May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, ushers in a solemn ten day period of soul searching and penitence. The blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), signals the call to repentance. According to Rabbinic tradition three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. One records the names of the wicked who, on account of their wilful and defiant transgression of God’s law and their deliberate spurning of God’s mercy and grace, are held for the Day of Judgement when they will be raised to shame and everlasting contempt(see Daniel 12:2). The second records the names of those whose fate is as yet undecided. During the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) they must repent lest their names be transferred to the Book of the wicked. The third book is the Book of Life in which are inscribed the names of the righteous who will be raised to eternal life and blessing in the world to come.

Repentance, according to Rabbinical Judaism, is predicated on obedience to the Torah. It is not simply a matter of feeling remorse for ones sins, but of turning from ones sins to purposefully obey the Torah. The mystic sage, Moses Lezatto (1707-1747), said, “The Torah is the only remedy for the impulse to evil. Whoever thinks that he can be helped without it is mistaken and will realize his error when he dies for his sins[1].

Whereas Christianity recognizes that we are sinners by nature and are powerless to overcome sin unless the Lord changes our hearts, Judaism rejects the concept of “original sin” and claims that man not only has the ability to master the sinful inclination and choose good over evil, but that Jews can attain righteousness through the Torah. What is not disputed is that all men do sin.

The Lord said through the prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous will live by his faith…” (Habakkuk 2:4). The apostle Paul wrote, “The law is not based on faith” (Galatians 3:12) because the law is “black and white” and even the smallest infraction would render a person a lawbreaker. Strict observance of the Law is not the measure of genuine faith. The apostle Paul affirmed that many Jews were extremely zealous for the Law, but they did not have the faith of Abraham or David: “…but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling-stone”(Romans 9:31-32).

The Law provided various sacrifices for sin, including the atoning sacrifice to be offered on the Day of Atonement. If those sacrifices could have perfected the worshippers they would not have had to be repeated year after year. The sacrifices were a reminder of one’s sin, but they could not take away sins: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).

Contrary to the teaching of the Rabbis, the Law is not the remedy for sin – it merely diagnoses our condition, which is the sinful inclination of our uncircumcised hearts. No-one will be declared righteous through obedience to the Law because the Law merely brings to light the sin that is inherent within all men (Rom. 3:20). The Law was given to show Israel that they, like all men, are sinners who need both an effective atonement for sin and to be set free from their bondage to sin. The real problem is pinpointed in the book of Jeremiah: The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Through the Law we become aware of just how sinful we are. As the Apostle Paul noted: What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful (Romans 7:7-13).

Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). The purpose of the Law was not that people would attain righteousness by it, but that it would convict every person as a sinner in need of salvation. The apostle Paul wrote: We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

To “sin” literally means to “miss the goal”. Everyone sins by missing the holy standard required by the Law of Moses, but not everyone misses the essential goal of the Law. What does genuine repentance entail? How can one be assured that one’s transgressions are forgiven and that one’s sins are covered (atoned for)? How can one be assured that one’s name is indeed inscribed in the Book of Life?

Genuine repentance requires that we recognize and submit to God’s way of righteousness through the atonement that Christ has provided, which is what the Law of Moses was pointing to and what so many of the Jews failed to comprehend: For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:3-4, ESV). Adam Clarke comments, “Christ as an atoning sacrifice for sin was the grand object of the whole sacrificial code of Moses; his passion and death were the fulfilment of its great object and design.”

The Law did not provide atonement for defiant and intentional sin (see Numbers 15:25) such as the deliberate act of adultery. Yet King David, after he committed the sin of adultery – a transgression of one of the Ten Commandments which was punishable by death – wrote: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2). How was his sin atoned for? Was it through confession and genuine remorse or because he eventually “made up for it” with good deeds? In spite of his failings David is described as a man after God’s own heart (cf. 1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). He was under no illusions about his own sinful heart, but he trusted God to deliver him from his sin by changing his heart and to forgive his sin and cover his transgressions through the atoning sacrifice that God would provide in the Messiah/Redeemer. Psalm 51, written after Nathan had confronted David over his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, anticipates the change of heart promised in the new covenant: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me (Psalm 51:10-112). King David, like Abraham, was justified by his faith.

The Rabbis have argued that God would not have given a Law that was impossible for anyone to obey, but perfect obedience is indeed impossible for people who are sinners by nature. What is required of us is faith in God. The Lord judges each person according to the faithfulness (or unfaithfulness) of their hearts. But how is genuine faithfulness proven? Jesus said, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.[2] Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me (John 6:44-45).

Many Jews take pride in the fact that the Law of Moses was entrusted to them. They reject Jesus on the premise that they have been given the Law by which to attain righteousness and have no need of a mediator between themselves and God, forgetting that Moses himself acted as a mediator and testified of the one whom God would send as a mediator and to whom obedience is required by the Law itself: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.’ The LORD said to me: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account(Deuteronomy 18:15-19). The Law was intended to lead people to the Messiah. The very goal and end of the Law, as stated in the Law itself, was always the Messiah who would provide the final atonement for sin. John records Jesus response to a question from some Jews who were very familiar with the Law of Moses. They asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29).

God has spoken finally through his son, Jesus the Messiah (Hebrews 1:1). To listen to Jesus is to listen to the voice of the LORD and everyone will be held accountable according to their response to him: In the past God overlooked such ignorance (of those who did not know him or his ways), but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed(Jesus Christ). He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30). Those who profess to uphold the Law of Moses will find that they will be condemned by that very Law. Jesus said: “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:45-47).

If we consider the Jewish tradition – that the fate of many hangs in the balance during the ten days of awe – we must heed the fact that the fate of every person is determined by their response to the one whom God has sent to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. To reject him is to reject the one who sent him: Jesus said: “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). God has provided the means by which we can be reconciled to him. Anyone who rejects that way spurns his mercy and will die in their sins. It is the sin of unbelief for which all will be held accountable. Our response to Jesus alone determines whether our names will be inscribed in the Book of life. Jesus said, You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:23-24).

The census that Moses took of the people of Israel in the Wilderness,listing every man by name, (Numbers 1:1-2), illustrates that being numbered among God’s holy nation was not the assurance of their salvation or redemption. Although all the Israelites were counted in the census, affirming their membership in the covenant community, most were not faithful and perished in the desert. When their names were recorded in the first census their faithfulness had not yet been proven or demonstrated. They, like all men, were sinners worthy and deserving of condemnation, but they could enter the Promised Land by believing in God’s promise. This raises the question of what “All Israel has a part in the world to come,” or as the Apostle Paul expressed it, “All Israel will be saved” really means. Clearly a mere profession of belonging to God’s covenant people that is not accompanied by genuine faithfulness does not guarantee us a place in the world to come: …I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. … These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:1- 5, 11- 13).

This is a warning to those who are counted among the New Covenant people of God that only those who remain faithful to the end will be saved. Our faith will be refined and proven through the trials and temptations that we face in this life just as the faith of the Israelites was tested in the wilderness.

According to Jewish tradition, on the Day of Atonement, Satan, the accuser of the people, is bound in chains and the people of Israel who deny themselves on that day are clothed in white. The Law stipulates that anyone who does not deny himself must be cut off from his people (Lev. 23:29). The act of denying themselves was a demonstration of their faith in the atoning sacrifice. In like manner we are called to demonstrate our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus by denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). This is the measure of genuine faith. Those who want to partake of his righteousness and participate in his resurrection must also participate in his suffering.

Paul, once a zealous Pharisee, was confronted with this test of true faith:But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, although a short period of time,are regarded as solemn days of testing. Jesus encouraged the persecuted church in Smyrna to remain faithful even to the point of death, using the symbolic period of ten days to illustrate that whatever trials we have to endure in this life cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed for eternity (cf. Romans 8:18-19): Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten daysBe faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death (Revelation 2:8-11).

“…you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in whiteI will never blot out his name from the Book of Life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:4-6).

[1]Mesillot Yesharim, chp. 5.
[2] Referring to the promised new covenant in Jeremiah 31:34