Theologians describe God as omniscient, meaning “all-knowing.” But the biblical authors occasionally state that God remembers someone or that he will not remember our sins (Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). Does this mean God can make himself forget something?
Scripture sometimes depicts God as remembering someone, such as Noah (Genesis 8:1), Rachel (Genesis 30:22), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19). Here we must be careful to understand the term as the Hebrew writers intended, not as 21stcentury Westerners do. It does not mean to remember factual information that he has forgotten, but rather to consider someone and then move to take action on that person’s behalf. In each case, God “remembers” a person, then fulfills something he has promised to them. The act of remembering is not purely a recall of information but is more like consideration combined with action.
We can say the same for other biblical figures who ask God to remember them, such as Samson (Judges 16:28) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:3), both of whom want God to do more than recognize them. They want him to act on their behalf in some way. Samson wanted to regain his strength so that he could avenge himself, while Hezekiah desired God’s mercy.
Human beings are commanded to remember things in such a way as that action is necessary. Remembering is connected with keeping the Mosaic Law (Numbers 15:40) and observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy (Exodus 20:8). Remembering is also connected to repentance (Psalms 22:27). Elsewhere, failing to remember is synonymous with breaking a treaty (Amos 1:9).
Countless ministers have preached sermons consoling believers with the idea that God does indeed forget their sins. I find this idea profoundly disturbing. The very message is self-centered because it diminishes God at the expense of our comfort. If God were to forget the sins of the redeemed, wouldn’t billions of little gaps in his memory ever bother him? Wouldn’t he spend all of eternity wondering what it was that Jesus was doing on the cross? What could stop him from suddenly remembering them again?
When the biblical writers state God remembers something, it means much more than simple recall of information. Likewise, when they say God does not remember sins, it is equivalent to saying he has forgiven them. Hebrews 8:12 is the most obvious here. It says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (cf. Isaiah 43:25) These lines are written in parallel, where the second line is simply a restating of the first thought. We have to recognize the difference between “not remembering” (as the biblical authors phrase it) and “forgetting,” which is a different concept.
Can God forget our sins? Not at all. But he can and does refuse to act upon them when we repent. He chooses to overlook and forgive them based on the righteousness we have through faith in Christ’s work on the cross. A merciful God is much more comforting than a forgetful one.