It is written (Ezechiel 18:22): “I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done: in his justice which he hath wrought, he shall live.”
Saint Thomas in the third part of his Summa Theologica, Q. 86, art. 1 uses this quote from Ezechiel in his Sed Contra to refute the error that not all mortal sins can be forgiven by Penance.
“But if the wicked do penance for all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my commandments, and do judgment, and justice, living he shall live, and shall not die. I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done: in his justice which he hath wrought, he shall live” (Ezechiel 18:21).”
When I read this passage from the Book of Ezechiel, I was amazed. What a consoling truth this is from the inspired Word of God! This is our Father speaking to us His children. He wants repentant sinners to have confidence in His paternal mercy. So much so that He promises not only to forgive but to “forget” our offenses.
“Confidence”! The word comes from the two Latin words “con-fides,” with-faith. It is a filial trust in our Creator. So it is attached to the supernatural virtues of both faith and hope. Without holy confidence we lose faith in God’s justice; we imagine His mercy trumps His justice. Or, we lose hope in His mercy and despair. A person who despairs is someone who hates himself and his sin more than he loves God. So it was with Judas. “Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he [Jesus] was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, Saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27: 3-4, my emphasis). Remember, then, that the two sins against hope are presumption and despair.
On the other hand, the same prophet also says: “But if the just man turn himself away from his justice, and do iniquity according to all the abominations which the wicked man useth to work, shall he live? all his justices which he hath done, shall not be remembered: in the prevarication, by which he hath prevaricated, and in his sin, which he hath committed, in them he shall die” (Ezechiel 18:24).
Do not be disheartened if you have fallen from Grace. The quote above is a warning, not a sentence. As Saint Thomas says (and the Church teaches) all mortal sins can be forgiven by penance even those of just man who has fallen. But this sacrament is not the subject of my present essay. Rather my subject is this idea of God “forgetting” my sins.
“Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34).
Saint Paul cites this passage from Jeremaias in Hebrews chapter 8:12 and 10:16-17: “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and their sins I will remember no more” and “this is the testament which I will make unto them after those days, saith the Lord. I will give my laws in their hearts, and on their minds will I write them: And their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.”
Too, there is Isaias: “I am he that blot out thy iniquities for my own sake, and I will not remember thy sins” (43:25).
With this confidence we find Tobias imploring God: “And now, O Lord, think of me, and take not revenge of my sins, neither remember my offenses, nor those of my parents. For we have not obeyed thy commandments, therefore are we delivered to spoil and to captivity, and death, and are made a fable, and a reproach to all nations, amongst which thou hast scattered us” (3:3-4; bold emphasis mine).
Now We Need an Explanation
To be sure, God as God does not “forget” or “remember,” He is the eternal Now. In God there is no yesterday and tomorrow, no before or after. These are terms that apply to the human inner sense of memory, which is a power of the soul. Scripture often uses anthropomorphic terms in speaking of the divine attributes. The strength of God is His “arm,” etc. Or, regarding the passion of anger, God says to Noe: “I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them” (Genesis 6:7). God, as God, has no passions, no anger; He is immutable and does not repent as in “changing” His mind.
By “forgetting,” God intends for us to know that He will no longer hold us accountable for our sins if we turn totally to Him and do penance. Rather, in the Eternal Now, He sees our good deeds which His grace has drawn out of us. These works of grace have filled up the emptiness of our sins and replaced them with something “positive” — for sin is, in essence, the absence of good, the absence of what ought to be in justice. Thus, Saint Thomas taught that original sin is the absence of that sanctifying grace which God intended for all men at conception before the Fall.
God Cannot Be Outdone, He Will Bring Good Out of Evil
The word of God also assures us that God can bring good out of evil and in so doing one can say that He “forgets” the evil (the absence of the good that ought to have been) with the presence of the grace of virtuous deeds, thus transforming vice into virtue. “If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow: and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Isaias 1:18).
This is why the Church sings the Felix Culpa in the Exultet at the Easter Vigil: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”
Similarly in the Psalms God says through David: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow” (50:9).
On this theme we have a petition prayer in the Maronite liturgy. It is from the Anaphora of Saint Sixtus, just after the Our Father and shortly before the “Invitation to Holy Communion.” It reads:
O Lord, hasten to transform all that is harmful and detrimental into that which will help and benefit us, that we may raise glory to you, now and for ever.
It is this truth in its highest sense that Saint Paul teaches in his epistle to the Romans, “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good” (8:38).
It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (Our Lord’s word to the visionary anchoress Saint Juliana of Norwich 1416+)