I once heard the late Dr. F.E. Marsh tell that on one occasion he was preaching on this question and urging upon his hearers the importance of confession of sin and wherever possible of restitution for wrong done to others.
At the close a young man, a member of the church, came up to him with a troubled countenance. “Pastor,” he explained, “you have put me in a sad fix. I have wronged another and I am ashamed to confess it or to try to put it right. You see, I am a boat builder and the man I work for is an infidel. I have talked to him often about his need of Christ and urged him to come and hear you preach, but he scoffs and ridicules it all. Now, I have been guilty of something that, if I should acknowledge it to him, will ruin my testimony forever.”
He then went on to say that sometime ago he started to build a boat for himself in his own yard. In this work copper nails are used because they do not rust in the water. These nails are quite expensive and the young man had been carrying home quantities of them to use on the job. He knew it was stealing, but he tried to salve his conscience be telling himself that the master had so many he would never miss them and besides he was not being paid all that he thought he deserved. But this sermon had brought him to face the fact that he was just a common thief, for whose dishonest actions there was no excuse.
“But,” said he, “I cannot go to my boss and tell him what I have done or offer to pay for those I have used and return the rest. If I do he will think I am just a hypocrite. And yet those copper mails are digging into my conscience and I know I shall never have peace until I put this matter right.”
For weeks the struggle went on. Then one night he came to Dr. Marsh and exclaimed, “Pastor, Ive settled for the copper nails and my conscience is relieved at last.”
“What happened when you confessed to your employer what you had done?” asked the pastor.
“Oh,” he answered, “he looked queerly at me, then exclaimed, George, I always did think you were just a hypocrite, but now I begin to feel theres something in this Christianity after all. Any religion that would make a dishonest workman come back and confess that he had been stealing copper nails and offer to settle for them, must be worth having.”
Dr. Marsh asked if he might use the story, and was granted permission.
Sometime afterwards, he told it in another city. The next day a lady came up and said, “Doctor, I have had copper nails on my conscience too.” “Why, surely, you are not a boat builder!” “No, but I am a book-lover and I have stolen a number of books from a friend of mine who gets far more that I could ever afford. I decided last night I must get rid of the copper nails, so I took them all back to her today and confessed my sin. I cant tell you how relieved I am. She forgave me, and God has forgiven me. I am so thankful the copper mails are not digging into my conscience any more.”
I have told this story many times and almost invariably people have come to me afterwards telling of “copper nails” in one form or another that they had to get rid of. On one occasion, I told it at a High School chapel service. The next day the principal saw me and said, “As a result of that copper nails story, ever so many stolen fountain pens and other things have been returned to their rightful owners.”
Reformation and restitution do not save. But where one is truly repentant and has come to God in sincere confession, he will want to the best of his ability to put things right with others.