What if you could remove your mistakes from someone’s memory? That harshly spoken word, that shame-soaked failure, that painfully uncovered lie—forgotten in an instant. I have ached for the chance to take back damage done. Perhaps you know those pangs as well.
We may not be able to erase our mistakes from another person’s memory, but I was under the impression as a child that I had the power to wipe sins from God’s mind with one simple phrase: “Forgive me.” If I asked him for forgiveness, he would forget I did anything wrong. This seems to be the implication of verses like Isaiah 43:25: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Or Hebrews 8:12: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
As I grew and learned about God’s omniscience, though, I had questions about the validity of this idea. We read in 1 John 3:20 that God knows everything, even the depths of our sinful hearts. Hebrews 4:13 says we are all naked and exposed before God. How could a God who knows everything be unaware of my past sin? Even if God forgot, I certainly didn’t. Could I possess knowledge that he doesn’t have?
Perhaps the underlying question is “What is God like?” Is forgetfulness consistent with his character? His Word reveals that he is unchanging. So, he does not gain or lose knowledge, and his understanding is always perfect. God is also just, and so he must punish sin.
If these things are true, how could God know about our sin one moment and forget it the next? How could a just God turn a blind eye to wickedness? Although verses about God not remembering our sin may seem to stand in opposition to his omniscience and justice, all of his Word is true and he never contradicts himself. So what’s going on here?
The Bible often speaks of God remembering or not remembering, but not in the same way we talk about remembering to get the mail or forgetting a doctor’s appointment. When God remembers, he responds. The Hebrew word zakar does not imply that God forgot and then suddenly remembered, but that he called something to mind. To remember in this sense is to act in accordance with something.
When God remembers people, plans, and promises, he works in a way that aligns with his faithfulness. He remembered Noah when he acted in accordance with the promise to protect his family (Gen. 8:1). He remembered Rachel in her barrenness and gave her a child according to his covenant to make Abraham’s family a great nation (Gen. 30:22). God’s people frequently call him to remember them according to his steadfast love.
Likewise, God ceasing to remember our sin is not voluntary amnesia. But, in his mercy, he does not act against us according to our sin. When the Lord forgives, he does not call our sins to mind to punish or berate us. He does not shake his head in disappointment as he whispers, “Shame on you.”
Instead, God removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). “I will remember their sins no more” doesn’t mean our sin slips his mind, but that he doesn’t hold it against us (Heb. 8:12). He treats us as if we never sinned.
God ceasing to remember doesn’t mean our sin slips his mind, but that he doesn’t hold it against us. He treats us as if we never sinned.
Both Just and Merciful
And so God’s omniscience remains intact. He knows, but he doesn’t call to mind. He sees, but he doesn’t chide. He abounds in love and compassion for his wayward children.
But what of his holiness? Does the Lord abandon justice for the sake of mercy? Does he overlook wickedness and let it go unavenged? No, not at all. Listen to how God describes himself in Exodus 34:6–7:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.
He forgives, but he doesn’t clear the guilty. He doesn’t treat us according to our sins, but sins must be punished. How can this be? We find the answer in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God who became man. He lived a life completely free from sin, yet took on himself the wrath of God that we deserved. He died for sins and was raised to life in victory over death. When we trust in him to save us from judgment, he becomes our representative. He no longer remembers us according to our sin, but according to Christ’s perfection. His righteousness becomes our own.
God no longer remembers us according to our sin, but according to Christ’s perfection.
God certainly punishes all sin, but if we are in Christ, that wrath falls on him. The cross strikingly displays, in harmony, aspects of the divine character that might otherwise appear irreconcilable. What relentless justice and bountiful mercy! How astonishing his wrath and how unimaginable his love!
We do not serve a God whose memory is erased at the sound of human confession. Instead, we serve a God who sees the sin that hides in the darkened corners of our hearts as bright as midday—yet who chooses to offer us mercy in Christ. We serve a Savior who knows us fully and still loves us deeply, even to the point of death.
We have a far greater hope than a God who forgets. Our hope is a God who forgives.