The Gemora (Yoma 86b) tells us that the power of teshuva does not always achieve the same results. If a person did a sin intentionally (b’mazid) and then repented out of fear of G-d, the sin is downgraded to the level of an unintentional infraction. If, however, he repented out of love, then the sin is turned into a merit (zechus). Why is there a distinction between these two catalysts? It seems that in both cases the person repented to his maximum ability!
The Beis Halevi (in Parshas Ki Sisa) explains the difference based on a gemora. What if someone were to marry a woman, but only on condition that she does not have any physical defects, or any outstanding vows, and after the marriage she was found to have physical defects and/or outstanding vows? If she then went to a doctor and the doctor fixed her physical defects, she is not married. However, if she want to a Torah scholar and he annulled her vow, she is married! What is the difference between the doctor and the scholar? Both took away the problem that existed!
The doctor can only fix the problem from now onwards: While the woman is cured now, she still had the physical defect at the time of the marriage. This is not like the scholar, who can annul her vow retroactively: The vow does not exist now, and it didn’t even exist at the time of the marriage.
Now we understand that different methods of dealing with an issue can bring about diverse results. So too, different motivations to do teshuva can bring one to a different place. However, why is the intentional sin a “merit”?
It seems to me that the answer to this question is that the person, upon pondering his sin and thinking about who HKBH is, develops a love to the point that he regrets his sin. Therefore, this sin actually helped him come closer to Hashem, making the sin itself into a mitzvah.
Whereas the person who repents out of fear, frightened of the punishment, only regrets what he did. He did not become a better person. He regret turns his intentional sin into an unintentional sin, but the sin is still there.
The ultimate gift of teshuva is not only to wipe away the dirt from our neshama, is to afford us the opportunity to come closer to Hashem in a very special way.
In the place where baalei teshuva stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand!