The first time I saw men beating their chests and prostrating themselves on Yom Kippur, I was scandalized. At the time I was in a Christian setting and I was used to an entirely different attitude towards sin and forgiveness. The messages I was hearing at the time were completely about the assurance of forgiveness. I was told, literally, that faith was like learning to float in a swimming pool. The key, they said, was to do nothing but relax and floating would come naturally.
In other words, I was told that forgiveness is automatic, a done-deal, accomplished in the past and our part is only to know the forgiveness we already have.
I can hear many people now ready to deny that this is a common stream in popular Christianity. I assure you it is not uncommon.
Moaning and wailing and beating chests asking for forgiveness appeared to me, at that time, to be the ineffectual attempts of men to save themselves. I wrote about my story in “A Yom Kippur Noob Experience,” which I will perhaps repost this Friday as a classic reprint.
The influence of my early mentors began to fade as my Bible reading did not match their sentiments. I kept running into repentance in the Bible. In those days, if something was in the “Old Testament,” I was told I could not trust it. Anything in the old was possibly overturned in the new.
Yet in the new I saw “repent and be baptized” from Peter (Acts 2:38). I saw from Yeshua “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). From Paul I saw “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). And Yeshua’s brother seemed to capture the atmosphere of that Orthodox Jewish Yom Kippur service very well. Only he commended it:
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. -James 4:8-10
Now . . . the Other Side
The truth is rarely as simple as a one-sided principle. Life is full of complex issues in which an issue can be approached from two sides.
Forgiveness comes when we repent. Forgiveness is also assured.
The rabbis took Leviticus 16:30 in this regard: “On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord.”
The prophets frequently promised it: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:25).
Yeshua said it: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).
Wearing White on Yom Kippur
In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), there is a beautiful passage that explains how Jewish traditions of Yom Kippur reflect the assurance of forgiveness rather than despondency or fear of unforgiveness:
It is customary that if a man knows he has to appear in court for trial, he wears black clothes and lets his beard grow, as he does not know what the verdict will be. However, the children of Israel do not act thus. On their day of judgment they don white clothes, trim their beards, eat, drink, and rejoice, for they have confidence that the Holy One, blessed be he, will perform miracles for them.
Note: The reference to eating and drinking is the evening when Yom Kippur ends at the breaking of the fast.