Forgiving is not Forgetting
One of the reasons that Christians struggle with forgiveness is simply that our conception is often colloquially based. That is to say, Scripture often comes after common phrases. We are faster to quote "forgive and forget" than to apply the words of Paul (Eph 4:32) — forgive as God through Christ forgave. When faced with modeling truly Christian forgiveness, we often settle for something less. Forgiveness is then found dictated by culture and precedence, not thorough Christology.
Returning to Jon Coutt's A Shared Mercy, Barth's doctrine of justification and forgiveness ask us to return Christology to our idea of forgiveness. More specifically, that in practical outworkings forgiving cannot be equated with forgetting. In fact, Barth and Coutt argue that this concept is paramount to denying the effectiveness of forgiveness — a lack of sin requires no forgiveness. Forgetfulness implies that our history is irrelevant to the redemption of God. It almost suggests our time in this temporalness is something God merely wishes to whisk away through the cross. Though not a necessary working out of this thought process, it almost certainly is not considered by those who suggest "forgive and forget" as a Christian ethic.
It is important to see our practice of forgiveness through the active work of Jesus Christ. Only then can we apply the doctrine to our forgiveness of one another:
"The man who receives forgiveness does not cease to be the man whose past (and his present as it derives from his past) bears the stain of his sin. The act of the divine forgiveness is that God sees and knows this stain infinitely better than the man himself, and abhors it infinitely more than he does even in his deepest penitence — yet he does not take it into consideration. He overlooks it, he covers it, he passes it by. He puts it behind him." (48, CD IV/I)
I can imagine that many evangelicals would be immediately distributed by this language. Coutt and Barth are well aware of the language in Jeremiah 31:34. But this is where anthropomorphic language can help us understand that the emphasis should not be placed on the literal. When the prophet Jeremiah says God will "not remember," we must not understand this as if our very history ceases to exist before God — God does not cease to know things.
In fact, this type of thinking would make moot any concept of sanctification — the Holy Spirit reviving our life and redeeming our history through faithful obedience to God against our propensity for sin. God, in justifying and reconciling us, conforms us into the image of His Son by slowly putting to death the sin He has forgiven. Those sins do not cease to be before Him. They simply take on a new perspective. Instead of deserving judgment, we have been justified and those sins are crucified daily through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Put even another way, God covenantally does "not remember" our sins in the very same way He "remembers" Noah or the Hebrews in Egypt. This isn't a true remembering, but the willingness on God's part to work out His covenant with man. When God chooses to "not remember," He no longer remembers-regards us in our sin but regards us as those united with His Son in the New Covenant. It is overcome, but not forgotten. Reconciliation begins in God bridging and conquering sin, not by pretending it never occurred:
"Forgiveness is not dependent upon forgetfulness. In Christ our sins are remembered not, or remembered overcome. Acting as if we never send would be tantamount to acting as if we were not forgiven, which would effectively short-circuit Christ's activity and change what it means to move forward in freedom." (49)
This is incredibly crucial in understanding how forgiveness works itself out. When we forgive one another we are not required to forget the wrongs done. We are called to redeem them. By keeping our focusing on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, we are asked to alter the purpose and value of those memories and that experience for reconciliation. I will address some of these practical outworkings in a later blog post.