This is a five part series, authored by Brandon. Please read Part 1.
We are interested in what the Bible says to us today. Our theology is informed by our hermeneutics, and our hermeneutics must be informed by our exegesis. To state it another way, “the Bible cannot mean to us what it did not mean to the original audience.” As a foundational principle, each passage of Scripture can only have one meaning. The intended message to the original audience must be that one meaning. If we take a passage to mean something different to us than what it meant to the original audience, then we have created a second meaning for that passage, which is a violation of the hermeneutic principle. With that in mind, we need to determine what “separating sin as far as the east is from the west” meant to the author (David) and his audience (Israel), and what it therefore should mean to us (extrapolation). We ought to consider what Israel thought of the Sea of Forgetfulness, or if that term has any place in church history. For now let us return to Psalm 103.
It is generally accepted that David wrote Psalm 103 sometime after his sin with Bathsheba and Nathan’s resulting confrontation. Keep in mind that the phrase used in verse 12 “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” is often used in conjunction with Micah 7:19. It seems to be used today with the connotation that it has to do with God forgetting our sins as far as the east is from the west, as opposed to Him removing them as far as the east is from the west. There is a real problem with the logical leap that “forgiven = forgotten.” Perhaps we should consider Nathan’s confronting of David in 2 Samuel 12:11-14:
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” 13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” 2 Samuel 12:11-14
There is really no theological debate among Christians on the following point: God’s forgiveness occurs the moment we sincerely ask him. So the previous passage begs the question: if “forgiven = forgotten,” how can God punish David in verse 14 for what He just forgave him of in verse 13? Yet David wrote later in Psalm 103:12 that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” The same man who wrote that seemed to understand that sin being removed from our account is not the same thing as sin having never happened. A noteworthy connection might be made between the 2 Samuel 12 passage and Psalm 103:10, in that David was aware that the penalty for adultery under the law was death, yet God “does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities.” Certainly David recognized that God was merciful to him by not extending the full penalty of his sin to him. However, we must recognize that David could not have meant “God lets us off scot free when He forgives us” because he spent the rest of his life going through God’s judgment for that sin. Furthermore, Scott’s comment “How many sins are you holding on to, that you say happened, that God said never happened because it’s forgotten?” contradicts the glaring point that God vividly reminded David of his sin when Absalom fulfilled verses 11 and 12 and slept with David’s wives in public.
Based on the very words of God in 2 Samuel 12:11 (I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you), He is the one who caused Absalom to sleep with David’s wives. How could He have done that if He had forgotten? Lastly, we may conjecture: did God intend to bring this consequence about in such a manner that David did not know why he was being punished? Or does it make more sense that David knew exactly what was going on, and this fulfillment of God’s prophecy poignantly reminded him of his sin because it was supposed to. This is critical information to keep in mind when we consider what Psalm 103 meant to David when he wrote it.
To cast as far as the east is from the west does not mean it never happened. It means that it did happen, and God separated us from the divine penalty of our sins through the cross. In no way should it be construed that forgiveness separates us from earthly penalties. Through our exegesis, there is no indication that David thought that God forgot about his sin in the sense that we think of someone completely forgetting something. David was aware that God was bringing consequences on him throughout his life, which serves as an indication that David did not think that God completely forgot his sin. David could never claim that in God’s eyes his sin never happened. That would simply be taking God’s forgiveness too far. Rather, the divine, ultimate penalty of David’s sin would never be laid to his account. That David praises God for not laying his sin to his account in Psalm 32:2 (Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity), demonstrates that he recognized that “imputation” vis a vis “justification” is more related to canceling David’s heavenly debt than that “God has completely forgotten that such sin ever occurred.” In a manner of speaking, David’s debt in heaven was satisfied by God’s forgiveness but his debt on earth (consequences) was not.
Therefore, the Old Testament concept of God removing our sins and remembering them no more seems to be from a position of finality, such that God will not remember them at the final judgment. Also, while it might be “as though it never happened” in relation to our position before God, that does not negate our position before men or government. That God condones earthly consequences precludes the possibility that He “forgets” our sins. If He truly forgot, He couldn’t possibly send consequences or chastisement, which would violate Galatians 5:7-8 “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Now would be a good time to mention that the term “sea of forgetfulness” is not mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps even more shocking, it doesn’t even occur in Christian history: you cannot find any early Jewish scholar, middle-ages writer, or post-reformation leader ever using the term, from the earliest church father clear through John Wesley. It seems to be entirely a phrase coined during the Charismatic renewal of the 60’s and 70’s. As such, it is imperative to recognize that we have turned this “sea” into something that didn’t occur to the first 2,000 years of Christian writers. There is no physical or spiritual “sea” that has the qualities of being able to cause God to completely forget that the sin ever occurred in the first place, or that His omniscience is incapable of piercing through to cause Him to remember. The passage of Scripture that we seem to have taken this notion from is Micah 7:18-19:
“Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
As fundamentalist Christians we strive to take the Bible literally wherever we can; however, in our attempts to do so we are susceptible to missing the figurative language God chooses to employ through His authors. An example would be Jesus telling His disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. We understand He was not being literal: His point is that we ought to forgive as often as we are sinned against. Since there is no indication of an actual sea—physical or spiritual—existing where God casts sin into, it makes a lot more sense to look for the ultimate point of the figurative language. As such, we interpret Micah 7:19 as God separating the divine penalty of sin from our account while maintaining His omniscience. As a group who believes that salvation can be lost, this resolves the difficulty that the sea-of-forgetfulness argument faces when one considers the case of a man who lost his salvation and at the judgment must give an account for all his sins—even the ones that God purportedly forgot. The only alternative is to create this never-spoken-of-trait of God that He has a fishing pole for backsliders that allows Him to double back on His promises and reel into memory something that was supposedly blotted out, cast into oblivion, and forgotten forever. Furthermore, it must be noted that the logic that assumes that God truly forgets our sin when He forgives us, yet He is capable of “re-remembering” if we backslide, reduces to the ad absurdum conclusion that God could remember something He has truly, completely forgotten. Such a position creates a circus out of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, as though they are somehow trumping each other instead of operating in harmony. If God could forget, it would be for good. If He could remember something that He forgot, then by definition He didn’t really forget it. This demonstrates the subtle but important difference between God forgiving us as though we had never sinned, which requires imputation, as opposed to the notion that God’s forgiveness causes the sin to have never occurred in the first place.
For the sake of completeness, the only alternative explanation that could be offered would be that God knows who will be saved and who will backslide, and He doesn’t throw the eventual backsliders’ sins into the supposed sea of forgetfulness. This ultimately reduces to Calvinism, and creates a partial-forgiving God that will hold out on you today if He knows you will reject Him tomorrow. Such is not the God we serve: His promises are to all who believe and are in full effect for as long as we believe. If one is a child of God, they are a child of God. As such, they enjoy full rank and privilege as all other children of God. This is what makes backsliding so severe, such that one would “having tasted the heavenly gift, and become the partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come…” (Heb.6:4-5a) then choose to reject God’s full forgiveness. Based on the passage just mentioned, such a partial-forgiving, halfway-house God does not exist.
Notice that God’s casting our sins into the depths of the sea would correlate very strongly to removing our sin as far as the east is from the west. However, removing our guilt is not the same thing as removing our consequences. The very fact that God does not forget our sins is what makes His forgiveness that much more powerful. Our sins haven’t slipped God’s mind: He knows where they are. He chooses to relate to us not as though they didn’t originally occur, but as though they did occur and have been placed on another’s account. As such, He promises that He will not recount (remember) our sins as relates to our eternal standing. God’s mercy is not His ability to forget that which He has forgiven but rather His ability to forgive that which He cannot forget.
As we are about to see, the nature of God to not forget drives the salvation story forward. Since He cannot truly forget our sins, His just nature demands that a penalty must be paid. Salvation is the exchange of Christ’s righteousness being added to our account and our sins being added to Christ’s account, satisfying God’s omniscience, justice, and mercy.