Before I begin, I want to make several things very clear.
- Even if my first paragraph makes you roll your eyes, please understand my heart.
- I have heard and read countless articles and sermons calling out against the “social justice gospel”, critical race theory, white guilt . . . you name it. I am not a proponent of those things. I believe that the mission of the church and Christians worldwide is to preach the good news of the gospel of Christ: God took on flesh in the person of Jesus, died a sinners death on the cross, rose again, and intercedes on behalf of God’s people before God in heaven. Faith in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection is the only salvation from sin and hell.
- Though salvation cannot be earned, our salvation transforms our hearts and minds in a way that causes us to see the struggles of our fellow human beings and to be moved toward compassion. The first step toward compassion is the ability to humbly listen to the experience of our neighbor and recognize their value and dignity as a person whom God loves.
- Whether or not you believe racism is still a problem in our society today, recognize that there is an entire population of people within our culture that feels unheard, unloved, unsafe, and mistreated. Many Christians have condemned them as liars vying for power and attention or idolaters of victimhood. I don’t believe that the Jesus of the Bible would act toward them in this way.
- The gospel has the power to bring healing to all aspects of society because it unifies all people who have been made in God’s image against the universal problem of sin, which mars the image of God in all people
- My heart is for the church to be an agent of reconciliation and healing in individuals and communities. Yes, the preaching of the gospel and God’s Word is the primary function of the Church, but effectively doing so stirs in people, among other things, a desire for God’s justice here on earth as it is in heaven. Justice and the gospel are not mutually exclusive.
- I will be referencing the history of Israel frequently in this series of posts. While we can learn from Israel’s example, I am not implying that Israel represents America or the Church. Israel was and is its own nation, with, I would even go as far as saying, its own unique relationship to God.
All right, let’s do this.
Do Christians need to repent of sins that they have not personally committed?
February is a month set aside to highlight and celebrate Black history and recognize the influence Black people have had in American society. For all their triumphs and cultural contributions, the history of Black Americans has been riddled with hardship – from the heinous abuse and exploitation by European colonials and White slaveholders to oppressive segregation laws which endured well into the 20th century. Though we as a society have made visible progress in the battle against systemic racism, I am convinced that there is still much more work to do. I am far from the only one. The past year was fraught with numerous incidents that brought the conversation on racism to the forefront again and again and forced many White Americans to reevaluate just how far we have come. Has racism been stamped out in America, save for a few fringe radical groups, or is the deck still stacked against people of color in ways that might not be as obvious as slavery or segregation? I have argued previously for the latter.
Without rehashing my previous comments, which you can read in the linked post above, I want to begin by proposing that, yes, systemic racism is still a very real problem in American society today. Secondly, the Church’s posture toward racism, past and present, should be one of repentance.
“But I’m not racist. I don’t need to repent.”
“I’ve never owned slaves. What do I need to repent of?”
“Why should I feel guilty for sins I didn’t personally commit?”
Maybe you’ve heard Christians respond in these ways. Maybe you’ve responded in a similar way. It’s a fair question to ask.
Here’s the answer for which I will argue: Collective repentance for the sins of a community, even ones that we have not personally committed, is a God-honoring, biblical step toward healing and reconciliation.
This is going to be a long argument, so for the sake of brevity I am going to break it up into multiple posts. I will begin by making a biblical case for collective repentance, and later apply the principle to the subject of modern systemic racism. Part 1 will establish that biblical evidence exists to support the idea that sin is not merely personal; it is universal and generational.
The Origin of Sin
We will start by building upon a basic definition of sin and eventually arrive at a fuller and more nuanced picture of sin’s nature and implications according to the biblical witness.
There exists a principle in philosophy known as “moral absolutism” (ant. moral relativism). Proponents of moral absolutism agree that there is a universal moral standard against which we can judge “The Good” and “The Bad”. Christians believe this universal moral standard to be God. The Church has long affirmed that morality is woven into the fabric of the universe. We affirm that God created the heavens and the earth with moral laws which are just as innate to the order of the universe as gravity; “Right” and “Wrong” are just as natural a feature of the cosmos as energy and matter. The Church has also historically affirmed that the created world is a physical expression of God’s very nature. Given that God is holy and without evil, he will not create that which defiles his own holiness. Thus, the world God created in the beginning was fully, completely good (free of evil; Genesis 1:31).
The Church has historically affirmed that human beings were created in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27). Consequently, we believe God created humanity according to the same moral laws as those with which he created the natural world. As a creative work representing his nature, God created humanity completely good and free of evil.
So where did sin enter the picture? The Church has historically defined sin as that which goes against the moral law of God. The theological tradition I subscribe to holds that mankind, being made in the Image of God who himself has the ability to exercise his will freely, made a conscious choice to defy and rebel against the moral order with which God created the universe. Men and women were the original agents through whom sin entered the world (Genesis 3).
The Universal Nature of Sin
Ask someone to define “sin” and they will probably start listing behaviors:
These are all good examples of sin. Most Christians would agree that these behaviors sharply contradict God’s moral law. But if we are to fully understand the scope of sin, we must think of it in terms of a cosmic problem, not simply a human one. It is a problem that affects all elements of God’s creation, not just the human race.
Take a look at Genesis 3:
The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.Genesis 3:14-22
Scripture’s definition of sin is far broader than “humans behaving badly”. Genesis 3 depicts sin as the agent responsible for throwing the perfect order with which God created the heavens and the earth into chaos. There are three general consequences of sin that I want to point out:
- Sin causes division in human relationships (v. 16b).
- Sin causes the earth and nature itself to rise up against mankind (v. 16a, 17-19).
- Sin causes death (v. 21-24).
This means that sin, which was brought into the world as a result of human rebellion against God, is the causal agent of all world problems – physical, behavioral, and spiritual. Here is another list for you to consider:
|Cancer||Pain (mental and physical)||Pollution|
|Birth Defects||Poverty||Death and Decay|
The above are not human behaviors, but, according to the scope of sin described in Genesis 3, they are all further examples of sin’s consequences. It makes sense that, if God created the heavens and the earth according to objective moral laws, then defiance of those moral laws would throw the order with which God created the heavens and the earth into chaos. Recall Genesis 1: The earth was a vast, formless ocean until God brought order to the chaos. After Adam and Eve’s sin, the earth devolved into chaos again, so much so that God flooded it with water (Genesis 6). The world reverted, in a sense, to its pre-creation state. Sin un-does the moral order with which God created the world.
Do you believe you are liable for the sinful condition of the world around you? It’s a difficult question to wrestle with. But as challenging as it is to come to terms with, Scripture attests to the fact that our sinful human state is just as much the cause of our own personal sins like gossip or idolatry, for example, as it is the cause of the chaotic conditions that produce a tornado that destroys a Midwest town. Sin is both universal and generational; it is not individualistic. Our sin, in some cosmic way, contributes to the brokenness of the physical world around us.
The Generational Nature of Sin
In his argument for the sufficiency of Christ for the forgiveness of all sins, the apostle Paul first establishes that one man’s sin was “sufficient” for the downfall of all mankind. All humans, from Adam onward, are born into a sinful state (Romans 5:12).
In our aggressively individualistic culture, we are loathe to admit fault for misdeeds that we did not ourselves commit. But if we are to have a complete understanding of sin, we must come to terms with the fact that we are not only responsible for our personal sins; we are liable for the sins of our generation and all generations previous, continuing all the way back to Adam. We are also liable for the way our sins affect successive generations. A [very difficult, I admit] passage to consider can be found in Exodus 34:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”Exodus 34:6-7
This passage is a refrain found numerous times throughout the Scriptures. But these verses, first and foremost, establish that sin is a generational curse. Its consequences are inherited. For those of you who are parents, you need not look much farther for an example than your own experience raising a child. My daughter just turned a year old, and, biologically, her little brain is a sponge. She sees and understands more than I would like to know. That means the sins I struggle with as a very, very imperfect parent are already having an effect on her. The Progressive Insurance commercials about “unbecoming your parents” are a great reminder that no child wants wants to grow up to emulate the annoying habits they see in their moms and dads (“I’m having a big lunch, and then just a snack for dinner“). But for all the fear children have of turning into their parents, it seems that parents have a reciprocal fear of their children repeating their mistakes and suffering the same consequences of the sinful choices they made. It seems that most parents, Christian or not, acknowledge the power of sin’s generational affects.
To review our survey of the doctrine of sin:
- Sin entered God’s perfect creation through human agency.
- Sin is universal, affecting all aspects of God’s creation – not just the human body and mind.
- Sin is generational. We are liable for the sin of generations previous, our own personal sin, and the consequences of sin as it affects successive generations.
- Therefore, sin in the broad sense is not individual. It is a collective state of unholiness before God with universal, generational ramifications reaching far beyond individual human spheres of influence.
Be on the lookout for Part 2, where we will dive into Israel’s history, discuss the meaning and scope of repentance, and look at a biblical case for collective repentance for the sins of a community as a God-honoring, biblical step toward healing and reconciliation.