Forgiveness of sin is forgiveness of sin, not redefinition of sin (Rom. 13:8-10). “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” contains a glorious truth. But, misapplied as it frequently is, it also represents a travesty of biblical living.
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour; or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hat sinned, and is guilt, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering. And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest: And the priest shall make an atonement for him before the Lord: and it shall be forgiven him for any thing of all that he hath done in trespassing therein (Lev. 6:1-7).
Summary of the Text
God is the only ultimate owner of anything. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26). This is why property sins and crimes are sins against the Lord (v. 2). This is what God Himself says (v. 1). Property sins of various kinds can be perpetrated by means of deceit or by violence (v. 2). They can also occur through a windfall, with lying as a follow-up (v. 3). All the kinds of things that men do are covered here (v. 3). The thief must restore what is not his (v. 4). Whatever means he used to filch it, he must return it, along with an additional 20% (v. 5). He is to bring a trespass offering to the Lord (v. 6), and the Lord will forgive him for this kind of sin (v. 7).
Basics of Restitution
In the Old Testament, restitution was accompanied by the guilt offering. In the New Testament, the fact that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross fulfills the guilt offering does not mean that it fulfills the restitution.
Second, when God prohibited adultery in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 14), this presupposed that He had established and defined the institution of marriage. When He says not to steal, this means that He has established and defined the idea of private property (Ex. 20:15). We reject the Enlightenment idea that property rights are somehow held autonomously—whether by individuals or the state. My goods were not given to me by a “state of nature.” We “own” only what God has given us stewardship over—but if God has granted that stewardship then it cannot be abrogated by man. Attempts to do so are called stealing.
Third, men are stewards not just of “stuff” but are also stewards of time, and the fruitfulness that time makes possible. There is no such thing as static wealth. So when a thief restores the property, he must also restore value for the time it was gone, the time that was also stolen. This, presumably, is why the twenty percent is not a constant. Sometimes the thief had to pay double (Ex. 22:4,7).
Restitution and Rationalization
When it comes to money, we are all adept at interpreting the circumstances in such a way as to have things land favorably for us. This includes outright theft, but it also includes all the gray areas. We are familiar with the story of how Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14). But then Naaman came back to Elisha, and wanted to reward him handsomely (2 Kings 5:15-16), and Elisha flatly refused. Elisha’s servant Gehazi considered this a big waste, pursued Naaman, and lied to him in a way that protected Elisha’s reputation, and then stowed the money away for himself. As a result of that business, he was struck with leprosy, and became white as snow (2 Kings 5:27). If he wanted Naaman’s money, he could have his leprosy also.
We can certainly come up with all kinds of reasons why restitution is not practical for us. Or why scrupulous honesty with finances is not practical. For example, we might say that restitution would make the future inconvenient for me. To which the answer should be, so? If a thief cannot pay the amount back, the Scriptures allow for slavery (Ex. 22:3). That would be inconvenient. We might say that we did not mean to harm our neighbor’s goods. But the Bible requires restitution for culpable negligence (Ex. 22:5-6), and not just for deliberate theft. We have scriptural contingencies that distinguish between borrowed and rented (Ex. 22:14). We might say that we can’t make restitution because it is simply impossible to do so—the person we wronged is dead, or we can’t remember who it was. If so, then the money goes to the Lord (Num. 5:5-8). We don’t get to keep it. We might say that the coming of Jesus has wiped the slate clean. And so it has, making restitution a joy (Luke 19:10).
Or we might not be looking at our behavior straight on. Laziness at your job is theft. “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster” (Proverbs 18:9). “He that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23).
The passage of time does not make that twenty dollars yours. The blood of Christ does not make that twenty dollars yours. Forgetfulness does not make that twenty dollars yours. A deficient view of the Old Testament does not make that twenty dollars yours. The fact that you swiped it from your mom does not make it yours. The fact that the person you took it from never missed it does not make it yours. “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but good will is found among the upright” (Prov. 14:9, NIV).
Property Rights Are Human Rights
When economic libertarians try to ground property rights in the autonomous individual, without any reference to Christ, they are making an idol out of property. Whatever good things they might say about economics do not keep this from being an idol, and behaving as idols always do. And one of the things that idols always do is destroy that which is idolized. Those who worship sex destroy it. Those who worship wine destroy it. Those who worship mammon destroy our ability to enjoy it as a very fine fellow creature (1 Tim. 6: 17). We refuse to worship property, and this is why stewardship-property can be secure. With autonomous property as the rope, atomistic libertarians will always lose their tug of war with the state. When we compare the secularist (economic) libertarians with the secularist statists, we are looking at the difference between a competent businessman who loves money and an incompetent businessman who loves money. We have no reason to cheer for one over the other.
Christians are to see property as an incarnational and God-given way to love other people (Rom. 13: 8). And this leads to our last point, the most important one, really.
One More Thing
“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). Hard-line theonomists can pound the text—“take the money back, you antinomian!”—and miss the point of the law, which is love. What is the greatest commandment? That you love God. What is the second? That you love your neighbor. When the thief repents, he is to get a job—but not so that he can become a fat cat. He is to labor with his hands . . . why? So that he might give.
Whenever anyone puts property ahead of people, he is assaulting the reason God gave property to us in the first place. But when others foolishly react to this error, putting people ahead of property, they have abandoned the only material God gave us for loving others. One of the best ways to recover this understanding is to recover wisdom about restitution.
First preached January 2008