Part of the problem in coming to a proper response may lie in how some prefer to regard Romans 3:23, For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. I find people often tend to see their sins as one, or just a few, transgressions and that, on the whole, they are pretty good people. And some things that Jesus said can reinforce this odd notion among the self-righteous:
Luke 7:39-47 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. (40) And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. (41) There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. (42) And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? (43) Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. (44) And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. (45) Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. (46) My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. (47) Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
Those who do not see themselves as having the lifestyle as a prostitute might believe that they are not very sin-burdened sins and, therefore, in a different class from those who are criminals, the immoral or general ne’er-do-wells. They may only owe the fifty pence as opposed to the five hundred. I daresay most of us fall adopt that line of reasoning.
However, that simply means that most of us have forgotten God’s view of His own people (Isaiah 1:4 Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.), God’s view of people in general (Romans 3:10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one), and the insight Paul gave into how each man might view himself (Romans 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?)
There are not a few people with a lot of sins, while most have a smaller sin problem, and others deal with not much sin at all. Everyone has a supertanker’s worth of sin, with more added daily, as John wrote, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
This does not diminish the Jesus’ Name baptism’s power to remit all sins, nor the power of Christ’s blood to cleanse sins that occur after a man is saved. However, people are sin factories – at any time, every man is awash in a multitude of sins…unless Paul was just out of his mind when he wrote Romans 7…and the cleansing of sin is a continual process. The word and blood of Jesus would not continue to cleanse if no new sin stains did appear.
So, it is not so much that the saint has fewer sins than the unbeliever as it is that the former has subscribed to a divine cleaning service. Of course, the man who embraces God’s Gospel will demonstrate marked changes in behavior and abandon any consistent practice of past misdeeds. However, the saint who believes he has beaten sin is mocked not only by 1 John 1, but also by the apostle Paul, Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12)
I cover all this in preparation to present the following verses as being more applicable to those inside the church as to those without:
James 5:19-20 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; (20) Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4:8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
The writers of these verses were not addressing the circumstances of those who had not heard the gospel, had not repented from sin, had not received the Jesus’ Name baptism, or had yet to receive the Holy Ghost; they were writing to the saints of God regarding the saints of God. Why does this matter?
Well, for one thing, it should increase humility among the faithful. If more saints are willing to say, “I have a sin issue and it will continue until I see God face-to-face,” then few of them should be on the wrong side of Isaiah 65:5 Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.
For another, those who recognize what it took for God to redeem them, and what is required to keep them, are more amenable to Jude’s admonition, And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23), when interacting with the lost or fellow saints.
However, what may matter most is that they get an understanding of how to deal with the sins of the saints, whether theirs, or someone else’s.
Neither James nor Peter wrote of removing the multitude of sins in the verses cited above. The word “hide” in James 5:20, and the word “cover” in 1 Peter 4:18, are the same Greek word, καλύπτω, kaluptō (kal-oop’-to); to cover up (literally or figuratively): – cover, hide.
That is a far cry from what John wrote of in 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The word “cleanse” is καθαρίζω, katharizō (kath-ar-id’-zo); to cleanse (literally or figuratively): – (make) clean (-se), purge, purify. It is also different from what Luke described in Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. “Remission” is ἄφεσις, aphesis (af’-es-is); freedom; (figuratively) pardon: – deliverance, forgiveness, liberty, remission.
So, John speaks of purging sins, and Luke wrote of sins being pardoned. However, both James and Peter wrote of hiding sins. There are other points as well: Luke wrote of what is done regarding the sins of the unregenerate, while John, James, and Peter refer to the church’s sins. Also, while John and Luke addressed what only God can do, James and Peter addressed what saints should do.
This should not be confusing, because scripture is clear . However, there is a fair amount of muddled teaching out there. To break this down into more direct language:
• No one but God can remit, purge, or cleanse sin,
• The church, in showing compassion to the lost, exposes the sins of the unregenerate, and
• The church, by loving one another, keeps its own sins from view
To many, those last two points will seem hypocritical. How can one treat sins differently, just because one person says they love God, while another is not part of the church? After all, sin is sin, and no person is better than another, right?
The answer is sin is not treated differently; if a man’s sins are to be removed, then no matter who that person may be, they must be taken to God. However, different people are handled differently getting them to take their sins to the throne. The preaching of the Gospel exposes sin; for the unregenerate, it can lay bare his misdeeds before all, and give him a perspective he did not previously consider. Recall that, on the day of Pentecost, those whose hearts were pricked had not thought themselves in sin regarding Jesus of Nazareth. Suddenly, their sin was being loudly publicized in Jerusalem. It brought them to repentance…at least some of them.
Those who belong to God are handled another way – not because they are better than the unregenerate – but because they are in greater peril:
Hebrews 6:4-6 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, (5) And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, (6) If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
The unregenerate always has a chance; the misguided saint may not. You plead with the enlightened to regain their senses; it is useless to preach to them as though Jesus is a new concept. Exposing them to open ridicule may be the surest way to push them to dig in their heels against God.
Nevertheless, hiding or covering sin does not mean ignoring sin. There is the work of restoration, referred to by James and explained more fully by Paul:
Galatians 6:1-5 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (2) Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (3) For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. (4) But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. (5) For every man shall bear his own burden.
That is hardly looking the other way; it’s simply not making a news item of something that is a family matter, between God and his (wayward) child.
Consequently, it is difficult to explain the popular practice within the church of saints “carpet bombing” one another regarding sins, real or imagined, and broadcasting the faults they see in one another far and wide. However, scripture makes it clear that is not the working of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13.
And, again, neither is ignoring sin the working of love. As Matthew recorded:
Matthew 18:15-17 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. (16) But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. (17) And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
When dealing with the multitude of sins, remember that you are dealing, primarily, with those who know God. What is paramount is to get them back to God and to separate them from their sins. Only God can perform the separation, but it is up to His other children to encourage the errant one to bring what must be purged to God, and not to make sin a public affair while that most private transaction occurs.