In a tweet, Skye Jethani–host of the “Holy Post” podcast–recently said this of generational guilt:
When we willingly accept responsibility for sins we did not commit we look like Jesus on the cross. When we refuse to own the sins of others to maintain our self-righteousness we look like the people who put him there.
Jethani’s tweet got a strong response. Many people liked and retweeted it. As one of the core convictions of woke ideology–very popular today–this does not surprise us. But others raised strong concerns. One of them got my eye. A woman named “Mary” responded as follows:
Huh ? I am not responsible for my fathers sins of sexually abusing me and raping me. That’s what keeps incest survivors silent… carrying others sins. That’s NOT what Jesus wants.
I don’t know Mary. I don’t know her story. But I do know this: she raises a very important question for those who promote “generational guilt” for sin. If you argue that Christians should “accept responsibility for sins we did not commit,” you have to answer for many things. For example, if you believe in familial generational guilt, you will automatically need to “accept responsibility for” all the sins your family committed. That will necessarily (inescapably) include sins done to you–encompassing, among many other evils, abuse committed against you.
No doubt Jethani stumbled into this logical trap unwittingly. I do not believe that he and others who promote generational guilt and reparations are intending to make survivors of sexual abuse guilty for sins done against them. My sense is that this is an unintended error; I do not believe for a minute that Jethani supports abuse of any kind. Further, as a teacher, I have compassion here, for we all fail to think out our systems. None of us connects all the dots, and at times we can land ourselves in very difficult positions, even as Jethani has done.
But this does not mean that we escape accountability for our errors, unintentional or otherwise. This is especially true for public teaching, which is held to the strictest standard (James 3:1). In Jethani’s case, he says “refusing to own the sins of others” is functional self-righteousness. Again, he no doubt has in mind sins of a racist kind (that we all deplore). But this is the problem with sweeping moral claims that are not grounded in the Bible. They may sound good in one area, but they will quickly rebound on you. Man’s wisdom always ends up being self-refuting. It never leads you to the truth. Instead, it takes you places you do not want to go.
Let me put this as starkly as I can: there is no generational guilt that transfers through time. There can be generational effects of sin; I address this important distinction in my new book Christianity and Wokeness. But texts like Ezekiel 18:19–20 show us that God does not hold us responsible for other people’s sins, even people as close to us as our family:
 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.  The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
This passage does not deny the federal headship of Adam and Christ. But outside of those two representatives, it shows decisively and definitively that sons are not guilty of the crimes of their father, and fathers are not guilty for the crimes of their son. It cannot be. God holds every person to account for their own sin. We do not bear the weight of anyone else’s iniquity. Our own evildoing is enough, and in fact is far, far, far too much for us to bear.
The Bible teaches us that no one can atone for their own sin (Isaiah 64:6). We cannot come within 10,000 miles of doing so. We need a divine rescuer. Through the Spirit’s application, we need the blood of Christ that satisfies the just wrath of the Father for us. This is our hope, and it is our only hope. There is no other way to be cleansed. There is no other way to be forgiven. There is no other redress of sin appointed by the Father (see Ephesians 1:3-14). This is the only way. Blood, the Son of God’s blood, is the only solution.
The foregoing realities lead us to several heartening conclusions. Let me list them here.
- You are a sinner deserving of eternal damnation. We all are, without exception.
- But if you are in Christ through repentance and faith, you are forgiven–totally forgiven.
- Your past no longer defines you. It may have shaped you, but you are a glorious “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:21). You may have done terrible things (whether publicly or privately) and had terrible things done to you, but all that is washed by the blood of Christ.
- This means that you are not your past sin. It does not mark you. Nor are you the sum total of past sins done to you. If you have suffered horribly from evil hands in abusive situations (not sins of a mutual kind that implicate you), none of this is your identity.
- You thus will not and cannot atone for your own sins, nor the sins of anyone else. You have no responsibility to bear generational guilt. Said more simply: you are not generationally guilty.
- There are no reparations for you to make for the sins of others. The blood of Christ makes all things new. If you have wronged people in the past, you’ll seek restitution with guidance and help (for it is not always easily forthcoming). You may also address generational effects of sin (making restitution for unpaid debts from deceased family members, for example). But you are not guilty in any way for the sins of others, and you have no call from God to offer guilt-driven “reparations” for what other people did.
- For all your days, God will continue the work fore-planned before the world began, secured in the cross, and realized in justification: he will sanctify you, grow you, and help you live as a new creation. Some such change will be rapid; other forms of holy transformation will take time. But no matter what, your identity is not in any sin pattern (to any degree), nor in your past (however bad it may be). Your identity is in Christ and Christ alone. I repeat myself: you are a new creation in Christ. If this were not a divine miracle, it would be too good to be true!
We could say much more here, but we’ll conclude this short post. The key takeaway is this: if we are not biblical in all our thinking, we will surely end up in unintended doctrinal and spiritual locations. Doing so will–even unintentionally–corrupt the gospel and leave people without the hope of Christ. As I have explored at length here, this is happening all around us in our day; we must fight against this trend.
May God give clarity in our day on these matters. And may he use such moments of debate and possible error to show many how wonderful the good news truly is. This is what we are after in the final analysis: not simply to refute error, but to exalt the miracle of salvation for sinners like us.