Should I Make Restitution for Past Sins?

Question from a Site Viewer

I have no idea how to make restitution!

I read with great interest and appreciation your article on a Biblical approach to confessing sin.

I stole about $400 from an employer almost 35 years ago.

After becoming a Christian a few years ago, I thought that this sin, like all my other sins, was covered by the blood and that my debt concerning this sin had been paid by Christ on the cross. A few times over the last few years I would think of this sin and feel bad about doing it but I always marked that down to an attack by Satan and/or false guilt. After all, God would never bring up a sin to me that, as far as He is concerned, I had never committed, right?

But lately I’ve felt convicted about this sin. I feel that God has been speaking to me on this subject.

  1. I believe the Lord wants me to make restitution simply because it is the best thing to do. It will also grant me a clear conscience and/or keep Satan from gaining a stronghold in my life.
  2. I don’t think confessing to my former employer is necessary because there is no relationship to restore. I’m fairly certain my employer never knew of the theft and, even if they did, there’s very little chance I was the suspect.

So I decided the best thing to do was to make restitution anonymously and, if that didn’t clear my conscience, to then confess to the ex-employer anyway (and thank God for the statute of limitations).

However, this decision brought about the reason for this email: what is adequate restitution?

My first thought was about inflation. Since my theft was about $400, inflation would make “dollar for dollar” restitution come out to about $1200 today. So my first thought was to send them $1200.

But in Leviticus 6:5, when a person confessed to a theft, they were to repay 120% (add a fifth to it) so I decided to pay $1500.

But then I started wondering about interest. The Hebrews couldn’t charge each other interest but we sure do today. So I looked up the average rate of return on certificates of deposit since then (about 5.9% per year), did the math and said, “OK . . . that would make it $2700 I need to repay.”

Then another thought came. What if they had invested the $400 in the stock market or mutual funds? That average return was more like 11% per year. So now I’m looking at close to $13,000!

Then another thought came. What if they had bought $400 worth of Microsoft in its initial IPO? If you’re curious, that IPO happened in 1986 and the $400 would be about $140,000 today.

I quickly realized I was clueless on what might actually constitute restitution. And I was starting to learn just a little bit about how far-reaching the effects of my sin could possibly be and that true restitution might well be beyond my ability to ever make.

I asked a couple friends for advice but they’re of little help. One friend thinks Satan is trying to trick me into kicking a sleeping dog because all pre-salvation sins are covered by the blood. He says it’s “false guilt.” The other friend thinks it might be the Holy Spirit convicting me.

I have also considered confessing and letting them name the amount of restitution they think is fair. But they will probably ask what I think I owe them (or why I sent the amount I sent, etc.). Also, the thought of committing myself to paying whatever amount they might name gives me pause.

There’s also the case of personal bankruptcy. I do not believe a bankruptcy discharges my debt in the Lord’s eyes. Does that interest just keep accumulating too? And I surely don’t want to throw myself on the mercy of bankers.

So, how does a Christian make restitution for theft today?

God sure gave definite instructions under the law. But since we’re not under law but under grace, would Leviticus 6:5 still apply?

. . . if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. 

Leviticus 6:5 (ESV)

I’m clueless and hoping there’s a biblical principle I’ve missed that would help me here. And if there isn’t, I’d really be grateful for just a “best guess” from another Christian.

Tim’s Answer

I appreciate your desire to make restitution.  What I do not know is whether the desire comes from the Holy Spirit or from some other source (well-intentioned but ill-conceived teaching, a weak conscience, Satan, etc.).  I know that the Holy Spirit will sometimes lead us to make restitution.  I also know that the Holy Spirit does not always lead His people to provide restitution. 

The New Testament has very little to say about restitution.  In all of the teachings of Christ and in all of the instructions of the apostles there are no direct instructions on restitution.  This is a remarkable absence. 

In the passage where Paul deals directly with stealing, he never mentions restitution, but rather admonishes that the thief change his ways to become a giver to others (Ephesians 4:28).  The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 is the only direct story in the New Testament that includes restitution.  There, Zacchaeus promised to restore four-fold.  But I think it is plain from the teachings of Jesus that salvation came to his house, not because of what he did, but because of his faith.  Faith is always the basis for salvation.  What he did demonstrated the genuineness of Zacchaeus’s faith, but there is no instruction here or elsewhere in the gospel saying that everyone who has taken is asked to demonstrate their faith in the same way. 

Some have seen restitution in John the Baptist’s instructions to bring fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8), but I am not convinced this is what John the Baptist was advocating.  Rather, I think he had in mind more the transformed life that Paul advocates in Ephesians 4-5, Colossians 3, Romans 12, and elsewhere. 

I realize that restitution was a regular part of the law in the Old Testament.  Some argue that the God who commanded restitution in the Old Testament has not changed and therefore restitution is required for believers today.  But this is illogical.  If I substitute eating pork, circumcision, the Sabbath, mixed fabrics, sacrifices, or many other things, I can use the same syllogism to conclude that we should be doing all of these other things as well because God does not change.  Yet, such conclusion would be contrary to Christ and the apostles’ instructions in the New Testament.  We are expressly taught not to teach abstaining from meats (1 Timothy 4:3), not to require circumcision (Galatians 5:2-5), not to be judged by Sabbath days which were merely a shadow (Colossians 2:16-17), or even to require adherence to the law itself (Acts 15:1-29). 

God does not change, but what He asks of His people has changed.  We do not perform animal sacrifices or go up to Jerusalem 3 times a year.  If the law was not to be imposed on the Gentiles, then why are my brothers and sisters so quick to jump to the conclusion that the burden of restitution (which was required under the law) is a required part of the Christian life?  It would make the Christian life impossible for those who truly understand how much they have wronged others.  This is why I am so thankful for Paul’s simple instruction in Ephesians 4:28.  The answer to stealing is to stop stealing, work, and become a giver.  That is the best evidence of a changed life.  Placing burdens is not part of the gospel.  Taking burdens off of people is the heart of the gospel and the very purpose for which Christ came. 

I will give you an example.  Suppose a young person grows up being a bully.  Perhaps through their grade school and high school years they take money, candy, lunches, and various other small things from their classmates.  Afterwards, they turn to petty thievery, to shoplifting, then ultimately to vandalism, damaging equipment and buildings to the tune of thousands of dollars.  Then they become an arsonist and burn down buildings worth millions of dollars.  Another person spends his life in business being known as a cut-throat competitor who gets ahead by driving others out of their businesses.  Still another person was not paying attention as much as he should have been and causes an accident that kills a young mother.  Each of these three persons thereafter comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. 

What would the gospel tell each one to do?  There is no way the first person could provide restitution as he does not even remember all of his victims. He also doesn’t know how much money he stole or caused others to lose. He is unable to make restitution.  It is beyond his ability.  For the second person, how could he possibly make restitution for the many business owners and employees and their families whose lives he ruined in his ascendancy in business?  For the third person, it is impossible to make restitution because the young mother cannot be brought back to life and the family can never be restored.  Nevertheless, some would say that each of these people should try to make restitution and God will judge based on their sincere attempts.  I think such advice is wide of the mark of the gospel.  God does not judge us based on our attempts to do what is right.  None of us would ever succeed on that basis.  God judges us in Christ, where there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

Thus, I am serious when I state that the Holy Spirit will not always lead us to restitution.  There is a theological reason for this.  When we come to Christ, we die (Romans 6:1-10).  We are crucified with Him (Galatians 2:20).  We are no longer citizens of this earth.  We are now sourced in heaven  (Philippians 3:20; Colossians 3:1-3).  Dead people do not owe restitution.  Heavenly people do not owe restitution any more than heavenly people owe taxes (see Matthew 17:27).  Nevertheless, as Jesus said with respect to taxes, in order not to offend, sometimes it is appropriate to make restitution just as it is appropriate to pay taxes. 

For this reason, I think it is critical that we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in this matter, as in all matters.  Thus, if after praying about the matter, the Spirit seems to be saying to you to make restitution, then you should follow through and make restitution.  As with many matters, if you believe that you should make restitution, then I would encourage you to do so, as it is important for us not to go against what our consciences are telling us to do.  But if after praying you are ambiguous about making restitution, then I would encourage you to put the matter aside for awhile and seek to do the things Christ commands of us in serving others.  Then, in a few months, you can reconsider the matter and see if the Spirit has created any more certainty in your life about the matter. 

I also know that there may be practical reasons in your situation to make restitution.  To the extent that others know about the situation and believe strongly that you should make restitution, they may stumble or think less of you if you do not make restitution.  Sometimes, it is good not to give grounds for accusations by others, even when the Justifier of the church is not accusing us. 

Now, to your actual question about the amount of restitution, I think your struggle is the question of how to make a wrong right.  As you may have surmised from your struggle with this issue, the answer is that you cannot.  Just as one who spreads gossip can never recover the words that have harmed another, so the one who steals can never undo the damage that was done.  Even repaying the $400 a week later does not undo the damage.  The point of Biblical restitution thus was not to right the wrong, but to provide a punishment commensurate to the crime.  Thus, there were various levels of punishment.  A stolen ox (which was a means for agricultural production) required 5 oxen for restitution (Exodus 22:1).  A stolen sheep (which provided wool and food) required 4 sheep for restitution (Exodus 22:1).  If the stolen ox or sheep was found alive, then only the return of the ox or sheep and one other ox or sheep was required (Exodus 22:4).  If money or an item was stolen, then a double payment was required (Exodus 22:7).  If there was extortion or lying about a robbery, then the guilty person was to restore 120% of the items worth (Leviticus 6:1-5).  The various levels of restitution represented both the loss to the true owner and the deterrent factor deemed fitting to the crime.  (Unlike in our present society, the amount of the fine or punishment went to the owner, not to the State.) 

In the present situation, the question is not how to clear the crime (which has been cleared already in the death of Jesus), but rather what is an appropriate level of restitution.  If the desire is to repay the wrong done, then I think the best measure is the value inflated to today’s value.  That would restore the amount.  One can always theorize that if you had not taken the funds, the company could have used the funds to buy some great stock and used that gain to become the next Berkshire Hathaway.  But the point is not to guess the future.  Rather, the point is to restore what was lost.  Thus, if the Spirit is laying on your heart that you need to make restitution for this wrong you inflicted 35 years ago, then my own advice would be to repay the $1,200 you initially thought would be appropriate. 

I realize that many of my brothers and sisters would disagree with me on my view of the need for restitution.  But I think my reading shares the heart of God for those who have been weighed down with prior sins.  I think that the view that God demands restitution misses the heart of the gospel.  I note that some of the Corinthians were thieves and extortioners before they came to Christ (1 Corinthians 6:10).  Paul says to them that they have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Paul gives them many instructions on living the Christian life.  Paul gives them no instructions on restitution.  Nor do I.

I hope this is helpful.  I encourage you to read the teachings of the gospels and the epistles for yourself and see what the Spirit teaches about this matter.  I think you will both find grace and find a strong basis for extending grace to others who may be dealing with similar issues. 

a pilgrim,

knowing vs doing


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5 thoughts on “Should I Make Restitution for Past Sins?”

  1. I’m glad I read this article
    A few years ago I stole something from one of my friends which I returned discreetly almost immediately she noticed it was missing. However, another friend of ours took the fall for it.
    I just dedicated my to Christ recently and for a couple of days I have been thinking about that situation. I woke up this morning with my heart being heavy and something telling me to reach out to my friends to confess but it would be hard as I’ve not been in touch that much since after University
    I’m so confused and unsure of what to do. I could really use your advice

    My only question (which may have already been answered in this well thought out answer) is what if this sought of thing was committed by a born again believer who was in a backsliding state. Same circumstance; a business was defrauded. How should that repented and regretful Christian make restitution?

  3. … continued

    They have confessed their sin and forsaken it, but they cannot get away from thr thought that they defrauded another (individuals represented by the business they’ve defrauded). They may have thought about confessing the sin, but because they claim the name of Christ, they may be concerned with bringing the name of Christ to an open shame.

    I’m am interested to learn your thoughts on this take on the scenario presented above.

  4. I hope you read the first part of my question. If not, allow me to restate. What if the same scenario involves a born again Christian who was in a backsliding state? They defrauded a business while in the faith others know of their profession of faith. They felt the conviction after, confessed it to the Lord, feels like restitution should be paid, but don’t know how to since it involves a business that may not even be aware of the fraud.

  5. Once you become a believer, God forgives us of every sin past, present and future. We can confidently go before Him in humility and with a repentance heart and ask for forgiveness. Those sins were put on Jesus at the cross and when Jesus died our sins were forgiven. Once we live for Him we confess our sins to Him and He forgives them and throws them in the lake of forgetfulness. Amen! Be free!

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