One of the more common questions I receive as a pastor sounds like this: “What sort of restitution do I need to make for my sins after conversion? I committed all these sins before becoming a Christian, so what should I do about them now?” Here’s the most recent question I received on this 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’s my response…
I’ve never thought much about going back and making right all – or even some – of the sins I committed before my conversion. The closest I can think of relates to a girl (and her family) I hurt badly about fifteen years ago. Two years ago, I decided to message the mother on Facebook and ask her to forgive me. I would’ve messaged the girl too, but 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.
Here are the three reasons restitution doesn’t need to follow conversion…
First, restitution doesn’t need to follow conversion because there are too many sins to count.
Nobody can remember all the sins they’ve committed. Even if they could – like the previously mentioned theft from Ross – we wouldn’t have the means to make them right. 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.
For most of us it would take the rest of our lives trying to “fix” our previous sins. My heart would really have to break for any deathbed conversions: “I want to be saved, but I don’t have the time to…”
Second, restitution doesn’t need to follow conversion because Zacchaeus is descriptive, not prescriptive.
We can experience many problems in the Christian life when we look at accounts in Scripture and we’re commanded to do the same. For example, the early church shared all their possessions and lived very communally (Acts 4:32). This is descriptive, but not prescriptive (commanded). Zacchaeus is another example. He chose to repay the people he ripped off. Luke 19:8 says:
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.”
We’re not commanded to be like Zacchaeus though. He did this on his own and not even at Jesus’ encouragement.
Third, restitution doesn’t need to follow conversion because salvation involves repentance, not restitution.
Salvation must involve repentance, which means turning from our sins. As a result, when we’re saved we should make a great effort 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 turn to Christ in faith.
With that said, restitution could need to follow conversion if…
The Holy Spirit could burden you to make some form of restitution for past sins:
- Ask for forgiveness from someone you’ve hurt
- Repay someone for something you’ve stolen
- Tell someone the truth after a lie you’ve told
- Try to fix the reputation of someone you’ve slandered
If God convicts you to perform some form of restitution, by all means obey the Lord.
- 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?