The sins of the Fathers

At a recent Christian conference in Germany the issue of collective guilt over the holocaust was quite palpable. There was an emotional spectacle of German Christians kneeling before a handful of Jewish believers asking for forgiveness for the holocaust, which is, apparently, a recurring theme at conferences of this nature in Germany. It seems that, like Lady Macbeth, nothing will cleanse their conscience of the stain of that bloodguilt.

The holocaust, in particular, occurring as it did in one of the most advanced and civilised nations in the world, confronts us with the nightmarish spectre of the depravity of man that lies just beneath the veneer of civility. Perhaps if it had occurred on “the dark continent” we could somehow dismiss it as the behaviour of primitive heathens. But Germany had centuries of civilisation to boast of – music, literature, philosophy, and . . . Christianity. This is what so-called civilised people are capable of!

To what extent do we bear the guilt of the sins of our forefathers? One can certainly find a Scriptural basis for the notion of collective guilt, for through the sin of one man, Adam, all sinned. The sins of the fathers are without doubt visited upon subsequent generations by the simple principle of cause and effect, allowing ancient feuds and hatreds to continue to simmer and flare up in future generations. But are we guilty for the sins of our forefathers or for giving those ancient hatreds a place in our own hearts?

How far back should we go to the sins of our forefathers? If we go far enough back in history we could find a connection, either by race or religion, to so many grievous sins committed by one group against another that we would all be crushed beneath the weight of our collective guilt.

There are many Christians who insist on laying the guilt of atrocities committed against Jews hundreds of years ago, by those who professed to be Christians, on the shoulders of present day believers – this despite the fact that more true Christians were martyred for their faith by these self-same murderers than any other group. One report on Christians martyred for their faith over the last 2000 years gives a staggering figure of 20 million, the bulk of them in the last century. And that number increases every day! But these martyrs would not be honoured by the church laying a heavy burden of guilt on their persecutors, but by seeing the guilt of their persecutors removed by the only one who can bear that guilt.

It is also worth noting that the first Christian martyrs were victims of Jewish persecution. If German Christians must continue to bear the guilt of the sins of their fathers does it not give credence to the notion of collective Jewish guilt in the death of Christ and in the persecutions against believers, the very things which have so often been used to fan the flames of anti-Semitism? Moreover, an Israeli Pro-life Association estimates that since the founding of the state of Israel the Jewish state has killed at least one million Jewish babies through abortion. And, in a double irony, Israel is a major supplier of embryonic stem cells for medical research in Germany!

Where does the guilt end?

. . . But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.. . . Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering . . .

While Christians continue to wallow in the guilt of their forefathers the enemy succeeds in doing the one thing that will keep men guilty before God – silencing the gospel of Jesus which can set men free. By holding on to their guilt they virtually make the cross of no avail and in effect despise the one who suffered to take their guilt away! They imagine that they can purge their guilt by showing acts of kindness towards Jews – akin to the Roman Catholic idea of doing penance when there is nothing that man can do to earn forgiveness. Their guilt makes them impotent in effective witness to Jews, thus ensuring that Jews will suffer the eternal holocaust of hell. Unfortunately, guilt over the holocaust is used very effectively to silence the preaching of the gospel by the very ones who need to hear the gospel, the only means of forgiveness and atonement.

To what extent should Christians continue to bear the guilt of our forefathers, either national or religious? Only to the extent that we refuse to repent of those same murderous intentions by harbouring hatred in our hearts towards another: Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him (1 John 3:15). If we have truly come to the cross our guilt has been washed away. If God has forgiven our sins who dare bring an accusation? After David had repented of his grievous sin of adultery and complicity in the death of another man, he confessed to the Lord, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4).

All men have sinned and all sin is ultimately against God. Whatever heinous sins men may commit there is one sin which leads to an eternal holocaust and that is the sin of rejecting the only way of salvation, Jesus.

If there is any guilt to bear it is the guilt of silence: The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your countrymen and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not take warning and the sword comes and takes his life, his blood will be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the trumpet but did not take warning, his blood will be on his own head. If he had taken warning, he would have saved himself. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.’” (Ezekiel 33:1-6).

Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me” (1 Cor. 9:16-17).

The apostle Paul, though clearly acting in complicity in the murder of Stephen, and possibly many others while he was persecuting the church, could proclaim without any guilt or shame, “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” (Acts 20:26).