by Brent Cunningham on December 12, 2022
I remember once hearing someone say, “Did you know that I can do something that God can’t do? I can remember my sins, while God cannot!” Now, I fully understand what the person was attempting to communicate. He was extolling the graciousness of a God who didn’t go digging up past sins which had previously been confessed and forgiven. However, does the Bible really teach that God actually forgets (that is; He is unable to recall) what those sins were or that we in fact even committed them?
A God with one arm tied behind His back
Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with references, even promises, to God forgetting and no longer “remembering” people’s sins once they have been forgiven. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah records God’s declaration, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25, NIV). Likewise, the New Testament author of Hebrews affirms God’s promise in the old covenant when he quotes the book of Jeremiah, “For I [God] will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12, ESV). And we could look at numerous others. Clearly, this is a common claim throughout Scripture. But what does it mean?
One possibility, as mentioned above, is that this means God, in some way, is truly unable to recollect some of our past behaviors and thoughts. But let’s think about the consequences that this view would entail. It would mean that God doesn’t know all truth. Suppose while writing this blog post, I paused for a moment and began coveting my friend’s MacBook Pro computer (there may be more truth to this than you know!). Then suppose that I recognized my sinful covetous thoughts and so confessed them to God, asking for His forgiveness and help to be content with what I have. Well, if God’s forgiveness leads to or entails His inability to recall my sins, then God wouldn’t know the truth of the following statement: “Brent coveted two minutes ago.” And God wouldn’t be able to make statements like the one recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20, ESV)). On this view, as far as God knows, after He forgives me, I may have never sinned before.
But this problem extends beyond being a mere theological or philosophical problem. It is a problem that reaches down into the practicality of our daily lives. If the above interpretation of God is accurate, I now have a God who really doesn’t know much about my own past (after all, I’ve been forgiven a lot in my life!). I don’t want a God like that. That would mean He doesn’t understand the depths of my life-long personal struggles and debilitating tendencies toward selfishness. Further, this God can’t strengthen me at my weakest points of pride, anger, or lust because, so long as I’ve been forgiven in those areas of my life, He’s unaware that I so often fail there. However, I need a God who is familiar with the totality of me — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and yet still loves me. After all, isn’t that our truest and highest experience of love — having someone who knows us completely while also loving us completely? This is what allows the psalmist to express his sense of utter security with God when he writes, “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:3, ESV). So, if God is still able to mentally recall all our past sins, how are we to understand what the Bible means when it tells us that He “forgets” our sins?
When God “forgets”
There are two primary ways that we can talk about God. The first is to speak of His attributes or qualities. God is eternal, creative, patient, gracious, and so on. The second way is to speak of Him by analogy, even in anthropomorphic terms, that is; attributing human characteristics to Him. And so, we use human images to paint pictures of what God is like. We say God is a loving father, shepherd, king, redeemer, fortress, rock, and the like. With this in mind, think of God’s characteristic as a forgiver, but communicated in anthropomorphic terms, as a person who forgets. Here’s the idea. When a human person forgets something, suppose a loan given to a friend, he or she doesn’t follow through with actions to collect payment. So, in human terms, memory is tied to action.
The Bible constantly employs this idea of God both “forgetting” and “remembering.” When the biblical authors speak of God’s intentions to act on behalf of His people, they often articulate it as God “remembering” His covenant (Leviticus 26:44-46). Of course, it’s not that God had actually forgotten His covenant with Israel but, humanly speaking, we know that memory is always tied to action. This is the point the Bible makes with God’s forgiveness. The psalmist David rejoices in how God has separated David from his sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, ESV). Of course, the punch of this picture is that there is no place where east and west meet. So, there is no location where God is storing our sins to later go back and dig them up. The sin removal is profound and permanent. And just like a human person who has absolutely forgotten a debt, and who will therefore never be moved to action to collect that debt, so God will never resurrect our sins which have been confessed and blotted out by our liberally gracious God.
Psalm 103:8-13 (ESV)
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.