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:
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?