Question:

For some time now, my guilty conscience has reminded me of several crimes that I have committed in the past. The felonies include physical abuse, shoplifting, illegal file sharing and perhaps other things. I was caught red-handed for shoplifting once. However, I was only convicted for that one time. I had actually been shoplifting for a longer period of time. When the police asked me how long it had been going on, I lied and said it was the first time. In later years, I have come to remember this lie and realized how grave it is. Sometimes, I feel compelled to turn myself over to the police so that I could serve a just sentence and atone for my sins. I have consulted two human parties on this issue, and both state that I don't have to go to the police. What do you think? Should I turn myself in on order to get to Heaven when I die?

Answer:

As rough as it has been, it is good that your conscience has been bothering you. It means you still have one. A tremendous danger in sin is becoming numb to the problems it causes, "having their own conscience seared with a hot iron" (I Timothy 4:2).

The sad fact about sin is that it isn't always repairable. When you insult someone, you can't take the words back. You can apologize for saying them, but the memory what was said will always be there. You can't take back striking someone, but you can own up to responsibility for the damage that you caused. But in many ways the damage we do with sin is always going to leave a permanent scar in the world.

The desire to punish ourselves for our sins is an attempt to bring some sort of resolution. The problem is that punishment alone doesn't resolve the damage we caused. It doesn't "pay" for the crimes we committed. Instead, punishment exists to bring us to our senses so that we will change. It is the people in denial of their guilt who need punishment.

You have sorrow over what you did and that is the beginning of change. "Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter" (II Corinthians 7:9-11). Sorrow isn't repentance. Sorrow is the motivation to repent.

In II Corinthians 7:11, Paul gives a list of attributes of repentance. I would like to focus on one at the moment: the concept of clearing yourself. Repentance is useless if we don't make it a matter of personal honor to restore our good reputation, "but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance" (Acts 26:20). You can't undo your past, but you can do things in the present and future to show you've changed. Going to the police isn't going to do a thing to demonstrate change. Going to stores and offering to pay for what you stole is going to make an impact on the store owners. Come up with a talk for children about why shoplifting is so wrong and offer to do school presentations. Teach a Sunday school class on why stealing and lying are wrong and the harm that they do. In other words, stop wallowing in self-pity, grab the sword of the Word of God, and start doing battle against the lifestyle you used to live so others won't make the same mistakes you did. That is what Paul did. "And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (I Timothy 1:12-15).

Change yourself so dramatically that people who see the new you would have a hard time imagining that you used to lie and steal. Become a man of such integrity that people would trust you completely. In this way you will not only change yourself, you will set an example for others to follow. You'll change the world around you for the better. What better way to atone for sin than to be a part of those stamping out sin?