Download or listen to Lenten Midweek VI: “Forgive and Forget?” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Maybe you’ve heard someone say it, or maybe you’ve said it yourself: “I can forgive him, I can forgive her, but I can’t forget.” We hear through the mouth of Jeremiah the prophet how God remembers the sins of His people no more, and we assume that means that He forgets, in some sense. I can even think of two songs by Christians bands that talk about God forgiving and forgetting; one of them is even called “Selective Amnesia.” The thing is, the Scriptures never say that God forgets, your sins or anything else. What they say is that God does not remember them—and there’s a world of difference between the two. We can see this both by what God remembers, and by what He does not remember. Jeremiah 31 gives us a hint about where to start: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…” “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25).
That clearly does not mean that God had forgotten about His people in Egypt. He wasn’t going around saying, “Now where did I put those Israelites?” No: when God remembers, that means that He’s about to act. When God remembers Israel in slavery, when He remembers His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He’s about to act to bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Land of Promise.
Likewise for Noah: “But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1). Likewise for Rachel: “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). When God remembers, He acts. When God remembers sins, He is about to act against the people for their sins, as He does at the time of Jeremiah, 600 years before Jesus: “’They have loved to wander thus; they have not restrained their feet; therefore Yahweh does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins” (Jeremiah 14:10). Hosea says the same thing a hundred years earlier: “Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt” (Hosea 8:13; cf. 9:9).
But when God does not remember sin, it means that He is not going to act against people. The psalmist prays: “Remember your mercy, O Yahweh, 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 Yahweh!” (Psalm 25:6-7). “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). When God does not remember sins, He does not act against people. How does God say through Jeremiah that the people will know God? Why will they not need anyone to teach them about Him? Because He will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. Because He has made a new covenant in the blood of His Son. He has put His Instruction among His people; the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. The Reign of God is among you, Jesus says. This cup is My blood of the covenant, Jesus says. I write My Name upon your forehead and upon your heart, and this God has made you His people. Because “Yahweh has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98:2-3). There He is, hanging on a cross, for all the world to see. Look, He says, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). I do not hold your sins against you, because I held them against My own Son. He willingly entered your flesh, so that sin could be acted against in His flesh. Acted against once and for all. So that He will never act against you who are in Christ, never do to you what your sin requires, never remember your sins for punishment. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, for the sake of My Son’s own blood and death and resurrection. He has remembered His steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel, and to the ends of the earth.
You may never be able physically to forget someone’s sin against you; thank God, then, that Jesus took that sin to the cross, as well. His death does not make that person’s sin okay; it only makes it dead. If you cannot forget, forgive. Do not remember that person’s sin against him; do not act against her in vengeance or wrath. For Christ’s sake, your God will not remember your sin against you, nor act against you in wrath. Hear His Word to sinners—to you—; hear how He holds Christ’s Body and Blood against you, instead of your sin; hear it as many times as it takes, and then give His Word and His promise to the sinners around you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/27/12