Brian’s question comes from a reference in Numbers 5:5-8:
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong.’” (ESV)
Brian, we know from a careful reading of the Scriptures that salvation was always by the means of grace. Salvation has always been by exercising faith in God’s promise. Salvation has never and is not nor ever will be conditioned upon any merit, works, or activities that a man could perform or keep. The Old Testament Israelites were no different. They were not saved by any works including keeping any portion of the law. God never intended the law to be a means of salvation. You remember the Apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:24.
God intended to save his remnant of Israel by faith. Abraham is the father of those Israelites who exercise faith. Salvation was based upon believing and trusting God through the various portions of the law that foreshadowed the coming of the only sacrifice that would satisfy God, His Son, Jesus the Christ.
Even though the Israelites were given a command in Numbers 5 to make restitution, it was not given as a means of salvation. It was given to serve as a means to believing and trusting God in a command that would ensure a normalized and civilized condition in a close knit society. It produced no salvation then and it produces no salvation today.
Also, all portions of the law, whether ceremonial, judicial, legal, or etc. where given to the Jews as God’s chosen people. They are not binding on the church today which is a separate entity. Paul told the Corinthian believers that the things written in the Old Testament were recorded so that they as believers should not sin against God.
Now, let’s move to the New Testament. There are a couple of key passages that need to be mentioned here. First, John the Baptist’s ministry considered of baptizing a people prepared for the Lord by their submission and repentance. Repentance is not simply or merely a “change of mind.” Repentance involves a grieving for sin (emotional), recognition of sin (intellect), and a turning away from sin with a turning to God and his ways (volitional.) Now what did John require to demonstrate repentance took place? Evidence, or what John called fruit of repentance was demanded. John wanted to see visible proof that repentance actually took place in the heart of the one whom he was baptizing. So when the crowd asked him what specific proof to their vocation would be acceptable, John gave instructions to soldiers, tax collectors, and everyday people.
Restitution is often a fruit of true repentance. If one has truly repented and one realizes that they have harmed, injured, or otherwise damaged someone, part of repentance would be to attempt to make the injured party whole. Restitution does not provide or make way for salvation; it is a fruit or evidence that repentance has taken place.
A second scripture that needs to be addressed is the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. In case you are not familiar with the story let me share it very briefly. Jesus is going to Jericho. A short man who was a tax collector wanted to see Jesus. Being short and unable to see above the crowd, Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree. As Jesus passed under the branch Zacchaeus was sitting on, Jesus told him to come down because Jesus was going to his house that day. While they ate and conversed, Zacchaeus repented and turned to Jesus in faith.
Zacchaeus was so moved by this salvation experience and knowing the Old Testament Scriptures determined to make restitution to those whom he cheated as a tax collector. Wouldn’t you like the IRS to repent? Once again, the restitution made by Zacchaeus, as extravagant as it was did not save him. Zacchaeus was not saved by the means of works or restitution, but to demonstrate true salvation had come to him, he demonstrated it by the fulfillment of God’s standards. Salvation by unmerited grace, yet evidenced by a spiritual work of restitution.
As far as your question goes, one who has wronged or damaged another person, entity, or society should make restitution if at all possible. Let me give some criteria:
- Restitution does not save anyone nor is it a pre-requisite for salvation
- Restitution is also not an “iron-clad” proof of salvation, many moral people feel remorse over certain actions and will attempt to make a past situation right – never place faith in an act of obedience including restitution for assurance of salvation. Faith is in the means of salvation, Jesus Christ.
- Restitution is a means or vehicle to visibly demonstrate redemption has taken place
- Restitution should be made to the person damaged as close as possible to the damage
- Restitution is to be vehicle of obedience to God, loving, joyful, and spiritual obedience. It is not to be done grudgingly, angrily, or expecting anything in return
Seek the mind and the will of God in each area that you think might need restitution and trust God to guide your steps as you seek to be obedient to him and his word .
The idea of “whenever possible” is crucially important to remember. There are some crimes and sins for which there is no adequate restitution. In such instances, a Christian should make some form of restitution that demonstrates repentance, but at the same time, does not need to feel guilty about the inability to make full restitution. Restitution is to be a result of our salvation—it is not a requirement for salvation. If you have received forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ, all of your sins are forgiven, whether or not you have been able to make restitution for them.
So, Brian, if at all possible restitution should be made to an individual we have wronged; and in response to your question, it is very important for today.
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