I have seen a lot of posts recently in my social media feed of people who say things like, “I didn’t do _________, so I have nothing to repent of or be sorry for.” These posts assert that sin and guilt are always only personal and never corporate or generational. Accordingly, those who think this way contend that we are not culpable in any way for sins of previous generations or the ongoing sins of our nation if we personally don’t act in sinful ways. Further, they suggest that it is unnecessary and unbiblical to confess or repent of the sins of our forefathers, that corporate sin isn’t a biblical category, and the Bible only speaks about personal sin and repentance, etc.
Let me say it clearly. Hogwash.
The Bible is replete with teaching about corporate sin, generational sin and guilt. To be sure, the idea of corporate sin and guilt is counter intuitive to us rugged, individualistic Americans, but corporate solidarity, in sin and in righteousness, is incredibly biblical. And, it’s at the foundation of our faith.
To start…I am a sinner because my father, Adam, sinned. I’m not a sinner because I sin. I sin because I’m a sinner. From Papa Adam I inherit guilt, as well as a propensity to sin. I was a sinner before I drew my first breath, thought my first thought, or sinned my first sin. When Adam sinned, I, as one whom he represented, was plunged into sin. As Paul teaches, “the many died by the trespass of the one man,” and “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people.” The gospel itself rests on this concept of corporate solidarity, for “through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Like in Adam all sin and die, so in Christ all are righteous and live. This is Paul’s entire argument though Romans 5. Upend corporate solidarity in guilt, you also uproot corporate solidarity in righteousness. If you reject imputed guilt, you must also reject imputed righteousness. Don’t do that. Seriously. Don’t.
Abraham was told that he would inherit the land of Canaan, but not yet. His descendants “shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen 15:16). The sins of the Amorites from Abraham’s day would be added to the sins of the Amorites in the following days, and once they were ‘filled up’ or ‘completed’, that generation of Amorites, four generations removed from the promise, would pay for the collective guilt of all the Amorites and be driven from the land and “put to the ban” (herem).
In framing the covenant with Israel, God warned that they, as a people, would sin and would be carried away into foreign lands as a result. But there would be hope of restoration. God says, “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land” (Lev 26:40-42).
Fast forward a few centuries and this warning comes to fruition. Israel’s sins of idolatry, oppression of the poor, callousness towards the needy, and general faithlessness move God to action. The Babylonians are coming (Assyria had swept the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity some decades earlier). Poor old Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a good and godly man, a faithful servant. But Jeremiah got caught up in God’s punishment of Israel’s (Judah’s) sins.
Option 1: God unjustly allowed Jeremiah to suffer the punishment that those who were faithless deserved.
Option 2: Jeremiah, as a part of Judah, owned a part of the nation’s sin.
Jeremiah’s home was destroyed too. His place of worship razed to the ground. His kin killed or taken captive. He laments. He confesses, “We have sinned and rebelled” (Lamentation 3:42). Me? I’d be more likely to say, “why me God…I didn’t bow to Baal or go out to the Asherah pole. I didn’t oppress anyone knowingly.” But not Jeremiah! He knows “he” is part of “we” and understands corporate solidarity.
Another fun story comes in Joshua 7. The Israelite’s are on a roll, they’ve crossed the Jordan and cleared the first big obstacle in taking the land – Jericho. Then, “Israel broke faith.” As a result of this breach of faith, Israel is routed in battle against Ai and thirty-six men are killed. The whole of Israel, it is said, melted “and became like water.” Joshua rends his garments and cries out to God, “Why?” The answer, “Israel has sinned!” How did Israel sin? What did the nation do? Well, one man, Achan, after the battle of Jericho, had kept some things that were supposed to be destroyed. Because of this, “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel.” God said, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction.” The whole of Israel guilty because of Achan. The whole of Israel called to repentance and action for the sin of Achan.
Nehemiah 9 is another case of this. The people of Israel, having returned from captivity gather together. The text says, “And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” In Psalm 106 the writer confesses, “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.” For more examples of this theme, consider Isaiah 65:6-7, Jeremiah 3:25, Jeremiah 14:20, or Daniel 9.
To be clear, America is not Israel. We are most certainly not the covenant people of God. But, the idea of corporate sin applies still. Just as we can speak of the corporate sins of the Amorites, a closer parallel to America than Israel, so we can speak of the corporate sins of America, and the sins of our fathers and forefathers. And in the NT, the principle is still there, most notably in calls to churches to confess and repent (and there is most certainly a parallel between Israel and the church).
To the church at Ephesus, John writes, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). Was every single person guilty of leaving their first love? Likely not. But corporately, they had grown cold and were in danger of Christ’s judgement unless they corporately repented. This isn’t language of individual repentance, but of corporate sin, guilt and repentance.
The warning against the church at Pergammum is more pointed still. Jesus says, “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Here’s something you need to know, but wouldn’t pick up in English: each use of the word ‘you’ in this passage is singular. Jesus isn’t using the plural in his warning – not ya’ll. Just you, singular, to address the whole church. Because some of you hold to teachings of Balaam (not all, he said some) and some hold to teaching of Nicolations (some, not all), Jesus is ready to come and wage war against them all – against the whole church.
Let me put a point on this. I did not own slaves. (I don’t even know if my great grandparents did – don’t know when any of my ancestors came to America). I did not oppress black people or deprive them of the personhood, of dignity, of power.
My country did. We did. And my church (the evangelical church) was complicit. We sinned.
We need to confess. Repent. Continually, because the sins haven’t been righted yet. And, we’re still too tolerant of them.
Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy.