Social Justice and the Gospel: 6 – The Generational Sin of Racism


Generational Sin is the deus ex machina of Christian Social Justice.

For those not familiar with the term, it means “god from the machine” and was a plot device of the ancient Greek theater.  If the storyline of a Greek play contained a difficult, seemingly unresolvable problem, resolution would occur by lowering an actor (playing the role of a god) onto the stage via a crane (the machine).  The god would use his supernatural ability to resolve the situation that was otherwise unresolvable by ordinary human means.

If we think of Christian Social Justice as a Greek tragedy, the seemingly unresolvable problem is making white American Christians today culpable for the sins of prior generations.  There is so much in the Bible about individuals being responsible for their own sins, and for corporate bodies being localized and responsible for their own corporate sin, that it would seem virtually impossible to make all white American Christians today responsible for the sins of many white American Christians of yesterday.  As we look up into the air of this tragedy wondering how this problem of blame will be resolved, we see descending from on high the doctrine of Generational Sin. Let us define the doctrine as follows:

The Bible teaches that you can be cursed by the sins of your ancestors.  It is a curse so powerful that it cannot be lifted by the blood of Christ.  The way to lift the curse is to peer into your genealogical history and discover what your ancestral sins were, and then to actively do deeds of repentance that correspond to the sins committed by your ancestors.

In the best-selling book Be The Bridge, which allegedly deals with racial reconciliation from a Christian perspective, author Latasha Morrison tells us about Deanna.  Her grandfather was in the KKK and he was the son of racists.  He committed many evil deeds against black people, including murder.  On his deathbed he confessed to the murder he committed and it brought shame to Deanna.  She lived with this shame for years.  And it was not her identity in Christ that helped her get rid of the shame of her family’s history, once she came to Christ.  It was only after becoming a Christian and then participating in reconciliation activities where she was able to finally rid herself of the guilt and shame of her grandfather’s sin.

Deanna shared the story, telling how she carried the shame and embarrassment of her family’s racist past for years.  It wasn’t until after Deanna placed her faith in Christ that she began to come to terms with the truth.  It was an uphill battle because the shame was so deep and the familial division even deeper.  She felt alone until she became a part of a community that shared her heart for racial healing, a group that listened to her without judgment…Deanna will tell you that the process of acknowledgment and lament has been worth every step.  It’s freed her from a family legacy of racism and allowed her to enter into the work of bridge building with a clean conscience…If we follow her example, we’ll find ourselves drawn out of complacency and complicit behavior and into the hard work and sorrow that lead us to repentance.  If we join her in walking through acknowledgment and lament, we can move into the deep healing of true racial reconciliation.1

Not once in this anecdote did Deanna or the author implicate Deanna as being a racist herself.  All the guilt, all the shame, all the steps of repentance, were necessary because of what Deanna’s grandfather had done.  And Deanna can only be held responsible for her grandfather’s sins because of the doctrine of Generational Sin. 

This doctrine also finds itself being promoted by The Gospel Coalition, an influential Christian web site.  In an article titled “A Burden Removed: A Biblical Path for Removing the Racism of Our Forefathers” 2, the pastor offers advice for breaking the curse of the generational sin of racism.  This pastor took over a church, they experienced some initial growth, and then membership declined.  At some point he and the elders believed they were under a curse from God and so they sought to understand the reason for the decline in membership.  It turns out that the church kept meticulous records and the elders were able to review the history of the church and learn that over the course of the church’s history it had actively participated in discrimination against blacks.  Even though the current church was no longer racist, they came to the conclusion that they were under a generational curse.

This was the context for the debatable practice of repenting of our forefather’s sins.  It sure looked like we were experiencing the fruits of past sins, even though we were no longer racist.  It certainly looked like God was “walking contrary” to us.  Was repenting for our past sins, sins that no one in the existing congregation participated in, God’s path to restoring the ministry of the gospel among us?

Long story short, they repented of the prior generation’s sins and the curse was removed.

These two examples of Generational Sin were not discovered in the nether regions of Christian publishing.  Be the Bridge is a best-selling book and The Gospel Coalition is a very popular web site.  Generational Sin is being taught as a legitimate doctrine by influential outlets of Christian discourse, and it is the theological glue being used to attach yesterday’s sins to today’s people.

Before we turn to Scripture to examine the key texts on this issue, let us briefly bring this Social Justice concept of Generational Sin to the point of absurdity.  If Generational Sin was true, one of the primary duties of Christian obedience would be historical and genealogical in nature.  We would all be obligated to dig into our past and find out what our ancestors may have done (for surely the curse of Generational Sin is not limited to the sin of racism) and then we would be obligated to perform the requisite deeds of repentance.  Otherwise, we would be living under a curse and bearing the guilt and shame of our forefathers until the day we die.  And I dare not think about orphans or people whose family history is undocumented.  Surely, they are destined to be cursed with no possibility of relief.

Surely God has not established such a doctrine, with logical implications so absurd. But we must go to the Scripture to prove the case, and not rely on an argument of absurdity.  The proof-text for Generational Sin is found in the words of Moses:

Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34: 6 – 7)

Purveyors of Generational Sin point to this passage and say “See, God visits the sins of the fathers onto the children.”  And then to prove that the children need to repent for their forefathers’ sins, they use more words from Moses:

If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me…then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. (Leviticus 26: 40, 42)

With these verses as their foundation, the Social Justice Advocates build the edifice of trans-generational guilt.  There is only one problem.  Their understanding of Moses’ words is the same understanding as that of ancient Israel, which was an incorrect understanding that God corrected through the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah.  Israel had this proverb as part of their collective consciousness:

The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge. (Ezekiel 18: 2)

The gist of the proverb is that the forefathers sinned (ate sour grapes) but the contemporary generation bore the punishment (teeth set on edge).  This proverb is rooted in a false interpretation of Moses.  God corrects their misinterpretation in Ezekiel 18.  Here is a portion of what Ezekiel said:

As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity.  Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?  When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.  The person who sins will die.  The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.  (Ezekiel 18: 18 – 20)

As if Ezekiel 18 weren’t enough to shed light on what Generational Sin is not, we also have the words of Jeremiah:

In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’  But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.  (Jeremiah 31: 29 – 30)

These two passages from Ezekiel and Jeremiah are the death knell of the Social Justice teaching on Generational Sin.  They are a direct refutation of the claim that a group of people are responsible for sins that came before them.  To believe in Generational Sin as promoted by Social Justice will require a refutation of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. And until that refutation is made, there is no Biblical basis for Generational Sin. And the words of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it must be pointed out, are in complete harmony with Moses himself. For he wrote:

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. (Deuteronomy 24: 16)

We know that Moses is not contradicting himself. We know that the prophets are not contradicting Moses.  So how are all the passages quoted harmonized? When Moses writes of God visiting the sins of fathers on the children, and of the children needing to repent of their iniquity, those words are spoken to the covenant community of Israel.  The children who are visited by their father’s sins are themselves participants in those sins – they are not innocent.  God is operating at a covenantal curse level – something we are unable to do as humans.  The covenantal curse is enacted after God charges the covenant community with sin and after they have exhausted His patience with their lack of repentance.  Sin and punishment at an individual level does not function in the same way.  An individual is not held accountable for the sins of his father, and a father is not held accountable for the sins of his son.

The illegitimacy of Generational Sin is important to comprehend, because Generational Sin is the linchpin of the entire framework.  The only Biblical reasoning offered for blaming today’s Christians for yesterday’s sins is Generational Sin.   If the doctrine is false, there is no Biblical basis, and yesterday’s sins require no repentance from today’s Christians.

This is not to say that the contemporary church is without sin.  This is not to say that the contemporary church is to refrain from promoting justice in the social realm.  This is not to say that contemporary Christians need to gloss over the historical realities of prior generations participating in wicked deeds.  It is only to say that the false premises and false conclusions of Christian Social Justice ought not to bind our consciences and manipulate us into thoughts and behaviors not prescribed in Scripture.  We are either responsible for our own sins or we are not.  We are either obligated to become historians and genealogists and uncover past hidden sins of our ancestors and lift curses off of ourselves or we are not.

On this matter Moses and the prophets have spoken.  But do we believe them?


  1. Chapter 3, excerpts from pages 48 – 50
  2. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/burden-removed-biblical-path-removing-racism-forefathers/

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