How do you and I think of our past sins? How do we deal with them? You may immediately say, “We confess our sins to God and ask Him to help us to do right in the future.” This is partially true and we should bear this in mind. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The blood the Lord Jesus does cleanse us from all of our sins (v. 7).
However, this answer is only partially true. God doesn’t merely want us to confess with our mouth our past wrongs, but He wants us to have a different inner attitude toward them. This is called repentance. To repent means to view something as sinful, to have a different view of those past misdeeds, and to determine to do what is right in the future.
If we have never come to Christ, we must repent of our sins (Acts 3:19; 17:30-31; 20:21). If we have come to Christ in the past, we also are required to repent of our sins to gain God’s forgiveness (Acts 8:22; Revelation 3:19-21). In both cases, we must have a change of heart that leads to a change of life!
In addition to repenting of our sins and seeking God’s forgiveness through Christ, we should be willing to make restitution for our wrongs. To make restitution is to make amends for our past sins and to determine to live according to God’s will in the future. John the baptizer declared, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; cf. Luke 3:8). This speaks of repenting of our sins to God and making a change in our life—the fruit of repentance.
Paul likewise preached that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). These “deeds” indicate that we have repented and are now living differently. Repentance should give evidence that we do righteous deeds instead of the sinful deeds. When we begin to do righteous deeds in place of unrighteous ones, we will want to make amends for our past sins.
You may remember how Zaccheus repented of his past life and told Jesus, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). This means that Zaccheus was willing to have a different inner attitude which included a generous spirit toward others. Further, if he had defrauded anyone of anything, he would have been willing to give back to that person four times more than he had taken!
One of the most difficult issues that I’ve had to ponder and teach has to do with people today who recognize that they have sinned in one of many different ways and then they repent and want to make restitution for those past wrongs. Some issues may be somewhat simple to implement. For example, if you stole an item of clothes from a store ten years ago, it would be relatively simple to return to the store and give back the price of the article (perhaps with interest). Again, suppose you took $500 from a friend or family member five years ago. If you repent, you can go to that offended person, confess your sin, and return the $500 along with interest. This would be a simple matter of making amends for past wrongs by returning something stolen.
However, not all things are this simple. In fact, most things are not this simple. What does one do if the repentant person cannot find the person he stole money from? Or what does he do if the business he shoplifted went out of business some years ago?
Or consider this: If you are guilty of slandering or gossiping against John years ago, how does one go about making amends for these verbal sins? You may not remember all of the people involved in your lies and slander. Even if you remembered the half dozen people you shared slander with, you may not be able to locate the person offended to seek his forgiveness.
The issue of divorce and remarriage is a particularly difficult matter. Suppose you renounced your spouse and chose to marry another person. Scripture calls this adultery (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3). How can you undo this sin? You may be able to leave your present adulterous spouse (from a second marriage), but in all probability you couldn’t return to your first spouse and act like nothing has happened. In fact, your first spouse may not be interested in resuming the first marriage! And often the first spouse has remarried too! Some might also say that God wouldn’t want you to go back to your first spouse (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Thus, you can escape from the sin of adultery with the second illegitimate spouse, but you can probably not go back and resume your rightful first marriage after so much “water has gone under the bridge.” Just how would you make restitution in this troublesome case?
An extreme example would be the sin of murder. If you are guilty of killing another person and you are put into prison for twenty years, you can receive God’s full forgiveness for your sin of killing another. However, how can you make restitution for this sin? How can you bring the person back and give him his life and give his loved ones his life? Strict restitution is not possible in this case.
Occupations and professions would be another broad category of sins and they would show the extreme difficulty of making restitution. Suppose you work for a store like Walmart and are a checkout girl or man (the same would be true if you stocked the shelves or managed a department). Every day, you sell hundreds or thousands of items to the patrons. If you are a mature Christian, you can see that many (even the majority) of the items would be sinful in nature. We refer to junk foods, immodest clothes and shoes, movies and CDs, holiday items, jewelry, cosmetics, and children’s toys. If you earn $25,000 a year in this work and are employed for ten years, this would be $250,000 total. If you come to repentance, how can you renounce this amount of money? It was “ill gotten gain” but what can you do now? And to whom would you give it? Would you give it to the poor, throw it into the lake, or what? This is an illustration of the difficulty of making amends for wrongs you have done in the past.
Suppose you work in a high school and teach biology or chemistry. (Or teach science in a college or university.) The job requires teaching the lie of evolution, something that is an abomination to God our Creator (Genesis 1:1ff). When you choose to repent of this past involvement, what should you do now? You cannot continue to teach the evil theory of evolution but your job absolutely requires this form of education. Yes, you may be able to find employment in some other profession, but what can you do about the ten or twenty years that you spent teaching lies? You want to repent and make restitution, turning from the hundreds of students that you wickedly taught lies and influenced in a wrong direction. Some probably even became total unbelievers and renounced the Bible and God because of your influence! And what can you do at present?
Suppose you work for a company for thirty or more years and then retire, with substantial benefits and a retirement package. And then you come to the realization that you have sinned against God in working for this firm or company. What should you do now?
This is a realistic example. I happen to live in the city that produces vast numbers of fighter planes for the military and for foreign countries. It is the largest employer in the county, with thousands employed. As you can imagine, many of these retired people live in the city. Suppose one of them seeks to repent of his sin and past compromises, including building these “killing” planes. One can regret such involvement but what does such a person do now? What does he do with the $1 or $2 or $3 million he has earned during his career? What should he do with his retirement income? Keep in mind that his past income and present income is derived from a compromising activity of involvement in vast amounts of killing! If a person is presently employed in such a business, it would be difficult for him (or her) to repent and additionally difficult to make restitution!
One more illustration will suffice. Five, ten, or fifteen years ago, you were involved in a sexually immoral relationship and became pregnant. You now have a dilemma. What shall you do with the baby that is the result of your irresponsible and evil behavior? Suppose you “solved” your dilemma by murdering the baby (through abortion). Your sinful activity also involved the doctor, the nurse, and others involved at the abortion facility. Further, your closest friends knew of your murder and also chose this same murderous action, at least partly because of your example and influence. Now what should you do? You can’t bring the child back to life. Perhaps you can devote your remaining years warning other men and women of the disastrous results of this action, but it still will not revive your aborted baby.
Our discussion shows that most people are involved in massive amounts of sin and when someone chooses to repent of his or her past wrongdoing, correcting this may be very difficult. Sometimes the restitution may be more forthright, such as returning a small amount of money stolen in the past. Sometimes the amount may be somewhat paltry, perhaps $10 or $20. At other times, we may be referring to $1,000 or $100,000, or $2 million! Even in some of these cases, restitution may be possible, with much sacrifice and difficulty.
A stolen amount may be repaid
Slander against another may be partially corrected through confession
Worldly education may be repented and forsaken
Immodest clothes worn in the past can be discarded and people warned
False teaching can be forsaken and extensive correction with Biblical teaching can be promulgated
Like Zaccheus, you may choose to give half of your possessions to the poor and anything defrauded can be given back four times as much (Luke 19:8). Probably in all cases, you can at least cease to sin and choose to discontinue the sinful activity. But making restitution for the past sins may be very difficult and require much sacrifice. It may require selling your house to obtain the money to give back. It may require forsaking a bank account or a retirement fund. It may require selling your cars and furniture. It may require forsaking a spouse if you determine that the relationship is adulterous. You may need to renounce a homosexual relationship. It could easily require leaving a wrongful employment and finding a lower-paying but honorable position.
Jesus declared, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus said that we must “deny” ourselves and “take up our cross” and follow Him. If we wish to save our life, we will lose it; but if we lose our life, we will save it. If you determine to make restitution for your past sins, this speaks to you.
Christ also said, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12:25). If you love your present, earthly life so much that you choose to close your eyes to restitution, you will lose it. But if you “hate” your life in this world, you will have eternal life! Which is the most important? Which is the only rational choice to make?
Paul wrote, “The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Maybe you can see what you should do to make amends for your past sins, but it will cost a great amount of money. Will you continue to “long” for your riches and end up wandering away from the faith?
As you read through the New Testament, you will find dozens of verses that address this matter of forsaking wrong, including the wrong we have committed in the past. Some of the principles you will find will relate in some measure to this matter of making restitution for your past sins and compromising relationships. What will you do with this truth as you come to it?
Repentance and Restitution for Your Past Sins
We all know that the way of Christ is narrow and few find it. However, it leads to eternal life! In contrast, the way of the world is broad and many walk on it. Sadly, it leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
The narrow way includes the way of repentance and, hence, the way of confession and restitution. Which way will you walk?