Our loving God offers to forgive our sins. He wants us to learn to forgive. But does He actually totally forget our sins? Does He expect us to forgive and forget?
Forgive and forget is a common phrase in English, which some date back to the 1300s. Many also believe it is biblical. Some believe God forgives and forgets, and that we should too.
But does God forget our sins? If so, why did someone like David, who repented and was forgiven, still have to face the consequences of his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:13-14)?
It is common to believe that once God forgives our sins He also completely forgets them. Our sins are often quite embarrassing and troubling to us, and since we want to forget them, we want God to forget them too. But is that exactly what the Bible says happens?
The implications of forgive and forget
There are actually two parts to this question:
1. Once we have repented, does God purge His memory of any and all sins so that forgiven transgressions do not exist in His mind and cannot ever be recalled?
2. God is our example in everything, including forgiveness. So, if true forgiveness required us to purge a memory from our minds, would it then mean we have not truly forgiven if we still recalled an offense or sin against us?
Jesus Christ stated, “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:26). Therefore this question is an important one for us to answer and have correct.
Does the Bible say God will forgive and forget?
One of the greatest truths of the Bible is that God loved us so much He gave His only begotten Son for us (John 3:16). Jesus Christ sacrificed His life to pay for our sins in order to forgive us when we repent. God is a merciful God, and He will remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12; read more about God’s forgiveness in our article “What Is Forgiveness?”).
God clearly forgives. But many have asked if He really does completely forget. There are several passages that seem to indicate that God does indeed remove all knowledge of repented sins from His mind:
- Psalm 25:7: “Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O LORD.”
- Jeremiah 31:34: “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
- Ezekiel 18:22: “None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.”
- Hebrews 8:12 (which is a quote of Jeremiah 31:34 and is repeated in Hebrews 10:17): “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
However, consider that the Bible nowhere says God will forget our sins, only that He will not remember them. This distinction becomes clear when we understand what the Hebrew words for “remember” and “forget” really mean.
Meaning of remember in the Bible
In English, the word remember generally focuses on the idea of recalling memories or bringing past matters to mind. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “to bring to mind or think of again.”
In English, to forget is the exact opposite—to fail to be able to bring a memory to mind or, as Merriam-Webster’s says, “to lose the remembrance of: be unable to think of or recall.” It is entirely a mental exercise, whether or not information is present.
In Hebrew, it is not that way.
The primary word for “remember” in Hebrew is zakar, but the meaning is much broader than the common definition in English. It includes both bringing a thought to mind and the actions that are taken as a result of remembering. It can often imply that a person did a favor for someone or honored a promise or covenant. For example, note the following two verses where zakar is used:
- “Then God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1).
- “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22).
Obviously, God did not forget about either Noah or Rachel, but He “remembered” in that He took action and intervened in their lives.
Meaning of forget in the Bible
There are two primary words for “forget” in Hebrew: shakach and nashah. But they are not exact opposites of zakar. To forget in Hebrew also means to ignore, neglect, forsake or act in willful disregard of a person or promise. Israel was warned often not to forget God, as in Deuteronomy 4:23:
“Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you.”
To forget the covenant was more than just erasing the memory of it, but included the actions of forsaking and disregarding it.
So when God said He would “utterly forget you and forsake you, and the city that I gave you and your fathers, and will cast you out of My presence” (Jeremiah 23:39), He was saying that He would no longer honor the covenant with them because they had broken it. God would cease to intervene on their behalf—not erase knowledge of them from His memory.
God chooses not to remember
Choosing not to remember means God will not take action against us because of sins we have repented of. He deliberately chooses not to exact due punishment for our sins, but treats us with grace and forgiveness.If we understand the language in which the Bible was written (the Greek wording of the New Testament carries a similar distinction in meanings), we can see that when God chooses never to remember our sins again, it means He has chosen to purge them from our record, or treat us as if the sins never existed.
Since remembering implies actions (in this case vengeance and punishment), then choosing not to remember means God will not take action against us because of sins we have repented of. He deliberately chooses not to exact due punishment for our sins, but treats us with grace and forgiveness.
If God does indeed remove all knowledge of our sins from His mind, then how did He inspire the Bible to be written, including the sins of David, Abraham, Joseph, Peter, Paul, etc., long after the men had sinned, repented and in some cases died?
And what about David’s punishment? Why did God still allow the death of David’s son after He had forgiven David’s sin? Because we find that punishment is a powerful learning tool, and God never promises to remove from us the natural consequences of our sins. David needed to learn the lesson so powerfully he would never repeat it. And those who saw David’s actions also needed to learn. Frankly, we still need to learn that lesson today!
Can we forgive and forget?
To sum this all up, how are we expected to apply these principles? Human beings do not have the ability to completely erase many of our experiences from our memories. Small offenses and slights will generally disappear from our memories with time, but large and serious offenses generally will not.
For a human being to forgive as God forgives means that we choose to lay aside our grievances and the “debt” we may feel we are owed due to wrongs that were committed against us. Read “When Forgiveness Isn’t Easy.”
The big difference is that God can do this perfectly, while we, as humans, may need to do this over and over again as the memory and pain return to our minds (the principle of forgiving 70 times seven in Matthew 18:22). Perhaps in the Kingdom we will be able to do this perfectly as God does.
In the meantime, it takes much more love to be hurt and choose to set aside grievances multiple times than it would to erase an incident from our memories (if that were possible). And interestingly, the more we love one another, the easier it becomes to lay aside grievances and truly forgive as God forgives us.
Learn more about forgiveness in the other related articles in this section.