One of the more problematic ideas with the social justice trend in evangelical circles is the idea of corporate, generational guilt and repentance. Barring a discussion on hermeneutics, which is vital to how we frame issues of social justice, there are a number of passages suggesting we are liable to repent on an individual basis (Deut. 24:16; 2 Ki. 14:6; Jer. 31:30; Ez. 18:20). In each of these examples, the charge of sin is given to individuals rather than families, generations, etc. What is important for us to note is that familial lines do not necessitate sin being charged to their account as a result of another’s offense before God. There are instances where entire families suffer as a result of the sin of their father (see Num. 16:20-35), but suffering from the consequences of another’s folly is not the same thing as incurring judgment for sins committed—especially when we see codified Law dictating this is not to be the case.
To make that clearer: I may suffer consequences as a result of someone else’s sin, but that doesn’t make me guilty of their sin. Instead, it simply makes their sin all the more heinous, as like all sin, it brings carnage and unintended consequences in its wake. For an illustration: let’s say my brother drunkenly shoots a gun and the bullet hits my femoral artery. I don’t bleed out and die—but I do lose my leg up to the knee and my life is forever changed. Beyond the matter of healing, relearning basic tasks and motor skills in physical therapy, and the medical bills continuing to grow, I lose my job because it demands a certain physical ability that I no longer have. My brother gets charged with a misdemeanor—but ultimately, I’m the one who suffers for no other reason than having a fool of a brother. I suffer, not as a result of my own sin, but as a result of his. This is why we find a distinction drawn between suffering as a result of sin and suffering in innocence; the former deserves no pity (1 Pt. 4:12-19).
There are also passages that support the idea of corporate repentance (i.e. Dan. 9:4-19). Same with inter-generational guilt (i.e. Lev. 26:39; Deut. 5:9-10). Perhaps the clearest sense of corporate guilt we find in Scripture is that all of humanity has fallen under the guilt of our federal head, Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). Beyond this, there are numerous examples of a similar headship displayed as others are brought to judgment as a result of corrupt leadership (i.e. Is. 9:8ff, esp. v. 16). The problem is not in understanding that corporate sin & generational guilt can take place—they can and do. The problem is rooted in a woeful misunderstanding of the text, and as a result, a woeful misapplication of it in our modern context. The language of judgment in the Old Testament is clear; judgment upon Israel is always for forsaking God & His covenant (as outlined in Deut. 28ff). No matter how one stretches it, we’re dealing with actual guilt for actual sins committed, not assumed, generational guilt & complicity. In other words, we have specific, targeted ways in which a wayward people were acting waywardly.
Even when God’s justice falls under the scope of a broader judgment for national sins, that doesn’t indicate that each individual was guilty of the crimes committed therein. As a corporate people they may face the same judgment (i.e. all people in Jerusalem and Samaria being carried away to exile). However, before God, their judgment is commensurate with their crimes; hence why we can see godly and just men like the prophets suffer with Israel even as they did not participate with them in their wickedness. In the corporate sense, this goes right back to the analogy I gave above with regard to my non-existent, drunken brother. They may have suffered, but they suffered as a result of doing good, which is commendable in the sight of the Lord. In the same breath, while they understood full-well what this meant for the nation of Israel in her whoredom, they prophesied of the time to come when Israel would no longer be considered a wayward people and be restored to her former glory, when they returned to covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.
Part and parcel to this is understanding that in the midst of Israel’s judgment, we have generation after generation of covenant unfaithfulness, where the Israelites en masse are walking after the same manner of sins as their fathers. The idea in this is not that an innocent generation has somehow crept up and been liable to a judgment their fathers did not suffer, but rather, they are perpetuating the sins of their fathers. They are committing the same vile deeds as their fathers—and here is where we see generational guilt defined more properly in its correct context. Generational guilt is not the sins of the father being imputed to an innocent child, but the child following in the ways of their fathers, which we see routinely in the Old Testament (see the books of the Kings and the Chronicles). A great modern-day contextualization of this is the pandemic of fatherlessness, which is widely recognized to create very real, very disparate outcomes in children, especially sons. One generation of fatherless children often creates another generation of fatherless children, but each generation is responsible for leaving their children to be without a dad.
Perhaps though, the best point of biblical clarification on this idea of generational guilt comes through the Decalogue (Ten Commandments):
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them [speaking of idols]; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving devotion to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6).
When the people gave way to idolatry and forsaking obedience to the Law, the inevitable result was to see generation after generation of Israelites who continued in the ways of their fathers. This is clearly supported by the fact that the visitation of sins upon the third and fourth generations are of those who hate the Lord, meaning that they too hated the Lord just as their fathers did. Here then we find harmony with the aforementioned verses supporting individual culpability. Verse 6 then serves to contrast what we see in v. 5; God shows His covenant faithfulness (the term “love” is better translated this way, as it is the Hebrew term hesed) to a thousand generations who love God (which is translated appropriately here, as it is not the term hesed) and keep His commandments. In other words, what is explicitly shown is in relation to the stipulations of their covenant with God, again, in keeping with Deut. 28 and the following chapters.
In the same manner, we see this principle flesh out in the history of the kings of Israel. Any time a generation pops up in the Old Testament that heeds the call of the Lord and genuinely repents before Him, He relents concerning the calamitous judgment He was to bring upon them. This is clearly shown when we find Jerusalem is spared from judgment by the hand of the Assyrians (under the reign of Sennacherib) during the reforms of King Hezekiah (2 Chr. 29-32). Micah delivers the prophecy concerning the fall of Jerusalem to Hezekiah (Micah 1:1); around the same time, the prophet Isaiah delivers a prophecy saying the king will die from his illness (2 Ki. 20:1). What comes of this is astounding: Hezekiah prays, is heard by God, and then Isaiah prophesies that the king will live for another 15 years and that Jerusalem will be delivered from the hand of the Assyrians (2 Ki. 20:6). While Hezekiah would see peace during the remainder of his years, and the capital city would not go to King Sennacherib, it would inevitably fall into the hands of the Babylonians (2 Ki. 20:16-18).
When we look at the circumstances surrounding the Babylonian invasion, all signs point to the reality that the kings following Hezekiah fell right back into idolatry, licentious living, and every other wickedness that characterized the wicked kings before them (2 Ki. 21:1; 21:20). In other words: they committed deeds worthy of incurring the judgment of God and brought this same indictment upon the people. After Manasseh and Amon, Josiah comes on the scene, who is the last king to follow in the ways of David rather than the wicked kings of the past (2 Ki. 22:2). From here it is only a relatively short matter of time before Nebuchadnezzar comes to lay siege to Jerusalem, “…in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed through his servants the prophets” (2 Ki. 24:2).
The reason I draw us into the foray of the kings of Jerusalem is that it gives us an incredibly clear picture of the fact that God was not holding each generation accountable for the sins of the previous generation. If anything, it shows us an incredibly patient God who extends His judgment in order to maximize the nation’s time to repent, rather than incur His wrath. As a result of one man’s obedience (Hezekiah), the Lord prolonged His wrath—even to successive kings who did not deserve it. Why? Because God is once again being found faithful to His covenant with them in Deut. 28 and following. The idea being that God’s covenant loyalty binds Him to faithfulness, whether in blessing or cursing. As the people are faithful, God’s blessing is upon them. As the people are unfaithful, God’s cursing is upon them.
While Manasseh’s (Hezekiah’s son) sins may have been greater than any king before him, an important qualifier is given to us in the text to indicate still, the Lord’s judgment upon this people was, “because they have done evil in My sight, and have been provoking Me to anger since the day their fathers came from Egypt, even to this day” (2 Ki. 21:15). This was not simply a “prophetic hangover” where God’s wrath was put on retainer, only to be unleashed upon a people who didn’t commit these same sins. Instead, it was a period of grace given as a result of repentance, in keeping with Israel’s covenant with God in Deut. 28ff. The point being: the nation went right back into the rebellion that warranted Micah’s and Isaiah’s prophecy to begin with, and had been doing so for generations even prior to them. They were not judged on the basis of other’s sins, but their own, which makes the situation all the worse. The fact of the matter was that Israel was liable to judgment from the beginning of their exodus from Egypt, yet God remained faithful for His own name’s sake, yet also as a response of fidelity to the covenant for those who loved Him.
What this very clearly demonstrates is that God renders to each man according to his own deeds (Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6). The idea of repentance brings to mind offenses the individual has done that require turning from. In other words, there are actual sins committed against God and man that require a change of heart, mind, and action. It seems like a rather obvious point to make, but how can an individual (or an entire ethnic group) repent of something if they’ve not committed the deed, enabled others to do so, or held the mindset that claims it is acceptable? In the context of the current discussions on social justice within the church, this is an incredibly vital part, especially as others are subjecting the Old Testament to tokenism in order to make the charge of complicity, generational guilt, and the need for corporate repentance. As we saw throughout the latter timeline of the kings of Israel, each generation was judged according to their own sins. This is not to say that future generations ought to sit idle in the wake of past generations, but that we are never to seek to accomplish justice through unjust means.
What that means more clearly is that the process of being a just and equitable people is bound in being righteous before God rather than getting in your pound of flesh. It is Scripturally dishonest to claim you have a desire to uphold biblical justice when everything defining your vision, mission, and goals requires you to treat others with partiality, which is sin. In other words: you need to repent if you are labeling a class of people with guilt and demanding repentance for sins they have not committed. If you are to charge one class of people for the crimes of their ancestors, you must hold the same standard for all ethnicities. If we are to uphold equal weights and measurements, that is the only road forward if we assign corporate, generational guilt. To suggest this way forward though leaves no one with clean hands and shows a profound misunderstanding of history, as every ethnic group has atrocities and conquests in their annals.
Rather, a better way forward is to earnestly call all people everywhere to repentance and faith in Christ. The reason is quite simple, though it will expose the hearts of those who claim to desire justice, because it demands that we start to place stock in God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises rather than our ability to hold an emblazoned sign demanding unbiblical justice. God Himself has promised not only a heart of flesh, but the indwelling of the Spirit, which causes us to walk in His statutes and ordinances (Ez. 36:26-27). In other words: it is the through the foolishness of the gospel itself, in conjunction with the transformation wrought by the Spirit of God, that a man will be a just and equitable man before God.
This is wondrous news for those who believe in Christ because it means that we actually stand a fighting chance to make things better for our children. As dads and moms who have been granted forgiveness, we are able to carve out a new path that is radically different than our parents. It may be an uphill battle the entire time—but the promise is that God loves to show His covenant faithfulness to thousands of generations that love Him (Ex. 20:6). At the same time, it means that our children can do better than us and avoid some of the pitfalls and foolishness that is part of our blemished personal history. What fathers must do is rise up and be the man who leads his household toward godliness. One need not try and repent of the sins of their fathers, unless, of course, they are currently walking in tandem with them. One need not feel a sense of guilt for crimes that are not their own.
Yet I would bring this even a step further so as to say that the racist man who finds forgiveness in Christ need not be consumed with guilt after he has committed his ways to the Lord. He need not do anything but live in good standing with his brothers and sisters of all ethnicities. What that means in particular is that the thing he is called to is not linking arms with protesters, but a blood-bought unity with his brothers and sisters in Christ that transcends any amount of hatred he once held, as well as any feigned sense of unity this dying world thinks they can muster up. He is to take stock in the promise that if He confesses his sins, God is faithful and just to forgive his sins—and to cleanse him of all unrighteousness. His sins will be no more remembered (Heb. 8:12); his sins will be cast into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19). The beautiful thing—and here I mean the truly beautiful thing, is that God guarantees to work on this man’s behalf through the power of the Spirit and the Word to conform Him to the image of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no partiality. If we are to maintain the gospel itself, we cannot lose sight of this reality, no matter how unforgiving the world becomes on these things. The gospel is a scandal because it levels the playing field, offering the grace of God to all men regardless of how heinous their sins before men have been.