Repentance is an essential part of our Christian faith. Jesus preached repentance often during his earthly ministry, saying things like ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Matthew 4:17) and “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” (Luke 17:3). We see that we personally are taught to repent of our own sins, and our brothers and sisters are instructed to repent of their own as well, but does it make sense to repent of someone else’s sins?
James Bruce asks this question in light of many Christian responses to our nation’s recent events in the article “Should We Apologize for Sins We Did Not Commit?” for The Gospel Coalition. Should Christians today feel guilt from sins of racism or segregation from generations past? Is it right or theologically sound for today’s believers to repent of the sins of previous believers? Is corporate repentance in our churches the best way to address past sins?
Bruce quotes PCA minister Todd Pruitt: “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.”
As Bruce goes on, it becomes clear that we truly can’t repent of another’s sins. Repentance, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism definition states, 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.”
When we repent, it must be of our personal sins as we turn away from those actions toward a more right way of living in obedience to Christ. Bruce frames the conversation around repentance in two alternative ways: repenting as regret, and repenting as public disavowal.
Let’s dive a little deeper:
1. Repenting as regret. “The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) uses G. K. Chesterton’s Wisdom of Father Brown to offer an example of ‘repent’ being used more broadly.
Here’s one definition of repent from the OED: ‘To view or think of [any action, occasion, or thing] with dissatisfaction and regret, especially because of unwelcome consequences for oneself.’” When we repent today of things that happened in the past, it’s not us taking the blame of the sins, but instead saying we would have wanted things to play out differently had we been able to influence the matter. Here’s one helpful example Bruce shares: “A teacher may apologize to a student who feels mistreated by the school not because she participated in the harm—she may have been fighting it—but because she wants to communicate to the student both that he was wronged and also that her teacher genuinely regrets that it happened the way it did.” We can repent in regret now, and it requires us to seriously inquire into our own hearts about how we would have acted instead.
2. Repenting as public disavowal. There are times when it’s appropriate to say, ‘That’s not who we are. It’s who we were, but it’s not who we are now,’
This is a stronger kind of repentance, he explains, and one that mixes regret with feelings such as embarrassment over the state of things both then and now. “Repenting of racism sends the message that we are heirs to a great legacy, but not one free from sin,” says Bruce. We can (and should) acknowledge and identify that our churches have sinned and acted wrongly while committing to work toward change and reconciliation.
So while we can’t truly and theologically repent of another person’s sins, we can individually repent of how past generations have affected our own lives today and then actively turn toward a life free of sin.