Two Sundays ago, we explored what is perhaps the most strange and counter-cultural practice that we and many other Christian congregations do every week: we openly and publicly confess our sin. We do this because we affirm week by week that we are saved and accepted by God not because of our good religious behavior or moral performance, but only because of the mercy and grace of Jesus. For the grace-based, gospel-centered Christian, confession can be one of the sweetest acts in which we ever engage. The more we admit and own up to our brokenness, the more precious and captivating God’s grace becomes.
But what are we called to confess? Most of us would answer that we are called to confess our own individual personal acts of sin, which is of course true. But it may not be the full answer. When you really study the Bible’s understanding of sin, you begin to see that the Bible has a much richer, deeper, more nuanced and even communal understanding of sin than we often do. Unlike the communitarian ancient cultures in which the Bible was written, our culture is a highly individualistic one that sees the individual person as the primary reference for reality. As a result, we tend to read the Bible through individualistic lenses, which may keep us from seeing a fuller biblical theology of sin. In other words, sin may be bigger that we thought and we may have more to confess than we realize.
As the funerals of those killed in Charleston come to a close and as the Christian community reflects on race and our role in it, I’d like to go deeper into a Biblical theology of sin and how it might inform our response to a situation like the one in Charleston. Many pundits and other media leaders are suggesting we should respond this way and that; but how does the Bible call us to respond? And how might a richer, deeper biblical theology of sin help us to be faithful to the gospel even in difficult national conversations about history and race?
Just one disclaimer: many of us become very uncomfortable talking about issues of race. But we don’t need to be afraid of such conversations as followers of Jesus. The New Testament is full of stories of Christians wrestling with how the gospel helps them deal with issues of culture and ethnicity, such as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. We are called to face hard conversations about race and culture with humility, love and openness to what God might have to teach us.
From Generation to Generation: Confessing Historic Sin
There are many times when the Bible refers to God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations” (e.g. Exodus 20:5). In numerous places, we see community leaders in Scripture confessing not just personal sin but ancestral sin: “We and our fathers have sinned” (Daniel 9:8, Psalm 106:7). This demonstrates that the sinful consequences of some can be passed on from generation to generation. We are not just free floating individuals who have no connection to the past, but we are deeply shaped and defined by both the glory and the rebellion of those who have gone before us. We are not “self-made” people, but are made in many ways by the lives of others, some of whom we never knew.
As a white person, I may experience the actions of Dylan Roof as one isolated act of a “lone wolf” racist. But for many African Americans, it is only one more action in a long string of 400 years of history in which African-descended people have been enslaved, hurt, abused, killed, oppressed, discriminated against, and not treated as people made in the glorious image of God. It is the long history of racism in our country, racism that often was approved of and even sanctioned in our land, that helped form a person with the mindset of Dylan Roof. We can celebrate much about the history of our country, thanks be to God. But there is also much to lament. So it may be that God calls us to not just celebrate the good, but also to confess the historic and generational sin that white people have committed against black people in our nation, knowing that we are recipients of the history of the people that have gone before us, both the good and the bad.
Korah, the Gibeonites and Nehemiah: Confessing Communal Sin
The Bible sees sin as not only historical, but also communal. Numbers 16 is a chilling story about how God holds the entire clans of Korah, Dathan and Abiram accountable for their leaders’ sin. This is very strange to our modern ears with our notions of personal accountability and individual responsibility. But the Bible sees sin as not just an individual thing, but something that can impact and spread through whole communities even if some individuals within the group were not personally responsible for the rebellious actions.
In another similar situation, Joshua forms a covenant with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9) that the nation of Israel would not harm them or bring any violence against them. Later when Saul came to power, he ignored the covenant and destroyed the Gibeonites. In 2 Samuel 21, God tells David that there is bloodguilt on Saul’s house because of this past action. So David makes restitution for an action he personally had nothing to do with.
Similarly, Nehemiah grieves and repents to God for actions of his fellow Israelites, even though he did not personally commit the sins himself (Neh. 1:6-7).
These Biblical examples demonstrate that we can be accountable and take responsibility for sinful actions even if we didn’t commit them ourselves. We share in the communal repercussions of the sin of others. God holds us accountable not just for our individual sins, but for those within the communities and systems that we are a part of and in which we participate. So as a white person, I may not have enslaved anyone or racially slandered anyone myself, but according to the Bible that fact does not recuse me from the sinful actions of the white community both in the past and present, and I am called to take responsibility for such things. Like Nehemiah, we can grieve and confess this sin and seek to respond in a way that is faithful to the Lord.
The Example of Peter: Confessing Unconscious Sin
One final dimension of sin that the Bible calls us to confess is unconscious sin, sin that we may not even be aware that we are committing. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul tells the story about visiting the church of Antioch and discovering that the apostle Peter was separating himself from the Gentile Christians at the dinner table. His act of separation was not only permissible but was expected for orthodox Jews. So Peter was just doing what he and other Jews had always done. But Paul saw this behavior and rebuked him and other believers for this sin of discrimination, saying that, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (2:14). You could imagine Peter saying, “Why is this a problem? I’m just doing what I’ve always done!” But Paul demands that the gospel of grace has now broken down the barriers between Jew and Gentile and he must now live differently as a result.
Unconscious sin means that we may be doing things that are natural to us without realizing that we are acting and thinking in ways that are out of line with the truth of the gospel. While we may not be consciously disobeying God, it may be that our natural habits are more formed by idolatries of the culture, like greed or racism, than by the gospel of grace.
On one occasion when I was pastoring East End Fellowship, several black staff members came to me to say that they felt I was treating the concerns of the white parents in the congregation with greater seriousness than those of the black parents. This was very difficult for me to hear, and I admit I was initially defensive. But after some reflection I realized they were right: I was unconsciously assuming that that the concerns of the white parents were of greater importance, because their concerns made more intuitive sense to me. I did not even see what I was doing until my staff very graciously pointed it out to me. My brothers and sisters prompted me to confess and repent of sin that I did not even realize I was committing. I was acting out of line with the truth of gospel.
As Christians, we have an incredibly realistic awareness of the power and pervasiveness of evil. We never assume immunity to whole categories of sin. Rather, knowing that the human heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9), we soberly acknowledge that the evil, racism and hatred “out there” can also very much be “in here,” in my own heart. And because sin works in such nefarious and subtle ways, we often need our brothers and sisters to point out what we may not be able to see ourselves, such as what Paul did for Peter and my friends did for me.
As an example of this kind of comprehensive confession, this weekend the pastor of First Presbyterian Church Augusta (PCA) issued this statement entitled “We…and Our Fathers Have Sinned.” It is a powerful admission of historical, communal and unconscious sin of both individuals and an entire congregation, as they admit their silence and complicity throughout the years of oppression of African Americans in Augusta, GA. The Lord has blessed their humility and repentance, and as a result a spirit of gospel renewal has moved through this congregation as they become a more reconciled community. I urge us to read this statement, reflect on it, and consider what we can learn from it.
Coming into an awareness of the historical, communal, and unconscious dimensions of sin can be overwhelming. You might feel that you had enough conscious personal sin of your own to worry about! But remember what we said last Sunday: if your sin is small, your Savior will be small, if your sin is great, your Savior will be great. When you really begin to reflect on these dimensions of sin, you begin to realize that the problem of sin is way worse than we thought. Sin is far more pervasive than many of us often believe–it cuts through not just human hearts, but human institutions, communities, and whole societies. But it also means the gospel is way bigger than we thought! Jesus Christ has the power to save not just individuals, but to redeem communities and systems as well. When we can honestly face the truth about sin, we can see our need for redemption all the more, and cry all the louder, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
But confession is just the first step. As the Bible often reminds us, true confession involves “repentance,” which literally means “turning around,” going a different direction than you were going before. What might we do proactively as we learn about the historic, communal and unconscious nature of sin especially as it relates to the conversation about race in America?
Here are just a few simple suggestions:
1/ Learn. Take the time to study and learn about our history, especially the history of our city and how race has played such a major part in getting us where we are today. I recommend Ben Campbell’s book Richmond’s Unhealed History as a good place to start.
2/ Listen. One of the most powerful things God has used in my life to open my eyes in this area is my close friendships with Don Coleman and another African American friend, David Bailey. Just as being married to Sarah for 15 years has helped me see the world more through the eyes of a woman (though I’ll always be a man), so my close friendships with Don and David have helped me see the world through the eyes of someone who is black (though I’ll always be white). Developing a trusting friendship with someone of another ethnicity and being willing to listen and learn even when it’s hard is a powerful act of Christian love. We see this happening again and again in the early church as many diverse cultures were brought together. The simple act of friendship can have powerful effect.
3/ Pray. Pray that God will open your eyes to what you may not currently see about all there is to confess. Pray that God will help our church become a place of greater cultural diversity so we can display the gospel more clearly. Pray that our city and nation will not be marked by the deep racial wounds of our past, but that God will use his people to heal. Pray that God’s Kingdom would come, in Richmond and in our nation as it is in heaven.
As we develop a richer, deeper biblical theology of sin, may the Lord work his grace in us to see more of ourselves that we might also see more of him.