Will God punish sons for the sins of their fathers?

One concept that has always galled me is the promise of God to punish a son for his father’s sin. Why should a person be held responsible for something their parent did? It doesn’t seem fair.

In fact, I have misunderstood this idea–God does punish sons for their fathers’ sin, even today, and it’s not a terribly unjust thing to do. The statement appears first in the ten commandments:

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

-Exodus 20:5-6

This is about God and how He deals with people.  Firstly, I misunderstood this passage because I read it with the wrong emphasis. I immediately focused on the fact that God will punish the third and fourth generation of a sinner. The fact is that He also shows “steadfast love to the thousandth generation.”

To the thousandth generation!

The purpose of the passage is to exhort Israel to love God. God didn’t want Israel to love things--idols–more than they loved Him. God cannot let sin go unpunished, and so He would exact justice if there was wrong-doing, and the ultimate wrong-doing is to hate God and to love things more than God. However, if only a single person in Israel loved God, He would show steadfast love to a thousand generations after that person.

Our love is insignificant compared to God’s love, but so is our sin, because God has multiplied His love and continued to multiply it until it’s sufficient to cover all our sins. In Israel, people rebelled horribly against God, and they did so almost continually, as chronicled in Judges, Kings, the prophets, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. God did punish them, and many generations of Jews were exiled to Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. But there were also a few in Israel who loved God–you only need to read David’s Psalms to find beautiful examples of this.

Because of only a few who loved Him, God kept His word to Israel, showing steadfast love to thousands of generations of Jews, until at last He sent His Son, the ultimate manifestation of His love, not just for the Jews, but also for all people everywhere. So God’s love is greater than our sin, and He loves more readily than He judges.

But in the shadow of God’s mighty promise to love for a thousand generations is still the promise to punish sons for the sins of their fathers. This isn’t an obscure passage. It’s a robust, undeniable theme throughout the whole Scriptures. It occurs repeatedly, quoted word-for-word in several places (Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9-10, Jeremiah 32:18). The idea also occurs in the Psalms and in numerous other places.

Paul tells us that we inherit sin from Adam, who is the first man, the father of us all, and the first sinner. By being Adam’s descendants, we inherit his sin, and we inherit the punishment for his sin–death (Romans 5:12). Because of this, every single one of us is a sinner from birth (Romans 3:23). David agrees, mourning in Psalm 51:5 that he was born sinful–“In sin did my mother conceive me.” And again in Psalm 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth.” Paul restates in Ephesians 2:3 that we are sinful “by nature“.

And for the longest time each one of these verses bothered me a bit. Shouldn’t we all be innocent until we do something that makes us guilty? But then I realized–I think by reading C.S. Lewis–that we all do things that make us guilty. This is the second reason I misunderstood this passage.

The issue is not so much that we inherit our father’s punishment as it is that we inherit our father’s sins. You’ve seen this everywhere. Children of lazy parents grow up to be lazy people. Children of angry parents grow up to be angry people. Children of abusive parents often grow up to abuse their children.

It’s a terrible, terrible cycle, but you’ve probably seen it in your own life. I’ve certainly seen it in mine. My dad has trouble making himself help my mom (who still has kids at home to care for) clean up around the house. You may ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that this is something I struggle with as well. I sometimes get to thinking that my school work is more important than a clean house that she’ll enjoy–but it certainly isn’t.

So why should it bother me that the Bible affirms something I’ve seen over and over in people all around me? The answer is that it shouldn’t bother me. It is the truth. God has blessed us infinitely more than He has judged us, and the fact that children inherit sin from their parents is patently obvious.

Furthermore, God’s love has been multiplied through all the generations of Israel and Christians, and I have been a recipient of grace upon grace–the grace of being alive and experiencing life, and the grace of His Son, Jesus the Messiah, who took the punishment that I inherited–the punishment for my sin–and paid for it completely with His life.

You have inherited sin as well–I’m sure you can tell me a million little things that you fail at, things you shouldn’t have said or done, people you should have been kinder to or more helpful to. The sins may seem small, but what about when you have a child? You may lose your temper sometimes, but your child may learn this from you. Perhaps his temper will be worse than yours, and perhaps he will teach his son to be angry as well. Our sins multiply. Even what seems like a small thing can affect someone else profoundly. You can crush a person’s ego for life with a single poorly-considered word. The son of a hothead may grow up to be a murderer, and that father, who merely had a temper, would be largely responsible for the lack of self-control that he taught his son.

The Gospel is that we can have a new Father in heaven. If you have not believed in God and in the sacrifice of His Son, then you still have your inherited sin, but if you accept Jesus and His saving sacrifice on the cross, you can have a new Father (Galatians 4:1-7). From this new Father, you will inherit not sin and a punishment of death in hell, but righteousness and eternal life with Him in heaven. God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” and you need only to accept Him as your God.

“In the same way also, when we were children, we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

-Galatians 4:3-7

[You might also want to check out this wonderful lady’s blog post: http://meetingintheclouds.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/part-8-i-am-adopted-i-have-a-father/ She is a 74 year old Christian in Australia, and she understands this verse in Galatians in a profound way. I stumbled across her blog a few months ago.]


One response to “Will God punish sons for the sins of their fathers?

  1. Ben, this is a wonderful explanation of a difficult text. Really man, this was great. Thanks!

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