3 Reasons Conversion Doesn’t Involve Restitution

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 the subject:

Scott,
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…

First, 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.

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.

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 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. Luke 19:1-9 says:

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.”

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.

Third, restitution doesn’t need to follow conversion because salvation involves repentance, not 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.

With that said, restitution could need to follow conversion 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?

19 thoughts on “3 Reasons Conversion Doesn’t Involve Restitution

  1. Few years ago, I went for a close friends wedding. Somehow I stole money from her luggage which has never happened since we became friends…on discovering her missing money after the wedding when we got back home ,she wept bitterly and in the process laid a curse that whosoever stole her money and made her cry on her wedding day will not know peace and will never get married and that even if she gets marriage will never be happy…after some weeks I called her and confessed to her but didn’t reveal my identity…presently am marriage not for long thou (2years) without a child. It keeps coming back to me to go and confess openly to her before I can conceive even thou ve been diagnose of some not too serious issue… My question is will God accept my open confession and restitution as genuine since I waited till I had a problem I think is related to that senerio?

    1. Hello Otaniyen,
      Your story reminds me of Judges 17:1-2:

      Now there was a man from the mountains of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. 2 And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you, and on which you put a curse, even saying it in my ears—here is the silver with me; I took it.”

      It seems pretty clear that you’re convicted about what you did and burdened to confess to her. If you remember how much money you stole you should attempt to return that much when you ask for forgiveness.

      In answer to your question: as long as your actions are genuine, then God will definitely accept your actions as genuine. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

      It could be possible that God allowed this “problem” in your life as a way to bring about your confession. While I can’t say for sure whether that’s the case, I can say whether he used that or not, it seems clear you should do what’s right now since you’re under such heavy conviction.

  2. Hi Scott, thank you for this article. A friend and I were reading it and we have a few questions. I think it’s pretty clear in that you don’t necessarily have to go back and restitute every wrong you’ve done, that it’s not a requirement. His question seems to be about the Holy Spirit comment at the very end. I think it’s pretty clear that the only way that restitution would become a requirement is conditionally – if and only if the Holy Spirit burdens you with the desire to restitute. It would therefore be an obligation only if you feel it to be an obligation, and not an obligation in all cases, is this correct?

    1. Hello Ryan,
      Thanks for reading and asking. I copied your comment and responded below below your questions…

      I think it’s pretty clear in that you don’t necessarily have to go back and make restitution for every wrong you’ve done, that it’s not a requirement.

      Correct!

      His question seems to be about the Holy Spirit comment at the very end. I think it’s pretty clear that the only way that restitution would become a requirement is conditionally – if and only if the Holy Spirit burdens you with the desire to make restitution.

      It depends what you mean by the words “become a requirement.” If you mean a requirement for salvation, then no, restitution is never a requirement for salvation. Salvation only requires repentance and faith in Christ. If you mean a requirement for obedience, then I’d say, yes. If the Holy Spirit convicts you to make restitution, then failing to do so would be disobedient/sinful.

      It would therefore be an obligation only if you feel it to be an obligation, and not an obligation in all cases, is this correct?

      Again, it depends what you mean by “be an obligation.” If you mean an obligation for salvation, then no. If you mean an obligation for obedience, then yes.

      Just to respond to something else I think you MIGHT be asking: if the Holy Spirit hasn’t convicted you, and/or brought it to mind, then no, I don’t see how it could be an obligation. In most cases you wouldn’t even remember. If the Holy Spirit does bring it to mind and convict you, burden you, etc to make things right, then yes, you’re obligated to do so.

      Please let me know if you have any more questions!

  3. I agree with what was said on top if God says he can’t remember a sin then he won’t bring it up. It’s up thinking of having to work out salavstion and doesn’t trust simply in the blood. Like what was said restitution was a mosaic law concept to govern at that time. Zaccheaus operated under this notion as well as Jesus had not yet established the new convent. I wouldn’t worry so much about the past as I woukd the bright future. Don’t let the past bring you down when you can impact other people for the kingdom of Jesus.

    1. Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for your sentiments.

      You said:

      God says he can’t remember a sin

      Not sure if this is semantics or not, but Scripture says God won’t remember. I think that’s different than God “can’t” remember. One shows God doing something deliberately (out of love and grace for us), while the other makes God seem…forgetful :).

      At any rate, good thoughts about Zaccheaus and his actions being governed – or at least encouraged by – the Old Covenant! And thanks for the encouragement about looking past old sins toward the future in Christ.

  4. Here is my submission on this very crucial matter,the bible says :Hebrews 8:12 (KJV)
    12For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
    – This is the crux of the new testament ,if God has chose to forgive & forget our unrighteousness & iniquities,why then are we mentioning it again..? Why do we find it difficult to forgive ourselves..Zacheaus spoke on restitution based on the law that still exists at his time. Remember that Jesus was yet to die & so the testament was not new yet. But now that all things are new where did we see the law of restitution that we are talking about here? Won’t it amount to self righteousness to be practicing restitution ? I need detail response on this cogent issue. The thief that met Christ Jesus on the cross,did he restitute before he went to paradise?

    1. Hello Charles,
      I generally agree with what you’re saying. Great point about Zacheaus operating under the Mosaic Law. I hadn’t thought of that.

      Tone is hard to convey in writing, so I can’t really tell if you’re disagreeing with any of the post? It sounds to me like we generally agree with each other.

      The only thing is you said…

      Won’t it amount to self righteousness to be practicing restitution ? I need detail response on this cogent issue.

      I would disagree with this, because I think if God convicts us to do something – or not do something – and we’re sensitive to the Holy Spirit and obey, I don’t think that’s self-righteous. I think that’s obedient.

  5. Thank you for your words of encouragement. I’ve been a Christian for many years, but only recently the Lord has brought back to my mind many truly awful, shameful things from my youth and earlier years. I can’t tell you the “stabs” of shame that I felt at remembering what I’d done, and even the sin I commited at age 13 or 14 is as vivid today as it was when I commited it. And trust me, these sins aren’t “glamorous” Iif you know what I mean) but simply awful. I lately realize that the shame I’ve felt about my sins has kept me from intimacy with the opposite sex. I’ve always felt as if a good Christian guy (or any guy!) knew the truth about me, they’d reject me, so I always kept my distance. Before I began to remember these shameful things, I’d felt as if my Christian walk was dry. I asked the Lord to allow me to understand and to appreciate the cross, and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my shame and my sins. I’d forgotten that I prayed this, and so the weight of all of my remembered sins was almost unbearable. Thankfully, our pastor was about to begin a sermon series on the topic of shame, and with God’s grace and love, I am beginning to realize that Jesus Christ really did take the shame of my most shameful sins. My big struggle has been about restitution: to whom should I confess some of these things? Should I confess all of them? I realize that some confessions are necessary (to the person/people involved); but others may be detrimental. I really thank you for the good truth that “if God wanted us to directly address sins of the past, He will bring it about in His own perfect timing (which He often does!).” Please pray for me as I am in this process of healing and trusting God. Thank you again, so much!

    1. Thank you for the comment. We’ve all done “truly awful, shameful things” in our pasts. Thank God for the forgiveness through Christ.

      I’ve heard many people say their past sexual sins have affected their sexual relationships in the future. It’s one of the unfortunate consequences of sin, but one still by God’s grace that can be healed.

      I don’t know who you are, but I will pray for you!

  6. Might I add that taking responsibility for what you’ve done is important, too. Again, tho’, I think God gives us graceful opportunities to right wrong’s so long as our hearts are right and our eyes are on Him.

    1. Well said Summer (on both of these comments).

      Regarding damaged past relationships, while I let Katie know I’d be as transparent with her about my past as she’d like, she preferred not to know anything, because – like you said – she saw me as a different person. She wanted to leave the past in the past.

      And yes, God definitely has a way of introducing into our lives anything He does still want us to address from the present or past.

    2. Hi Summer,
      I definitely agree with you…when it comes to the Christian life. I was striving simply to address conversion (hence the way the title is worded), and I feel like “adding” this requirement to salvation would be unbiblical. I do hope I provided the right balance though, at the end, where I wrote:

      With that said, if the Lord convicts…
      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 about some form of restitution, by all means obey the Lord.

  7. When Scott and I attended a Christian conference 12 years ago, the speaker spent a good segment of his talk discussing how to address ‘old’ sins. He was a firm believer in confronting them, and seeking forgiveness in all things. I am all for that.

    This, of course, included damaged boy/girl relationships. That didn’t sit right with us. Scott and I talked long and hard about this, and really felt like – unless a situation presented itself – it wasn’t something that one should re-hash, become obsessed with, or even seek out at all. We should instead focus on our changed life, and ultimately, on God completely. We are no longer that person; those sins are no longer ours.

    I think if God wanted us to directly address sins of the past, He will bring it about in His own perfect timing (which He often does!). Don’t force it or let it consume what could otherwise be glorifying to God.

    If it’s a burden, bring it to God. Do what you can within reason (and so long as it isn’t destructive). And let it go.

    If it were only that easy sometimes…. Prayer is a powerful thing!

    1. Summer,
      I’m all for confronting old – or new – sins. As far as seeking forgiveness for them, do you know if he meant before or after conversion?

      Also, how “old”? I think you could spend the rest of your life going back to those past sins trying to make them right…and still be unable to do so. We’ve got to hope if God has the grace to forgive us He’s got the grace to help others forgive us.

      Regarding past relationships, yes, I generally think those are best left in the past. Sometimes reaching out to past ex’s can cause problems, including upsetting our spouse, or even upsetting the person we’re seeking forgiveness from. Maybe that person moved on and doesn’t want to think about us again?

      You said, “I think if God wanted us to directly address sins of the past, He will bring it about in His own perfect timing (which He often does!). Don’t force it or let it consume what could otherwise be glorifying to God.”

      Yes, I completely agree with this!

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please share!