The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor 3 or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely—in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby— 4 if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found 5 or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt. 6 And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering. 7 And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty.” – Leviticus 6:1-7
This passage deals with sins against fellow Israelites. It’s interesting to note that not only was a sacrifice required to reconcile the sinner to God (against whom all sin is ultimately committed, Psalm 51:4) but restitution to the wronged party as well.
Repentance is never less than recognizing our sin against God but it is usually more than that – especially when the sin is also against another person. In such cases we are called not only to seek forgiveness from them but to make the situation right to the extent that we can.
In ancient Israel, the Lord required a 20% premium on the restitution so there was also a punitive aspect. It wasn’t only about making the offended party whole in the here-and-now but recognizing that what was done was wrong and deserving of punishment – and perhaps to dissuade others from doing the same thing.
While the particulars regarding how restitution was to be made are unique to ancient Israel (in other words I don’t believe it is incumbent upon believers today to repay someone they’ve wronged at a 20% premium), the principle that our repentance should include making the offended party whole remains a valid one.
James is clear that empty words are just that:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? – James 2:15-16
If that is true when we see a brother in need, presumably through no fault of our own, how much more is it true when we’ve been the cause of their distress? “I’m sorry” is a start but it is not enough. If I have the ability to physically relive the suffering I’ve caused, I should do so.
It’s instructive that Jesus declared Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham” (in other words someone who’d repented of his sins and was saved) after Zacchaeus’ declaration that he would make restitution to those from whom he’d stolen (Luke 19:8-10). Zacchaeus showed by his actions that his repentance was genuine.
The same should be true of believers today. Full-orbed repentance is a recognition that we’ve sinned against God, a recognition that we’ve sinned against one or more individuals, asking those individuals for forgiveness and making restitution for any financial or physical hardship our sin has caused.
When we’ve done those things we have repented. If we’ve left any of them off (where applicable) we still have work to do.