Does God Forget Our Sins?
“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)
I received a question about this the other day and thought I might share my best shot at an answer on the chance it would help others as well. Does God actually forget our sins? When we come to Christ, does he put them out of his memory and, from that point on, truly and actually believe that we have never sinned? This idea is a comfort to many, and the verse from Hebrews above is not the only place we find it. We also see this same phrase in places like Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, and Hebrews 10:17.
However, I believe it is a mistake to interpret these verses to mean God genuinely forgets our sins. Here's why:
There are many passages in the Bible that teach that we will give an account for our sins at the judgment on the last day. For example:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor. 5:10, ESV)
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak (Matt. 12:36, ESV)
These passages are not aimed at unbelievers only, but to all people. Every one of us must stand before Christ and give an account for our sins.
How God “Remembers”
We also see in Scripture that the word remember, when applied to God, does not mean what we typically mean when we apply the word to ourselves or other human beings. Take the following passages for example:
Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! (Psalm 25:6-7, ESV)
Notice how David asks God to remember his own mercy and steadfast love. It is not as though God forgot about them! God does not need us to remind him about anything. That is not what David is saying. Rather, he is asking God to act according tohis own character that he has revealed to us. Later, in that same passage, David asks God to “remember me.” Again, it is not as though God forgot all about David. Rather, David is asking God to act in his defense, and for his protection.
Here’s another one. In Moses’s prayer on Mount Sinai, when he is interceding with God for the people of Israel after they have made and worshipped a golden calf, Moses says this:
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ (Exodus 32:13, ESV)
Did God forget about Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and his promise to them? Of course not. That is not what Moses is requesting. Rather, he is asking God to act according to his promises.
Not Counted Against Us
So, we see that the word remember, when applied to God, means God will act according to his own word or character. In the same way, when God remembers not our sin, it means he acts not according to our sin. He does not treat us as our sins deserve.
Two passages that are very helpful in this regard are Psalm 79:8 and Psalm 103:10-12.
Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. (Psalm 79:8, ESV)
This passage is really the key for me. God does not forget our sins. Rather, for those who have been washed by the blood of Christ, he does not remember them against us, which is another way of saying he will not count them against us. He will not treat us as our sins deserve. As David says in Psalm 103:
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:10-12, ESV)