In the 1990s, a Christian movement called “Reconciliation Walk” sparked waves of reaction throughout the world. The effort — concentrated in Europe, Turkey, and parts of the Middle East — offered an apology for the Crusades and the atrocities committed during that era. But soon, reports emerged that as a result of this effort, relationships between Christians, Jews, and Muslims had begun to soften. The movement also raised questions among Christians, including: Do we have any responsibility to make apologies like this? Should Christians today feel any burden for sins committed by our spiritual ancestors?

In today’s Western church, some believe we’ve lost our sense of corporate responsibility. This isn’t a new struggle; asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a familiar question to God’s people. But perhaps especially in a context where individuality reigns, and where people identify themselves essentially by their independence, this struggle manifests itself anew in a real and sometimes challenging way.

Individual and Corporate Together

Believers typically have a strong grasp of individual culpability and are usually grateful for the opportunity, in worship, to confess. Though they know that Christ atoned for their sins once and for all on the cross, they also recognize that the ongoing presence of sin has consequences, not just for them, but for those around them, and their community. The regular confession of sins, then, is good for the soul. And while private confession will suffice, more public confession — made among God’s gathered people — binds believers in the fellowship of the cross as members of one body.

But when it comes to the collective ownership of others’ sins and participation in a more corporate confession, many wrestle. Several pastors have heard from a curious congregant: “I didn’t actually commit those sins; why do I need to confess them?”

Implicitly, they’re asking: Is there legitimacy to the idea that sins committed by others — or by institutions — are my responsibility? Is it important — for me — to confess corporate sins?

Christians do need to confess corporate sins, for at least a few reasons:

• Our participation may not be active or direct, but often we are complicit — at least in simply turning a “blind eye.”

• We may have more inclination toward such sins than we are ready to admit, or are even aware of, and our confession is good for our soul’s nurture.

• We find solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who do have direct guilt with such sins, as we are all members of the same body.

• Scripture promises that the sins of our forefathers are visited on us, which means, in some way, we bear the burdens of such sins.

Ancestral Responsibility

Among these, the last one raises the most questions. Does the Bible teach that believers are culpable for the sins of their forefathers?

Several texts indicate that the answer is yes. For example, in Leviticus 26, the Lord spoke through Moses declaring the consequences should the children of Israel disobey; among the penalties named, they are told that “those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them” (Leviticus 26:39, emphasis added). Then they are told, “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” (Leviticus 26:40, 42).

The Psalmist, likewise, in leading the nation of Israel in a prayer for the blessing of the people, was concerned with their culpability for ancestral sin when he wrote, “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness” (Psalm 106:6). Jeremiah, recording what the Lord said to him, mentioned the lasting effects of the sins of “we and our fathers” (Jeremiah 3:25) and instructs the people that they should acknowledge both their own wickedness and that of their fathers (Jeremiah 14:20). When Isaiah pronounced his woes upon beholding the glory of the Lord, he was not only concerned about his own unclean lips but also that he lived “in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5); he also bore a prophecy of warning that the Lord would repay “both your iniquities and your fathers iniquities together” (Isaiah 65:6-7).

Most of the prophet’s words in Ezekiel 20 focused on the judgment that was Israel’s due to the sin and unfaithfulness of its ancestors. Nehemiah, too, spent nearly an entire chapter linking the spiritual condition of Israel in his day to the sins and covenant-breaking of its fathers (Nehemiah 9), before taking upon himself and his whole generation the burden of confessing this guilt and petitioning God to forgive it and grant His grace (Nehemiah 10). This brings out a larger point: A huge sense of the identity that Jews had, as the covenant people of God, was directly tied to their sense of ancestry and connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they were called “Israel” or the “children of Israel” precisely because God had given Jacob a new name, and they were his descendants. Their entrance into the covenant was dependent, to a degree, on this connection; naturally, they would understand that their connection to the rest of God’s covenant people (be they contemporaries or those long dead) also affected their relationship to God Himself.

Covenant Continuation

What about the New Testament church? What about our connection to our ancestors, and their sins? It seemed clear to the Apostles and others that the connection was relevant: Consider how many times, when called upon to give testimony before civil and religious leaders, Peter, John, and Paul referred to Israel’s history, connecting those ties to the guilt and sin of the present day — eventually demonstrating that, whether they were present for the trials and crucifixion of Christ or not, the members of the Sanhedrin were guilty of executing Jesus the Messiah. Or look at how Stephen, prior to being stoned, spoke of inheritance, of the patriarchy, the guilt of “our fathers” for rejecting Moses (Acts 7:39) and their participation in worship and in taking possession of the land with Joshua (Acts 7:44–45). Finally, he accused them, saying, “As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51; cf. vv. 52–53).

Perhaps the clearest and most straightforward biblical example is found with Ezra. While not one of the more well-known Old Testament figures, Ezra played a key role in re-establishing the people of Israel (the remnant that would set the stage for the New Testament) in the Promised Land. Ezra was from the priestly family of Levi and was recognized by Jew and Gentile alike as being a righteous and upright man. He oversaw the initial rebuilding of the temple, and brought the Law of God (essentially, their form of the Bible) back to the people, calling them to hear and heed what God wanted them to know and to be.

Unlike many prominent leaders in Bible times, there is no indication from Scripture that Ezra was a man especially marked by his sinfulness. He was, of course, a victim of mankind’s fall and struggled as all men must. But, from what we know, he was not proud (like Moses), an adulterer (like David), rash and headstrong (like Peter), or haunted by a torrid past (like Paul).

After calling on Israel to return to the Lord (for He had indeed restored them to the land He had promised would be theirs), and declaring the Law of God to them — after he had specifically called on them to be set apart as God intended — Ezra received this report: “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:1–2).

How did Ezra respond? He prayed — in confession for the sins of the people of Israel. Here is what he prayed:

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” (Ezra 9:6-15)

How many times did Ezra pray, “They have done this”? How often did he cast the blame for their corporate guilt on his fellow Israelites, as he had every right to do? Not once. Instead, again and again he prayed, “I am ashamed …,” “Our iniquities have risen …,” “We have been in great guilt …,” and so on. Ezra claimed for himself the guilt of his fellow Israelites, past and present, and he prayed accordingly.

Why? Because there was not merely individual sin; there was corporate sin present among the people. Ezra knew this, and took it up as his own even though he was not directly or individually guilty of this sin; in fact, he had been the one calling them out of it.

A Royal Priesthood

“But wait,” some may say. “Ezra was a priest — that’s exactly what he was supposed to do: intercede on behalf of his guilty fellow men.” Exactly. And with that in mind, notice what the Apostle Peter has to say to the church: “But you [plural] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9, emphasis added).

The whole church is now called to take up Ezra’s model and intercede for the guilt that is upon us corporately, as well as individually. God’s church is not freed from corporate guilt simply because of our individual salvation in Christ.

Christ died for the church’s corporate sins, too, and He promises us that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9, emphasis added). So we must join in confessing our corporate guilt, just as we confess our individual sins.

A Call to Corporate Confession

This is evident, not just in reflecting on biblical examples or on the words of Peter and John but also in the confessional documents that the church appeals to as a standard of her theology. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, the question is asked regarding the exemplary petition that Jesus offered in the Lord’s Prayer: “What do we pray for in the fifth petition?” The answer:

In the fifth petition (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors), acknowledging that we and all others are guilty both of original and actual sin, and thereby become debtors to the justice of God; and that neither we, nor any other creature, can make the least satisfaction for that debt: we pray for ourselves and others, that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, apprehended and applied by faith, acquit us both from the guilt and punishment of sin, accept us in his Beloved; continue his favour and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offenses. (WLC #194)

“We pray for ourselves and others …,” it says. That is what the church does when it offers corporate confession for corporate sins — be they sins of the church, or of her members; be they sins of institutions that we, as citizens, are a part of now (such as our civil government, the companies we work for, or our economic system) or institutions that our spiritual forebears were a part of long before us. c