Should we confess the sins of our ancestors and predecessors? This question has been asked much recently, and though it could apply to a host of ancestral sins, it has particular relevance in this cultural moment to racism. A more specific question is thus asked: “Should Christians in the United States confess the ethnic partiality of their ancestors?”
The answer to this question often reveals how someone views the nature of sin. In a setting like ours that’s deeply shaped by individualism, sin is often addressed purely as an individual matter of personal responsibility which results in a person being morally culpable before God. This view has biblical warrant, such as Ezekiel 14:20: “The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers are not to be put to death for their children, and children are not to be put to death for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin.” What the Bible says in these places is true. Each person is responsible for their own sin and, without repentance, bears the penalty for their own sin.
But personal moral culpability for sin is not the only way that the Bible addresses sin and responsibility. In several places throughout the Scriptures, there are examples of corporate responsibility for sin where a group of people sin collectively (Exodus 32; Daniel 9:8) or a group of people is connected to the sin of their ancestors (Isaiah 14:21). Sin is both a personal and corporate matter and, in both cases, sin results not just in moral culpability before God, but its effects can extend to others.
This is what is contained in the word translated “iniquity” that’s used throughout the Bible. Pastor Reed DePace has noted, “One of three words used for sin in the OT, the Hebrew word translated iniquity, is used to express sin with its results.”(1) DePace continues, “If the culpability result of sin is personal (it only attaches to the sinning individual), then the corruption result of sin is corporate (it also attaches to those in covenant relationship with the sinning individual).” This is seen in the Bible where one person’s sin affects a group of connected people (Joshua 7;1 Corinthians 5; Rev 2:14–16) or even those who come after them. While people might not be personally culpable for the sin of those who came before them, and therefore cannot repent for their specific individual sins, it is possible that they are still connected to the sins of their ancestors through the corrosive effects of their sin, either in themselves or in the larger community or society. This corruption can be seen both actively and passively: active perpetuation of sin and its effects by those who come after and passive perpetuation by not correcting sin’s lasting effects.(2)
This is why both personal and corporate sin must be addressed through acknowledgment and repudiation. The Bible addresses individual followers of Jesus to confess their personal sins, and it also records the accounts of groups of people who name their corporate sin, even the sins of their ancestors. In Leviticus 26:40–42, the Lord speaks to His covenant people, saying, “But when they confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers . . . and when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob. I will also remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” In Daniel 9, Daniel prays to God and acknowledges his sin and the sin of his ancestors. Nehemiah 9 records Israel’s national confession of sin after the public reading of the law of God, where the people “confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2).(3)
Acknowledging and repudiating ancestral sin has everything to do with our connectedness to those who came before us through the active or passive corrosive effects of their sin on us in our present day. So we state the question again: Should we confess the sin of those who came before us? With the sin of racism and white supremacy in mind, our connectedness with those who came before us is shared on at least two levels, and, therefore, explicitly naming and repudiating these sins is a proper response.
Our first level of connection is at a national level. The United States of America is often hailed by many of its citizens as being the greatest country in the world. American exceptionalism is the platform for both of America’s major political parties. While there are many things to celebrate in our nation, there are also many things to mourn. Many are quick to identify and associate themselves with the benefits of this nation, but they are quick to disassociate themselves from its record of horrors and blemishes either through denial or disconnection from the historic and present realities of sins like racism. But we cannot boast about the light of this nation’s liberty and freedom without acknowledge the history of Black and indigenous exploitation, discrimination, and involuntary labor which produced both the country’s independence and its economic landscape.
Therefore, every American citizen is to bear the burden of acknowledging the reality of the sin which formed and shaped this nation as we know it. Specific moral culpability, guilt, and shame for racism and white supremacy will not be experienced or borne by all individuals or groups in the same way, but acknowledgment, repudiation, and lament for the sin and iniquity of this nation by those who identify with it is necessary for true progress, healing, and redemption.
Despite this, the most important level of connectedness is spiritual. The Church’s spiritual and covenantal connectedness to believers who came before is a much stronger connection than an inherited geo-political one. The history of the church in America has been full of failure despite its great faithfulness. Followers of Jesus connected to the church with a history in this nation are connecting their faith to both the praiseworthy successes of the church—such as the church’s opposition of white supremacy and contribution to abolition and Civil Rights—and also to the failures of the church—concerning racism and white supremacy as well. Taking ownership of this history, clearly acknowledging the sin, and repudiating it all is a proper response that should ultimately lead us to humility and repair.
Corporately acknowledging and repudiating the sin of our ancestors does not mean that we are bearing the guilt or seeking to atone for their particular individual sins. Corporately doing so presents us, as a nation and as followers of Jesus, with an opportunity for awareness of the destructive effects of sin and the grace to turn from them. We must own and acknowledge our history that involves and implicates us all and through repudiation we can proceed to take the necessary steps to correcting both the ways that our sin and the sin of those we are historically connected to has corrupted us and our land.
(1) Reed DePace, “A Burden Removed: A Biblical Path for Removing the Racism of Our Forefathers,” The Gospel Coalition, Nov. 18, 2019, available at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/burden-removed-biblical-path-removing-racism-forefathers/.
(2) Scripture repeatedly bears this out. For example, In Nehemiah 9:32–-37, God’s people conclude that they were, at that time, slaves in the land that the Lord gave to their ancestors because of both their sin and the sin of their ancestors. Leviticus 26:39 says that when Israel is disobedient to the Lord and He consequently scatters them, then “they will waste away because of their iniquity; they will also waste away because of their fathers’ iniquities along with theirs.” In Exodus 34:7 when the Lord proclaims His name before Moses, He says that “He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.”
(3) DePace’s comments, noted above, provide a helpful way of understanding why Nehemiah records that Israel confessed its own sins (acknowledging their responsibility for them) but confessed the iniquities of its predecessors (repudiating the results of the sins of the fathers that still may have had a hold on the later generations).
- Pray that our nation would collectively acknowledge and repudiate the sins of our ancestors.
- Pray that people would see that the reality of forgiveness for sin is greater than the culpability and corrosion of sin.
- Pray that we would see our connection to those around us, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.