The Bible states in several passages that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation. These are puzzling verses, and causes us to ask, "does God punish the children because of the sins of their parents?" There are actually two sides to this issue. First, does God punish innocent children because their father has sinned? Are the children held accountable for the sins of their parents? Secondly, if we as parents sin, are there consequences that may have to be borne by our children? This short paper will look at many of the passages dealing with this subject, and will hopefully illuminate the answers.
There are several verses that seem to indicate that God does punish children for the sins of their fathers. For example:
Exodus Chapter 20
(5) You shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, (6) and showing mercy to thousands of those that love Me and keep My commandments.
Exodus Chapter 34
(6) And the LORD passed by before him and proclaimed, Jehovah! Jehovah God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, (7) keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the sons, and on the sons of sons, to the third and to the fourth generation. (8) And Moses made haste and bowed toward the earth, and worshipped.
Deuteronomy Chapter 5
(8) You shall not make a graven image for you, any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters beneath the earth. (9) You shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, (10) and doing mercy to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Jeremiah Chapter 32
(17) Ah, Lord Jehovah! You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and stretched out arm. Nothing is too great for You. (18) You show loving-kindness to thousands, and repay the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their sons after them. The great, the mighty God, the LORD of hosts, is His name, (19) great in wisdom and mighty in work; for Your eyes are open on all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings.
At first glance, it may appear that God dooms certain families because of a father who sins, "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation." Upon closer examination, however, we note several things. First, Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 both add the words "of those who hate me." Jeremiah 32 indicates, "to give every one according to his ways...". These words indicate that the visiting of iniquity upon the sons is not without cause, that is, that the sons also hate God, they are far from their own innocence. Jeremiah 32 shows us that God still judges us based on our own ways, not according to what someone else has done, "19 ...Your eyes are open on all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings."
Rather, I think these passages indicate a generality, or trend. In these instances in the Bible, a wicked nation would generally be wicked for a long time, with the sons following in their father’s footsteps, all rejecting God and His ways. Note Isaiah:
Isaiah Chapter 14
20 You shall not be joined with them in burial, because you ruined your land and killed your people; the seed of evildoers shall never be famous. 21 Prepare slaughter for his sons, because of the iniquity of their fathers, so that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities. 22 For I will rise up against them, says the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon the name and remnant, and son, and grandson, says the LORD.
If the father sins, then God may well allow the sons to follow in their father’s footsteps. We also often see this in current experience when we look at statistics of families who have an alcoholic or abusive father. The "risk factor" of the sons growing up with the same problem are much higher. Also, think of a family in which the parents do not know or worship God. The likelihood that their children will become followers of Jesus are much less. Yet, the good news is that any individual can change the trend, as we will see.
Note that all of the passages above also speak of the mercy of God, who saves thousands who love Him. While Christianity is certainly a community religion, salvation always comes down to the individual.
There are many passages that indicate that each man is responsible for himself. That if he will walk uprightly before the Lord, God will show mercy:
Leviticus Chapter 26
(38) And you shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. (39) And they that are left of you shall putrefy in their willful sin in your enemies' lands. And also they shall putrefy with them in the perversities of their fathers. (40) If they shall confess their willfulness and the willfulness of their fathers, with their sin which they sinned against Me, and that also they have walked contrary to Me-- (41) I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies. If then their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they then pay for their iniquity, (42) then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham I will remember. And I will remember the land. (43) The land also shall be forsaken by them, and shall enjoy its sabbaths, while it lies waste without them. And they shall accept the punishment of their iniquities; because, even because they despised My judgments, and because their soul hated My statutes. (44) And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I hate them, to destroy them utterly and to break My covenant with them. For I am the LORD their God. (45) But for their sakes, I will remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, so that I might be their God. I am the LORD.
(17) And now, I beseech You, let the power of my Lord be great, according as You have spoken, saying, (18) The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation. (19) I beseech You, pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your mercy, and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now. (20) And the LORD said, I have pardoned according to your word.
(16) The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
(13) Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him. (14) Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like, (15) That hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, hath not defiled his neighbour's wife, (16) Neither hath oppressed any, hath not withholden the pledge, neither hath spoiled by violence, but hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment, (17) That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. (18) As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity. (19) Yet you say, Why? Does not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son has done justice and right, has kept all My statutes, and has done them, he shall surely live. (20) The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, nor shall the father bear the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him. (21) But if the wicked will turn from all his sins which he has committed, and keep all My statutes, and do justice and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. (22) All his transgressions that he has done, they shall not be mentioned to him; in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. (23) Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked? says the Lord Jehovah. Is it not that he should turn from his ways and live? (24) But when the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked do, shall he live? All his righteousness that he has done shall not be remembered; in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them he shall die.
The passages above, especially Ezekial 18, clearly indicate that the sons are responsible for their own relation with God. Verse 20 states, "...The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father...The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him...". A so-called "generational curse" can be broken by anyone who will trust in Christ Jesus.
Does this mean we don’t have to worry about the effect of our sin on our children? Certainly not. Sin has consequences. If a person shoots someone and that person dies, God will forgive the repentant sinner, but that person may still have to face the death penalty here on earth, and the person he shot will not be brought back to life. If in my greed I gamble all my money away, again God will forgive the repentant sinmer, but my family will certainly suffer. The Israelites were enslaved to the Egyptians, and while the current generation certainly had their own sins, they were brought there because of the sins of their fathers:
Lamentations Chapter 5
(5) Our necks are under persecution: we labor, and have no rest. (6) We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread. (7) Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities. (8) Servants have ruled over us: there is none that doth deliver us out of their hand. (9) We gat our bread with the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness.
Because of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba, God took his first-born son. David’s sin had a direct result on his child. However, God did not negatively judge David’s son. God revealed to David that his son would be in Heaven. Thus, although the child bore consequences, he was not condemned based on his father’s sin. Again, we see that our salvation is based on our relationship with Christ, not on anyone else's.
God will work in the life of the believer to do what is necessary to bring that believer closer to Him, or to ensure that God's plan is carried out. In some cases it may involve affliction or injury, as in David's case above. Another example would be the affliction experienced by Joni Erickson Tada. Once an aspiring diver, she suffered a broken neck and is bound to a wheelchair, but has been able to reach many for the work of Christ.
Our focus is clear. First, we must be sure of our salvation, that we believe in the One True God as revealed to us in Holy Scripture. Jesus states that many will come to Him in the last days, saying "Lord, Lord,", but that He will reply He does not know them. How can this be?
First, remember that simply having head knowledge and "believing" in Christ is not enough. Even the demons believe who He is, but they are certainly not saved.(James 2:19) To believe in God is to believe in Him on His terms, not your own. Many say a salvation prayer not because they want to dedicate their lives to the most Holy God, but because they want a better life on their own terms, or because they are showing off to someone. The God they want to believe in is the one who will give them what they want, not the God who has revealed Himself in His Word.
All men are sinners. Romans Chapter 3: "23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." There is a cost to this sin: Romans Chapter 6 "23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." However, none of us look for this gift: Romans Chapter 3: "10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one."
God provided a plan. John Chapter 3: "16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Christ’s death on the Cross paid the price for your salvation. It is not something you do, but is a gift from God. Ephesians Chapter 2: "8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast."
So, how do you receive this gift? Romans Chapter 10: "9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." So, it is not just a confession or a single prayer, but confession that Jesus is Lord along with a saving faith in Him.
The proof of your salvation is in the long term. There are many who seem to believe, but when hardship comes they abandon the faith. Matt 24:13 states, "But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved." First John gives us more assurances, "1 John 3:24 And he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in him, and he in Him. And hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us." We know that we are truly saved when we persevere in the faith, and by the assurance of the Holy Spirit, who resides in the true believer.
Which brings us to peace with God, and back to our orignal subject:
Romans Chapter 5:
(1) Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
(2) By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (3) And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; (4) And patience, experience; and experience, hope: (5) And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
So what does this mean for us? Could my child’s illness, for example, be a result of unconfessed sin in my life?
Romans Chapter 5 shows us that rain falls on both the just and unjust: "45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
In conclusion, we find that in a sense, we are all under a generational curse. Ever since our first father Adam sinned, we have all been under the penalty of death. Through Christ Jesus, however, we have the way to eternal life. As individuals we are responsible to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. In doing this we also make a daily conscience decision to bow down before Him as our King. We take our place as a servant to the Highest King who is also our brother and friend. Then, He will lead us to places that will cause us to grow and to see Him as He really is, an everlasting and loving God who will never, ever let us down.
God is sovereign and just. The Bible says His ways are not our ways. See Isaiah 55: 8-9, Psalm 119:27-28, Psalm 119 : 67,68. Therefore, we must know and trust that God ways are the best ways. By reading, praying and meditating on the Scriptures we can get a better understanding of God’s way. No one here on earth could tell a person" why" anything happens or doesn’t happen. That is for God to determine. He could afflict a person for sin or for glory, we can only guess (so in my opinion it’s better just to be silent on the matter). After all, remember what happened to Job’s friend who told him the afflictions were brought on by his sins. God would not even accept their prayers until Job make a sacrifice and pleaded to God on their behalf. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths." Proverbs 3: 5-6
To God be the glory forever and ever.