
How do you love those who are fainthearted? By looking at 1 Thessalonians 5:14, you encourage the fainthearted. You don’t encourage the unruly, you admonish the unruly. You help the weak, you encourage the fainthearted.
What do you do with someone who is in rebellion, refusing to obey? You discipline them. You get into the process described in Matthew 18. Yet, you wouldn’t say love equals discipline—where everyone you love, you discipline.
Love is bigger. It’s broader. It’s like a huge umbrella. It’s a foundation, and love manifests itself differently in different situations.
What do you do when someone has sinned against you, and they come to you and say, “Please forgive me. I’ve done wrong.” You forgive them and then you cover it. That is what I’m proposing as we look through these various passages of Scripture. As I look at all of the texts of Scripture, that’s what love does. Love does not overlook any clear sin and ignore it.
And I’ll explain a process for this—I think you don’t always have to bring admonishment to other Christians when they sin against you. We’ll walk through that. That’s how I see it all fits together. Love displays itself differently depending on what’s going on in someone’s life, but don’t make love equal to any one of those.
“Love Covering” in Scripture
King David wrote Psalm 32, and he describes what his life was like before confessing his sin with Bathsheba and putting her husband to death, and after he confessed, which we have written out in Psalm 51. Psalm 32 says,
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.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
That is a powerful passage. When was sin covered? Well, David tried covering his sin (overlooking it and hiding it) before he confessed it. He describes the misery he felt when he did that. But once he confessed, and he was forgiven by God, as he says there in verse 1, his sin was covered. Covering came at the end of the process. When he tried to cover his own sin first, he did not prosper.
Remember the word cover is kəvər in the Hebrew language. It’s the word for atonement—your sins are covered.
In the Old Testament sacrificial system, when were their sins atoned for? When were their sins covered? At the end of the sacrificial process, not before. Of course, all were paid by Christ on the cross. He paid for the sins that were confessed in the Old Testament.
Proverbs 10:12 will really set you on a journey. This verse says, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”I believe this is saying when someone sins against you, take care of it and then cover it. Cover all the transgressions that you have dealt with. Click To Tweet
This is problematic if you say, “Well, if cover means overlook and ignore, you mean we just ignore all of them and never deal with any sins?” I believe this is saying when someone sins against you, take care of it and then cover it. Cover all the transgressions that you have dealt with. And then the Hebrew parallelism shows us that if you don’t deal with the sin and cover it, the opposite is you start spreading people’s sins around. Hatred will stir up strife. You’ll see another Proverb very similar to this. Hatred spreads and gossips and slanders. But love goes to the person in private, deals with the issue, and then buries it.
Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
This is very similar to the other Proverb we just read. He who covers a transgression seeks love. Love will say, “I want to resolve this issue and then cover it.”
The nature of sin is to be anti-relational. It’s anti-unity, anti-submission, anti-obedience, anti-rational, anti-love, and it’s anti-Christ. Sin is serious, so we want to deal with that. You cover a transgression and the rest of Scripture would say, “Deal with it and then cover it.” But if you don’t, you start spreading it around and “repeating a matter”—that’s not what love does, that’s what hate does.
Proverbs 19:11 uses a different word—not the word for cover, but the word for overlook. The verse says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” The word “overlook” here literally means “let it pass by.”
And the Hebrew parallelism is: If you don’t let it pass by, what’s the other reaction you’re tempted to do? Anger. When someone sins against you, the typical fleshly reaction is, “I’m going to come right back at you in my anger. You just sinned against me. I’m coming at you.”
This Proverb is saying it’s the glory of a man to initially let it pass by. It’s not teaching a whole theology on what to do with sin, because sin needs to be dealt with. But that Proverb helps us know that it’s not our knee-jerk reaction to deal with sin properly.
This is similar to the principle in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” We are not to go with our knee-jerk response, but initially let the issue past by.
Let’s say someone’s spouse comes home, and they’re angry and they say some hurtful things right at the start when they see you. Initially, let that pass by. And then say, “Honey, what’s wrong?” They may describe, “Oh this happened, and then this happened, and then that happened.” It’s good to initially let it pass by. But that sin that they did against you needs to be dealt with. It doesn’t go away. It’s always the nature of sin to separate. Starting in Genesis 3, it separates God and man, and man with man.
You can come back and deal with the sin of their original response. And you want to do that, and not just wave it off.
Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” David is an illustration of Proverbs 28, when he tried to conceal his transgressions initially. Once he dealt with it, he found mercy and compassion. It’s interesting that Solomon picks up on this.
First Corinthians 13:5 says, love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” What does it mean to take into account here? In Romans 4 Paul uses the same phrase, “take into an account.” That’s same phrase used by the same human author. This is how he brings it up in Romans 4:6-8, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.’
‘Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.'”
God does not take into an account a wrong suffered after it’s been dealt with. We know that because Paul quotes David in this passage. David confessed, his sins are forgiven, and they’re covered. God no longer takes into an account—that same phrase is used by Paul in both places.
James 5:19-20 says, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Covering of a multitude of sins comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning in James 5.
Now, we look to 1 Peter 4:8. This is written to a church in a suffering environment, facing persecution. The thing you want as a church when you’re being persecuted or suffering is to pull together. You don’t want division amongst yourselves, with hatred stirring up strife everywhere. Rather, Peter says, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”
People read that and think it means you overlook or ignore a bunch of sin—you don’t ever deal with it. Yet, the rest of Scripture helps us understand that you deal with sin, and then you hide it and cover it. Then it’s done and that pulls a church together.
Presuppositions for the “Love Covering” Principle
Now we’ll see some presuppositions in dealing with the love covering principle.
God’s purpose is to grow us in holiness. We’ve been set apart in sanctification and God desires to grow us in holiness (1 Peter 1:16).
All sin is serious (Genesis 3, Romans 6:23). As Alexander Maclaren says, “It might be a small act, but it is a great sin.”
The nature of sin is to separate (Genesis 3, Isaiah 59:2). We see this when people say in counseling, “It’s like there’s a distance between us.” This is how Joe is with Susan in our case study from earlier. He came home and sin was exchanged between them day after day. This leads to a distance between them, because that’s what sin does—sin separates.
You’ll hear people say in counseling, “There’s like a wall between us.” One brick of sin undealt with at a time will build a wall quickly.
The Bible doesn’t give a complete detailed list of sins to cover and sins to deal with. It just says in Matthew 18 or Luke 17, if a brother sins against you, you go to them in private. You realize there is a sin or offense between the two of you, you go to them, you leave what you’re doing, and you resolve that.
Even in Ephesians 4, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with sin and deal with it quickly.
There’s an apparent conditional aspect to dealing with sin. This is a theme running through Scripture: confession, repentance, and then forgiveness. It’s a constant theme running from the Old Testament, to the gospels, to the epistles. You can see this in passages such as Proverbs 27:5-6, Proverbs 28:13, Matthew 18:15ff, and Luke 17:2.The heart is always to reflect love, humility, mercy, kindness, and compassion to everyone. Click To Tweet
The heart is always to reflect love, humility, mercy, kindness, and compassion to everyone. This is God’s grace in our lives to be free from anger, not having knee-jerk reactions, free from bitterness and revenge. Have a spirit that’s always willing to forgive (Ephesians 4:32). We should pursue reconciliation with the person who has a clear offense against you.
I think bitterness is misunderstood. It’s not an absence of offering forgiveness to the person who sinned against you. Bitterness is when there’s a lack of love towards the person who has offended you. Bitterness is not an absence of offering forgiveness. That’s a mistaken concept. If person raped my daughter, to say “You have to forgive the person or you’ll get bitter.” Yet, he’s not even acknowledged to sin. Really, it’s if I stop actively loving that offender, then I will get bitter.
If Jesus forgave everyone who sinned against him, no one would go to hell. But He has a heart willing to forgive. Psalm 86:5 says, “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive.”
Pondering the “Love Covering” Principle
How does God deal with sin and instruct us to deal with it in the Old Testament, the gospels, and the epistles?
When there is a clear offense one against the other, we are instructed to go to them. If they don’t come to you, you go and talk to them. Then once the person says, “I have sinned, please forgive me,” then it is immediately forgiven and covered.
Are there examples of sins that were seemingly covered before dealing with the sin? Some would go to the example of Joseph with his brothers. There’s no direct statement that he forgave his brothers. He was willing to forgive them. It seems like they perhaps owned that what they did was wrong, but there’s not a real clear teaching there. You can definitely see with Joseph that there was a heart that loved his brothers, that was willing to forgive his brothers, but they still dealt with the guilt even after their dad died. They think, “Oh, now we’re in trouble.” You definitely see a reflection of God’s heart of love and a willingness to forgive in Joseph.
There’s the example of David with Shimei from 2 Samual 16. People say, “Look at how he dealt with Shimei.” We shouldn’t call that forgiveness, because David tells his son Solomon to kill Shimei when Solomon becomes king. That’s not what you do when you forgive people. In 2 Samual 19 we see David’s love, David’s willingness to forgive Shimei, but Shimei could not be trusted.
You have the example Stephen with Saul. As Stephen was being stoned to death, he looked up and saw Christ standing there and he said, “Lay this not to their account.” That was a prayer request, it was not a pronouncement or a granting of Paul’s forgiveness of an unrighteous stoning. It was a prayer request that shows Stephen’s heart that was very similar to God’s heart. And a few days later, Paul repents on the Damascus Road—God did forgive him and did not lay it to his account. There was forgiveness of all of his sins, including the unrighteous stoning of Stephen.
Jesus on the cross is another example of a prayer request, not a pronouncement. He’s talking to his heavenly Father and says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That was not a pronouncement, but a prayer request showing the heart of God—willing to forgive and actively loving His enemies.
Fifty days later, in Acts 2, you have Peter preaching and he’s talking to the same people who murdered Jesus. He says, “You murdered him.” They said, “What can we do?” And he responds, “Repent and believe,” and many did. Jesus’ prayer was answered.
Some people ask about Mark 11:25-26 where it’s a present, active imperative. The verses say, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”
Does that teach unconditional forgiveness? Remember the end of the verse, “neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions,” which is absolutely conditional. It seems to say love is unconditional—just forgive people. Yet, the verse before it says, “all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.” You don’t want to make a theology out of that verse—it’s already been done in the prosperity cult. You have to look at all of Scripture on prayer. You have to pray according to His revealed will, you have to be doing what God says. There are qualifications to praying—not just pray whatever you want and it will be done for you. With forgiveness too, we must ask, what does all of Scripture say about forgiveness? Bring all of that into the passage in Mark 11. Then you would assume you’ve already dealt with the sin, and when you are praying, you keep on forgiving.
If you don’t, God won’t forgive you. This is stated very similarly in the Lord’s prayer, and the other gospel accounts. We also see it in Matthew 18, with the king who forgave all of the servant’s debt. It says the master forgave the servant, “because you pleaded with me.” That’s conditional. The king had a heart of compassion, and he said, “I forgave you because you pleaded with me,” now you should have the same heart toward your fellow servant. Because the servant didn’t forgive his fellow servant, then the master was moved with anger.
Dealing With Our Own HeartYou want to deal with clear sin, with a brother or sister in Christ, for their sanctification and God's glory. Click To Tweet
Why do we deal with sin when someone has offended you? Sin separates. You want to deal with clear sin, with a brother or sister in Christ, for their sanctification and God’s glory. It’s not about how thick your skin is. It’s not about saying, “I can handle it.” It’s about thinking, “I want my brother or sister to grow in their Christian life and sin has brought a separation. I want God to be glorified.” That’s what has to motivate you to love people properly. It’s not about your hurt.
One’s loving attitude needs to be this way toward everyone:
Humble. You don’t come in a self-righteous way, but as a fellow sinner and sufferer (Philippians 2:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-3).
Consider yourself first—ask, “Did I do something to provoke this issue?” (Matthew 7:3-5).
Seek peace, as much as possible as it depends on you (Romans 12:18; Ephesians 4:3).
Be patient with them (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Go after a full inquiry into the matter (Proverbs 18:13, 17; 2 Corinthians 13:1).
Having a gentle spirit (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Yet, there are many rationalizations of our heart. These are things that people bring up when they don’t want to deal with a clear sin against them.
▪ “It’s no big deal.” Yet, really it is a big deal to God. It brings separation, and it doesn’t just “go away.”
▪ “Compared to others—not that serious.” It’s unwise to compare yourself one to another (2 Corinthians 10).
▪ “It’s not my responsibility to confront.”
▪ “My skin is thick –I can handle it.”
▪ “Take the high road.”
▪ “If you dealt with every clear sin from a brother or sister in Christ, you’ll be doing this all day.” This is the one I hear a lot. I don’t know who you’re around that sins outwardly against you all day long. If you’re dealing with that in a person’s life all day long, you’re probably dealing with an unbeliever, not a Christian. And in that situation, you shouldn’t be bringing up every sin they commit to an unbeliever—that’s all they can do.
▪ “I’d be some sort of Gestapo.”
▪ “Graciousness is letting sin go.”
▪ “No one is perfect, I’m only human.”
▪ “It’s too late, the past is the past, it’s water under the bridge.”
▪ “This would be an unforgiving spirit.”
▪ “My goal is ‘peace’ and this might lead to conflict.”
▪ “I don’t think what they are doing is sinful.”
▪ “If I deal with their sin in this area, then I’ll have to deal with it in my life as well.”
▪ “This would be so time-consuming—I hate the hassle.”
▪ “This is “Law” and not “Gospel Grace.””
The above excuses are all self-oriented, rather than loving the person and God’s glory. If you have people in your life who seek to deal with sins you have committed against them, you will sin less. If you park a State Trooper car along the freeway every mile, even without a police officer in it, you’ll see traffic patterns change. You want people in your life who love you, who want your sanctification and God’s glory.
How do we deal with the sins of another? It must be dealt with graciously, reasonably, righteously, and consistently. The manner in which you forgive needs to be in line with Ephesians 4:23, “Forgive as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
There’s a methodology of how you deal with sin—but this is more about the manner in which you deal with it. It uses the word “grace,” charizomai in Greek—it’s a grace forgiveness. Forgive graciously, reasonably, righteously, and consistently.
How do you deal with the offenses of an unsaved person? The Scripture doesn’t tell us a lot on this area. Their biggest need as unbelievers is the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are under the law of sin, their nature is to sin, so they have to sin. They love to sin. We’re not told to deal with every sin in their lives. We bring the law of God to bear as a tutor to point them to Christ. Their greatest need though is God’s judicial forgiveness. We should seek to bring the gospel to bear on their life. There’s not a lot in Scripture on dealing with the sins of unbelievers—it’s just not there. What we have on confronting sin is for dealing with the family of God.
However, if they commit sin that’s criminal, you should report it. That’s clear from Matthew 5, Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, and Romans 12.
If sinned against by an unbelievers, always be willing to suffer for Christ. We should pray for the offender, put off vengeance, turn away from anger and bitterness, and have an intentional and aggressive love toward the unbeliever (Matthew 5, 1 Peter 2, Romans 12:14-21, Proverbs 19, Matthew 5). This is what it looks like to actively love and have a heart ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5).
What about dealing with the sins of believers?
This is a suggestion using different Proverbs and principles. When a believer sins against you,
1. Pray for and examine yourself first (Matthew 7:3-5). Then pray for them. We’re told that in 1 John, to pray for the brother or sister who’s sinning.
2. After some time, if that person doesn’t come to you and ask forgiveness, go to them and ask questions (Proverbs 18:13). You may not even have gotten the facts right. Maybe you misheard what they said. Let’s say for example, I’ve been angry with my wife. And at first she lets that pass by and asks about my day, seeking to comfort me. If later, I didn’t come back and ask for forgiveness for some very hurtful things that I said, she can say, “Honey, I’m so glad you’re doing better right now. But did I hear right when you came in, saying X, Y, and Z?” Questions will prick the conscience. Any Christian who loves Jesus will be convicted and then be able to respond rightly by asking forgiveness from God and the other person. Then it’s done. There’s no admonishment necessary in that case, just ask questions. Usually issues are resolved from these first two steps—the sin is dealt with and covered. But if the offender says, “Yea, I did say that and I meant it,” then we can move along in the process.
3. Bring Scriptures to bear. Now we’re under the authority of God and His Word. If the person says, “I don’t care what Scripture says,” that’s a more serious issue than what they said to you earlier. They’ve got a bigger heart problem. Again, this is not all in five minutes, it takes time when you are concerned for their sanctification and God’s glory. If they say they don’t care what the Bible says, then you can move onto the fourth step.
4. After some time, ask another believer or two to go with you (Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 12:18). That’s the spirit of Matthew 18—the intent of keeping a unity for the glory of the Lord and the sanctification of believers.
5. If it becomes this serious, then it could be a whole church matter (but not because of the first sin issue, but their entire life is troubling as over time their heart is hardened about sin in their life and they refuse to humble themselves or submit to God’s Word).
John MacArthur, in his commentary on 1 John says, “Although God mercifully does not immediately punish every sin with death, every sin is nonetheless a serious matter to Him. Every sin is a violation of His law and an affront to God and to be confessed and forsaken and mortified.”
When we deal with the sins of others against us, there are a number of principles to keep in mind.
1. Only clear violations of God’s commands are to be dealt with. Not matters of conscience or preference issues, not motives of the heart, not physical maturity issues, not wisdom issues, not halo data. You don’t confront on those things. You confront when there is a clear breach of God’s Word.
2. Confrontation must be done in love (Proverbs 27:5-6).
3. Realize we are members of one another (1 Corinthians 5; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:25).
4. Have a heart always ready to forgive (Psalm 86:5).
5. There is the humble and loving inquiry. Consider your timing even and be sensitive to when is a good time to talk about the subject.
6. There ought to be acknowledgment and confession (repentance).
7. When forgiveness is asked, then there is forgiveness—a “release” from the heart outward, which is immediate and unlimited. Now someone saying, “I’m just sorry”—I don’t know what that means. It could mean you’re sorry you got caught, or you’re sorry that I’m bothered. That isn’t a good confession. A repentant confession owns up to what is wrong and explains how they plan to do differently next time—to confess and forsake.
8. Coupled with forgiveness is “covering the sins,” where you bury, keep no record, blot it out, and hide it (Psalm 32, James 5). With forgiveness, the sin is buried.
In conclusion, take all sin seriously! (Romans 12:9; 1 Peter 1:13-16).
The process seems to be (among Christians) to have the right heart—always loving, always having “a “forgiving spirit” that is willing to forgive. We pray and ask questions, and if necessary humbly and graciously confront in love (Proverbs 27:5-6). Upon confession and repentance, then forgive and cover.
If no sin is dealt with, there won’t be any purity a person’s life or in the church. There will be lots of what the BIble calls “leaven,” and a little leaven can leaven the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5).
If only some sin is dealt with, there will be some purity, but there will still be “leaven,” some skewed relationships where glorifying God is hindered.
As much as we attempt to love one another with Christlike love, when clear violations of Scripture are dealt with, then there’s purity and love, genuineness, spiritual growth, God’s truth is honored, godly relationships, God’s glory is put on display, and Christians show true Christlikeness.
The place to start is in your own walk with Christ. Ask other believers to point out where you clearly sin against them. Don’t hide it or ignore it or overlook it, rather tell them to, “Please talk to me about any sin you see in me.” Start with your own life first. Then in time you can explain it and practice it in your relationships with one another, for the glory of God. Be a good Berean on this topic—you have the passages I’ve listed. Think it through to see what the Spirit of God teaches in His Word concerning what to cover and when to cover in regard to an offense against you from a fellow brother or sister in Christ.