Is it Possible to Repent for the Sins of Others?1
It’s important that I say something about the notion of repentance, and in particular whether it is biblical or even possible to repent for the sins and iniquities of others. Continue reading . . .
It’s important that I say something about the notion of repentance, and in particular whether it is biblical or even possible to repent for the sins and iniquities of others. This latter notion has been variously called “representative” repentance or “identificational” repentance. The idea is that one can/should identify with the sins of others (in particular, one’s ancestors) and repent for their transgressions in a representative manner.
Repentance, by definition, is the acknowledgement (which typically entails deep sorrow and contrition), confession of, and turning from the sins that one has committed, both in terms of what one believes and how one behaves. That being the case, it is impossible that I can repent for sins I haven’t committed.
However, that isn’t to say that the sins of others, whether those of our ancestors or our contemporaries, are irrelevant to us. So how do we respond to the sins of others? What is our responsibility?
First, we should acknowledge and confess such sins. We should acknowledge that our ancestors or our contemporaries with whom we are in some manner connected or related, have transgressed the law of God. Perhaps the most explicit example of this in the Bible is found in Nehemiah. There Nehemiah says:
“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statues, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses” (Neh. 1:5-7).
A similar prayer was spoke by Daniel during the time of the Babylonian Captivity (see Daniel 9:1-19).
Note carefully that nowhere do either Daniel or Nehemiah “repent” for other people. They identify the sins of others. They declare that they and others in Israel have transgressed. They make no excuse for their sins. They both ask God to have mercy on themselves and the people of Israel. But that is not the same as “repenting” for the sins of others. They undoubtedly repented for their own sins by resolving to forsake their sinful ways and to obey God’s revealed will. But one person can’t do that in the place of another. Each individual must do this for himself/herself.
In a similar vein, I might confess to God that “we” at Bridgeway Church here in OKC have in some manner turned away from God and that “we” are rightly under his discipline. I can declare the truth regarding our transgressions, renounce them, and cry out to God on behalf of the people as a whole. But I cannot “repent” for what anyone else has done, but only for what I have done and then pray that God’s Spirit would awaken others to likewise repent of their own sins.
Second, we should also renounce, repudiate, and disavow the sins of our ancestors or our contemporaries with whom we are in close relationship. We should make it clear by confession and behavior that we want no part of that sort of wicked behavior, that we wish never to repeat such sinful activity, and that we choose to distance ourselves from the destructive consequences that follow upon the sinful behavior of our ancestors or contemporaries. But to “renounce” the sins of others is not the same as “repenting” for the sins of others.
Third, it’s important to remember in all this that none of us is held guilty by God for the sins of our ancestors or contemporaries, unless of course we ourselves contributed to their sins (those of our contemporaries) by encouraging them to behave wickedly or by choosing to repeat in our own lives the sinful behavior of theirs. But God will not hold me guilty for the sins of my ancestors nor will he punish or judge me for what they have done. What then do we make of texts such as Exodus 20:5 –
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).
Note carefully that the “visitation” of the “iniquity” of one’s ancestors on subsequent generations comes only upon “those who hate me.” It is only when we choose to repeat or copy or perpetuate the sins of our ancestors that we suffer divine judgment. Likewise, it is on “those who love” God and keep his “commandments” that steadfast love comes.
Along these lines, we must take into consideration Deut. 24:16 - "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (cf. Ezek. 18:2-4,20). The point is this: if you do not "hate" God, this threat is not applicable to you.
As a brief aside, mention should be made of the original sin of Adam in the Garden. This was a unique situation in which Adam stood as the representative head of the entire human race. His transgression brought guilt and death on all his posterity. All of us suffer the consequences of his sin. The guilt of his transgression was imputed to us and, as David said, we are all “brought forth in iniquity” and “in sin” did our mothers conceive us (Ps. 51:5). As Paul said, “many died through one man’s trespass” (Rom. 5:15). But nowhere in Scripture are we told to repent for Adam’s sin. Rather, we are told to repent for our own sin that was ultimately due to that one original sin.
Fourth, is there any potentially damaging or damning relationship between the sins and iniquities of my ancestors and myself? Yes. The sinful behavior and beliefs of previous generations tend to set in motion systems of thought, beliefs about what is right and wrong and true and false, together with patterns of behavior that can be handed down from one generation to the next. Alcoholism, drug abuse, occultic practices, gambling and the financial devastation it brings, various forms of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), and a host of other sinful activities, can set in motion a lifestyle, a pattern of behavior, a mindset, that can wreak havoc on subsequent generations.
The apostle Peter spoke of something akin to this in 1 Peter 1:18-19 when he reminded his readers that
“you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
These “futile ways” were most likely habits, customs, ways of thinking and acting, etc. that his readers had “inherited” in the sense that they were passed down from the behavior of one generation into the behavior of another. Of course, no one is enslaved to the “futile ways” of one’s ancestors. One can choose to repudiate the sinful beliefs and actions of one’s parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. One can renounce the wicked ways of one’s ancestors and declare that by God’s grace I choose to walk in obedience to God’s will.
Sometimes this is a challenging task. You must be able to identify the ways in which the sinful behavior of your ancestors has affected you. You must be willing to sever the connection in the sense that you renounce such behavior and commit yourself to God to walk in a different way.
But the guilt of their “futile ways” is not your guilt until such time as you yourself choose to walk in the same or similar “futile ways.” You may well suffer the economic and physical and social devastation put in motion by your ancestors, but you are not held accountable by God for such until you choose to embrace that way of life and make it your own.
So, is it possible to repent for the sins of others? No.