Restitution is a vital part of the forgiveness process, as we have written about in Living Guilt Free. [If you haven't read it, then I recommend you do before continuing.] In that report we mentioned that in the case of violent crime that any contact by the offender - however repentant - may cause further damage to the victim by bringing additional fear into their lives. Such contact is to be avoided unless counselors familiar with the situation feel that such contact would bring healing not hurt to the victim. That idea has been challenged with the idea that the New Testament states that a person should always go to the offended party to seek forgiveness.
In the vast majority of cases the offender IS responsible to make restitution to the offended person or victim. That is the normal process, but what if the victim has been hurt in such a way that further contact would increase the hurt or damage rather than heal it? In those cases, should restitution always be made directly to the victim?
Before we look at the New Testament we must examine the Old Testament teaching. Remember, in our comments below we are dealing with a criminal case - a serious criminal case. [In all non-criminal cases, the instruction is clear - seek forgiveness, make restitution.]
There are two other things we need to consider:
1. What is restitution? Restitution is not simply telling the person who was wronged that you are sorry. That is a starting point in most cases, but it is not restitution. Restitution is repairing - as much as humanly possible - the damage that was done to the victim's life plus an added penalty to compensate for the damage [Ex. 22:1, 5-6, Nu. 5:6-8]. Anyone who thinks that confession and saying sorry is enough has not understood the principle of restitution.
2. We have to understand the difference between the Old and New Testament Laws. In the Old Testament God laid down His requirements of how nations were to be governed. In the Old Testament God dwelt with criminal law and the principles of justice. These are still valid today, although no country follows them properly. In the New Testament God deals with church law and His requirements for how believers are to operate within their community and to those outside their community. Both are still perfectly valid, but we have to recognize the different emphasis.
With that in mind, let's return to our problem of whether a criminal in a serious crime should seek forgiveness from his victim[s] through personal contact.
In Biblical criminal law, many serious criminal offenses were capital offenses, including most rape and kidnapping. This means that the required restitution was the criminal's own life and that the only contact the victim would have had with the offender would have been at his trial and execution. This is powerful evidence for keeping the criminal and victim apart unless such contact is for the victim's benefit as judged by the victim or his/her protectors [i.e. parents, husband, father, pastor, etc.].
It should be noted that relatively minor criminal offenses, such as public nudity, would be dwelt with by physical punishment [Deut. 25:2-3] as the method of restitution. The offender was then restored to the community and the matter was forgiven and forgotten. However, if the offender lacked repentance and became a repeat offender, even minor criminal offenses would become capital offenses [Deut. 21:19-21].
This is God's justice system for every age. The crime is dwelt with. The victim is protected and restored. Personal contact between the criminal and the victim in a serious crime is minimal or non-existent.
Now let's turn to the New Testament. From the Old Testament we know what God's righteous requirements are for national justice systems; however, we also know that we currently live in an age where nations do not enforce God's law. So today how does a criminal who repents of his criminal activities make restitution? Should he contact his victim to make what restitution he can [not just apologize] or not?
Let's look at some verses and see if they apply to this situation or not.
"If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin..If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:7, 9
This Scripture is certainly against hiding our sin, criminal or not. I know of a famous Pastor who admits that before he was saved he used drugs and was immoral. It is not hidden, it has been confessed and forgiven. He walks in the light.
Our first responsibility is to confess to God and receive His forgiveness and cleansing - every offense is first against God before it is against anyone else. Under normal circumstances we would also confess to those we have hurt; however, that is not the focus of these verses. These verses are talking about not hiding our sin, confessing it to God, and receiving His forgiveness. One result of doing this is fellowship with a clear conscience in the body of Christ. Our past has been dwelt with, we no longer fear discovery, we can move ahead. This is not referring to a criminal/victim relationship. The focus of these verses is not even confession to one another, but confession to God.
"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." James 5:16, NIV
This verse is definitely talking about confessing our sins to one another. This is part of walking in the light. We don't have hidden parts to us. It doesn't mean that we spread all the intimate details of our lives to everyone who happens along. It does mean that we need trusted people in our lives with whom we can be totally honest without fear of rejection. The person could be a Pastor, an elder, or a brother [or sister if the person is a woman] in the Lord. It is someone[s] that we trust and can share our deepest secrets with. But again, this verse is not talking about a criminal/victim relationship. If our sins are of an criminal nature then our trusted friend can help us walk through whatever steps are need to be taken as far as the police are concerned.
"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Matt. 5:22-24
These verses teach us that we should not allow offenses, bitterness, unforgiveness, etc. to spring up in our hearts. Our fellowship with God is cut off if we habour these sins. We are instructed - whether we are the offender or the offended - to do all we can to get the matter straightened out. But again, from the very tone of these verses, we can see they are not referring to criminal matters. They are about gossip, anger, resentment, bitterness, etc.
All of these verses, and more, point to the necessity of confession of sin, seeking forgiveness from God and others, and walking in the joy of a cleansed life. None of them deal specifically with criminal matters because, as we said above, that is not the focus of the New Testament. None of these verses override the Old Testament principles of justice. In criminal matters restitution is made through the court system. If the court system is unBiblical, as it usually is today, justice and restitution will be corrupted. Nevertheless, we have to work with what we have, not with what we should have. Perfect justice is only possible on Judgment Day.
What about offenses that the escape the earthly justice system? Sometimes, even if a person confesses, the police do not press charges. Other times a Biblical criminal offense - like adultery - is not even considered a crime under national law. What does a repentant criminal do in this case? He [or she] wants to make things right for their previous victims, they want to receive forgiveness, they want to move ahead in their new life in Christ. What do they do?
The early church had to meet this question, as well. For example, a man commits adultery. In the Old Testament it was a capital offense - a serious crime not only against his wife and family, but also against society in general. In New Testament times adultery was common in society and not considered a crime by the government. What was the church to do? Were they simply to tell the man to apologize and all would be forgiven? For such a serious crime that hardly seemed fair to the victim.
It was in attempting to solve this problem that the idea of penance developed. It was later corrupted into a way of trying to earn salvation, but the original idea was good. There needed to be someway for the offender to make restitution to his victim [not the church] when the courts failed.
Paul faced this kind of problem in 1 Cor. 5:1-6. Here a church member was actually having sex with his mother and church seemed proud that he was able to do this under the "grace" of God. Paul set them straight and the man was excommunicated - the highest penalty allowed to the Church. The man apparently repented because in 2 Cor. 2:1-11, Paul instructed forgiveness and restoration. Notice; however, that this sin - serious as it was - was between consenting adults and is not a case of a criminal violating an innocent victim.
Considering all of the above, in my understanding of the Scripture, a criminal who becomes a Christian and repents of his or her crimes and wants to make restitution and receive forgiveness from previous victims should consider the following:
1. Forgiveness comes first from God - whether or not man gives it. A sin that is confessed to God and forsaken is forgiven and they can walk in their new life. The past is gone.
2. Confession should be made to the proper authorities and whatever consequences there are should be taken. This allows closure to the victim[s]. A public apology can be given at the trail.
3. In cases where the authorities do not take action even with a confession, the best interests of the victim must be the paramount consideration. In a serious crime - as far as Biblical law is concerned - the criminal is a dead man [or woman]. What that means in a practical sense is that the victim or their protectors [especially if the victim is a minor] determines what, if any, contact is proper.
4. Certainly, if the crime caused any financial loss, the repentant criminal is responsible for restoring what was taken. This includes medical expenses and time lost from work [Ex. 21:19, Luke 19:8-9].
5. Even in cases where there was no financial loss the repentant criminal may still pay a fine to demonstrate the sincerity of his repentance. This is not trying to earn forgiveness, but to restore what was taken.
6. If the victim refuses to forgive [or contact is denied] after all this has been done, the repentant criminal must simply leave it in the hands of God, trusting Him to work all things out.