Guilt for Father’s Sins

Exodus 20:5-6—”It is unjust to make people guilty for their fathers’ sins.”

This verse is using hyperbolic language to emphasize how disobedience to God will be punished and faithfulness will be blessed—it is not a legal declaration. In fact we find exactly the opposite in the Torah law:

“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.” (Deuteronomy 24:16)

In many ancient civilizations such as China, children were killed for the sins of their fathers or vice versa, so this was radical teaching at the time.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably true that the fruit of one generation’s sin is often borne by later generations as a form of “punishment.” We know that often the sins of one person affect the lives of their children– either as people seek revenge for injustice or as a result of sinful lifestyle choices. If the father has evil habits like alcoholism or violence, the children will be far more prone to such destructive habits. This is most clearly seen in the story of King David. His sins were played out in the lives of his children. Because of his sin in killing an innocent man (Uriah) by a sword, God tells David that ‘the sword will never leave your house’ (cf. 2 Samuel 12:10). As we read in the subsequent chapters (2 Samuel 13f) we see this fulfilled in the life of David’s eldest son and the generations that followed.

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