What about Restitution?

In the past few weeks, we visited the book of Philemon twice. There we learned of what true, gospel-motivated forgiveness looks like in both heart and actions. One of the actions we saw modeled by the apostle is restitution. Restitution is the act of restoring something lost or stolen, and to compensate for injury or loss. This is modeled by Paul when he assures Philemon that he will repay him for whatever the runaway slave, Onesimus, had taken (Philemon 18-19).

Restitution is rooted in Old Testament law, which required it as an accompaniment of true faith and repentance. The guilt offering described was similar to the sin offering, but there was one distinction. “It is the issue of compensation. The guilt offering, in contrast to the sin offering, was required for the type of offense that created a debt calling for compensation. This compensation applied both to indebtedness incurred by mistreatment of one’s fellow man and for the improper treatment of one of God’s “holy things” (M.F. Rooker).

Leviticus 5:14-6:7 introduces us to the guilt offering, where restitution is the focus of the passage. The main point is to show us that God required restitution from His people before their sacrifice for forgiveness was accepted. Two sections are clearly marked out. These sections are set apart by the opening words, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” And both sections finish with the closing words, “and the priest shall make atonement for him…” The two sections are different in that one deals with sins against God, which were sometimes involuntary, and, the other, sins against our fellow man. Here we learn of two expectations.

Make restitution if you have defrauded God, even unintentionally (5:14-19).

Notice this included wrongs that were committed “unintentionally” against the LORD’s holy things (v. 15). These particular sins were not committed in defiance (Numbers 15:30), but ignorantly without willful rebellion. They were sins of neglect, but they were sin nonetheless and restitution was required before an offering could be made for forgiveness. What are some of “the LORD’s things” that may have been sinned against? It could include:

  • Sacred property (the sacrifices themselves: misuse of portions of flesh or grain)
  • Offerings for the Lord (Malachi 3:8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.”
  • Vows made to God, but left unfulfilled. As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 5:5, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”

Whatever these specific sins were, which Moses wrote about, they resulted in damage or loss to God. What was to be done? A “guilt offering” (reparation offering) was to be made. The ram required had to be of a certain value: “valued in silver shekels” (v. 15), plus a 20% fine (and shall add to it a fifth part of it, and give it to the priest). So, the first time restitution is necessary is when God has been defrauded. But the law of Moses also required restitution to be made to one’s neighbor when necessary. Old Testament law instructed the person who was seeking the Lord’s forgiveness to also be sure to correct the wrongs he committed against his fellow man. Knowing this helps us understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24.

Make restitution if you have defrauded your fellow man (6:1-7).

In 6:1-7, Moses deals with the need for restitution from man to man. Notice the absence of words like “unaware” or “unintentional.” These sins were not committed in ignorance, but in deceit. This was fraud in its fullness (notice the phrase in verse 1: “by deceiving his neighbor”). Examples include failure to protect another person’s wealth through robbery, embezzlement, or extortion; and failure to return lost property.

Committing fraud against any fellow man included “anything about which he has sworn falsely” (v.  5). A modern example of fraud which we hear about a lot is identity theft, which damages a person’s reputation. In 2015 alone, more than 13 million Americans became victims of identity theft. From these examples, we see fraud wears many different costumes. But the moral expectation of God’s law is clear: restitution must be made (verses 5-7).

But what if the person who was been defrauded is now dead? Then what? God even made provision in His law for that situation (Numbers 5:8-9). God was careful to make provision in His law for various situations so that wrongs could be made right and riches gained through fraud could be returned with interest. If the person who was wronged had died then the restitution was to be given to the Lord’s work.

The New Testament book of Hebrews presents Jesus as our High Priest who offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. His death covers the damage our sin has inflicted on us and others, and His resurrection ensures new life. When we confess our sins to God and trust in the crucified and risen Christ, we are cleansed and accepted by Him. However, the specific point of the Leviticus passage is to show that there are times when repentance and faith must also bear the fruit of restitution.

Sacrificial and ceremonial law has found completion in the death of Christ. However, salvation in Christ does not release us from the obligation to obey God’s moral law. Another New Testament example of restitution as the fruit of repentance and faith in Christ is Zacchaeus (Read Luke 19:1-10).

What about you?

  • Have you defrauded God? Have you stolen from Him?
  • Have you defrauded another person?
  • Is it in your power to repay them?
  • Have you damaged someone’s property and not replaced it?
  • Have you borrowed another person’s belongings and not returned them?
  • Have you embezzled money from your employer?
  • Have you cheated on your tax return?

In cases like these, you cannot simply say, “Well, I’ve asked God to forgive me.” If restitution is possible, you should attempt to make it.

If the Holy Spirit convicts your conscience in regard to restitution you have not made then don’t waste any time making it right. Failing to do so may be a blight on the name of Christ our Lord, and a hindrance to your witness. In his commentary on Leviticus, Allen Ross says,

Failing to make reparation brings the body of Christ into disrepute and invites divine discipline. True believers know deep in their hearts when they have wronged God and others and cannot honestly enter worship and service without trying to make things right. That is the lesson of the reparation offering—one of the most practical of all the sacrifices.

If you have made restitution wherever possible then you may be assured of the fullest experience of forgiveness. But, if you have not, then you will not experience the fullness of intimacy with God as long as your conscience troubles you. Be willing to pray as David did in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”

That is a prayer that God will surely answer!

[Adapted from last Sunday’s sermon, What about Restitution? Search on the sermon title here.]

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