Last Saturday night I attended a community-wide Selichot service here in Albuquerque. The service itself was to include a talk on teshuvah (return or repentance) by Dr. Louis Newman. Since this was a nice Jewish event, we started out with some nice eating before it began, and Dr. Newman himself sat down at our table with a few copies of his book Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah. I’m a definite introvert, but I pushed myself to launch a conversation, since teshuvah is so central to my own writing and counseling practice.
After a friendly opening (“You must be the visiting dignitary . . .”), I asked Dr. Newman if “repentance” was really the best translation for teshuvah, and he explained (very plausibly) why it is. This led me to ask whether he uses the term “sin” in his book. I was wondering whether the book entailed a genuine engagement with the traditional Jewish sources, which definitely grapple with the ugly reality of sin, or was a modern recasting of the whole issue that would use terminology like “making a mistake”, “not being true to yourself,” etc. Dr. Newman assured me that he uses the term “sin”—although he often substitutes with “transgression,” since “sin” sounds so Christian.
But doesn’t repentance sound Christian too? I asked.
Actually, Christianity tends to downplay repentance and focus more on atonement, he responded. Atonement is something that’s done for you, but repentance is something you need to practice every day.
Right, I said, “Repent one day before you die.” [Pirke Avot 2:15]
Dr. Newman could tell I’d studied a bit about repentance, and so he asked me what I did for a living. I took a deep breath, “Well, I should let you know that I’m a Messianic Jew. I work with the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, and I’m also a therapist. I’ve written about repentance and I employ it in my counseling practice too.” It was Dr. Newman’s turn to take a deep breath. When he was suddenly called away from the table, I figured that he’d use that as an opportunity to end the conversation. But a few minutes later he came back, apologized for being called away, and dove back in. We wrapped up our conversation for the time being, and later I bought a copy of his book, which he signed with a friendly note. We’ve had a couple of follow-up exchanges via email since.
Newman’s point about atonement vs repentance in Christianity is well taken. The Gospel opens with a command to repent, of course, but it’s often understood as a one-time event, which gets you into salvation. Once inside, you might need to repent again, on occasion, but the real focus is on atonement, God’s work on our behalf through the crucifixion of Messiah Yeshua. This issue gets raised every year as we Messianic Jews prepare to commemorate the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which are also called the Days of Teshuvah, or repentance. Messianic Jews are often asked why we go through the rituals of repentance and forgiveness, and invoke atonement on Yom Kippur, when we’ve already been totally forgiven through the one-time atoning sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua.
I respond to this question in my September 17 blog, “Unprepared and ready.” In this blog I’ll look at a related question: Is repentance a one-time, life-changing deal, or a matter of daily practice?
You guessed it—the answer is both. Repentance, teshuvah, turning away from sin and turning toward God, is integral to the good news of Messiah Yeshua and to a genuine response to the good news:
“The time has come,
God’s Kingdom is near!
Turn to God from your sins [or ‘Repent’ in most translations]
and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:15
In Acts, when Shimon tells his fellow Messianic Jews in Jerusalem how the Gentiles responded to his preaching of the good news, they conclude, “This means that God has enabled the Goyim as well to do t’shuvah and have life!” (Acts 11:18). In other words, in both passages teshuvah is equated with believing the good news, and is the entry to life.
So, what about repentance as part of our daily practice? I’ll quickly cite three passages from the Apostolic Writings that support this idea:
9 You, therefore, pray like this . . .
11 Give us the food we need today.
12 Forgive us what we have done wrong,
as we too have forgiven those who have wronged us. . . .
14 For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will not forgive yours.
15 The prayer offered with trust will heal the one who is ill — the Lord will restore his health; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, openly acknowledge your sins to one another, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed.
1 John 1-2
8 If we claim not to have sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we acknowledge our sins, then, since he is trustworthy and just, he will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing.
10 If we claim we have not been sinning, we are making him out to be a liar, and his Word is not in us.
2 My children, I am writing you these things so that you won’t sin. But if anyone does sin, we have Yeshua the Messiah, the Tzaddik, who pleads our cause with the Father. 2 Also, he is the kapparah [atonement] for our sins — and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
Acknowledging our sins and confessing them, seeking forgiveness and forgiving others, are all part of teshuvah. These passages demonstrate that teshuvah is not only a one-time event, but also something that we need to practice regularly. As is often the case, the truth lies in a balanced, both-and, presentation of the issue. The Jewish perspective articulated in Newman’s Repentance helps sustain that balance.
Before I close, though, I’ll raise one point for further discussion. In our conversation, Dr. Newman spoke of the Christian understanding of atonement as something that’s been done for us, which can downplay our need to take responsibility and practice repentance. In contrast, his chapter entitled “Suffering Atones,” states, “To suffer is to ‘pay’ for our sins through a kind of sacrifice,” and ends with this:
Whether naturally (or divinely) imposed of self-inflicted, suffering is a powerful way to be cleansed of wrongdoing. It facilitates soul reckoning, represents a tangible payment for transgressions, and is an outward expression of remorse. . . . Paradoxically, it is through such bodily deprivation that we gain spiritual wholeness and well-being. For if prosperity can lead to complacency and spiritual numbness, then suffering can lead to humility, introspection, and moral regeneration. In that light, it is no wonder that the Rabbis proclaimed, “Therefore, let man rejoice in suffering more than in prosperity,” for it is suffering through which we receive pardon and forgiveness (Sifre 73b).
He’s talking about receiving atonement through my own suffering, rather than through the suffering of another. This would be one distinction between much mainstream Jewish discussion of teshuvah and a Messianic Jewish discussion. Repentance is an excellent book, and I’m glad to recommend it, especially during this season. But I see a weakness in the mainstream view. Teshuvah means turning away from my own resources, and turning toward God, turning away from the powers of self and recognizing my powerlessness, so that I can rely on God’s power. Ironically, the idea that my suffering can atone for my sins, that I can somehow pay for my sin through suffering, can reinforce the self-sufficiency that’s at the root of sin. A more balanced approach is to see that suffering helps me receive the atonement that only God can provide. “But if anyone does sin, we have Yeshua the Messiah, the Tzaddik, who pleads our cause with the Father, and he is the kapparah [atonement] for our sins.”
All Scripture references are from Complete Jewish Bible.