Question:

Hello!

Okay, I am going to tell you some things that have happened over the course of about six years. I am currently 20 years old.

When I was 14 years old, I was baptized. Soon after, I began to mess up and commit sin. (By the way, I do not have a perfect time line as to when all of this happened.) As I made my way through high school, I occasionally stole money from my parents. Later on, I stole a Bible and a calculator from a young lady at church. I also stole some tracts and a book from my grandfather. In high school, I was on the golf team. When I went to play at a local course, I stole a package of golf balls. While in high school, I never was much of a partier or drinker. But when high school graduation neared, I attended a party and got drunk for the first time. Later on, I stole several alcoholic beverages from my neighbor. After each sin I committed, (these mentioned here were not the only sins I committed -- just the only ones I can remember) I prayed to God and asked for forgiveness. 

I say all of this because now, I have come to realize that I was not in a right relationship with God. Last year, I began to doubt that I was baptized for the remission of sins. I kept putting it off, insisting that I was a baptized believer. A few months ago, I talked to the local preacher where my family and I worship, and I was baptized for the remission of my sins. (I'm still not sure as to which baptism was for the remission of sins.)

All of these past sins that I have mentioned still bother me. I told my dad that I have taken money from him before, I returned the tracts and book to my grandfather, I told the young lady at my church that I had taken her calculator and a Bible that belonged to her (she since has moved to Austin, TX), I called the individual that I taken the golf balls from and told him that I had taken some golf balls, and never paid for them.

I say all of this to get to my main point. I have repented. I am no longer doing the things that are sinful. But how much of my past wrongs do I have to go back and fix? Since repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of action, is stopping the sin enough?  Is it enough to pray to God like I John 1:9 tells us to do? Do I have to go back to each individual person and tell them that I have committed a sin against them, even if they have no idea that I committed a sin? Furthermore, do I have to go before the local church and tell them that I have sinned by getting drunk, even when it occurred three years ago?

Thank you for your time and consideration. 


Answer:

"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 7:10-11).

Your question is a common one. First off, all sins cannot be repaired. A murderer can repent of his sins, but he can't bring his victim back to life. Sometimes we can't repair problems because we can't find the person any more. And as you noted, often we simply can't remember all the individual sins that we have done.

What you did was good. For those whom you remember harming, you went back and corrected your sins to the best that you are able. But what is more important is that your life should be totally different now. People who know you today should be surprised if they ever hear about your rowdy past because they just can't see you doing those types of things. I know a lot of Christians like that. Something will come up in a conversation and they will say, "I did that when I was young and foolish." It leaves you thinking, "No way!" Not long ago I met an elder who told me stories of his hippie days and his drug use before he became a Christian. It was hard to mesh the stories with the solid, respectable business man who was telling me these tales. That is what repentance is all about.

So it is a bit more than stopping the sin, it is changing your behavior radically so that people would not associate you with those sins.

In regards to confession before the church, there is no passage requiring such a thing. Confession to God is required in order to be forgiven (I John 1:8-10), but confession to a brother serves a different purpose. "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). Many people are so appalled by what they have done that they don't feel they can ask God for forgiveness. God wants us to be open about our struggles with our brethren, both to gain their encouragement and for those brethren to pray on your behalf. Nothing says you must tell all the brethren or go before all the brethren. Congregations make a time available for people to tell all their brethren at once, simply as a matter of convenience.

I've known two people who because of their sins did things which embarrassed the church. Both felt they needed to explain what happened to everyone, but they wanted a chance to answer questions as well. So both went to all the members family-by-family to tell them about their sin. It took longer, but they were much happier with the result. But once again, let me state that God never said that every member has to be told.

Thank you very much! I really appreciate your time and help. 

I have a few more questions for you: 

Is confession to a brother required to gain the forgiveness of God? What if the brother whom you sinned against has no knowledge of the sin? 

If restitution is required for past sin, why doesn't Paul mention it in Ephesians 4:28? Why doesn't John the Baptist mention it in Luke 3:12-13? 

Sin needs to be confessed to God to gain His forgiveness (I John 1:8-10). Enlisting the aid of brethren in approaching God and for encouragement in changing is why we often find a faithful Christian to help. That is what James 5:16 is about. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous recognized the need to face your weakness in order to get past them. That is why one of the steps is to admit to others that you are an alcoholic. He borrowed the idea from James. For a sinner to get past his sins, he needs to face the fact that he does sin and is willing to admit it. See: Does sin require a public confession before a congregation? for additional details.

The question ought to be, did you cause harm to a person? If you stole from someone, would you not feel better about the situation if you repaid the debt? If the person doesn't know it was you and you want to remain anonymous, then send them an anonymous note explaining the situation and funds to repay. There are going to be things you just can't repay -- the harm was too great, the harm is not reversible, the person isn't available, etc. But you see this attitude of wanting to turn over a new leaf in life in Zacchaeus. When he repented, he declared, "Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold"" (Luke 19:8). Zacchaeus was a wealthy man, so the amount he is giving to the poor is not small. He is not stating he would be doing this on an on-going basis. What he is implying is that he may have gained his wealth by overcharging -- something the Roman government allowed a tax collector to do up to certain limits. He can't directly give back to every individual, so he will help the poor in general. In addition, he states that if he had defrauded anyone, he would restore their money four-fold. The law required various fines for different types of theft (Exodus 22:1-4; Numbers 5:7). The amount he set for himself was higher than what the Law of Moses required. This is not an admission that Zacchaeus had purposely defrauded anyone. If he made his wealth by fraud, he would not have enough money to pay all that he had just promised. Instead, he is saying that someone shows him that he had cheated them, though unintentional on his part, he would not hide from the fact but repay the person at a rate far higher than the law demanded. From these acts we know that Zacchaeus is serious about changing his life.

No one expects you to sit down and detail every crime you committed and attempt to reverse it. But you've gone though the ones that stuck out in your mind and you did what you could to undo the harm you caused. If you profited from you sins in general, then be generous to the poor as a way of paying people back -- doing good in their name.

It is a mistake to say that every verse on a subject has to say everything about that subject. Paul said, "Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need" (Ephesians 4:28). So Paul is stating much as I did above. A thief must stop his stealing, start being productive in society, and when the Lord blesses him, show that he has left his selfishness and greed (which are the motivations for stealing) by being generous with his excess. John the Baptist told those coming to him to stop their practice of overcharging taxes. Their sin had to stop. Does that mean that is all they should do? No, but that was the most important thing at the moment.

The important thing is that you stopped your life of thievery. You've apologized to those you particularly remembered harming. Now it is time to complete the change. Start being a productive part of society. And if one day the Lord particularly blesses you, use your excess to bless others.