One of the more common questions I receive as a pastor sounds like this: “What sort of restitution do I need to make after conversion? I committed all these sins before becoming a Christian. Do I need to do anything about them now?” Here’s the most recent question I received on the subject:
As I reflect on my past and my many sins I am more aware of how wretched and worthless I am. I am also convicted of sins I wonder If I need to undo.
For example, when I was 16 and I worked at Ross I stole clothes. I am pretty sure I don’t own any of those clothes now, nor do I know the amount or worth of what I took. However, will I go to hell if I don’t find a way to pay them back? There are so many other things I could list.
I feel like my past is like Humpty dumpty, and I can’t fix it.
Here are the three reasons I don’t believe we need to try to go back and make right all (or even some) of the sins we committed before becoming Christians…
1. Restitution Doesn’t Need to Follow Conversion Because There Are Too Many Sins to Count
We can’t remember all the sins we committed before becoming Christians. Even for the sins we can remember, we often don’t have the means to make restitution. Using the previously mentioned theft from Ross as an example, the person doesn’t still own the clothes, know the value, etc.
People who have had abortions often struggle with guilt for years. They can’t make restitution for their sins. All they can do is repent and turn to Christ for forgiveness.
If we thought restitution should follow conversion, for most of us it would take the rest of our lives trying to make things right. My heart would really have to break for any deathbed conversions: “I want to be saved, but I don’t have the time to…” When I was saved I knew the importance of living for Christ and dealing with the sin currently in my life, but past sins are in the past. They’re paid for by Christ.
2. Restitution Doesn’t Need to Follow Conversion Because Zacchaeus is Descriptive Versus Prescriptive
We can experience many problems in the Christian life when we look at accounts in Scripture and think we’re commanded to do the same. For example, Acts 4:32 says:
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.
The early church shared all their possessions and lived very communally. This is descriptive, but not prescriptive (commanded). How do you know what is descriptive versus prescriptive? Simple. Look for a command in the epistles. In this case, there is no command that our possessions be shared with all other believers.
Zacchaeus is another example:
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.”Luke 19:1-9
Although Jesus commanded Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, he didn’t command him to give away half his possessions and restore fourfold. Zacchaeus chose to do this on his own, but we’not commanded to do this prior to becoming Christians.
3. Restitution Doesn’t Need to Follow Conversion Because Salvation Involves Repentance Versus Restitution
Salvation involves repentance, which means turning from our sins. As a result, when we’re saved we must strive to ensure patterns of sin in our lives are broken. But nothing in Scripture says repentance also means going back and fixing the mistakes we’ve made.
If restitution was required for salvation not only could nobody be saved, salvation wouldn’t be by grace through faith. The point of the famous hymn, “Just As I Am” is God wants us as we are, not as we would be after we make some number of things right. We don’t have to do anything to be accepted by God except repent and put our faith in Christ.
Repentance Means Change Versus Repayment
Repentance is often defined as, “Going the other direction.” There’s truth in this definition, because a repentant person will stop doing what they’re doing and start doing something else. This is the biblical principle of “putting off and putting on”:
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put off falsehood, [put on] let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [Put off] Let the thief no longer steal, but [put on] rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. [Put off] Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, [put on] but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. [Put off] Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. [Put on] Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.Ephesians 4:22-25, 28-32
Although, before people can repent (stop doing something), they must first be convicted. Before people can be convicted, they must agree with God that their action is sinful.” This is why repentance means, “a change of mind, as it appears to one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done.”
Watch this sermon I delivered as a guest preacher to learn more about repentance…
With All This Said, You Might Need to Make Things Right If…
Soon after college I badly hurt a girl, and by extension, her family. My actions bothered me for years. At first I thought it was guilt. Then I thought the Holy Spirit was burdening me to apologize. I found the girl’s mother on Facebook and asked her to forgive me. Although I thought of messaging the girl too, I thought hearing from me would probably cause more pain than comfort. I did invite the mother to share with her daughter how sorry I was if she thought that best.
The Holy Spirit can convict you to make some form of restitution for past sins:
- Ask for forgiveness from someone you hurt
- Repay someone for something you stolen
- Tell someone the truth after a lie you told
- Fix the reputation of someone you slandered
If God convicts you to perform some form of restitution, by all means obey the Lord. Will it affect your salvation? No, but it will affect your sanctification and spiritual peace.
Discuss questions for the comments section:
- Why do you agree or disagree with this post?
- Can you thin of any other reasons restitution is not needed following conversion?
- Has the Lord ever burdened you to make some form of restitution? Can you share the details?
- Can you think of some other ways God might convict people to make restitution?