Daniel in London asks, “In Hebrews 8:12 it says, “[God] will remember [our] sins no more.” However, in Matthew 12:36 it says, “People will give account for every careless word they speak.” If God remembers our sins no more, why do we have to give an account? Pastor John, how do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses?”
That is a good question, and let’s start with the fact that there will be a judgment of believers. Let’s be careful, though. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). And that now is very precious, right? “There is therefore now no condemnation,” which means, as Jesus says, you will not come into judgment. That is, you will not have to be condemned, ever.
Your sentence is over. Not guilty. Righteous before the living God. The reason, of course, is because we have been united to Christ. His punishment became our punishment, and his resurrection became our resurrection. We are already sitting at the right hand of God, and we have passed from death to life. Therefore, in that sense we don’t come into judgment. There is no condemnation.
Judgment According to Works
Nevertheless, clearly we are going to come into a judgment according to our works. Revelation 20:12 says there are books being written, and there is a book, the book of life, in which if your name exists you have life forevermore, and the books are where your works are written. Those books, I believe, will reveal the evidence that your name does belong in the book of life.
But the book of life is the book of the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, and therefore, the ground for being in the book of life is not that you have earned it or that your works merit it, but that the one who was slain is your Savior.
So what then is this judgment according to works? Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 3:14–15. He says, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” So we lose rewards and we gain rewards according to whether we have built with wood, hay, and stubble, or gold, silver, and precious stone.
Now if that is true — if there is a rewarding and a loss of rewarding according to what we do — what in the world does it mean in the several texts where it says God doesn’t remember our sins? It seems like, Well, I have obviously sinned here, and those sins are going to be burned up at that moment, and I am going to lose reward for them. So they were remembered at that time because they couldn’t have any function to do that if they weren’t remembered.
God Does Not Call Our Sin to Mind
Here is what I think it means. God’s not remembering, I think, means God will never call our sins to mind — I am replacing call to mind with remember — as a ground for our condemnation. He will not call them to mind in any way that is destructive for us.
In fact, I would go so far as to say it will always be only good for us, all things considered, if he calls them to mind this way. Even the suffering of loss at the judgment, according to 1 Corinthians 3:14, will be good all things considered.
Both Remember and Forget
So here is an analogy that helps me. What about us forgetting our sins? Should we forget our sins or remember our sins? In Philippians 3:13–14 Paul says, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on.”
So Paul says, “I forget. I am not paralyzed by the horrible memories of the fact that I was killing Christians. I was throwing them in prison. I was shaking my fist in the face of God. I am forgetting all of that, and I am pressing on.”
However, he wrote in Ephesians 2:11–12, “Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Well, Paul, which is it? Are we supposed to remember what it was like for us before we were saved — how horrible that was and what horrible things we did? Or are we supposed to forget those things which lie behind?
I think what Paul would say is we forget them and we remember them according to what is good for us. When he says remember them, he says, “Remember them for your humbling, not for your paralysis. Remember them for your deeper enjoyment of grace, not because of your destruction.”
God Only Remembers for Our Good
And I think probably it is the same with God. God remembers and doesn’t remember. That is, he calls to mind and applies, or he doesn't call to mind, according to what is good for us and what is good for his glory.
So God is God. He is omniscient. He knows everything past, present, and future. But the not remembering is a not calling to mind for our destruction and a not calling to mind for anything except what would work good for us.