Does the Bible teach “Forgive and forget?” Some would say no, because it doesn’t ever literally say the words “forgive and forget.” This, however, is an insufficient reason to claim that something is not taught by the Bible. For example, the word “Trinity” is not anywhere to be found in the New Testament, but all orthodox christians believe it be true, and taught in the Bible. So we must do the hard work of actually digging in and understanding what the scriptures teach regarding forgiveness. From my point of view, the scriptures and the Gospel itself is a message of “forgive and forget.” There are some qualifications though.
First we must define our terms. What does it mean to forgive and to be forgiven?
There are at least two word groups used in the Hebrew for the idea of forgiveness.
The idea of forgiveness in the Old Testament is primarily used in reference to God forgiving man for his sins. It takes on the color of a pardon. The formula in the Mosaic Law is “the priest shall sacrifice the lamb and so he will make atonement for him and his sin, and the Lord will forgive his sins.” A pardon means a man is no longer considered guilty of his crime.
The other word for forgive is a word whose primary usage is to lift, carry, or take away. In this sense we see the idea being that God carries away, or takes away the sin and so separates its guilt from the sinner.
Closely linked to both ideas is that God covers over the sin. Covering a sin means to conceal it, to hide it so it is not seen. This does not mean that God desires us to hide sin and cover it up. No it means he covers it so he sees it no more in relation to the sinner. The Psalm quoted below makes clear that he covers the sin of the one does not cover his own sin before God, but confesses freely to his wrong doings. And so he says,
Psalm 32:1–2 (ESV): Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Another closely related idea is that the Lord no longer remembers our sins.
Jeremiah 31:34 (ESV): “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
But of course the omniscient God of the universe doesn’t have the information drop out of his brain, anthropomorphically speaking. This doesn’t mean he forgets them. It means that he no longer holds them against you in such a way that if possible it can be described as an inability to remember it in relation to you. It means he no longer holds it against you. But of course you knew that when you read it.
Ultimately passage from Jeremiah points to the days of the new covenant, and the fullness of the kingdom of God and so in some ways this was not fulfilled in Jeremiah’s day, and we await the fullness of this promise in our day. But that is a discussion for another day.
It is important to remember that Hebrew poetry has a peculiar structure unlike ours. Often times it says the same thing in the second line but in a different way so as to bring out the fullness of an idea. Given that structure you begin to draw the conclusion form the prophets and psalms that for God to forgive you means that he pardons you, and in so doing covers over your sin (ultimately with the blood of Christ) so that it is no longer seen by him, and he puts it out of his mind in his relationship with you.
But what does it mean through a New Testament lens? Matthew 18 is great starting place so let’s take a look at that in it’s entirety…
Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV): Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
First let’s understand who is who in this Parable. God the Father is the King. We are the servant with a great debt, and our brother who has sinned against us is the servant who is indebted the smaller amount.
Now a couple of things to notice. 1) Sin is compared to a debt. When you sin against a person, you become indebted to them in a way. 2) The size of our own debt is huge. 10,000 talents was about 14 Billion dollars in today’s dollars. This man could not bay it back under any circumstances. 3)However, the king forgives him his debt. Well what does that mean? You know what it means when you read it. It means he no longer owes, and the king has released him from it. It is no longer binding on him, and the king will no longer hold him to account for it. 4) This man even though he was forgiven hugely, decides to hold a fellow servant to account for a measly $10,000. 5) Jesus warns that this attitude toward our fellow servants will be met with the harshest of punishments. In fact what we thought would be forgiven us will not if we do not forgive others. This idea of forgiveness as we have seen matches up pretty well with the Old Testament conception of forgiveness as well. We are command to forgive as our father has forgiven us. He covers it, and no longer reckons it to our account.
So does the Bible teach forgive and forget? Yes it does. It means if you forgive someone you no longer hold it against them. You put it out of your mind in relation to them. This is how we are to respond to others.
Now does that mean if we forgive our abuser, we must allow them to keep abusing us? No. It does not mean we should act imprudently around those who have harmed us, and take action to set healthy boundaries. But that does not mean we get to bring it up anytime we have a disagreement with someone that is not related to that sin. If they persist in the sin against us we can bring up their assurances they would stop, and how they said what they were doing was wrong.
In fact, the verses that were just before these in Matthew 18 deal with the brother who continues to sin against us explicitly. If your brother is sinning against you talk to them. If they persist you bring another person and confront them again. If they still persist you bring it before the whole church. This is what lead to Peter’s question. “Hey, Jesus, isn’t there a 7 strikes and you’re out rule?” Jesus says no!
However there is one vital component in all this, and it is the repentance of the one who did the wrong. It is present in Matthew 18, and it is present in Psalm 3. The psalmist uncovers (confesses)his sin before God and then God covers over the sin, and counts it against him no more. In Jeremiah the New Covenant is being spoken of here, when he people of God would repent and return to God. It is then he would no longer remember their sin. It is not so for those who persist in their sin, and do not repent.
And in Matthew, if the brother does not repent we are to no longer have fellowship with him, and treat him as one outside of the covenant.
On top of all this we see even when God forgives, often times he still allows there to be earthly consequences. And so the Bible does not teach us that we must not require justice be done when we forgive ,or not call sin sin. We can forgive a Rapist, no longer seek vengeance, but allow the law to put him in jail for a very long time with the help of our testimony.
Also, It does not mean we don’t act with prudence knowing that often times people will feign repentance. If we know someone is a thief it doesn’t mean that when we forgive him, that we then hand him our wallet for safe keeping.
However, it does mean we no longer hold it against him. Remember, forget does not mean to trust. Forget means to not hold it against them in our continued relationship with them.