Racism and Repentance (Part 2): Acknowledging Sin and Committing to Change

In Part 1 of this series, I gave an overview of the nature and scope of sin. Obviously, there is more to be said on the matter, but there are four main takeaways that are relevant to this discussion:

  1. Sin entered God’s perfect creation through human agency.
  2. Sin is universal, affecting all aspects of God’s creation – not just the human body and mind.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

It is the broad understanding of sin as a collective state of unholiness before God that I will speak to. If sin is a collective curse, then repentance of sin as a collective practice is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor for believers. My end goal is to apply these ideas to the subject of racism and establish that collective repentance for the sins of a community (specifically, historical and modern racism), even ones that we have not personally committed, is a God-honoring, biblical step toward healing and reconciliation.

In order to do that, let’s first talk about repentance.

In his excellent article Thoughts on Jesus’s Demand to Repent, John Piper offers a beautiful and concise definition of repentance:

“Repenting means experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.”

J.I. Packer artfully describes repentance as a transformative process:

“Repentance means turning from as much as you know of your sin to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of your God, and as our knowledge grows at these three points so our practice of repentance has to be enlarged.”

J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in our Walk with God

On the topic of repentance, Charles Spurgeon said,

“Repentance is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved.”

An idea all three of these men land on as they reflect on repentance is that repentance is threefold, involving (1) recognition of sin, (2) a change of heart and mind and (3) a commitment to re-orient our once-sinful desires toward obeying and exalting God.

They all appear to be operating from the Hebrew and Greek words for “sin”

  • שׁוּב (Heb.) – shûb; to return, turn back. [1]
    • “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent (שׁוּבוּ) and turn away (וְהָשִׁיבוּ; same root!) from your idols, and turn away (הָשִׁיבוּ; there it is again!) your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6, annotations mine).
  • μετανοέω (Greek) – met-an-o-eh’-o; (1) to change one’s mind, i.e. to repent; (2) to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins [2].
    • “Repent (μετανοεῖτε), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

A Lesson from Nehemiah

Nehemiah 9 and 10 offer what I view as the best biblical model for collective repentance. Here we see the threefold process of repentance: recognition of the evil of sin, change of heart and mind in response to God’s grace, and a commitment to turn away from sin and toward obedience to God.

As the passage I am referring to is two entire chapters, I cannot post the whole thing here. But I encourage you to read it and follow along with the outline below.

Context

In 586 B.C., the Jews were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, their kingdoms of Israel an Judah having fallen into enemy hands. Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Babylonians in 539 B.C. and gained control of the empire, including the territories of former Israel and Judah. Cyrus decreed that Jewish exiles would be allowed to return to the homeland of their ancestors. This took place between 537 and 433 B.C.

Nehemiah led Israel in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, and, more importantly, renewing their commitment to obey God’s Law and be a blessing to the world. This was a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. The return to Jerusalem represented a fresh start with seemingly endless possibilities – but first, they had to acknowledge what brought them to this moment in the first place.

Israel recognizes and confesses the sins of their ancestors (Nehemiah 9)

Nehemiah 9 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible because it is essentially a salvation-history lesson up to the return of the exiles from Babylon. You could feasibly start reading your Bible in Nehemiah 9 and have a pretty good idea of the biblical history thus far:

9:1-15 The Israelites recount their history as God’s holy people, from God’s covenant with Abraham, to the Exodus, to the conferring of the law at Mt. Sinai. God’s miraculous provision for Israel is emphasized.

16-21 The Israelites recall the story of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, a just punishment for the idolatry of their ancestors. God’s faithfulness and loving kindness toward his people despite their continuing sin is the emphasis.

22-25 The Israelites recount their ancestors’ occupation of the land of Canaan. God’s generosity toward his undeserving nation is emphasized.

26-31 The Israelites lament the sins of their ancestors in the Promised Land that brought God’s wrath upon their nation and caused them to be removed from the land. They emphasize God’s repeated admonitions and calls to repentance – which all went unheeded – while their ancestors were in exile.

32-38 The Israelites lament their current situation as slaves in their own homeland. Yet they recognize God’s gracious provision in allowing them to return and the opportunity before them to renew their covenant commitment to God.

Do you notice the pattern here? Israel’s history is a pendulum that swings from God’s blessing and generosity on one end, to Israel’s apostasy and rebellion on the other. Each time, God responds to Israel’s sin with more and more grace. In verses 31-38, the community recognizes that it is only by God’s grace that they have been allowed to return from exile, and they are determined to not fall yet again into sin.

Also notice the shift in language between verses 31 and 32 from third-person to first-person. Though the community has just recounted centuries of history which none of them were alive to experience, it is not lost on them that it is their collective sin as the people of God that has gotten them to where they are now: enslaved in their own homeland. They recognize that their own sinfulness may well cause them to repeat the sins of their ancestors – so they repent. Though they cannot make right the wrongs of the past, they can respond to God’s boundless grace with repentance and renewed obedience.

What Does This Mean For Us?

Repentance can (and, I would argue, should) happen corporately as well as individually because sin is the universal human problem, not just an individual one. The community of exiles failed to uphold their end of the covenant they made, which is not surprising. But, while they failed to redeem themselves (an inevitable result), their understanding of sin and repentance represents an excellent model.

Repentance is not only acknowledging our own individual guilt; it is a recognition of the evil that sin has caused in our lives and a commitment to re-orient our hearts, minds, and actions toward obeying and exalting God. Repentance on a collective scale may often mean, as it did for Israel, acknowledging the evils sin has caused in the world in the past and present, and committing to repenting of (turning away from) those sins in our own lives and responding instead to God’s call to obedience.

Be on the lookout for Part 3, which will bring together the ideas from Parts 1 and 2 together in a proposition for American Christians today in response to historical and modern racism.

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