Jim Wilson is the retired director of Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho. He will be posting regularly, so check back in soon!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Restitution (part 1)

Once there was a man who robbed a bank. I will not go into detail about how he accomplished it, but the result was $100,000 in his briefcase. Within five minutes of the event he was walking down the street with the briefcase (and the $100,000), when he encountered an evangelistic street meeting. He stopped to listen to the Gospel proclaimed in love and power. He was convicted and converted. In his new-found joy he talked with the evangelist and asked him what all of this joy meant. The evangelist explained to the man that his sins had been forgiven.

“All of them?” asked the man.
“Yes, all of them,” answered the evangelist.
“Oh boy, now I can enjoy this $100,000.”
“What $100,000?”
“This $100,000 in my briefcase that I removed from that bank over there ten minutes ago.”
“OK, let’s take it back.”

The story is fiction, but the principle is true. The principle is simply this: being forgiven does not mean you get to keep the money. You may think that the principle is so obvious that you do not need to be taught it. There are two reasons it is obvious in the story:

1. It was $100,000 (grand larceny), not two dollars.
2. It was ten minutes ago (immediately before conversion), not twenty years ago.

Suppose, however, it was two dollars, twenty years before the conversion. Is the principle still just as clear? If not, where is the cutoff point, either in the size of the theft or in the amount of time since it occurred? Is restitution required only in big and recent things?

Let’s take a look at what the Bible says.

The LORD said to Moses:
“If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do¾when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering. And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any of these things he did that made him guilty.” (Leviticus 6:1-7 NIV)

Read it again, and notice, “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord,” and “if he commits any such sin,” and “when he thus sins and becomes guilty.” Now look at the list of the things that have happened to this anyone and then check to see if they have happened to you. Finally we have a solution that will get him forgiven for the things he did that made him guilty. The solution is

1. Restitution in full with 20% added.
2. A guilt offering.

We know as Christians that Jesus completely fulfilled the guilt offering. He is the sacrifice for sins. Now what in the New Testament takes the place of the restitution? Perhaps repentance. But repentance that hangs on to the money is not repentance. You can plead that the “c” batteries shoplifted from the drugstore in junior high school were taken ten years before conversion, and conversion was five years ago. The batteries were not yours then, and they are not yours now. Even though you were truly forgiven five years ago, when you choose not to pay for the batteries, you are in effect stealing them again. In some cases, the choice not to make restitution will be enough to keep a person from becoming a Christian.

John the Baptist and Paul each made strong statements:

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matthew 3:8 NIV)

...I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. (Acts 26:20b NIV)

One of the great salvation statements from the mouth of Jesus was made about a wealthy (and probably dishonest) tax collector:

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9, 10 NIV)

This statement followed Zacchaeus’ declaration of restitution of “four times the amount” of whatever he had cheated. He also had “fruit in keeping with repentance” when he said,

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8 NIV)

I have had people object to returning stolen property because the amount was in the thousands of dollars, and they did not have the money and could not foresee ever having it. I have had others object because it was a small amount of money and, consequently, it did not matter. The objections go on and on. Some people have forgotten in which stores they shoplifted, or the stores have closed or the people have died. An alternative is given in Numbers 5:8:

But if that person has no close relative to whom restitution can be made for the wrong, the restitution belongs to the LORD and must be given to the priest, along with the ram with which atonement is made for him. (NIV)

If the money cannot be returned to the original owner, give it to the LORD. The thief may not keep it. It is not his. If the person does not remember how much it was he took, he should make a high estimate and add 20%.Restitution is one of the normal occurrences in a spiritual awakening. It might even be a contributing factor.

(An excerpt from On Being a Christian by Jim Wilson)

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