In a effort to pump life into my devotions, I started to do something a little different.
I decided to become an idiot.
And it is challenging me, in one area in particular.
I was raised in the church. I went to Bible College after high school, and only after going on various missions trips. I pastored two churches at once in my first year out of Bible College.
I am not trying to toot my own horn, but I know the Bible. I know the stories. I know the details. At least I think I do.
And with such a background of biblical knowledge, I found that my devotional life was really waining. So I decided that I would become an idiot. I purposed to approach the Bible as if I did not know a thing. A difficult challenge, let me assure you, but a worthy challenge none the less. Not assuming what was coming next, not reading the future events into the past forced me to take what the Scripture said at face value. I had to take it for what it was, not what I wanted it to be, or what I was taught it meant.
It was in this devotional endeavor that I came across an idea, call it a principle that seems to have been long forgotten, or purposefully neglected in the church.
It is the principle of restitution, and I believe that it is a necessary practice if the Body of Christ is going to continue on, if we as Christians are actually striving to be like our God, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ (1 Peter 1.15-16 NIV)”
To help illuminate you as to where this forgotten biblical principle comes from, we must go back to the Old Testament.
It was in the book of Exodus, only chapters after the LORD God had handed to Moses the infamous Ten Commandments, where I realized that God was saying more than He said. There was more than simple governing laws for a nation that had just been freed from Egyptian slavery and walked across a dried up Red Sea into the desert in these pages. God was establishing lifestyle principles for the holy nation that He was building.
“Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.
“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed;but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed.
“Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double.
“If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard.
“If a fire breaks out and spreads into thorn bushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution (Exodus 22.1-6).
Now, so that the conversation can continue, we must address the issues that some Christians have with the Old Testament and deciding to follow anything that it says.
First and foremost, while the words of Christ, the letters written by the apostles in the light of what Jesus had done are wonderful and instructive for holiness and Christ centered living, so is the Old Testament. For Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5.17).” Everything that Jesus said and did, everything that the apostles said and wrote after Jesus did NOT contradict or negate anything that the Old Testament said. They complimented, they worked together. Jesus spoke and quoted the Old Testament, holding to the belief that all 39 books where just as inspired and written by the Spirit of God as the Church believes the 27 books of the New Testament are. So, if there was a principle, a set way of living that God had dictated and handed down to Moses, even Jesus would have held to that believe and called it good.
Second, the notion that the Old Testament is not for us in the modern day, for our modern religion is faulty and ignorant at best. While there are specifics that may not apply to us, having oxen eating in a neighboring field when we actually live in apartments or suburbs does not make the principle, the heart of the commandments any less applicable now. Rather than an oxen destroying a neighboring field, what about your dog or cat roaming around and leaving “presents” in someone else’s flower bed? There is a principle here to deal with our modern day reality, even if it is shrouded in ancient specifics.
Third and finally,while the Old Testament and the old covenant is not the path for our salvation, it is a detailed example for our life after salvation. What God handed down to Moses was for “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19.6).” God wanted a nation that was set apart, consecrated to use a more biblically familiar word, to act and follow the laws and decrees that He was sharing. Interesting that this same language is later used by the apostle Peter in his letter.
“but you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2.9).”
Peter called the followers of Jesus, this priesthood, this holy nation to declare and to show the world what an Almighty God had done for them. Peter implored the followers of Christ to be, to act just as God had called their ancestors to be and act in the days of Moses, to be holy and to act holy. Peter would agree that it was not this acting holy, following commandments that would bring them salvation, but as an act of worship, as holy men and women they would demonstrate and reflect the holiness of their God.
Now that we have dealt with that bit of business, we may move on to the principle of restitution, what it is, what it isn’t and why we should be practicing this in our Christian lives.
A simple definition will start us off.
Restitution is: reparation made by giving an equivalent or compensation for loss, damage, or injury caused; the restoration of property or rights previously taken away, conveyed, or surrendered; restoration to the former or original state or position.
With that simple definition and a second glance at the portion of Exodus 22, it is not difficult to see that restitution is very much something that God was establishing when Israel had just moved out of Egypt.
An ox or sheep eats of a neighbor’s crop and the owner of the ox or sheep is required to make it right by reimbursing the neighbor’s loss of crop. If you are responsible for the start of a fire that causes the loss of a man’s vineyard, it is on you to see that he is compensated for his loss.
There are a handful of verses that are not the limit to what is said with the principle of restitution attached to it. God continues to tell Moses, to tell Israel they are to behave in such a way for the rest of the chapter. And this is not the only place that it is mentioned with the whole of the Old Testament.
This is not a principle that is hidden in the ancient languages of the Bible. It does not require numerous theological or biblical degrees to see. It is very plain, very simple, very much in the face of the reader.
What is striking about this biblical principle is how radically different it is from the definition we use.
Read the definition again. Reread what God said in Exodus.
It is not a mere 1 for 1 ratio of retribution that is required. It is not as simple as the cost of a house or field one is required to for the destruction or ruin of a house or field. In some cases, it costs more. A great deal more in the case of an ox or sheep being stolen or slaughtered. Double, four times, even five times the cost must be paid back in some cases. God is asking for more than an equal payment. But more on that later.
When I read these verses as a part of my devotion, I was struck with a question. It was out of my “idiot” character to be applying future events of the New Testament to the texts of the Old Testament, but I was curious about something.
So I proceeded to pose the question through my Twitter and Facebook.
“Should restitution still be practiced in the church? Or does that fly in the face of grace and forgiveness? #ex22.3 #theology”
It did not take long before there was dialogue being sent my way, and from one person in particular.
My best friend and theological better, Paul Walker, quickly jumped up with comments and remarks as to what he thought our attitude towards restitution should be.
If you are so inclined, you can read the whole dialogue between the two of us on Paul’s blog, As Above, So Below. For the purposes of this blog, I will include exerts of the conversation.
When Paul first answered the question, and upon further reflection, it was clear what his position was. And to be honest, he is not wrong. There is no fault in his reasoning, reading of Scripture or his systematic theology in this case.
Should restitution be something that the Church practices? Paul Walker would say no. And not without good reason. Paul took the idea of restitution this way.
If someone was to hurt us, if someone let their ox or sheep loose in a Christian’s field, we should not expect restitution. We should not be waiting around for someone to make this right, to restore what was taken from us. Rather we should be acting like our Father in Heaven acts, being holy as He is holy.
In the case that someone has hurt us, someone has left us with a deficit that needs to be restored, Paul advocated that we should respond not with expectations of restitution, but with a gracious and loving action of forgiveness.
“What if Christians ‘forgive as the Lord forgives’ (Col 3.13)? That is to say… freely, without condition, and willing to absorb sin in order to condemn it. (Rom 8.3)
“Forgiveness is not saying ‘it didn’t happen’. It’s not cheap. You had to absorb the loss. You had to take the hit. Forgiveness is choosing to refrain from retribution and cancel the debt owed to you. The younger son [from the parable of the Prodigal Son] still squandered half the family’s inheritance. The money was not coming back. But a ‘lost and dead’ son DID come back. Forgiveness seeks to rescue that which can be saved.”
To this, I must agree.
One of the cornerstones of Christ’s teachings was forgiveness. So much so, that while He was dying on the cross the words of forgiveness still lingered on his lips and echoed out into eternity.
“Father, forgive them…(Luke 23.34)”is counted as one of the seven last words that Jesus said before his death.
Forgiveness was always and is always the way of Christ, and should be the way of His followers. When someone does do us wrong, when we are scorned, when we suffer a loss, when we are struck on the one cheek, what do we do?
We do not look for restoration. We do not expect or demand that things be made right. We do what goes against our nature, and choose to do what is in Christ’s nature. We turn the other cheek. We swallow that suffering and scorn. We take the blow in stride, and offer forgiveness, grace and love. Just as our Lord did, so we should do as well. If we take the command to be holy as He is holy seriously, this will be our reaction.
“If we forgive expecting and demanding a restitution, then that is not forgiveness.”
“That is payment.”
Paul Walker could not be more right.
But that then begs the question, if I agree with him, what is the disagreement about? What do I hold to that is different than Paul?
If I am agreeing that a Christian should be forgiving, if a follower of Jesus should not be demanding of restitution or restoration from someone that has wronged them, what is my hold up?
Paul rightly discussed how a Christian should respond when they are hurt.
I was, and still am, wondering how a Christian should respond when THEY are the one that did the hurting.
Should a Christian offer restitution if they are guilty of hurting someone? What if one of our oxen or sheep got into a neighbor’s field and ate their crop? What do we do then? What if we do something that leaves someone in a state of loss? What if we are reason that someone is not whole? What do we do then?
In all my years of growing up in the church, I have never heard a sermon on restitution. My father, who is also a pastor, had to answer the same way, that he had never heard a sermon on that topic. He admitted that he had never preached one either.
You could chalk that up to the subject matter not being “cool” when you compare it to the other “gospels” that are being preached. Or you could chalk it up to this reality:
Restitution is a demanding and humbling act.
But does God actually call us to do this? Does God actually expect us to shell out cash or our crops if we are the cause of someone’s loss and pain?
There are times when the church forgets who God is talking to within the pages of Scripture. Sometimes we assume that this commandment or that one must strictly be a cultural issue, it has no bearing on us in the 21st century. Why worry about it? Or sometimes we think that God is speaking to the sinners in the audience, as we traditionally have with Scripture like Revelation 3.20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Jesus is not talking to the sinners, He is speaking to the Church. Specifically the church in Laodicea, the church that was not being repentant.
When God was handing down the commandments to Moses in the book of Exodus, it was not to a group of unbelieving, faithful sinners.God was talking to the faithful. He was speaking to the believers, those that heard His voice and wanted to follow it.
So, when God said to Moses, “Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep,” or “If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard,” He is talking about the righteous and faithful.
When they screw up, when they sin, when they do something that hurts someone else. When their actions or their lack of actions leaves someone in the lurch, leaves them in a space of wanting, this is how they are supposed to respond.
That response is with restitution. That response is with making whole what was not. That response is bringing back into oneness that which we are guilty of breaking. That response is bringing something back to its original state or to a better state.
This is a demanding commandment. This is not an easy law to follow. It is quite possible that even the thought of your having to repay or make good on the things that you have done wrong makes your stomach turn. I know that it makes mine sink like a stone in the ocean.
While talking with my father about this idea or principle of restitution, he shared a story with me.
There was a farmer that offered to take down his neighbor’s barb wire fence from around his pasture. The only condition, the only cost was that the farmer could keep the wire. The neighbor had no issue with that arrangement and let the farmer take down the barb wire fence.
As the farmer drove around the pasture, he happened to drive over a rock while rolling the wire. Not an uncommon occurrence in a pasture, but this time there were dire consequences.
Driving over the rock started a fire that burned the neighbor’s entire crop. It was estimated to be $1 million in damages. The farmer did not have insurance to cover the cost of the damage, it was not his field. Most people would say that it was not the farmer’s problem, that he was not obligated to do anything about the damage.
But the farmer was a Christian. And as a Christian, he was paying back his neighbor.
I wrote this story in the past tense, but when my father shared it with me, it was not past tense. This was not some long ago story.
My father said, “And as a Christian, he is paying back his neighbor.”
A million dollars?!?
That is a lot of money, even though we hear about companies buying one another for hundreds of millions, or people being sued for mere millions. For most of us, we would love to have that kind of money sitting in our bank accounts.
But to pay back that much money? And over something that is technically not the farmer’s problem?
That is unheard of. That is madness. Some people would suggest that he make a gesture, try to help out, say that you were sorry and cut the neighbor a small cheque. But that was not enough for this Christian farmer.
The words that God spoke to Moses and Israel in Exodus, the actions of this Christian farmer provoked me to this thought: we should, Christians should be people that offer restitution for the things that we do wrong.
When Paul Walker heard this story, he was amazed, as I’m sure most people would be.
“I really like the example you’ve shared. I really respect the person’s decision to pay his neighbor for the losses.”
And how could you not? Here is someone that has taken a principle, a commandment and they have dedicated themselves to living it out, to being completely obedient to it. This farmer is taking his faith seriously. He is actively and purposefully doing as God has told him to, even at the cost of a million dollars.
When I look at the verses of Exodus 22, I find myself asking if I would be willing to so live out my faith.
Would I be willing to take God and His Word so seriously that I would pay someone back in such a way? Would I submit myself to such a humbling and even devastating position as owing a neighbor one million dollars for something that may not be my “responsibility” or even my fault, because that is what God wants?
In some cases, will I be willing to pay for more than a 1 to 1 ratio for my restitution? If my daughter, when she is older, steals a chocolate bar from a grocery store, am I willing to humble myself and pay for more than the one chocolate bar? Am I willing to give more than enough to make whole what damage I am responsible for? As I started to mention early on in this blog, there are some situations where God required more than a one to one ration restitution. To pay more than enough, to sacrifice more than what it cost, am I willing to do that?
You could make the argument that God doesn’t want to see you financially broke or destitute, so maybe it is more of a suggestion if your money can stretch that far. But I see God’s commandments as no suggestion. If God so expects you to make restitution for the things that you do wrong, for the hurt and lack that you may cause in others, willfully or not, I believe that God would make a way for you to survive.
The real issue here is not a matter of finances, but a matter of obedience. It is a question of whether we will be responsible for our sins or not. It is a question of whether or not we will do as God has asked.
If you are put off by the language of obedience and God requiring that His people do as He has commanded, I’ll explain this idea of restitution another way. A way that paints restitution not just as something God would ask us to do, but as something that God has modeled for us to do.
Because I grew up in the church, I know a lot of the old choruses. Before Chris Tomlin and Matthew Redman were writing the songs we sing today, there were books of choruses that date back to Reformation.
One that I remember, one that sings the truth of restitution, went like this.
“He paid a debt He did not owe, I owned a debt I could not pay,
I needed someone to take my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song, Amazing grace all day long,
My Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.
When Jesus was up on that cross of Calvary, he did not deserve it. There was no reason for Jesus to be hanging on a cross. He was a man without sin. He had done nothing wrong. There was no one on the earth that He had hurt, no one that He owed, no one that He had left lacking or in need.
Rather, Jesus came to humanity and said, You have a great need. You are lacking in one specific place. You have been hurt. Someone has left you unwhole and not made it right.
You are in need of restitution, but that is not something that you can do on your own. You do not have the power, the perfection, the holiness to take your broken and damaged souls and make them whole again.
But I can. I will pay for your lack. I will take the cost on myself and see that you are restored back to your original nature. I will die a horrific and violent death so that you do not have to. I will make restitution for you, even though it is not my debt to pay. Even though it is not responsibility, I will make it all right.
The principle of restitution, shared in this light, in the light of Christ’s sacrifice paints a wonderful picture of what God invites us to do.
God invites us to be a smaller example of Jesus. God invites us to pay a debt that is not our own. He invites us to bear a burden that does not belong to us. God invites us to live in a way that sees others freed, see others made whole by our sacrifice. God invites us to engage with the world through mini deaths, mini denials of ourselves to show a hurting and lacking world that they do not have to stay in the same sad pit that they are in. They can be restored to the original glorious state they were created to enjoy. While our sacrifice, our restitution is but a dim reflection, we are acting like Him who was the Sacrifice for all of us.
Some Christians may want to discredit this principle of Christ’s restitution based on things like the metaphor of Christ paying someone for a debt, or there being a price that had to be collected for our sins. There is a time and place for that discussion and this is neither. Even without the payment metaphor in place, Jesus still illustrated the principle of restitution by making us whole, offering us a renewed and restored life through Him, even when it was not His responsibility to make it so.
Jesus paints the ultimate picture of restitution for us to follow, the best example of a commandment acted out for us to obey in turn.
When my father said that this was not a cool topic, he was right. Speaking of our sin, our actions, the actions of those that we are responsible for and having to deal with them is not something that you see people writing books about, tweeting about or making into YouTube skits. This is a very serious issue, something that has been forgotten and neglected for too long. That should not be the case.
This is something that the community of Christ needs to be aware of and needs to start acting on again. If we are going to be serious about our faith, if we actually want to be holy as our God is holy, than restitution is something that we should be practicing.
All this started with my decision to be an idiot when it came to reading the Bible for my devotions. But now I am in a position where I need to make an intelligent choice.
I called this the “Challenge of Restitution”, because it is not easy. The implications of this commandment are life changing. The actual acting it out can be humbling and put you in a financial position that is less than ideal. The choice to willfully disobey God does not appeal to me, that is the last thing I want to do.
So I remained challenged, and will continue to grapple with this idea of restitution.
While I am grappling with this, let me know your thoughts.
What do you think of this idea of restitution? How have you heard it explained and acted out? Do you have any stories of you personally restoring someone, or of you being restored by someone else?
I would love to hear from you.