In one of the many memorable sections of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin compares God’s revelation of Himself to His creatures to a parent or a nanny who speaks to children on a level that they can understand. Just as we “baby talk” with infants, so God condescends to our feebleness, stooping “far beneath his loftiness” to “accommodate the knowledge of him[self] to our slight capacity” (Institutes, 1.13.1 ). Calvin is referring specifically to the way that the Bible speaks of God’s body parts, such as His mouth, eyes, ears, nose, hands, and feet. God does not have a body like men, but He refers to bodily aspects of His being in His communication to us so that we can better grasp the truth about Him.

The same accommodating manner of expression is found in the various similes and metaphors used throughout the Bible, particularly regarding how God treats the sins of His repentant and believing people. These word pictures paint the grace of forgiveness in unforgettable imagery so that we might better grasp with head and heart the great love of God for us in the gospel. In the words of these images, there are at least six things that God does with our sins.

1. He removes them as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).

In Psalm 103, David praises God for His steadfast covenant love. In mercy and grace, He does not deal with us according to our sins or reward us according to our iniquities (Ps. 103:10). On the contrary, He separates our transgressions of His holy law from us. How far does He take them away from us? As far as east is from west. This simile comes between two other comparisons, one likening the greatness of God’s loving-kindness to the height of the heavens above the earth, and the other relating the Lord’s compassion to a father’s compassion for his children (Ps. 103:11, 13). In His infinite, unfailing love, and in His fatherly pity, He sends our sins away from us, and they are nowhere to be found or seen near us. Obviously, on a round earth, east and west eventually meet. But the point God is making with horizontal cardinal directions is that when He pardons our iniquities (Ps. 103:3), He puts them on the opposite pole of the spiritual universe from where we are. Though we look out over the horizon as far as the eye can see, we will never see our sins. Neither will He. Because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, He no longer holds us accountable for them, and they no longer have a condemning grip on us.

2. He treads them under foot (Mic. 7:19).

The ending of Micah’s prophecy is one of the most encouraging portions of the prophetic literature. He depicts God as the incomparable forgiver, “passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance” out of delight in steadfast love (Mic. 7:18). The God who delivered His people from Egypt will also rescue them out of coming exile, dealing not only with the Assyrians and Babylonians but with the true source of their captivity: sin. In judicially pardoning His people’s sins, however, He also crushes them with martial power. Micah’s metaphor uses a Hebrew word that means “to subdue, to subjugate.” The prophet personifies iniquity as an enemy that is completely conquered by our warrior Lord. God treads on His and our great foe, trampling it down so that it is unable to rise in strength again. Through His Son Jesus Christ He has defeated sin, and it no longer has power over us (see Rom. 6:1–14).

3. He casts them into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19).

On the heels of one metaphor, Micah uses another. He assures us that God throws all our sins into the bottom of the ocean. How deep is the bottom of the ocean? The deepest part of the Mariana Trench is approximately 36,000 feet (6.8 miles) deep. This distance is so deep that if Mount Everest (approximately 29,000 feet or 5.5 miles high) were able to be dropped into the trench, its peak would still be more than one mile under the water’s surface. God has drowned our sins in the depths, crushing them under the pressure of the ocean, and they will never be able to come up for air or live again. Though we might search for our sins, they cannot be found (see Jer. 50:20).

Through His Son Jesus Christ God has defeated sin, and it no longer has power over us.
4. He casts them behind His back (Isa. 38:17).

Hezekiah speaks these words in grateful acknowledgement of God’s mercy in prolonging His life. To cast something behind one’s back is to treat it with disdain and forgetfulness, to not see it or regard it as significant. It’s the way that we treat peanut shells at a baseball game. The beauty and power of Hezekiah’s metaphor is found in the fact that it is also used in reference to God’s people, but in an opposite way. They had thrown God and His law behind their backs in their stubborn disobedience (1 Kings 14:9; Neh. 9:26; Ezek. 23:35; Ps. 50:17). But Hezekiah declares that God casts His people’s sins behind His back. We had disregarded God; in grace He disregarded our disregard of Him. We chose not to pay attention to Him; in mercy He chose not to pay attention to our inattentiveness. We treated Him and His Word as insignificant; in love He willed not to treat as significant our low esteem of Him. In love He refused to see all the ways that we transgress His holy law and declined to count our sins against us but counted them against His Son Jesus on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21).

5. He wipes them out like a disappearing cloud (Isa. 43:25; 44:22).

In Isaiah 44, having mocked those who worship idols, God reminds His people that He will not forget them. Indeed, He has blotted out our transgressions like a cloud and our sins like a mist. As cumulus clouds disappear from the sky as they move through the atmosphere on a partly cloudy day (see Job 7:9; 30:15) or as a morning fog dissipates as the sun rises, so the Lord causes our sins to vanish. For His name’s sake and for the sake of His Son, rather than blotting us out of His book (see Deut. 9:14; Ps. 9:6), He expunges our offenses from our record and wipes our disobedience out of His sight like a teacher cleaning a whiteboard.

6. He remembers them no more (Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:34).

In Jeremiah’s great prophecy of the new covenant, God declares that His forgiveness of our sins is tantamount to His forgetting the ways that we have defied Him. He is referring not to an intellectual amnesia, of course, but to a volitional refusal to hold our sins in His memory as He relates to us. If God were to observe and take note of all our sins, none of us could stand in His holy presence. But there is forgiveness with Him—there is forgetfulness with Him—that we might live our lives in the fear of Him (Ps. 130:3–4). We know the joy of a fellow human’s not recalling all the ways that we have hurt or offended him as he lives in relationship with us. How much more glorious is it that the Creator of the universe refuses to bring to mind our rebellion against Him?

These six word pictures—east and west, treading under foot, the depths of the sea, behind the back, a disappearing cloud, forgetfulness—paint a canvas of grace that God wants us to behold every day of our lives. May He grant us the ability to believe the truth to which these metaphors point—that in Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven forevermore—and to walk in confidence and humility because of His mercy.

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