The Sins of the Fathers

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Exodus 20:5

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is “The Ten Commandments for Today.” Last week we looked at the second commandment, which has to do with idolatry, and right in the middle of the commandment on idolatry we encountered verse 5:

Exodus 20:5 – “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (NIV)

We looked at verse 5 in its context of idolatry last week, but this verse also raises the problem of generational sin. It was too much to try and cover both idolatry and generational sin all in one message, so I promised to treat this portion of the verse in more detail this week.

Exodus 20:5 is perhaps the most frightening verse of Scripture I know. Not that there aren’t other frightening passages in the Bible. For example, the Bible contains many sobering passages dealing with judgment and eternal punishment. The book of Revelation paints terrifying images of the end times. But as a parent, no verse scares me more than Exodus 20:5. God punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and the fourth generation.

The verse is directed to parents, not just fathers. It applies to moms as well as dads. It means that the sins you commit today can directly impact your children, your grand-children, and even your great-grandchildren. It is a terrible truth to consider. When you truly ponder its meaning, the enormity of this truth becomes unbearable. You stagger beneath the implications and are crushed by its weight. And I have to tell you, if it were not for Jesus Christ in my life, a full understanding of this verse alone would lead me to complete and total despair.

In fact, it is so difficult to accept the truth of this verse that many would prefer to set it aside altogether. Some people, when confronted with this truth choose to reject God rather than accept Scripture. They say, “If that’s what God is like, I don’t want anything to do with him.” That is a foolish response. Not only does it betray a lack of understanding concerning this verse and God’s very nature, but it puts that person and their future generations at risk. It also goes back to the problem of idolatry we discussed last week, recreating God according to our imagination rather than worshiping him for who he is.

I will be the first to admit: this is not a pleasant teaching of Scripture. We would wish it were not true. The problem is you can’t just remove this verse from the Bible. Even if this were the only place in Scripture where this truth was taught, it is still the Word of God and cannot be set aside.

But it is not the only place. It is perhaps the most familiar because of its placement within the Ten Commandments, but it is not the only place. Both the Old and the New Testaments teach this same truth in several passages. Not only that, but our own experience, and in fact the experience of the entire human race bears witness to the truth. God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, even to the third and the fourth generation.

I’ve thought about this verse a lot over the years, and even more so after I became a father. This morning we will take a closer look at it together. Let me say it again. This is not an easy truth to digest. Sin is hereditary. Sin gets passed down from one generation to the next. That is a weight most of us would rather not bear. But we will not overcome this burden by ignoring or denying it. We must face the terrible truth of generational sin in order to deal with it, so that we may indeed break the cycle of sin for ourselves and for our children who follow.

I. There is no escape: We must all face the consequences of generational sin.

The first truth the Bible teaches us about generational sin is that there is no escape. We must all face the consequences of generational sin.

Sin always has consequences. Many of us are familiar with the law of the harvest. We read about it in Galatians 6 – “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8) A man reaps what he sows. There is no escape from that law. If you sow carrots, you get carrots. If you sow strawberries, you get strawberries. If you sow good things in your life, you reap good things. If you sow sin in your life, you reap the consequences of that sin.

Now that makes sense to most of us. We understand that if we make wrong choices, we reap the results of our choices. If I cut myself, I bleed. If I jump off a cliff, I break my legs. If I lie to my wife, then I lose her confidence and trust. If I reject God, then I lose God.

What we don’t always understand is that the Bible also teaches the law of the generational harvest. The law of the harvest says that you will reap what you sow. The law of the generational harvest says that others will also reap what you sow, especially your children and grandchildren, your family and immediate descendants. As John Calvin wrote: “The curse of the Lord righteously rests not only on the person of an impious man, but also on the whole of his family.”

We don’t like that. It does not set well with our rugged American independence. We like to think that we can do anything we like as long as we’re not hurting others. We like to think, “My sin is my own, and it’s nobody else’s business.” The problem is that there really is no such thing as personal or private sin. My actions, my choices always affect others, either for good or for ill.

The law of the generational harvest works itself out in three different ways in the human race. First, there is the general problem of human sin, what the Bible calls the sinful nature of man. Second, there is cultural sin, that is, sin which displays itself in whole cultures. And thirdly, there is family sin, generational sin that is specific to families and their children.

First, there is human sin in general. The law of the generational harvest began with Adam and Eve, the first parents of the human race. God created Adam and Eve in his own image, placed them in the garden, and gave them dominion over all the earth. He gave them everything they needed: food, protection, companionship, and sweet fellowship with God. But Adam and Eve chose to reject God’s command; they chose sin over obedience. Our whole planet is still reeling from their choice.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:12 – “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” When Adam and Eve fell into sin, the whole human race fell into sin. The most precious, sweetest-looking innocent baby has a sinful nature just waiting to break out. Sin is a congenital disease which within a few years of birth presents itself in every human being born on the planet. Adam and Eve sinned, and they passed that sin on to their children, grand-children, great-grand-children, and beyond. There is no escape from the human condition of sin. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Secondly, there is cultural sin. Whole cultures often display an inclination toward particular sins as those sins are passed on from one generation to another. For example, I have read about tribes which honor lying and falsehood. The people in the tribe admire those who lie the most and consider them the cleverest. Then there are cultures which twist the Biblical concept of male leadership into sinful forms of male dominance, where women are treated as less than men or even as property. Other cultures struggle with deep-seated racial prejudices. Our own culture here in America struggles especially with the sins of materialism, sexual immorality and divorce. As we saw last week, the sin of idolatry is a specific example of cultural sin where false worship is passed down within a people from one generation to the next. Cultural sin, patterns of sin that affect entire cultures, is another evidence of the law of the generational harvest at work.

Thirdly, and this is where we focus today, there is family sin, sin that is passed down from parents to children and then to their children. We see many examples of this in the Bible. Abraham passed down the sin of lying to Isaac, who passed it on to his deceiving son Jacob. A study of the kings of Israel and Judah shows how one king after another was influenced by his father’s sin. I’ll give you just one example from 1 Kings: “Ahaziah son of Ahab became king . . . and he reigned over Israel two years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, because he walked in the ways of his father and mother and in the ways of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. He served and worshiped Baal and provoked the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger, just as his father had done.” (1 Kings 22:51-53)

We see this law at work also within our own families and in society around us. Prejudice gets passed down from father to son. Alcoholism runs in families. Children of divorced parents are more prone to divorce when they grow up. Once again, as parents who are all too familiar with our own sins and failures, this law of the generational harvest rightly terrifies us when we ponder the implications for our children and grandchildren.

Notice that Exodus 20:5 tells us it is God who punishes the children for the sin of the fathers. That is one of the reasons why there is no escape. God himself is behind the law of the generational harvest. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. If you sow good things in your life, you and your family will reap the benefit. If you sow sin in your life, you and your family will reap the consequences.

There are two ways that God punishes for sin. There is what we might call active or direct punishment, where God punishes a person directly for the sins he has committed. And then there is punishment by consequence, where God allows the person to suffer the natural consequences for his sin.

Although God often punishes people directly for their own sins, I don’t believe God normally punishes children directly for the sins of the fathers. For example, we read in Ezekiel 18 that a son will not die for his father’s sin, but rather the soul that sins shall die. (One possible exception to this would be in 2 Samuel 12 where God punishes David for his sin of adultery by taking the life of David’s son.)

I believe when God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, he normally punishes by consequences. Sometimes this happens when children suffer the natural consequences for their parents’ sin, for example when a father breaks the law and goes to jail, or when a parent gambles away the family’s money. At other times the influence of the parent’s sin gets passed on to the child. A parent practices lying and deception in the home, and the children grow up lying and deceiving. The parents don’t make worship and church a weekly priority in their lives, and lo and behold, when their children grow up, neither do they. God does not hold our children guilty for the sins we commit, but our children still bear the consequences, even as we suffer the consequences from our own parents’ sins.

So, the first truth we learn about generational sin is a tough one: there is no escape. This is a burden that all parents and children bear together. Who can avoid the sins of the fathers? Just as there is the law of the harvest: “you reap what you sow”, so also there is the law of the generational harvest: “your children and grand-children will also reap what you sow.” It is a tragic part of the human predicament, and it scares me to death.

II. There is no excuse: We are all responsible for our own choices and actions.

The second truth the Bible teaches us about generational sin is this: there is no excuse. We are all responsible for our own choices and actions.

It is tempting to try and blame our parents for our problems and failings or to try and justify our bad behavior because our parents also failed. And in fact, this is quite popular today. If you’re struggling with life, depressed, or dysfunctional, it has become fashionable to find a therapist who will tell you exactly how your parents messed you up, relieve you of your responsibility, and tell you that none of this your fault.

Guess what? It’s not true. Although there is no escape from the law of the generational harvest, there is also no excuse when we give in to the same sins as our parents. Ten Commandments scholar Jochem Douma writes, “The collective consequences of a father’s sin . . . does not eliminate the personal responsibility of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” The Bible teaches that we are all responsible for our own choices and actions.

You might ask: “Why am I still responsible? I mean, didn’t we just say that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers? Why then am I still responsible?” You are responsible first of all because you do not have to follow in your parents’ sins. You may be predisposed to some of the same sins as your parents, but you are not predetermined to follow in their sins. You may indeed be wounded and disadvantaged because of your parents’ sins, but you are not destined to repeat their mistakes. That is actually good news. Although your parents have sinned, you can still turn away from their sin. You cannot escape the influence of their sin, but neither are you doomed to follow in their footsteps.

A little earlier we mentioned Ezekiel 18 which taught that God does not hold the children guilty for their parents’ sin. Rather, the soul that sins shall die. Ezekiel 18 also teaches that children do not have to follow the same cycle of sin as their parents. Godly parents sometimes have ungodly children. Godly children sometimes have ungodly parents. It is not automatic. As parents we pass on sinful tendencies to our children, not sinful necessities or requirements. So, you are responsible first of all because you do not have to follow in your parents’ sins.

Secondly, you are responsible, because you choose to sin. No ever one forces you to sin. Do you know why you choose to sin? You sin because you want to. That is your desire. It is your own choice. Nobody makes you sin against your will. Listen to James 1 – “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15) When you sin, you are responsible for your actions because no one has violated your will. You have simply acted in accordance with your own desires.

And so, just because God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers does not take away your own personal responsibility for sin. You are not predetermined to follow your parents’ sins, and when it comes right down to it, you sin because you want to. You choose to do wrong instead of right.

So there is no excuse. The soul that sins shall die. You are accountable to God for your actions, and you cannot shift that blame to your parents or to anyone else. On judgment day you will stand alone before God, and you alone will be responsible for the life choices that you have made. Quoting Douma once again, “The sanction of the second commandment can never be used as an excuse by children who argue that they are suffering judgment for what their fathers did. On the other hand, the sanction does contain a serious warning to fathers: Consider the destruction your sin can cause, not only in your life, but also in the life of your family!” There is no excuse: we are all responsible for our own choices and actions.

Now, I am happy to report that the message does not end here. If it did, I imagine we would all go home discouraged, defeated, and depressed. And I’ll admit, so far I have not given you a very positive message this morning. 1) There is no escape: we must all face the consequences of generational sin. 2) There is no excuse: we are all responsible for our own choices and actions. But fortunately, the Bible teaches us one more vital truth about generational sin. 3) There is no need for despair, because Jesus Christ offers us hope.

III. There is no need for despair: Why? Because Jesus Christ offers us hope.

Remember from last week’s message, we must balance the harsh truth of Exodus 20:5 (“I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me … ”) with the wonderful promise of Exodus 20:6 (“ … but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”) God is a loving and forgiving God who delights to show mercy. And he has shown us mercy through his Son, Jesus.

Jesus Christ offers us hope in the face of generational sin and its consequences. First of all, there is hope for the parent. As parents we can feel so guilty for the sins we have committed. We agonize over our failures, especially when we begin to realize the lingering effect of those sins upon our children and future generations. Perhaps this morning you are beginning to realize these things for the first time. Either way, when you consider the truth of generational sin and its consequences, it is very easy to be buried beneath a crushing load of guilt.

Let me tell you, that guilt will drive you to despair and completely destroy you if you do not take it to the cross. Take your sin and your guilt and your failures to Jesus. There is no need for despair, because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If your faith and trust are in Jesus Christ this morning, then you are forgiven. God does not condemn you or accuse you for your sins, but he forgives you and accepts you in his beloved Son Jesus Christ. Hallelujah! That is the good news of the gospel.

Secondly, there is also hope for the children. Jesus Christ not only offers forgiveness for the offense of sin. He also offers deliverance from the power of sin. Parents, the most important thing you can do for your children in this regard is to pray that they will know and trust and love and serve Jesus Christ in their lives. Only Jesus can deliver them from the power of generational sin. Only the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in their lives can help them to overcome this burden we have laid upon them.

Through Christ you and your children can overcome the effects of generational sin, breaking the bonds from the past, and severing those bonds that could burden future generations. Every new generation has the capacity in Christ to break the cycle of generational sin. We read in Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Colossians 1:13 tells us that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” There is hope in Jesus Christ to overcome any and all sin in our lives, and to break the chains that bind us. Praise God!

If you are struggling with generational sin in your life, let me encourage you not only to confess your own sin to God, but also to confess the sins of your fathers. We find this pattern revealed in Scripture a number of times. In Leviticus 26 we read, “Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away. But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers … then when their … hearts are humbled … I will remember my covenant … and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:39-42 ) We read in Nehemiah 9, “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads … They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.” (Nehemiah 9:1-2)

Perhaps your fathers never confessed their sin to the Lord. As you confess your own sins to God, confess the sins of your fathers also. Pray Asaph’s prayer in Psalm 79:8 – “Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.” God delights to help you when you humble yourself before him in confession. He will deliver you in your time of need.

CONCLUSION: Generational sin is real. “Who can avoid the sins of the fathers?” (Terry Taylor; Songs of the Heart; Daniel Amos) We have looked at three important truths from the Bible about generational sin:

1) There is no escape: we must all face the consequences of generational sin.

2) There is no excuse: we are all responsible for our own choices and actions.

3) But, praise God, there is also no need for despair, because Christ offers us hope. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1)

So what can you do about generational sin? Let me suggest four things. The first one is for everybody, and the last three are especially for parents.

  1. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Turn away from the sin in your life, and trust Jesus Christ as your Savior. Confess to God your sins and the sins of your fathers. Ask God to help you live a life that is pleasing to him.
  2. Pray for your children. Pray for your children every day. Pray that they will love and serve God with their lives. Pray that they will learn to depend on Christ for the strength they will need to stand against temptation.
  3. Set the example. Set the example for your children the best you can. You can’t go back and change the past, but you can ask God to help you make right choices in the present.
  4. Bring your children up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Teach your children about God and Christ from the Bible. There is power in God’s word to guard against sin and to break sinful patterns of sin. As you teach them from God’s word, you will be laying a solid foundation for the rest of their lives.

Sara Groves is a singer/songwriter whose music I enjoy. She has one song called “Generations” that addresses some of the themes we’ve spoken about today. In closing, let me share with you the chorus from her song.

Remind me of this, Lord, with every decision:
Generations will reap what I sow.
I can pass down a curse or a blessing
To those I will never know,
To those I will never know.

(Sara Groves; “Generations,” from the CD Conversations)

That is the law of the generational harvest. You can pass down either a curse or a blessing to your children, grand-children, and great-grand-children. Which will it be? I urge you this morning, seek God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ to break the bonds of sin in your own life for the sake of your future generations.

© Ray Fowler

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