Are children punished for the sins of their fathers? Exodus 20:4-6



Dear Pastor Charles:

The question I have is about the second of the 10 Commandments where it says that God will “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation”. Does this mean that our children are to be punished for our sins as parents? Thank you for your answer.  Just Wondering.


Dear Just Wondering: 


Thank you for the great question. The passage you are referring to comes from Exodus 20:4-6,You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

When we look at the entire passage we can see that God is clearly condemning idolatry. Idolatry literally means to remove God from His rightful place in our life and replace Him with something, or someone else. Idolatry can be anything we love more than God. It can be a job, money, a relationship, alcohol or drugs. It is anything that we value more than our relationship with God. God’s Word says that when we practice idolatry we are demonstrating our contempt for Him.

So here is the heart of the issue. Does God punish children because of the sins of their parents? To properly interpret a particular passage of Scripture, we need to look to other Scriptures concerning the issue at hand. The Bible will never contradict itself but will illuminate any unclear passage. Let’s examine some other passages concerning this subject. Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.” Also look at Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.”

The New Testament teaches us that every person will one day stand before God and give an account of the deeds done in the flesh. The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear to us that we are all sinners in the eyes of God. Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The Scriptures also tell us in John 1:12, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” So you can see that from an eternal perspective, each person is singly responsible for responding to God’s offer of eternal life, and each will be held individually accountable for that decision.

The other side of this picture can be seen in the misery that our sins sometimes inflict upon our children. For example, think of  the infant who is born addicted to crack cocaine because of the sin of its mother. Or of child abusers whose children learn to abuse their own children. I know of a father who saw nothing wrong in driving around with an open can of beer in front of his children. One night the State Police came to his front door to inform him that his son had been killed in an automobile. Guess what? He had an open can of beer in the car just like he had seen his father do many times before. In this respect, the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, however, that is not God’s responsibility; it is the parents’ responsibility.

Destructive behavior can be passed down from generation to generation. Idolatry, demonstrated by a parent, will be learned and repeated by a child. Even Harry Chapin knew that when he wrote “The Cat’s in the Cradle”. I get so upset when I hear a parent repeat the worldly wisdom of letting their children grow up without any faith, so they can decide for themselves when they are old enough. That parent has just decided for that child against God without even realizing it, and they are probably raising another Godless generation to pass on to the third and fourth generation.

However, God is always greater than our sin. Just as destructive behavior can be passed down from generation to generation so can Godly behavior. Generational sin can be broken by the power of God working in the life of one individual who is determined to end his family’s cycle of sin. The gospel gives us the assurance that God loves us and will help us to overcome those learned traits. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 tells us that “…Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This is the gospel that saves us from our sins and places us into a relationship with God. The cycle of family sin is vicious indeed, but it can be overcome with God’s help. 1 John 5:4-5 tells us, “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” Jesus is the only answer to the problems of the world today my friend.

May God richly bless and keep you as you continue to study His Word.

Pastor Charles…

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