WE AFFIRM that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.
WE DENY that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the proclamation of the gospel. When Peter preached to the Jews at Pentecost, he confronted their sin by declaring, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
When the crowd recognized their guilt, their hearts were pierced, and they cried out to ask what they must do. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). If they were to be saved, the message was clear: they must recognize and repent of their sins and identify with Christ. The ones who received and acted on Peter’s words were saved that day (Acts 2:41).
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the practice of the gospel, It is the pattern of the Christian life as we continue to walk in the light. Consider the familiar words of the Apostle John that were written to believers: “If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8-9).
These words are both sobering and encouraging. If we ignore or deny our sin, we demonstrate that the truth of God does not indwell us. In other words, failing to recognize our sin is serious business; it evidences we are not saved. However, the wonderful news is when we confess our sins, God forgives us and cleanses us. He is faithful and just to do so because he is keeping his promise that our sins have been punished through the cross on the basis of Christ’s blood.
The Bible is replete with warnings about the danger of concealing our sins as well as the blessings of confessing them. Therefore, it is critical that we are able to know the sins for which we truly bear guilt so that we may confess them. Our salvation and blessed life as a Christian depend upon this. Simply put, if we have sinned, we must recognize our guilt and confess that before God in order to receive forgiveness.
This truth becomes crucial in the ongoing debate about social justice among evangelicals. Some argue that people today not only bear the guilt for their own sins, but also for the sins of past generations – particularly those of racism. For example, even though none of us were alive during the practice of American slavery, and many were not yet born at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, some argue that whites should both confess and repent of the sins of their ancestors in these matters.
Article 6 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel addresses this critical error. Scripture is clear that although we are all sinners, by nature and practice, no one is morally culpable and called to repent for someone else’s sin (Rom 5:12).
Nevertheless, some reference Exodus 20:5 where God says he will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” Therefore, it is argued, future generations can be complicit in the sins of their ancestors.
However, the text actually assigns this guilt to “those who hate me.” The warning places guilt upon those who continue to walk in the wicked ways of their ancestors. The children share in their father’s guilt because they share in their father’s sins. This is further clarified by the prophet Ezekiel’s words:, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son” (Ezk 18:20).
This continues to be the case in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find guilt assigned to individuals for the sins of others. Each person is called upon to confess their personal sins in order to receive forgiveness. Hence, John declares, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…” (1 Jn 1:9).
But what about Peter’s sermon at Pentecost as was referenced earlier? Is that not an example of guilt being assigned to a group of people for the sins of others? Peter said to the entire crowd, “you crucified and killed Jesus.” Everyone knows that it was the Jewish leadership who handed Jesus over, Pilate who sent him to the cross, and Roman soldiers who nailed him to that tree. Yet, Peter declares to every person within the sound of his voice that it was they who are guilty of this vile sin.
We must remember Peter is preaching this sermon in the heart of Jerusalem – the very place where Jesus had been unjustly tried and crucified mere weeks prior. It was the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over to the Roman government and called for his execution (Jn 18:28-31). When Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the opportunity to set Jesus free, they demanded that he be crucified, and they vowed, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Mt 27:15-26).
Furthermore, this was no sin of ignorance. Peter declared that Jesus was “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). There was ample evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but essentially the entire nation had rejected him and insisted he be crucified. Virtually everyone in the nation of Israel was active in the crucifixion and murder of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Peter’s pronouncement of guilt upon this Jewish crowd in the heart of Jerusalem was certainly justified.
However, before we rush to embrace the idea of corporate guilt, we must consider some vital facts.
First, neither Peter nor any of the other apostles include themselves in the guilt of killing Jesus. They also were Jews, in Jerusalem when he was crucified, and most of them abandoned him in that very hour. Yet, they seem to bear no guilt.
Second, no Jews are told throughout the rest of the New Testament that they are guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus. When Paul preached to the Jews in Antioch, he declared, “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” condemned Jesus (Acts 13:27). This continues to be the pattern throughout the rest of Acts.
Surely the crucifixion of Jesus was the greatest act of injustice in the history of the world, yet his death was not laid at the feet of future Jewish generations. There could be no greater evidence that one’s ethnicity does not establish any necessary connection to any particular sin. Clearly, we are called upon to confess our own sins, not the sins of others.
The Scripture must be our only guide in matters of guilt and repentance. We do not have the right to burden people with guilt that God’s Law does not clearly lay upon them, and we certainly should not call upon people to repent for sins in which they bear no legitimate guilt. To do such a thing is to go beyond the line of Scripture and is nothing less than “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mk 7:7).
The truth is there is real hatred towards others that dwells in our own hearts that calls for confession and repentance. The gospel demands that we do the harder task of confronting the real guilt of sin that we indeed bear, and the humble repentance God requires. This is the task to which we must be fully committed. As important as brotherly reconciliation is, there is more at stake when we assign guilt for sin and call for repentance. What is at risk is our personal standing before God (1 Jn 1:8-9).
C.S. Lewis addressed this issue in his time. At the beginning of WWII, young Christians were calling upon England to repent of her past sins they believed contributed to the evils of the war. They claimed England was reaping what it had sown from the nation’s prior actions.
Lewis wrote an article entitled “Dangers of National Repentance,” where he declared, “Young Christians are turning to it in large numbers.” But what harm is there, Lewis reasoned, in having a heart that is willing to repent of any sin – even if it is not directly your own? He saw it as a grave danger with no sign of spiritual health at all. Scripture calls us to is the harder work of repenting of our own sin.
Therefore, I believe C. S. Lewis’ warning then is as relevant to the discussion among evangelicals now: “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing the conduct of others.”