Racism, Guilt – Other People’s, and Our Repentance

“How am I guilty of sins committed by others, sins I had nothing to do with since I was not even there?!”

At the very least, there are covenantal applications with reference to the guilt of sin. These covenantal applications cross both space (trans-spatial) and time (trans-temporal). This does not mean personal culpability, responsibility for the sin. It does mean personal experience of the consequences of such guilt. Yes, the parameters and details of this need to be worked out, but it can hardly be argued that the Bible does not teach this principle.

 

“How am I guilty of sins committed by others, sins I had nothing to do with since I was not even there?!”

Regarding the issue of our denomination’s repentance for sins in the Civil Rights era, this is the most common objection raised by those who sincerely disagree with actions taken at the PCA 2016 General Assembly (last week, in Mobile, AL). It is not that they don’t agree that such sins should not be repented from. It is that they do not agree with what we might call corporate-historic repentance.

I am beginning work on a D-Min dissertation devoted to this topic, and hope to study this subject a bit more fully. Here I am not able to delve into it as deeply as it needs. Instead, for the sake of our congregation (and maybe others as God chooses), I want to do two things:

  1. Provide background on this issue in terms of its application to our local church and our denomination.
  2. Provide an outline of the reasons why I believe corporate-historic repentance is biblically valid, and so does apply in these kinds of situations.

My prayer is that the Spirit will see fit to use this pastor’s reflections to lead our congregation to the freedom in Christ from this history, and equip them for greater service in the gospel in our community. And, since we are covenantally connected to the Church outside our local church, I also pray God will use it to honor the gospel’s advance amongst brothers and sisters not a part of First Presbyterian Montgomery.

Our church is prayerfully moving toward the next step in the fruits of repentance (cf., Luke 3:8) for our history of racism in the Civil Rights era and since. Neither the majority of the members of our church nor myself were present during any of the occurrence of the sins documented in our church records (session, diaconate, and congregational minutes). And those records also show that those few members who were part of the church during these events did actively try to address these sins. Here are a series of links giving background on this topic, both from a local and a denominational perspective.

I urge you to read all the links in these posts. For our denomination, the PCA, particularly read the referenced overture (full statement and the amendment.) For our local church, particularly look at the powerpoint at our church’s website.

As noted above, a problem for some is the inference that someone is personally guilty for sins which that person never participated in. “How am I guilty for sins of racism committed by others in the past?” As understandably difficult and frustrating is this question, a beginning answer is not that hard to find. The issue is not personal guilt for the sins of others, but the corporate experience of that guilt. Maybe asking this question differently can help show this:How am I guilty for sins of racism  committed by others Adam in the pastbeginning?

The answer is that we are not. That does not mean that the guilt of Adam’s sin do not effect us. The doctrine of sin in Scripture makes it abundantly clear that while each Christian is not personally responsible for Adam’s sin nevertheless the guilt of Adam’s sins have effected their lives, and disastrously so. Just consider Paragraph 3, Chapter 6, from the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.”[Biblical references for the italicized phrase: Genesis 1:27, 28; 2:10, 17; Acts 17:26; Romans ROM 5:12, 15-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45, 49. See WCF 6, beginning on page 26.]

Here we see what we might call the original corporate imputation of guilt. We are not guilty of Adam’s sin, but the guilt and its results are imputed to us. In principle then, we already recognize that the guilt of one generation’s sin effects a subsequent generation who had no participation with the original sin. Even more, we depend on this principle, if Jesus’ obedience and its results (something we also did not participate in) are likewise going to be imputed to us (cf., Romans 5).

Corporate-historic repentance is simply an application of covenantal principles that are the foundation of our faith. Yes, we individually are not guilty for each other’s sins (cf., Ezekiel 18). And yet, we are covenantally connected to one another. In some manner, the guilt of our forefathers, material and spiritual, has an effect on us. This is nothing more than the necessary continuing application of the warning in the second Commandment, Exodus 2:5 (4-6):

…”visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” … (iniquity: sin, with its guilt).

This is a warning repeated so frequently that we don’t need to make extended arguments about the fact and nature of the ongoing consistent application of ALL God’s law to every generation:

Exodus 34:7; Leviticus, 20:5; 26:29, 39, 40; Numbers 14:18, 33; Deuteronomy 5:9; 7: Joshua 7:24, ff.; 1 Samuel 15:2-3; 2 Samuel 21:1-6; 24:10-17; 1 Kings 14:9-10; 16:1, ff.; 21:21, 29; 2 Kings 23:26; Job 5:4; 21:19; Psalm 79:8; 1106:6,7; 09:14; Isaiah 14:20-21; 65:677; Jeremiah 2:9; 32:18; Daniel 9:8; Matthew 23:31-32; 27:25.

[For extended arguments of the ongoing application of ALL God’s law, see theWestminster Larger Catechism question 99, with its biblical references, beginning at page 234.]

At the very least, there are covenantal applications with reference to the guilt of sin. These covenantal applications cross both space (trans-spatial) and time (trans-temporal). This does not mean personal culpability, responsibility for the sin. It does mean personal experience of the consequences of such guilt. Yes, the parameters and details of this need to be worked out, but it can hardly be argued that the Bible does not teach this principle.

Now ask this question of Scripture: would God who in Christ frees us from all sins and its effects not particularly provide an application of the gospel to address this covenantal aspect of the guilt of sin?

Corporate-historic repentance, what the PCA and First Presbyterian Montgomery are applying to these circumstances, is an application of the Covenant of Grace, the gospel promises fulfilled  by Jesus our Christ. Here is a partial list of factors involved:

  • Corporate-historic repentance is exemplified in the circumstances of Jeremiah (14:20), Daniel (9:6-8), Ezra (9:6-7), Nehemiah (9:2), and the Apostolic Church (Acts 7:51-52, 58, 60; 8:1; 9:176-20).
  • Corporate-historic repentance does not say I am personally guilty for the sins of my forefathers.
  • Corporate-historic repentance instead acknowledges the truth of God’s word that my forefather’s iniquities (sin with its guilt) are a burden that only the gospel can remove.
  • More, corporate-historic repentance declares to the ones offended by my fore-fathers’ sins that I recognize they were sinned against.
  • Finally, corporate-historic repentance declares that Jesus Christ will cover and remove these sins and their offense.

Whether you find yourself quibbling with the details of these things, at the very least I pray you will find yourself agreeing that corporate-historic repentance does have a biblical mooring and that it is the means God gives us in Jesus to remove the effect of the guilt of corporate-historic sins.

May He so bless us, to our joy (John 15:11) in His glory (John 15:8).

Reed DePace is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Ala. This article appeared on the Greenbaggins blog and is used with permission.