We should be very careful in how we parse issues of guilt, repentance, and reconciliation. We sympathize with Christians and Christian leaders who are passionate to see the church in the vanguard of demonstrating racial unity, care for the vulnerable, and a desire for just laws. But we must always allow our theology to be governed by and reformed to Scripture. A small rudder steers a large ship and a small deviation in doctrine can have large ramifications. Let’s hold on to both grace and truth, trusting that God will enable us all to love one another deeply and be “salt and light” to our communities and nation.
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
— Westminster Shorter Catechism
Amid recent discussions of racism, discrimination, and injustice, Christians are asking questions about corporate guilt and repentance: “Are modern-day Whites guilty before God because of the sins of their ancestors?” “Do they need to corporately repent for these sins?” Our thesis in this article is that the answer to both of these questions is no. Whites are not corporately guilty for their ancestors’ racial sins (much less the sins of historical strangers) and do not need to corporately repent for them.
In what follows, we’ll first give several justifications for this thesis. Then we’ll explain why these ideas, although often suggested with good intentions, will ultimately be harmful to the church and to society. Finally, we’ll offer a better model for understanding guilt and repentance with regard to the sin of racism today.
As a side note, when we refer to Whites, we’re referring to the group of people with light-colored skin and predominantly European ancestry who are raced as “white” in our society (with the understanding that race is a social construct).
White Corporate Guilt and Repentance
In arguing that Whites bear guilt for historic sins like slavery, some Christians appeal to three main arguments.
First, they contend that we can see collective sin and collective repentance in passages such as Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18-20, Ezra 9:6-15, Nehemiah 1:4-7, and Daniel 9:1-19. Therefore, they argue, there is biblical precedent for ancestral guilt and repentance for the sins of our ancestors even if we are personally innocent of these sins. In the same way, a particular white person may not be guilty of slavery, but they still bear the guilt of historic Whites’ participation in, defense of, or ambivalence towards slavery.
Second, some Christians will argue that because all human beings bear the stain of Adam’s original sin, it is therefore possible for us to be counted guilty as the result of sins that we did not personally commit. Conversely, we can see the doctrine of corporate solidarity in the fact that Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to us, despite the fact that we are not personally righteous and did not personally attain that righteousness. This idea of corporate solidarity may be unpopular for some given the place of individualism in American society, nevertheless it is often presented as the basis for white corporate responsibility for historic sins such as slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, redlining, denial of GI Bill benefits, and others.
Third, some Christians argue that because Whites receive unearned advantages (i.e. white privilege) from historic injustices, they are morally guilty today and are complicit in racism, even if they aren’t actively racist themselves. This guilt and complicity then demand confession and repentance.
Why are these justifications flawed and inadequate? We offer six reasons.
Argument 1: Explicit Biblical Counterexamples
While there are several examples of a form of corporate repentance in the Bible, there are also numerous explicit statements about the non-transferability of guilt from child to parent or from parent to child. Notice Ezekiel 18:14-20:
Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise… he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father…he shall die for his iniquity. “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Similar statements can be found in Deut. 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:27-34.
Any doctrine of ancestral guilt must account for the proper exegesis of these passages. If sin cannot be transmitted from parent to child or from child to parent, how much less can it be transmitted to us from unspecified strangers, whom we have never met, who have no connection to us, and whose actions we abhor? It should also be pointed out, even though it should go without saying, that the son who is personally innocent of his father’s sin, is nowhere exhorted that he still needs to repent for his father’s sin because where there is no sin and guilt, there is no need for repentance.
Note that biblical examples where people experience God’s collective judgment do not contradict this principle. God does indeed judge nations for their collective behavior. Yet his judgment for particular sins falls on people whom God recognizes are individually innocent of those sins (see, for example, Ezekiel 21:3). We also see this in everyday life: a parent’s sinful behavior often results in consequences that fall on an innocent child. Yet we do not infer that the child must have been guilty of the particular sin in question because of her parent’s sin that resulted in her suffering. In addition to the fact that God at times in his sovereign wisdom chooses to bring his temporal judgement upon those He regards as righteous in the wake of his judgment of those he regards as wicked (Ezekiel 21:3), God also at times in his sovereign wisdom chooses to spare those he regards as righteous from the temporal judgement he is bringing upon the wicked all around them. God expresses this explicitly via the examples of Noah, Daniel, and Job in Ezekiel 14:13-16. These differing scenarios underscore the fact that God does not regard anyone as guilty and unrighteous relative to a certain sin unless they are actually guilty and unrighteous relative to that sin regardless of how his judgment is being worked out in time and space.
What about God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:17, Numbers 14:18)? These texts have nothing to do with holding someone guilty or morally accountable for someone else’s sin. These texts simply underscore that the sins of parents often end up being the same sins their children commit. For example, children who grow up with an alcoholic parent are at a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves than those who don’t. This is partly due to how God has judged the sin of alcoholism of the parent but it is never divorced from the sinful choices the child has personally made relative to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. As John Piper states, “The visitation of the fathers’ sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers’ sin is worked out in their lives” (“Does God “Visit the Sins of the Fathers on the Children”?, Desiring God, 2/1/2000).
Argument 2: Ongoing Sin During Corporate Repentance
Second, the frequently cited texts on “corporate repentance” speak about current and ongoing sins, not sins of the past that have ceased. The language is actually quite explicit in these passages: “From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great” (Ezra 9:6), “confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned” (Neh. 1:6) “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land…for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us” (Dan. 9:5-6, 16). When his prayer is finished, Daniel comments: “I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel” (Dan. 9:20). It is important to note here that Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel are confessing their own sins along with acknowledging the sins of those they are representing.
But would it be correct to argue that Whites today are linked to historic sins like slavery because of their present-day racism? No. The key problem here is in conflating different sins. A person who entertains a racist thought is indeed guilty of sin, but they have not committed the same sin as a man who kidnaps a woman and chains her to the hull of a slave ship. These two sins are light-years apart.
Imagine a man who was a serial domestic abuser but who has repented of and rejected that behavior completely. If he speaks an unkind word to his wife one day, he is indeed guilty of sin, but we would not insist that he is now again guilty of domestic abuse and must again repent of domestic abuse. How much less would we insist that a man who has spoken unkindly to his wife is now guilty of his great-great-grandfather’s domestic abuse or the domestic abuse of some random stranger of 100 years ago who has the same color skin?
We also note that in texts where we see an indictment of people with an action they did not literally commit, their indictment is rooted in the fact that they were complicit in or in agreement with or failed to demonstrate disagreement with the sinful action in question. We see this, for instance, in Acts 2 when Peter indicts the “Men of Israel” (v. 22) who witnessed Jesus (“in your midst” v. 22) and the “miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him” (v. 22) with the charge of “you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (v. 23). (We highlight, Peter uses the term “you” and not “we”, even though he was likely present at the crucifixion or at least in the immediate vicinity of it). This principle is demonstrated again in Acts 4 and 5 by laying the charge of the crucifixion of Jesus at the “rulers and elders of the people” and “the Council”. An example of this relative to our topic would be those who stood by in agreement while a lynching took place or those who did not disagree with or contend against slavery, even if they did not own slaves themselves.
We also see how there can be continuity of sinful behavior across time when the type and category of the past sin in question is still maintained and actively expressed by people in the present. We see this dynamic in Matthew 23 as Jesus excoriates the scribes and Pharisees with a series of woes that culminates in him tying their egregious, actual, present sin and sinful complicity against his righteous prophets and wise men to similar sins in type and quality that have been done in the past and specifically done by the Pharisees. An example would be when certain white power groups who are not presently carrying out lynchings still have the same hatred of Blacks as the groups’ past members. Upon the establishment of this connection to lynchings as a group and the continuation of the same species and quality of hatred towards Blacks, they could be legitimately indicted with the charge “You (the present group) carried out lynchings”! But what must be understood in the above examples is that there is actual sin operative in the present in explicit fashion in the current individuals of the same type and quality as those of their group in the past. Where that is actually the case, repentance is needed and required for the current and present sins that have continued from the past.