Christian Living

What is it you remember?

It’s amazing how selective our memories can be.

Just the other night, my wife and I realised that the conversation we thought we’d had a few weeks ago was remembered completely differently by each of us.

Actually, we all know that our memories each have certain blind spots. Ask me to drive somewhere I visited a few weeks ago, and I might be able to do it even without a map. But ask me what I was wearing, or even the names of the streets I drove on? No chance.

Those are fairly trivial things though. How about when it comes to something more serious? How about when it comes to forgetting or remembering our sin? Do we have a selective memory for sin – and is that a good thing or a bad thing?

There are two ways a selective memory for sin could play out. Let me describe them.

1) Remembering forgiveness, forgetting sin

Wonderfully, the cross at Calvary was not nearly so final as Jesus’ persecutors intended. God was in fact reconciling to himself all things (Col 1:20). And what’s more, God has reconciled to himself all those who have received Christ, when he “made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses” (Col 2:13). How good is that life, and how comprehensive is that forgiveness!

Since we are so thoroughly forgiven, is there any point in calling to mind the sin we have been liberated from? After all, has not God himself promised to remember our sin no more (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12; 10:17)?

Well that’s true… but one of my classes at Moore College last year was helpful in warning about this type of amnesia. And it was evident in their approach: the lecturers purposefully delayed talking about forgiveness, separating that topic from the material on sin, to make sure that we didn’t truncate the progression.

That is, always jumping straight to forgiveness is dangerous. Sin never seems so wrong, nor forgiveness so incredible, if we instead avert our gaze and remember only grace.

It’s like taking the engine out of a train. The train might keep rolling for a little while, but there’s no longer any real impetus. No real drive for thankfulness. And so we risk a purely intellectual engagement with God’s word. Forgiveness becomes a justification for complacency. And from there it’s only a small step to the arrogant assumption of sinlessness.

Sure, Jesus saved me. But did I really need saving?

2) Remembering sin, forgetting forgiveness

And yet sometimes, the holes in our memory might shift.

Our sin is always terrible (and maybe that’s why we can be reluctant to think about it!). But sometimes we feel that terrible burden far more heavily. In fact, at times the dark weight of it presses down on us so much that we can barely see the light of forgiveness offered in Jesus. We feel the gut-wrenching guilt at knowing we’ve broken something that can’t be put back together. We feel a crippling shame at the thought of anyone finding out.

How could God possibly forgive me now? I can’t even forgive myself.

There’s a rightness to this. “My sin is ever before me,” sang David (Psa 51:3). The great king’s failures made him painfully aware that he, like all of us, was born dripping with sin.

And yet that isn’t the full picture. God has done the impossible! Jesus has won our forgiveness. As bad as our sin is (and truly, we don’t know the half of it), we have been promised that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ – including our sin, for which Christ has already died (Rom 8:38-39).

If forgetting our sin is a danger, then forgetting forgiveness must be even more so.

Whichever form it takes, a selective memory for sin can be a dangerous thing. And so I find myself thinking of the Law. For in it, God has provided a cure for just such an amnesia.

See, on the one hand, the Old Testament Law was a regular reminder of sin (Heb 10:3). Yet it consistently points to its ultimate fulfilment in Christ; the Law simply foreshadowed the perfect forgiveness which was to come (Heb 10:1).

And so shouldn’t also our teaching and thinking– and, indeed, our memories – be similar? Characterised by both an acute awareness of sin and the embrace of its cure?

In the words of Francis Turretin:

Undoubtedly three things are always to be specially inculcated upon man: (1) his misery; (2) God’s mercy; (3) the duty of gratitude: what he is by nature; what he has received by grace; and what he owes by obedience.[1]

We are both sinners and saints, both wretched and forgiven. And so I need to keep a close watch on what it is I remember.

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 11.24.9.