God forgives and forgets. He forgives our wickedness, and He remembers our sins no more. That’s that marvel and the mystery. The Judge of all, the One who could condemn us, and who could destroy body and soul in hell, forgives. And the omniscient One who knows all things, chooses in mercy to remember our sins no more. That’s called “grace” – undeserved kindness on the part of God.
We are reluctant to forgive, and even less inclined to forget. We hold grudges. We keep book on one another. We remember the hurt feeling, the wayward word that jabbed us the wrong way, the injustice done to us. We dwell on it, nurture it, walk it around like the dog. Past offenses turn into present accusations. “You always did this; you never did this.” Our idea of justice is quid pro quo – this for that. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. That makes sense. Strike me on the cheek, and I’ll bop you on the nose. Forget? We may have trouble remembering birthdays and anniversaries, but we have no trouble remembering wrongs done to us in the past.
Forgive? That’s not our way either. To forgive is to let something go, to leave something be, to go on as though it hadn’t happened. Like the farmer in the parable whose enemy sowed weeds among his wheat and he says, “Forgive it. Let it alone. Let it go.” Do nothing. Like the father with two sons who welcomes his prodigal son home with an embrace and a robe and a ring without so much as a syllable of confession much less a deal. Act as though it had never happened. Like the prophet Hosea, who seeks out his adulterous bride and courts her and wants to take her back. Like Yahweh with His Israel, loving the unlovable, embracing the unembraceable, forgiving and forgetting, making a new covenant with a people who broke the old one.
We try to have it both ways: “I’ll forgive, but I can’t forget.” Meaning, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Just in case I need call it up later on. Or in case I need to call in a marker or two. Put it up on a shelf, like a fine wine. Let it age for a while. Forgive, but never forget what was forgiven. But forgiveness without forgetting is not forgiveness at all. They run parallel. To forgive is to forget. Not forget as in a case of amnesia, but as in refusing to call to mind. Instead of filing it away, running it through the shredder so the pieces can’t be put back together again, even if we wanted.
Image what our lives would be like if we forgave and forgot. If children would forgive and forget what their parents have done to them. If parents would forgive and forget what their children have done to them. Therapists would be begging for work. Imagine husbands and wives forgiving and forgetting. The divorce courts would be hurting for business. Imagine communities and congregations, where, instead of dwelling on each other’s sins and shortcomings, we forgave them, and instead of obsessing on them at every moment, we set them aside in our own minds and refused to recall them.
But forgiving and forgetting is not our way, is it? We may as well admit it. It comes as naturally to us as breathing water or flapping our arms to fly. It’s not in our sinful nature to forgive and forget. Why? Because we want to be gods damning those who do bad things to us. Because we in our self-centered world won’t tolerate these assaults on our being. We’re not going to put up with anything, are we? We see those who forgive and forget as stupid and weak. The notion of forgive and forget seems to us something so foreign, it may as well be from another planet or something so “divine” it can’t possibly be human. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” we say, thinking we’re off the hook. But remember, Jesus is fully human. He did not err, and He forgave.
We refashion God in our own unforgiving, unforgetting image. This is how a respectable God is supposed to be. God the Judge, sitting high on His throne, with the scales of justice dangling in His hand, balancing sin against good works. We cook up religions that bargain with God, as though God could be bribed by our prayers, our works of charity, our religious disciplines, our fasting or Bible study or pilgrimages, or whatever else we come up with. We imagine God to be the great Accountant in the Sky, a sharp-penciled bookkeeper peering over the record of our lives, running the totals, checking our debits and credits on some heavenly spreadsheet. We even come up with a treasury of merit from the saints that can be credited to those who are lacking righteousness. All for a price.
At the heart of every human religion is the notion that God does not forgive nor does He forget. He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, and He already knows whose naughty and nice. That’s the kind of religion that appeals to our sense of fairness and reason. We expect God to punish those who do evil, especially when it’s the other guy and not ourselves. We expect God to demand obedience from those who claim His name. We expect God to reward those who do good and walk the walk. But forgive? Why would God want to do that? And forget? Come on, get serious. This is God we’re talking about here – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, sovereign to the nth degree deity. Any god who “forgets” just isn’t a respectable god in our religious way of thinking.
The Ten commandments as religion make a lot of sense. That’s why all sorts of religious people can rally around them. Morality is a no-brainer; forgiveness is the dividing line. We expect God to want an exclusive relationship with us, no other gods in His face. We expect that God would want us to worship Him, honor His name and His word. We expect that God is pleased when we honor and obey parents and other authorities, when we don’t kill or harm one another, when we keep our zippers and our lips zipped, and don’t steal stuff and are content with the stuff we have. That all makes great sense. That’s why the ten commandments are so popular.
But if you learn anything from Hebrew half of the Bible, learn this: Commandments don’t work because we can’t keep the commandments. God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt through the blood and the water. God made Israel into a nation and established them under Moses with a covenant. And what did they do? They messed it all up. They broke the covenant. A covenant based on commandment keeping simply won’t work with a bunch of natural born sinners.
It’s takes a new covenant. One in which the Word of God is implanted in the heart – not just on stone. And not just rules to live by, but Gospel good news that God forgives your wickedness and forgets your sins. A new way of knowing the Lord, not simply God on the mountain but God in the flesh. God incarnate. The Word made Flesh dwelling among us.
Covenants call fior blood. The old covenant called for the blood of bulls, goats, and sheep, which, on its own, accomplished nothing. But the new covenant is sealed by the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, a blood poured out for you on the cross, and poured into a chalice for you to drink. “This is the new covenant in my blood.” Do this “for my remembrance,” says Jesus. Eat His Body, drink His blood, so that we will remember Him and He will remember us, and remember our sin no more. Forgive and forget.
Today is Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day, properly speaking, is October 31st, the All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before All Saints Day. Martin Luther wasn’t out trick or treating that day when he nailed 95 points of debate to the church door in Wittenberg. He was nailing an indictment against religion that had made the new covenant of the blood of Jesus into a transactional system of works and deal cutting with God, leaving people uncertain of their forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Reformation is not about how the Lutherans are right and the Catholics are wrong. It’s about how easy it is for any of us to slip into this way of bargaining and deal cutting, the way of religion. Even the brightest bulbs on the theological marquee can slip, forgetting that God is the God who forgives and forgets for Jesus’ sake.
Reformation Day is not a day for comfortable complacency or “denomination dissing.” We may no more say, “We have Luther as our father,” than the Jews at the time of Jesus could say, “We have Abraham as our father” or Roman Catholics can say, “We have the pope as our father.” It all means nothing apart from faith in the promise. Jesus is clear, “When you abide in my Word, you will know the truth, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will free you.”
Forgiveness is freedom from the past. Without forgiveness, we have no hope for the future, no freedom in the present. We are bound by chains to a past that hangs like a giant millstone around our necks that will drag us down to our death. The mercy, the undeserved kindness, the grace of God in Jesus is this: Jesus is our righteousness. His blood answers for our sin as an atoning sacrifice. His Word applies that Blood to each of us, baptizing us, forgiving us, feeding us, telling us in so many ways this one needful thing: You are justified, not by what you do, but by faith in the blood of Jesus and what He has done, and on His account you are free.
To abide in Baptism, to abide in the Word of forgiveness, to abide in the Body and the Blood is to be a disciple of Jesus, one who learns from Him the way of death and life, and who follows Him through death to life. Because of His perfect life and His cross, God forgives your wickedness and He remembers your sin no more. You are freed from your past to serve in the present with a sure hope of a bright future in Christ Jesus that is already yours by grace alone, through faith alone, for Jesus’ sake alone, and this from the Scriptures alone.
God forgives and He forgets, all for Jesus’ sake. And because of that, you are free and remembered by God.
In the Name of Jesus,