The Myth of Restitution

July 12, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 11:13 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

“Sorry” doesn’t put the Triscuit crackers in my stomach now, does it Carl? (Eric, Billy Madison)

If restitution is required for true repentance to take place, then we are all screwed. Sure, there are some sins for which restitution can be made. Stolen stuff can be returned. A relationship can be restored. But, for the vast majority of sins, it seems to me that robust restitution is really an impossibility.

Even if a thief gives back the stuff he stole, feelings of trust and security are not so easily restored. We all know how abuse scars its victims; our lesser cruelties and insensitivities have similar (albeit less severe) consequences. We can apologize to the person we humiliated, but we can’t really make it like it never happened. The memory of being humiliated is not erased by an apology. In general terms, our experiences leave indelible marks upon us which, because of their seamless integration into our new selves, become impossible to undo.

Recognizing that we can’t fully restore things to the way they were, we can still see the importance of trying to fix the wrongs we have perpetrated on others. Both as an indication of true penitence and as a good in its own right, trying to fix the bad things we do is worthy. But we should remember that as one of the “R”s of repentance, we can’t really be expected to restore things to how they were but just to make our best attempt at such a restoration.

At this point, it is not uncommon to bring the atonement into the mix. Many theorize that although we are unable to make full restitution for the things we do, making full restitution is something Christ does for us as part of the atonement. I don’t really buy into this idea and the reason is that I don’t observe this taking place. As the sometimes recipient of wrongs perpetrated by others, I don’t notice God taking away the effects of their wrongdoing, or even making it up to me with some sort of compensation. Rather, it seems to me that God is willing, if I ask, to help me make the best of any situation. This strikes me as very different than the idea of restitution.

Firstly, there is the “if I ask” element. If God is really in the business of making restitution for all the sins that are committed, then why would this be predicated on our asking for help as a victim of sin? Inevitably it is the case that most people do not seek his help and it appears to me that injuries to them are allowed to run their course, sometimes destroying their lives, sometimes making them bitter, sometimes making them sad. Surely there has been no restitution in such cases. Does this mean the sinners who led to these situations cannot yet repent? Obviously not. Is the promise of restitution most often just a long-term promise that some day, in the eternities, God will make it all up to us by bringing us to heaven? If so, this broad “blanket” restitution seems to neuter the concept of restitution, in my mind. If God has already promised to bring me back to heaven before someone breaks into my house and takes all my stuff, then how can such a promise be said to serve as restitution for the break in?

Secondly, the “best of the situation” is not guaranteed to be good. For some of the things that are done to us, God is able to bring about a good even greater than the evil he started with. We may look back on such events in our lives and be grateful for being wronged because of the transformation that it led to within us. At other times, it seems to me that the best of a bad situation is far worse than if the bad situation had never existed. Thus it is wrong, I think, to believe that all victims of abuse should be able with God’s help to look back and be grateful for the abuse because of the good God brought from it. As powerful as God is, he is not powerful enough to turn every evil into a greater good for its victims than they would have otherwise had. To put it a different way, there are lots of things that happen in the world for which I expect there to be no restitution, ever.


  1. “You must restore as far as possible all that has
    been damaged by your actions, whether that is someone’s property or someone’s good reputation. Willing restitution shows the Lord that you will do all you can to repent.” (True to the Faith, p. 135)

    We Must Make Restitution. Part of repentance is to make restitution. This means that as much as possible we must make right any wrong that we have done. For example, a thief should give back what he has stolen. A liar should make the truth known. A gossip who has slandered the character of a person should work to restore the
    good name of the person he has harmed. As we do these things, God will not mention our sins to us when we are judged (see Ezekiel 33:15–16).” (Gospel Principles, p. 125)

    Notice also that in the atonement parable of the debt collector given in Gospel Principles, instead of having our debt cancelled it is essentially refinanced through a new creditor (Jesus). In other words, we still are obligated to repay the debt in some manner.

    Comment by Aaron — July 13, 2009 @ 7:00 am

  2. I go with the long term view, of a blanket restitution in the eternities. Eventually everything will be just. It may be that we will be better off making such restitutions sooner rather than later. Allowing ourselves to progress beyond our current state.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 13, 2009 @ 7:24 am

  3. Jacob J, I think it is important to distinguish between the various types of restitution. It seems to me that here you are often using restitution as a synonym for restoration to the status quo ante, which in the short term is not very realistic, and in the strict sense is impossible without rewriting history.

    I also do not think it is fair to conceive of the atonement as a process that concludes with forgiveness. In very many cases, the process cannot be considered to be complete until the resurrection, if not afterward. The resurrection is the “redemption of the soul” – only then will the restitution for a large number of physical and emotional injuries be complete.

    Suppose a person unwisely borrows a large sum of money for business purposes, and then change in circumstances lead to failure, ruin, and bankruptcy. The person concerned can at best only pay back a fraction of those debts, even while surrendering virtually every asset he has. And yet the people who directly or indirectly lent him those funds collectively suffer a significant financial loss.

    The fellow who declared bankruptcy may have to live with the fact that over his entire life his net contribution to the economic health and welfare of the community he lives in is negative. Both legally and personally, all those who were injured as a consequence may have long since forgiven him.

    Nonetheless, one way or another those losses will be paid for, otherwise in the long run or the short, we are all dead. I think the proper attitude in a case like this is that everything he does, for the rest of his life, is in part a voluntary repayment for the damage he has caused, and for the gift of forgiveness – personal, legal, and spiritual.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 13, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  4. Aaron, what is the manner in which you think we eventually pay back the “debt” of our sins?

    Eric, thanks for weighing in.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 13, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  5. Mark,

    I wasn’t explicit about the definition of restitution but in the post I refer to it both in terms of a restoration of the status quo ante (good latin term, btw) as well as a the less stringent requirement of making it up to the person with some sort of payment to offset the injury. These seem to be the primary meanings of the word in a generic dictionary. Given that I never mentioned forgiveness, I don’t think it is fair to suggest I am conceiving of the atonement as a process that concludes with forgiveness (I think the forgiveness usually precedes full repentance).

    I agree with you that making things how they were is not possible, but I also contend that even making it up to the person is not generally possible in a strict sense. Instead, we show penitence by trying to make it up to them and by apology. It is an evidence of our contrition, not half of an economic transaction. The person who was wronged often never gets back what was lost, or even something equivalent as compensation.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 13, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  6. I acknowledge that “restitution” is the word often used in correlated materials (including the Church’s version of the 12 steps of addiction recovery). But I prefer the AA term, making “amends”.

    To me, “restitution” is a mechanical, almost accounting term. It is, of course, more consistent with the “satisfaction” theory of the Atonement that is prevalent in current common understanding within the Church.

    Of course, in this understanding, as Aaron points our, the function of the Atonement becomes one of refinancing our satisfaction debt (I am not sure whether this allegorical understanding would include some forgiveness of the principal or not.)

    My own view is that the “amends” (or using LDS terminology, “restitution”) portion really does not accomplish a cosmic rebalancing of the “debt.” Rather, I think the attempt to make right what was wrong, to make amends to the extent possible, is intended to bless the lives of us, the sinners. That it reflects our desire to change. That it does not matter, in the end, whether ultimately the cosmic scales can be rebalanced, but what matters is what we have become.

    Comment by DavidH — July 13, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  7. DavidH, Yes! That’s what I think too. Well said.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 13, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  8. In subjects such as this, I probably over rely on Moroni 7:6-8

    I believe the actuality of restitution matters little in comparison to the desire for the same. While a man may never be able to restitute for the “what might have been”s of another he has be amiss toward, he may sincerely desire such restitution, which sincere desire aids him in turning away from future error. I guess I also believe that those I’ve sinned against will know my desire in the eternal scheme of things.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 13, 2009 @ 10:35 am

  9. Jacob, I appreciate that you have written the contrary post to what I was hoping to write. I disagree with you in some small regards, but I would hate for this to become a discussion on semantics. To avoid this, I think a narrative is what really is needed to lay the groundwork for understanding. I will use this story to illustrate how I believe Christ offers restitution and how he doesn’t.

    4th grade: I lied to the teacher about a girl named Carrie. I said that she threw a snowball at another boy (which resulted in his crying from pain). The teacher was upset and knowing that I had been trustworthy in the past, and how unpopular Carrie was, the teacher hauled Carrie inside for detention while Carrie cried and protested her innocence. Now, I stand condemned by my own sense of justice and the knowledge of the pain I caused Carrie. I knew she was innocent and I bore false witness. Carrie was my victim. What I need from Christ is not to impute righteousness and pass a “not guilty” sentence on me because he has forgiven me. What good does that do Carrie? What I need is for him to undo the pain I caused Carrie. Only when she is healed and she is reconciled to me can I release the demands of justice from my own heart. I cannot be in Abraham’s bosom and look down at Carrie in hell and in pain and feel good about God’s justice. I need restitution to be paid to Carrie, but I don’t have the means to undo the pain I caused her. Only Christ has the power to take away her pain and bring us together into a loving and trusting relationship again.

    So, I have no idea if my contribution to Carrie’s burden added to her loss of faith in humanity, or if she chose to forgive. What I do know is that I am not responsible for her choice to forgive, only she has that power (so I don’t feel responsible for the pain she may be causing herself). I do feel terribly sorry for the pain I did cause her and I want her to experience every good thing and have her faith in others restored. What I need Christ to provide restitution for is my failed relationship, my failure to treat her heart with respect and consideration. I need Christ to bring us together in love so that we can trust each other again and dwell in fellowship.

    Christ is the great healer in my paradigm. Just as I have been healed from the pain that others have caused me, He can and will do the same for those I’ve hurt. He lives to provide us one safe person who we can love without fear, then bring others into that same level of trust.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 13, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  10. Kent,

    I hope you will still write the post you had in mind. We can call the two post series “he said/he said.”

    Although you say “you need” restitution to be paid to Carrie, it is not clear to me that restitution is possible in many cases. Perhaps Carrie refuses the help Christ offers. Perhaps in some cases even Christ cannot make adequate restitution for the wrongs we commit. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Christ can heal any wound. But if you punch me in the nose I am not ready to declare things even stephen just because a doctor sets my nose and helps me heal. In my mind, restitution implies that enough good comes to actually compensate or overcompensate for the evil. I see Christ as being able and willing to bring the best out of any situation, but not necessarily to make restitution for every individual evil. I’m arguing that those are different things.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 13, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  11. What you are saying is that Christ CAN heal us to our full satisfaction, but not that he will because it is up to us to accept his healing?

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 13, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  12. Yes, and also I’m saying that being healed is not the same as restitution for the injury. The fact that I’m healed doesn’t undo what was done and it doesn’t “make it up to me” for the initial injury.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 13, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  13. Okay. For me restitution is synonymous with healing (basically turning all things for my good), so I really don’t think we are in disagreement. Semantics and all.

    For me, knowing that Christ can and will heal Carrie at some future time allows me to accept peace in my heart for my contribution to her difficulty. Like Blake says, being in a relationship with me is painful. Understanding the pain I cause others is key to me forgiving others for the pain they cause me.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 13, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  14. ….I also contend that even making it up to the person is not generally possible in a strict sense. Instead, we show penitence by trying to make it up to them and by apology. It is an evidence of our contrition, not half of an economic transaction. The person who was wronged often never gets back what was lost, or even something equivalent as compensation.

    Jacob J, It is not possible to so something that is not an “economic” event in the broad sense of the term. Living from one moment to the next is an economic process. Lifting a finger to do anything is economic event. If an atom emits or absorbs a photon, something economic has occurred. If energy dissipates or moves from one place to another, something economic has occurred. And so on…

    That doesn’t mean that every event is a two party “transaction” or in the legal sense a transaction at all. If I give you a gift, that may be considered in a very general sense a transaction, but in the legal and traditional economic sense (the one that people like to use with dripping disdain), it is not a transaction at all, because it doesn’t come with a formal obligation. There is no quid pro quo. Would you call throwing a party for your friends a “transaction”?

    Half of the purpose of the atonement is accomplished simply by everyone forgiving each other, to the degree that they may become best friends again. The other half is accomplished by being made whole in the resurrection.

    Setting aside what happens in between, I don’t see how one can possibly claim, once he has been forgiven, has forgiven others, and has received a glorious resurrection that he hasn’t been made whole, and received complete restitution for every injury that has ever been done to him. To say nothing of the injuries he has caused in others.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 13, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  15. I would also like to observe that traditionally (i.e. in the Old Testament) the atonement is intimately connected with the law of sacrifice, and without sacrifice no atonement is made.

    When (in particular) does one have an obligation to make a sacrifical offering? When one has sinned. What is the offering primarily used for? To feed the priests. What do priests do? They serve the people – including the very people that were injured in the first place.

    Now substitute Christ in the place of the high priest, and you have a perfect model of how the atonement works, both temporally and spiritually.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 13, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  16. KentMC, did you apologize to Carrie and tell the teacher about the lie? I don’t see how going around hoping/assuming Christ will heal her is anywhere close to trying to make amends/restitution.

    Comment by JKS — July 13, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  17. Let’s start at your very first sentence:
    “If restitution is required for true repentance to take place…”
    I think it’s important that you put it that way because repentance is manifest once the person has shown willingness to make things right no matter what the cost. (Whether the full restitution actually occurs is immaterial.)

    HOWEVER, it restitution is required for FORGIVENESS to take place, it is a different story. In this situation, we would be screwed, as you put it. Because of all the factors mentioned above, full restitution may or may not be possible, and if we could not receive forgiveness until the restitution was complete, it would not happen in many cases. I don’t believe this scenario is scriptural, but rather, forgiveness can take place whether or not restitution has been fully achieved.

    Another interesting tidbit to consider is the restoration commanded in the OT could vary anywhere from 100 to 500 percent of the loss. (If a man stole an ox he had to pay back 5 of them, if he stole a sheep, he had to pay back 4.) So what is complete restitution, anyway?

    #10– I saw that.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — July 13, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

  18. JKS,

    I wasn’t convicted in my heart on the severity of my sin until I was in my 20’s and I started to come out of some of my self-deception. I would love to find Carrie if I even knew her name beyond her first name, but living in another state it just isn’t possible. You bring up the important point that expecting Christ to make amends with the attitude of “so that we don’t have to” really isn’t repentance.


    Forgiveness is, of course, a truly unique gift in this sense, since we can’t merit it or restore to others what we have damaged. The idea that Christ will heal others though, must be part of our concept of forgiveness, otherwise God is not just to forgive and leave others in torment due to our own actions.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 14, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  19. For me, I think one thing we are supposed to be getting away from is too strong of a sense of entitlement, that we “get what is coming to us,” so to speak. If that is what we are facing then we are screwed. One purpose of the atonement, on my view, is to help us get rid of this sense of the debt of others. I think that should be brought into account when we think of restitution. However, it isn’t useful to emphasize this point- or rather, to force this point upon others who have been hurt. This is something that needs to be reached by each person when they are ready and willing. Otherwise, blaming the victim occurs.

    Good conversation so far, thanks y’all.

    Comment by BHodges — July 14, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  20. This post should have been called “Is Our Name Earl?”

    Comment by BHodges — July 14, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  21. I think one of the primary purposes of the gospel is not to teach what we have coming to us, but rather to teach how much we owe to others.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 14, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  22. Oh, I know I’ve got it comin’ to me!

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 14, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  23. If I ask element – Perhaps I have mis-understood what you meant, but isn’t voluntarily entering a relationship with Christ and endeavouring to repent a similar idea. If this is correct then what is the difference here with as a victim of the hurts of others; I believe sin is sin because it hurts ourselves and hurts others therefore in one sense we are all victims of sin that need to enter a relationship with Christ in order to move beyond it. In the same way that our sins don’t leave us being a hurt by others does not leave us but I think Christ can allow us to move forward in our relationship with him.

    The desire for Restitution, it seems to me, from an outward perspective is the response of someone who is entering that relationship with Christ (i.e. through repentance).

    The restitution that I desire is still conditional on me entering that relationship but removes the barriers such experiences would create to the spiritual growth in that divine relationship. I don’t believe it ever removes them, but i think it can enable people to forgive, but not say they are glad it happened.

    Comment by Aaron Reeves — July 16, 2009 @ 8:19 am

  24. This made me feel really sad and discouraged.

    Comment by annegb — July 19, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  25. If it makes you feel any better, your comment made me feel bad too.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 20, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  26. Lots of good comments, thanks everyone. I want to say a little bit more about why the blanket restitution theory doesn’t solve the problem for me. It is perfectly wonderful if it turns out that when all is said and done we can look back and feel that our eternal reward compensates us for whatever (perhaps unjust) bad things happened to us along the way. In fact, I think it is important to me that this turn out to be the case in order to have any hope of dealing with the problem of evil. So, I am not opposed to that idea as it has been put forward by several here.

    The problem I have is that it seems unrelated to the idea of restitution as we generally teach it. As one of the “R”s of repentence, I am supposed to make restitution to the person I have wronged.

    1. This is explicitly a restitution made on a sin-by-sin basis. I am supposed to make amends for a specific wrong I committed. To solve the problem by saying that God makes a blanket restitution is really to admit that individual restitution is not guaranteed (which is fundamental to my point). The two things (individual vs. blanket) restitution are really different things. Imagine that I hurt the feelings of a long-time friend, but instead of apologizing I ask the friend if the friendship overall has been a positive good thing in their life. They say that despite the times I have hurt them they still think it has been worth it to know me. Does this mean I have made restitution for the wrong I just committed? Of course not, but that seems to me the conclusion of those who want to erase individual restitution with a blanket one.

    2. If the blanket restitution really counts, then it seems restitution from us is never really necessary, since based on the blanket theory, everyone will receive full restitution no matter what I do. I don’t ever have to make amends, because Jesus will make it all up in the end (he really will!).

    Comment by Jacob J — July 20, 2009 @ 12:22 am

  27. Jacob J, if the “Santa Claus” theory of the atonement is right, then sure. If it isn’t then either Jesus Christ will suffer more if one doesn’t make equivalent restitution, or someone else will.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 20, 2009 @ 12:32 am

  28. A couple of other quick comments.

    Biv, I agree with you that what’s important is the person’s willingness and fervent desire to make things right. The desire to make restitution is a great indication to ourselves and to others that we are sincere in our contrition. I am glad you brought up the Old Testament laws that require you to compensate the person by more than you took. This makes the point that if all we do is break even in giving back what we took, we still have not made compensation to the person for the whole ordeal of having something stolen in the first place. This is what I was thinking of in #10 when I said healing is not really a full restitution since it would still be better to have never been injured int he first place. To really make “complete restitution,” as you say, it seems you need to compensate the person enough that they are now glad that they were injured based on what came of it. I think such restitution does sometimes take place, as I mentioned in the OP when I said sometimes we can look at a bad thing that happened and be grateful for it due to the transformation it brought about in us. I just don’t think this is true for every bad and unjust thing that happens to us. By the way, isn’t the law of Moses awesome compared to our modern system in this respect? They guy who stole my money didn’t pay a dime of it back. This is because we don’t live by the “eye for an eye” principle, which, of course, never meant that they were to poke out eyes but that if you injured someone you must compensate them.

    Blair, I have never seen My Name is Earl, but after reading the wiki entry I concur. That would have been an excellent title.

    Annegb, My attempt to put a more positive spin on the post: Realizing that restitution is often not possible can liberate our ideas about repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes we beat ourselves up knowing that we can never really undo what we have done and that we can’t make it all better again. At this point, it is wonderful to consider that Christ never expected us to make everything better, but what he wants from us just for us to totally turn away from our sins, to transform ourselves into a new person who wishes not only to do better in the future, but would change the past if only it were in our power. When we can get a hold of that feeling, I think we can know that repentance is taking place within us. Maybe at times that’s still depressing, but sometimes it is inspiring to me.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 20, 2009 @ 12:39 am

  29. Mark, I don’t think the Santa Claus theory is correct, but neither do I think there is some universal law mandating the conservation of suffering.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 20, 2009 @ 12:41 am

  30. Jacob J, I don’t think there is a universal law mandating conservation of suffering either. In fact the whole problem here is nearly the exact opposite: effort is *not* conserved.

    If a man builds a house, and an arsonist burns it down, all that effort is for naught. The man has to start over and build it a second time.

    To remedy this situation, two things need to be accomplished – people need to quit committing arson, and the people who have suffered thereby must be made whole.

    In other words, part of the atonement is an attempt to establish (socially and religiously) a law of conservation where none existed before.

    They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

    They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. (Isaiah 65:22-23)

    Comment by Mark D. — July 20, 2009 @ 1:45 am

  31. I don’t expect to have every sin committed against me in my earthly life made right. I have lived through what I have lived through so that I could grow into the person that I am. I needed those bad things to happen to me to prove how I would handle them. They were given to me to help me grow. Jesus has taken care of everything and that is something that I am not able to fully understand. I’m not saying he’s going to blanket it and everything will be all right and like it never happened, just that maybe we don’t need to have every little insult corrected for us. Please do not take that to mean I’ve never been sinned against so I have little to gain from restitution. I’d say I’ve quite the fine list of serious offenses committed against me that I could spend eons wallowing in. And I don’t look at them as magical gifts that brought me to a better end eventually but as bad things that were my bad things that I had to go through or what is the point? How could I grow? If I don’t know sad and mad and hurt and wronged how can I ever understand when things are going the other way? Both sides have to exist and we have to experience both so I don’t know why I would expect to have all the bad fixed for me. I don’t want it fixed for me. They are my earthly Scout badges of crap I had to go through here and I am proud that I lived through them and came out still being a decent person.

    I don’t know if everyone is assuming there is some kind of cosmic balancing scale that has to be worked out here so if you guys are privy to information of that kind that I am ignoring I do apologize. I’m new to this kind of commenting so go easy on me.

    Comment by Arwen — July 29, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  32. Arwen, I agree.

    Any progression I get from the experience of being sinned against, and the eventual Eternal Salvation from all that progression, is plenty restitution for me. In this sense, Christ did pay the balance of the sinner’s restitution to me by allowing me to progress toward Salvation despite my faults and weaknessess and past sins that have been repented of. I don’t want Debbie Kibbe to hunt me down and pay me back the 45 cents she borrowed in 4th grade and forgot to pay back. No thanks.

    Comment by Aragorn — July 29, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  33. Arwen, I’m with you, the cosmic scale of balancing is in large part what I am arguing against.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2009 @ 10:55 am

  34. Hey, good to see you guys.

    Comment by Legolas — July 29, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  35. Hey — why wasn’t I told about the party?

    Comment by Gimli — July 29, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  36. You guys are so funny. I chose that name b/c of the Star Trek thread and my willingness to join the LOTR Mormons. That is my husband that posted as Aragorn lest you suspect any impropriety.

    Comment by Arwen — July 29, 2009 @ 11:36 am