God knows everything, even the thoughts in our heads. But He also tells us that He will forgive our sins and remember them no more.
Does this mean that God is forgetful, or that He can choose not to know something?
God’s knowledge is inherent and complete. He cannot erase His knowledge, but He can choose to disregard certain things that He knows. This is what He means when He promises to not remember our sins.
Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?Job 37:16
We describe God as being infinite and self-complete in several ways:
- Eternal: Existing in all time and outside of time, with no beginning and no end
- Omnipotent: All-powerful
- Omnipresent: In all places at once
- Omniscient: All-knowing
It is important to understand that all of these qualities of God are interrelated. If God is not eternal, He cannot be infinite. If God is not everywhere, He cannot exercise all power. If God’s knowledge could be made incomplete, then His power is also incomplete.
All of these qualities together point to God’s perfection. His knowledge is perfect, as we read in Job 37 because He is perfect.
Yet other passages in the Bible seem to suggest that God can forget things or that He can learn new things. If that is the case, how can His knowledge be perfect?
To make sense of these confusing verses, let’s spend some time with the original languages.
Two Key Words
When we speak of knowing information, we are describing the existence of data in our brains. Similarly, when we say we forget something, we imply that the data has somehow been erased from our mental file. This is an oversimplification that a neuroscientist would be quick to refute, but it is sufficient for the current linguistic exercise.
The important point for this exercise is that these words mean something a little different in scripture than they do in our context and language.
Knowing and Knowledge
Old Testament Hebrew uses three different words that in English we translate as ‘know’ or ‘knowledge’:
- Dayah: Inherent knowledge (of facts and information)
- Tawboom: Applied knowledge (understanding)
- Yawdah: To know by perceiving or experiencing
Knowing which of these words appears where gives us a much clearer picture of God’s knowledge.
The perfect knowledge described in Job 37 uses the Hebrew dayah. All of the data and information that exists is known to God and by God.
Just as His dayah is perfect and infinite, so too is God’s tawboom—His applied knowledge:
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.Psalm 147:5
There is no limit to how God can use, apply, or relate the things that He knows. There is no data that is too complicated for Him to comprehend.
Even though God’s inherent knowledge is perfect and self-complete, He still interacts with us according to our time constraints. So sometimes He describes those interactions in experiential terms, as we read in His words to Abraham:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”Genesis 22:12
The Hebrew word here is yawdah—to know by experience. God is not suggesting that prior to this interaction He was lacking a piece of data. He is saying that He has now witnessed—experienced—Abraham’s display of faith.
The New Testament similarly affirms God’s complete and absolute knowledge:
If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.1 John 3:20
Here John speaks of God’s knowledge of the state of our hearts. This is the very knowledge that prompts us to ask if God can choose not to know something. After all, doesn’t God promise that when He forgives us He will remember our sins no more?
He does! And that brings us to our second keyword:
Remember or Remembrance
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.Hebrews 8:12
The writer of Hebrews is quoting Jeremiah 31:34 when he says that God will not remember our sins.
Unlike our study of ‘knowledge,’ we don’t need to identify multiple original language words for ‘remember.’ The Hebrew zawkar and the Greek mnaomai are used consistently throughout the Old and New Testaments, respectively.
But they have a slightly different meaning than we might think.
When we speak of remembering something, we speak of having an awareness of a piece of knowledge. Similarly, when we say we forget (cease to remember) something, we imply that we lose knowledge.
By contrast, when the Biblical languages speak of remembering something, they are speaking of calling it to mind not simply as a piece of data, but as something to consider with gravity and seriousness, worthy of contemplation.
When Paul tells the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” (v 1:3), he is not implying that he routinely forgets who these people are or that they even exist. Rather, Paul is describing how he thinks of them with deliberate contemplation that, in this instance, produces gratitude.
Likewise, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he commanded his disciples—and us—to, “do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19b). Jesus was not inviting us to merely call him to mind, nor was he implying that we might somehow lose our knowledge of his existence.
Jesus is instructing us to meditate on him when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. He is inviting us to recall his actions with deliberate contemplation as we reflect on the implications—not just the facts—of his sacrifice.
Knowing versus Remembering
God cannot deny His perfect and infinite nature by choosing not to know something. But He can—and does—choose not to remember our sin. The factual knowledge of our sin may remain—with God and with us—but the weight and gravity of our sin—the remembrance of it—is gone for good. Because God’s forgiveness, like His knowledge, is also perfect and complete.