During the High Holidays, there is a great emphasis on renewal. But that message, whether explicit or implicit, can also be self-defeating, for it leads to the view that it is up to us to gain atonement for what we have done. That is to say, we undermine our atonement by thinking that, after we repent, atonement is sure to follow. On this issue, the views of French theologian John Calvin are helpful.
Citing Calvin may seem like an odd choice. His references to Jews in his writings are far from kind. But, as scholars have noted, his treatment of the Ten Commandments is quite similar to that of the rabbis and his legal views are indebted to the Old Testament. His perspective may therefore be useful. Moreover, there is a basic concept in rabbinic thought known as kitrug, a standard of comparison based on the actions of non-Jews. It means that the positive acts that non-Jews do should, at the very least, be practiced by Jews. Based on this idea, we can say that if a non-Jewish view of repentance is superior to ours, we should be able to articulate that view without reservation, since we are doing so constructively.
Calvin was a proponent of the view that human beings can only justify themselves through God’s help. Further, only those chosen by God are filled with this spirit of repentance. This is what Calvin means when he writes that faith precedes repentance. In other words, we cannot arrive at it on our own. In his Institutes of the Christian Faith, he writes:
“Moreover, that repentance is a special gift of God, I trust is too well understood.… God indeed declares, that he would have all men to repent, and addresses exhortations in common to all; their efficacy, however, depends on the spirit of regeneration.… Those whom God is pleased to rescue from death, he quickens by the spirit of regeneration; not that repentance is properly the cause of salvation, but because, as already seen, it is inseparable from the faith and mercy of God; for, as Isaiah declares, ‘The Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob.’ ”
The fact that Calvin refers to the acceptance of a saviour who died for the atonement of sin – which Jews, of course, reject – or that he believes that human beings are completely depraved – which we cannot agree with either – is immaterial. The relevant issue is human agency, as it relates to repentance itself. From that point of view, it may be beneficial to entertain Calvin’s idea that, even for repentance, we seek God’s assistance.
There are even Jewish sources to back this up. For example, some biblical verses – such as, “for forgiveness is with you” (Psalms 130:4) and “return me and I will return to you” (Jeremiah 31:17 ) – seem to say the same thing. As well, according to the 13th-century Spanish Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, writing in his Gates of Repentance, the reason why prayer is included in the repentance process is because we ask God to help us in the process of repentance – if repentance were independent of God, that would not be necessary. Rabbi Gerondi and Maimonides
both wrote about hindrances to repentance, one of which is the attitude that, “I will sin and be forgiven (repeatedly).” This statement is easier to understand in light of Calvin’s idea, for the feeling that repentance is entirely in human hands deludes people into thinking they can sin and easily recover.
It is useful, in practice if not in theory, to accept the notion that we cannot begin to change what we have done, at least not without beseeching God for assistance, for it undermines the idea that repentance is a simple process. A closely related concept is that the external manifestations of repentance must be accompanied by a deep inner change. As Calvin writes, “But as there are some who, from the frequent mention of sackcloth, fasting and tears … think that these constitute the principal part of repentance, we must dispel their delusion.”
As Yom Kippur nears, we are reminded not to let the external features of repentance replace its essential component.