Current theological discussions on justice sometimes dip into the question of, “Are we responsible for the sins of our forebears?” It is a good question, and it is one that the Bible answers. Here are four questions and answers related to the question of whether or not we are responsible for the guilt of our forebearers.
Q: Can we be responsible for the guilt of our forefathers?
Yes. In Adam, we are found guilty and worthy of death (Gen 4-6; Rom 5).
Q: Did believers under the Old Covenant repent for the guilt of their forefathers?
A: Yes. Leviticus 26:40, 42 reads: “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me …, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
Q: Do believers under the New Covenant need to repent for the guilt of their forefathers?
No. The New Covenant has no curse since Christ took the curse the of law for us (Gal 3:13) and because it is a better covenant (Hebrews). Hence, we have no covenantal requirement to repent for the guilt of forefathers to restore ourselves to God.
Yet the Old Testament does provide the conceptual framework to understand sin, repentance, and forgiveness. In this sense, we have might find it wise to admit the fault of our fathers when they hurt others yet in a way unlike the Old Covenant requires.
And due to our union with Christ, we are responsible to empathize with the current suffering of others even if they are caused by our forefathers: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). In this sense, we should never deny victims empathy.
Q: What if the sins of our forefathers hurt other people today?
Only if we allow their sin perpetuate in the church. If the sins of our fathers hurt others today, we can suffer together with those who are hurt by empathizing and by stating the truth of the matter, namely, that they have been hurt by our relatives. And insofar as we have hurt others by following the pattern of our forebears or by allowing their pattern of injustice to flourish, then we ought to repent for our sins. For example, Jesus says of the church in Pergamum that “some … hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Rev 2:15). They allowed Nicolaitan teaching to flourish. And since the church did so, Jesus says that whole church ought to repent: “Therefore repent” (Rev 2:16).