Is Generational Sin a Real Thing?
Years ago I remember speaking to a lady in Georgia who was troubled about something known as “generational sin” or a “generational curse.” She was concerned that her life might have some type of hex or curse on it because there had been so much sin in her family. Her dad had committed suicide; her brothers had sexually assaulted her; her mother was not a Christian and was emotionally neglectful.
“But I just need to make sure the chains of generational sin are broken,” she said. “Is God mad at me?” “How do I break these chains?”
The idea of a “generational curse” is sometimes spoken of within Evangelicalism (though it is a much more common idea in charismatic circles). The idea comes from passages such as Exodus 20:5, Numbers 14:18, and several others, that talk about God visiting iniquity upon the children of Israel for their idolatrous practices.
For example, Deuteronomy 5:9-10 says:
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 fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
But what does this mean? Does this mean that God will be mad at my kids because of my sin? Does this mean my life is somehow cursed because of my parents’ sin?
A Few Thoughts
1. Those who are said to have their father's sins visited to them are "those who hate me (i.e. God)." That is really important! It is not the case that God curses those who repent and trust in him. God visits iniquity on those who continue in the sinful practices of their parents. In both the Old and New Testaments if one repents they do not remain under God's curse. It is those who continue in the sins of their fathers (not those who repent) who remain cursed. John Piper helpfully says, "No innocent child has ever been punished for a father’s sins; only guiltychildren are punished and are guilty of the very sins that their fathers sinned."
Ezekiel 18:20 says the same thing, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
2. The context of this passage in Deuteronomy is God’s command not to worship idols. If Israel worships idols and forsakes the true knowledge of Yahweh, then it will have disastrous results for their children. This is not a case of God punishing innocent children. Rather it is a case of theological distortion that leads to several generations of people not having access to true, orthodox theology. In the same way that the child of a Muslim or a Mormon will continue to hear the false theology of their parents, so the children of Israel will fail to properly know God if Israel commits idolatry. This idea is common in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The Bible will say things like, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from them” (2 Kings 13:2). One man’s sin created an evil path on which future generations would walk.
3. There is a sense in which children often seem to struggle in similar ways as their parents. Now, I don’t think this means that we have some type of “spiritual DNA” that we pass to our children. But it does seem to be the case that children who are abused can sometimes grow up to abuse others. Children who come from homes where the parents got divorced are more likely to get divorced. Sons who had fathers who objectify women tend to objectify women. Daughters with bitter mothers tend to be bitter as well. Sometimes children sin in the opposite way of their parents. Someone with a domineering father might grow up to be a passive father. But this isn’t a universal rule. Sometimes children with terrible fathers get saved and end up being great fathers. I don’t think this is the direct context of Deuteronomy 5:9-10, but I do think that children can see the sins of their parents and, due to their own sinful nature, begin to emulate those sins over time.
4. Though God does not punish a child for his parent’s sin, God may punish the parent that sinned by using the child to do so. We see this when God punishes David by killing his child. In this instance God isn't punishing the child (i.e., God is not mad at the child), but he is punishing David and using the death of his son to get David’s attention.
5. Whether it is by God (or by the state) children are not to be punished for their parents' sin (Deut 24:16; Eze 18:20). Meaning, if my dad commits murder, I shouldn't go to jail for it. Or, if my dad commits adultery, God is not going to hold that against me on the day of judgment.
In fact, there was actually a little saying that they used to have in Israel - mentioned in both Jeremiah and in Ezekiel - and the saying was, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.” This is kind of like saying that my dad ate a lemon and it caused my face to pucker. The Jews used this little proverb as a way of telling themselves that they were just suffering for their parents’ sins and not for their own sins. God actually rebukes them for using this little ditty and lets them know that their own sin is the problem.
6. This passage does point out something that we as individualistic Americans tend to forget: There is a corporate dimension to our sin and it affects other people. Both in Israel and in the church one person's sin can affect a lot of people. Sin is like leaven that spreads throughout the whole loaf of bread. This is actually one of the reasons we are commanded to do church discipline and to remove someone in unrepentant sin from the church (1 Cor 5:7).
7. Even though this passage mentions God’s severity, there is a greater emphasis on his love. He only visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him, but, for those who love him, his blessing extends to "thousands."
8. Lastly and most importantly…If someone is a Christian then they are not under a curse from God no matter what they or their parents did. This is because Christ took the curse from the Father in our place. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
This is amazing news! Is means that Christians are not under God’s curse or God’s wrath. There is no such thing as a “generational curse” if you are a Christian. You don’t have to commit the same sins your parents did. You are free.
You see, when you trust in Christ the Father adopts you into a new family – his family. You no longer have to worry about being under the sin of your father because God is your new Father and there is no sin in him.
You are not waiting for sinful chains to be broken if you are in Christ. They have already been broken.