Should Our Churches Repent of the Sins of Our Fathers?

At Mortification of Spin (MoS) this week, Todd Pruitt has begun sharing his reflections on the General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) where hundreds of PCA pastors and ruling elders gathered together for worship, business, and this year, a corporate decision to repent of past sins.

That repentance came in the form of an overture voted on and accepted by the Assembly. In it, the PCA “does 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 such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10).”

It was a monumental achievement. The overture passed with overwhelming support garnering 861 members voting in favor with only 123 voting against.

In reflecting on last week’s vote, Todd Pruitt made a couple interesting remarks that I want to investigate further: “I am not convinced that an overture of corporate repentance was the best way to address sins of racism in some of our churches.” And “I am doubtful about the theological justification for corporate repentance…I do not see evidence of this sort of generational guilt in the Bible.”

Now, before I respond, I want to make some things painstakingly clear. I have never met Todd Pruitt and do not know him, although I have appreciated much of his work at MoS. Through his writing, I am convinced of his faithfulness to Scripture and also his love for Christ. He is my brother in Christ. Even more, I have no reason to doubt that Pruitt sees racism as the odious sin that it is. He has clearly, on more than one occasion, denounced racism as an affront to God and a betrayal of the Gospel. So my response to Pruitt should in no way be read as an attack on him or an accusation of racism on his part. It cannot be lost in any of the following discussion that Pruitt is counted among the 861 in favor of the overture.

My purpose today, then, is only to answer the question implied in Pruitt’s remarks. Is there biblical precedent for the corporate repentance of the sins of previous generations? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes”.

Corporate confession can be found throughout the Old Testament (Ezra 10:1-5, Judges 10:10-16, 1 Kings 8:46-50, etc.). There’s no debate about that. (Ezra 10:1-5, Judges 10:10-16, 1 Kings 8:46-50, etc.). But biblical examples of corporate confession of generational sins is more difficult to find.

There is, however, one example that is so powerful it provides the sufficient precedent Pruitt needs: the repentance of the people of Israel under the leadership of King Josiah.

2 Kings 22 and 23 famously depict the discovery of the Book of the Law in the temple of God. When the High Priest discovered the book, he passed it on to Shaphan, his secretary and asked him to take the book to King Josiah. At the allowance of Josiah, Shaphan read the Book of the Law to the King who tore his clothes in grief over what he heard. What is most interesting about his response, however, is that Josiah didn’t grieve over his own sins. Instead, he was terrified because “the wrath of the Lord…is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (22:13)

Josiah understood that the wrath of God was set against the nation because of the sins of previous generations. This grieved him because the Law clearly stated that the Lord would bring “on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sickness grievous and lasting” (Deuteronomy 28:59) as a punishment for rebellion against their Lord and God. The punishment is not only poured out on the offenders but also on the next generation. According to these passages, then, guilt for generational sin remains upon the next generation and must be repented of.

Which is exactly what Josiah leads the nation to do.

Chapter 23 begins with King Josiah gathering the people of Israel together at the house of the Lord to read to them the book which had driven Josiah to grief. Responding to those words, Josiah made a covenant with the Lord to follow his commandments and “to perform the words of this covenant that were written in the book”. Importantly, the whole of the people of Judah joined King Josiah in that covenant. The people entered in corporately.

But how do we know repentance of past sins was included in this covenant? We’ve already discussed our first clue; Josiah understands that the weight of their fathers’ sins rests on him and his people. But we can also find evidence of repentance in the actions of the people as they support King Josiah in destroying all pagan temples, toppling altars to false gods, and the burning of the Asherah, the very things which had led the fathers into sinful rebellion.

Josiah wasn’t done. He dug up the bones buried on mount Bethel, bones of previous generations who had rebelled through pagan sacrifice, and burned them! The nation corporately repented of the sins of their fathers and turned away from the practices which had ensnared previous generations that they might wholeheartedly worship the Lord their God who had rescued them out of Egypt.

Some may argue that one biblical example doesn’t provide sufficient precedent. In most cases I may be inclined to agree, but King Josiah’s reforms are a pivotal moment in the history of God’s people.  This isn’t an obscure text but a cornerstone Old Testament narrative, a formative event in the religious consciousness of God’s people. To see corporate repentance of generational sin at the heart of this text is striking and provides strong precedent.

The corporate repentance led by King Josiah was not only for the current sins of the people, but also for the sins of their fathers. In a similar way, the PCA has repented of the sin of racism which plagued their founding and plagues some still today. It was a powerful act of support for our African-American brothers and sisters and fidelity to God. I am thankful for the men and women who spearheaded the campaign. I am also grateful to Todd Pruitt for supporting the overture with his vote. Not only was it the right thing to do, but there is powerful biblical precedent to support such an action.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

4 thoughts on “Should Our Churches Repent of the Sins of Our Fathers?

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  • July 22, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Yes! Plus the idea of corporate responsibility shouldn’t be strange to anyone who holds to the doctrine of original sin. If we are morally blameworthy for Adam’s sin, what else might we be responsible for? I think that dogmatic background really makes the (many) biblical passages about generational sin stand out.

  • June 3, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    There is another Biblical precedent in Daniel 9. Clearly Daniel himself was a righteous leader but he repents on behalf of all the people including their ancestors. See vs 6 & 8

    • June 12, 2018 at 7:45 am


      Thank you for pointing this out. I agree, I think this is a powerful example of a righteous leader repenting on behalf of the people and the generations that have come before. Thanks for sharing this!



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