On Repentance and Forgiveness

 

 

If the Tanach states that one must repent in order to receive forgiveness of sins, why do we have the requirement in the Apostolic Scriptures to believe in the vicarious atonement of Messiah in addition to repentance in order to obtain forgiveness?

 

One of the most essential aspects of this question is whether what is called here an addition is really an addition if considered properly. If it should be granted that G’d forgives everyone who seriously repents his sins and wants to lead a new life in faithful obedience to Him, then this does still not imply that the repentance of the sinner is the effectual means whereby the result of forgiveness of sins is obtained. The repentance may only be the necessary precondition the sinner must fulfil to have access to the means whereby G’d grants grace and forgiveness.

 

I think that this is actually the case. I think that every grace of G’d, and especially his grace of forgiveness of sins and the gift of everlasting life, is founded in Yeshua’s atonement. It does not matter whether the person that receives this grace lives before or after Yeshua’s appearance on earth. If he truly repents and starts leading a new life, the grace of forgiveness and the gift of everlasting life is granted to him on account of Yeshua’s atonement. The person is reckoned by G’d as being included in Yeshua. The new birth of a sinner is something that occurs on a supra-temporal level, by the working of the Ruach HaKodesh.

 

When the repentant person lives however after the atonement of Messiah has actually occurred in world history and after having been explained by the apostles and their writings, this person’s repentance should of course and naturally include belief in the revealed atonement, which is the effectual means by which G’d grants forgiveness and entrance to the World to Come. A person clearly doesn’t truly turn to G’d when he rejects the very means by which G’d grants forgiveness if this means has been revealed by G’d! The requirement to believe in Yeshua’s atonement — and in every revealed teaching about Messiah — is not some strange outward addition to the requirement of repentance. It is nothing else but the acceptance of the plan and purpose of G’d for our lives and for this world, which of course is an essential element of repentance. When Messiah was revealed as the King of Israel, and as preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, he had to be credited in this quality as part of proper repentance. When Messiah later was revealed in his priestly and sacrificial office, he had to be credited also in this quality as part of proper repentance.

 

It is sometimes asked why the Torah demands only sacrifices for unintentional sins against HaShem, while for intentional sins against HaShem it has no means of forgiveness, and while for intentional sins against one’s neigbour it requires restitution. These stipulations seems to be in conflict with the idea that the atonement on the Cross is necessary to receive forgiveness of those sins for which the Torah demands restitution instead of sacrificial atonement.

 

We should keep in mind in considering this question that Messiah’s atonement is of a different nature than the levitical atonement in the Temple. Messiah’s atonement is related to our entrance of the World to Come. The levitical atonement of the Torah however is related to this world. This is because the commandments of the Torah are about this world, not about entering the World to Come. These commandments are therefore only accompanied by sanctions and punishments in this world. And because the Torah is instituted as a legal system in this world it only punishes visible or detectable transgressions.

 

This “outwardness” or externality of the regime of the Torah should be properly understood. The Torah commands for instance that the Israelite must love HaShem with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might (Dt. 6:5). Yet it doesn’t punish the ungodly Israelite who doesn’t love HaShem, except insofar as his ungodliness becomes apparent in the visible and juridical realm. An Israelite who says in his heart “there is no G’d” (Ps. 14:1), and yet fulfils (e.g. for fear of the judges or out of conformism) his legal religious duties, will not be punished in this world by the legal system of the Torah, since there is no detectable outward transgression, but instead a transgression of the heart only. A former godly Israelite however, who at a certain moment becomes rebellious, and e.g. willfully and openly transgresses the Sabbath laws, will according to the Torah’s legal system receive the death penalty. If this last mentioned person heartily repents and turns to G’d before the penalty is executed, he will still have an inheritance in the World to Come. But by his repentance he can no more escape his death penalty in this world. If, on the other hand, the aforementioned ungodly person doesn’t break out in open and rebellious sins, but manages to live according to the outward legal order, he will never be punished for his ungodly attitude in this world. Yet if he persists in this attitude, he will not have an inheritance in the World to Come.

 

It is clear from this that the Torah when purely viewed as a legal system can never renew man’s nature. It can only mold him into a certain pattern of behaviour. This doesn’t deny that the Torah appeals to the heart, as we saw in Dt. 6:5, but strictly as legal code it can’t reign or control the heart. Its domain insofar it functions as a legal code is limited. This again should be properly understood. It doesn’t say that the Torah was only meant by G’d to be legal code. The point is that it can only reach the heart of man, if man truly receives the Torah as what it is, the living word of HaShem. But if man chooses to live only to the limited and outward aspect of the Torah as a legal system, then the Torah according to its own legal system doesn’t punish him in this world.

 

The Torah as a legal system has of course to deal with transgressions. And from the outset it is evident that the means of atonement for transgressions it offers cannot be unlimited. The whole legal order would be corrupted and justice overthrown if for every transgression atonement could be made. If for instance an apparant willful transgression of the Sabbath could be atoned for by means of a sacrifice, and if the refusal to bring this sacrifice could again be atoned for by some other means, and, if this means was despised, still another means of atonement would be opened, then within the shortest time the Torah itself would be completely destroyed.

 

The limitations of the means of atonement were already mentioned above. Sacrificial atonement within the levitical system of the Torah is only possible for unintional sins against HaShem, i.e. unintentional sins in holy matters. One should be aware of course that the terms “intentional” and “unintional” also have a legal or jurical meaning here. They do not refer immediately to the status of the human heart — which cannot be attained by the juridical order — but to what is the apparent intention or the lack thereof.

 

Now, why is Yeshua’s atonement necessary to receive forgiveness for willful sins committed against one’s neighbour, if restitution is the means whereby these sins are generally treated in the Torah? This is because the legal sanctions of the Torah only deal with these sins according to their outward appearance. But it should be kept in mind that on the deeper level of the heart all sins are sins directly against HaShem, also the sins committed to my neighbour. The Torah has divided the world into a special “sacred” realm of holy things and another “profane” or “secular” realm of common things, but this division is again only a division in the worldly and outward order, and not on the central level of the human heart. If I steal for instance, I don’t violate the holiness of the earthly Sanctuary, and I don’t violate any of the chukim. Yet by stealing I violate the holiness of the Torah! And if I violate only one of the commandments I violate them all in a sense, as is explained by Ya’akov (Jam. 2:10). Why? Certainly not because I distinctly transgress all the commandments, but because I transgress the Torah! By one willful transgression I show my disrespect for the entire Torah. This disrespect for the Torah is disrespect for HaShem. Essentially, it is apostasy, leaving HaShem. It is a repetition of the first sin of Adam.

 

Messiah’s atonement is about this deepest level of sin in the human heart, man’s rebellious nature. On this deepest level all sin is sin against the holy order of HaShem’s original creation. If this sin is e.g. an act of stealing, it is expiated on the legal level by the sanction of restitution as it is outlined in the Torah (adding a fifth, &tc). On the level of the heart however repentance is required for forgiveness. But, as I said, repentance is only the necessary prerequisite, not the effectual means or instrument, for receiving forgiveness and new life. Although repentance is absolutely necessary, our repentance has in itself no creative force. We cannot “make” forgiveness or new life by being repentant. The only means we can acquire new life is by being included in Messiah’s new life, in his resurrection life. And we can only be included in Messiah’s resurrection life by first being included in his death. In the inclusion in his death, by faith, all of our old Adam receives the death penalty. This penalty is ultimately executed at our bodily death. From a purely legal perspective this would be the end. But by being spiritually included in Messiah we will be resurrected to a completely renewed and sinless existence in the World to Come.

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