Repentance and Restitution: Giving Feet to Confession

The pastor sent an “apology” to Jack. The letter was less than a page long and included a very general confession of sin.

At first Jack was encouraged by the words from his former boss. But, as he considered what repentance should look like from abusive authority, he began to question the wisdom of reconciling with the pastor on the basis of the pastor’s apparent repentance.

This is the experience of victim after victim of leadership abuse. Apologies that give hope, but in time prove to be false acts of contrition.

What is Repentance?

Biblical repentance is difficult to understand. The word is used freely as though everyone gets it. But identifying the actual repentant heart is not so easy.

Because repentance affects how we respond to the apology of a fellow believer, its identification is important. Repentance means reconciliation may take place. Repentance means a position relinquished because of sin may be regained.

We need to be able to distinguish repentance from other forms of people-pleasing responses.

True repentance is a matter of the heart. The actions of the repentant flow from his entire being turning from sin. And, this is the difficulty: We can’t know another man’s heart.

ID Repentance

However, in the Old Testament there are some helpful guidelines to recognizing and receiving repentance. There are a couple words that are at times translated as “repent” or “humble” oneself.

The word, “nâḥam” (נָחַם) means to breathe strongly; to be sorry, to pity, console or rue; or repent. Another word, šûḇ (שׁוּב) means “to turn back (hence, away).”

In either case, the idea is that the sinner has given up the sin. And it is not just in action, but the heart. Note, the terminology “breathe strongly,” There is the sense that the rejection of sin goes way down deep into the inner man. Breathe. What I have read about this Hebrew term gives the impression of deep sadness – inner change – over what the sinner has done.

Where we run into difficulty here is in defining and identifying repentance when there is a return to the old sin. Is it repentance if we do the same sin again . . . later?

I know of two “repentant” abusers who have made significant progress in overcoming their entitlement and control over their wives. However, they do continue to go back to the old ways at times. The difference is that they easily identify it in themselves quickly and seek to confess and turn from it. Their wives no longer consider them abusive.

So, we have to understand repentance in cases of abuse in like manner to our own various sins. It is why there is the old adage, “We must repent of our repentance.” We will at times go back to the trough of gruel. Our inner man never fully gives up on its idolatry until Jesus comes again.

But our recognition of the sin and deep sorrow over it has made significant progress.

Again, we do not know if someone else is truly, deeply sorrowful over their sin. Their words may just be further manipulation, of which many abusers are adept.

Confession and Resitution

Under the section heading of “Confession and Restitution” in the English Standard Version, Moses is given guidelines for determining repentance:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong.”

Numbers 5:5-7 (ESV)

This passage does not mention the word “repentance,” but I understand it to express the evidence of a repentant heart.

First of all, the sinner confesses his sin.

He understands that he has done wrong. He identifies that he has broken faith with the Lord. The Hebrew says he has acted treacherously. What he has done is really evil. And he confesses it. He doesn’t cover it over in any way.

I would suggest this means he doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t blame it on someone else, even a little. He truly owns up to the specific sin. In cases of abuse, he doesn’t suggest others made him do it or it was a small thing.

Then, he makes “full restitution for his wrong.”

Restitution is an important part of the Old Testament law. Just saying you are sorry doesn’t cut it when it comes to repentance. If there is to be reconciliation, restitution is imperative.

The difficulty with restitution is the application of it when it comes to relational sins like abuse. And, as we are not a theocracy, we do not normally apply the Old Testament civil law directly to our setting.

However, much of the law can be applied within the church in a principled way (keeping in mind we must not create a list of Pharisaical laws based on “principles” we find in the Law).

It is certainly appropriate that we expect a leader in the home or workplace to not only apologize for their specific sins of abuse, but seek some form of restitution. I would suggest this gives evidence of real repentance.

What Does Restitution Look Like?

What might that look like? Though I have written of the “look” of repentance in other places, I would like to explore restitution here.

Note, that restitution was normally full payment for what was “stolen” or “destroyed” plus an additional punitive amount. Sometimes that additional amount was 1/5th the cost of replacement (like in Numbers 5:7). The amount of restitution was in part based on whether the loss was intentional, accidental, or criminal.

In essence, the greater the evil in the heart, the greater the restitution.

Accidents are not evil, so that additional amount is less. Stealing was particularly evil, and so in Exodus 22:1 the thief is to pay five times the number of oxen he has stolen. A stiff penalty.

What if we try to apply the principles of restitution to cases of abusive leadership? What would be required of the repentant leader?

  • Payment for necessary counseling for the victim.
  • Providing a safe place for the victim (new position in organization not under abusive authority).
  • Allowing the victim, without interuption or critique, to share in a public setting the evils perpetrated by the abuser.
  • Give up any authority formerly held by abuser.
  • Payment for lost wages (plus additional punitive amount) due to trauma in the workplace caused by the leader.

These are not biblical commands. They are only ideas. If you have other ideas, I would love for you to share them in the comment section.

“I Was Horribly Wrong”

Restitution is a means of giving feet to a confession. It can be evidence of a truly repentant heart. It can say to the victim of your sin, “I was horribly wrong and I must do all I can to make up for it.”

Though forgivess (another topic) may be given even when repentance is not in evidence, reconciliation is unlikely to happen without it, and should not be expected until true repentance is apparent to the victim.

This may mean restitution may be the evidence needed.

NOTES:

Saul and David make a fascinating study in repentance. Both did horrible things, but only David seeks to do all he can to make things right after doing some evil things. Consider Saul’s fear of David and abuser tactics and false repentance when David is running from his evil: 1 Samuel 19-27.

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