Should We Apologize for Sins We Did Not Commit?

Does it make sense to repent of someone else’s sins?

One way to say yes to this question is to believe in corporate guilt, or imputed intergenerational guilt. Todd Pruitt, a PCA minister who voted for the overture to “repent of corporate and historical sins” nevertheless doubted whether such corporate guilt made theological sense.

 

Does it make sense to repent of someone else’s sins? Christians seem to be doing a lot of that recently, so it’s right to ask whether it makes sense. In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we voted overwhelmingly at our 44th General Assembly to “recognize, confess, condemn, and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers.”

The PCA’s repudiation of racism echoes the 1995 Southern Baptist resolution on racial reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC): “We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.” This year the SBC also passed a resolution repudiating the Confederate battle flag. You can stop flying a flag now, but can you repent of someone else flying a flag more than a century ago?

Intergenerational Guilt

One way to say yes to this question is to believe in corporate guilt, or imputed intergenerational guilt. Todd Pruitt, a PCA minister who voted for the overture to “repent of corporate and historical sins” nevertheless doubted whether such corporate guilt made theological sense. He wrote:

However, I am not convinced that an overture of corporate repentance was the best way to address sins of racism in some of our churches. I am doubtful about the theological justification for corporate repentance—that sin is generational and therefore those who were not even born during the era of Jim Crow and segregation bear the taint of guilt. I do not see evidence of this sort of generational guilt in the Bible.

When understood in a strictly theological sense, Pruitt is surely right. Take the Westminster Shorter Catechism as an example:

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life? A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

The catechism rightly assumes a sinner paradigmatically repents of his own sin, not someone else’s. That’s true.

In a broader context, though, we can think of repenting in at least two other ways: first, as regret, and second, as public disavowal.

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