Questions From Readers
● I am teaching the Bible to a woman who recently confided in me that she used to shoplift. Must she try to restore all that she stole, or even give herself up to the police, before she will qualify to become a baptized Christian?
Persons in such situations have to resolve for themselves, in accord with their conscience, whether to take either of those two steps before baptism.
The Scriptures assure us that it is God’s will “that all sorts of men should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.” To that end God sent his Son as a corresponding ransom. (1 Tim. 2:4-6) The cleansing merit of Jesus’ blood is available to persons who led extremely wicked lives, or were guilty of grave sins, before they learned the truth of the Bible, repented and turned around.
For instance, the fact that the Jewish community of Jerusalem in 33 C.E. supported their religious leaders in demanding Jesus’ death did not mean that they could never become Christians. On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter told many of them: “Let all the house of Israel know for a certainty that God made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you impaled.” Yes, they bore at least some guilt for that murder. Cut to the heart, they asked: ‘What shall we do?” Peter replied: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized.”—Acts 2:36-38.
It is similar with Saul, who ‘breathed threats and murder’ against Christians, and who witnessed and approved the killing of Stephen. (Acts 7:58; 8:1; 9:1; 22:20) Saul, more commonly known as Paul, later admitted: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am foremost. Nevertheless, . . . I was shown mercy.”—1 Tim. 1:15, 16.
It might be asked, however, whether a person must try to undo the crimes or sins that he was guilty of before accepting Christianity.
What could come to mind is the fact that under the Mosaic law restitution and compensation were required in cases of stealing. For example, if an Israelite stole a bull and was caught with it, he had to return it, as well as another bull to compensate the owner for the loss of his bull’s services.—Ex. 22:1, 3-9.
Or reference might be made to Luke’s account about Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector at Jericho, who evidently had used questionable practices in extracting money, becoming rich in the process. Upon receiving favorable attention from Jesus, Zacchaeus said: “Whatever I extorted from anyone by false accusation I am restoring fourfold.” Jesus approved of this sincere response that manifested faith and repentance, telling him: “This day salvation has come to this house. . . . For the Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10) Apparently Zacchaeus could calculate from the tax records just what was owing, and he had the funds with which to repay. Even if the government did not charge him with extortion, his conscience moved him to try to repay what he had extorted.
It is noteworthy, though, that the law in Exodus 22:1, 3b-9 was given to Israelites in a dedicated relationship with God. And Zacchaeus was already a “son of Abraham” who should have been committed to following the high standards of the Bible; his repayment was an evidence of repentance over having done otherwise. But what of a person who is just learning of God’s standards and who beforehand had sinned or shared in crime?
The fact is that humans now are not Scripturally obliged to follow the Mosaic law, including Exodus 22:1, 3b-9. (Rom. 6:14) And the Christian Greek Scriptures do not indicate that God requires a person to undo all his past sins or crimes before he can be baptized.
This is illustrated in the case of Onesimus, mentioned in the Bible book of Philemon. He had been a slave in Colossae, but he fled. That was a criminal offense, making him a runaway slave (Latin, fugitivus). Also, some feel that Onesimus may have robbed his master so as to be able to flee to distant Italy. In Rome he came into association with the apostle Paul and became a baptized Christian. Paul did not demand that before Onesimus could get baptized he had to turn himself over to the authorities for criminal punishment, nor did he even require Onesimus to go back to his slave owner first, though sometime after Onesimus became a Christian Paul urged him to return, and he was willing to go.
Similarly, a person who accepts the Bible’s message today may have formerly committed some crime, even being wanted for it, being a fugitive. The Bible shows that he must ‘repent and turn around so as to get his sins blotted out.’ (Acts 3:19) That obviously means that he must absolutely abandon his former sinful, criminal course. Peter wrote to Christians: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”—1 Pet. 4:15.
The person himself must determine whether he will try, to the extent that he can, to pay back those from whom he has stolen goods or money. Love of neighbor points in this direction. (Matt. 22:39; 7:12)* In many past cases like this, owning up to one’s debts, as it were, has provided a fine witness as to the good effect that true religion can have.
However, in some instances the guilty individual does not know all the places or persons from whom he has stolen. Or the crime may be something that he has no way of reversing. He might have caused someone’s death. Conscience-stricken though he be, he cannot bring that life back—only Jehovah can. (John 5:28, 29) But even though he cannot reverse the past, he should throw himself on God’s mercy and seek forgiveness based on Jesus’ sacrifice. The Bible pointedly tells us that this is what thieves and extortioners did in the first century; they were ‘washed clean, sanctified and declared righteous in the name of Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.’—1 Cor. 6:9, 10; 1 Pet. 4:1-4.
It must be acknowledged that if someone with a criminal past who accepts Christianity does not get the matter legally straightened out before baptism, his past might later become public knowledge; he might even be apprehended and imprisoned. That development, besides giving him a bad public reputation, might seem to reflect unfavorably on the Christian congregation. But Jesus was criticized for eating with and accepting sinners and tax collectors to be his disciples. His response to that was that he came to save sinners; he came to heal the sick, not the healthy.—Matt. 9:10-13.
Any fair, thoughtful person can see the high moral standards of those in the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This outstanding morality, which has been publicly praised by outsiders, is not because all of these who are now Christians were always honest and principled. It is, rather, proof of the changes that can be made when persons of all backgrounds work to conform their lives to the morality taught in God’s Word. This is just as historian Dr. John Lord wrote about the early Christians:
“The true triumphs of Christianity were seen in making good men of those who professed her doctrines, rather than changing outwardly popular institutions, or government, or laws, or even elevating the great mass of unbelievers. . . . We have testimony to their blameless lives, to their irreproachable morals, to their good citizenship . . .”—The Old Roman World, pp. 551, 578.
This would especially be so if someone else was suffering unjustly as a result of the crime.