Great Is the Power of Repentance

By Michael Brown Published on June 25, 2024

Because repentance (Hebrew teshuvah) is a great theme of the Old Testament, it is also a great theme of Judaism. It is a theme found throughout the New Testament as well. In fact, it has been said that “‘repent’ is the first word of the Gospel” (see, for example, Matthew 4:17; 11:20–21; Mark 6:12; Luke 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; 17:30; 26:20; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9–10; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 3:19).

Here are some examples of the importance of repentance in Jewish teaching that I cited in volume two of my five-volume series Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.

  • The Talmudic traditions state: “Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world” (b. Berakhot 32a); “Great is repentance, for it reaches the Throne of Glory; . . . for it brings redemption; . . . for it lengthens a man’s life” (b. Yoma 86a); “Better an hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than a whole lifetime in the world to come” (m. Avot 4:17); “Repentance is more valuable than sacrifices” (Pesikta Rabbati 45); “Repentance is greater than prayer” (Tanna deBe Eliyahu Zuta 7).
  • One of the Eighteen Benedictions recited daily by traditional Jews is a specific request for help to repent: “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service, and cause us to return in complete repentance before You. Blessed are You, O LORD, who desires repentance.” A religious Jew prays this prayer multiplied thousands of times in his or her lifetime.
  • A Hasidic rabbi once said, “If I had the choice, I would rather not die. Because in the World-to-Come there are no Days of Awe [referring to the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur], and what can a person’s soul do without the Day of Atonement? What is the point of living without repentance?”
  • A secular Jew who becomes traditional is called a ba‘al teshuva, literally, “a master of repentance.” In fact, the well-known book by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1937-2020) written to help newly observant Jews is simply called Teshuvah. And penitent Jews are accorded the highest respect, as the Talmud states, “Where the repentant stand, not even the completely righteous can stand” (b. Berakhot 34b).

‘Why Will You Die?’

In volume one of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, I wrote, “according to the Hebrew Scriptures, if a wicked man truly turns from his wicked ways, God will completely forgive him. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are no consequences to his actions. For example, a rapist who truly repents will still have to go to jail for his crimes; however, God will forgive him if his repentance is real. In the same way, a Nazi could be forgiven should he genuinely turn back to God, asking Him for mercy and turning from His wicked ways, although he would still be accountable for his deeds on a human level.

“The Lord also spoke these words of exhortation through Ezekiel:

Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30b-32)

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“Commenting on this text, the revered medieval rabbi, Jonah of Gerondi (1180-1263) — known especially for his books on repentance — wrote that these words applied to:

a man who transgressed and sinned and then came to take refuge under the wings of the divine Presence [i.e., the Shekinah] and to enter into the paths of repentance [as God said in Ps 32:8], ‘I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.’ On that day he will cast away all the transgressions he has committed and he will make himself as if he were born on that very day, with neither guilt nor merit in his hand (Yesod HaTeshuvah, 1:1, my translation).

“And lest he say, ‘I have sinned and sinned over and over again and my guilt is beyond counting. I’m too ashamed to appear before God and ask for mercy, and I could never keep His commandments,’ Rabbi Jonah strongly urges him not to speak that way. Rather, he should recognize that it is the nature of the Creator to receive penitent ones with open arms and therefore he should be encouraged to repent and reform his ways. Such is the teaching of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition.”

How much greater revelation do we have today of the power of repentance through the soul-transforming blood of the Lamb!

This teaching is also found in Jewish tradition: “Rabbi Eliezer taught, ‘Repent one day before your death.’

His disciples asked him, ‘But does a man know on what day he will die?’

‘That is exactly the point!’ he replied. ‘Let a man repent today lest he die tomorrow, and in this way he will live all his days in repentance.’”

We do well to take this to heart.

 

Dr. Michael Brown is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He is the author of more than 40 books, including Can You be Gay and Christian?; Our Hands Are Stained With Blood; and Seize the Moment: How to Fuel the Fires of Revival. You can connect with him on Facebook, X, or YouTube.

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