• June 13, 2020



783 654 Apartheid Times

Question: Are we held accountable to God for the sins of our fathers?

This essay investigates that claim on our consciences whereby one may feel guilty for the sins committed by your parents or grandparents and that guilt works itself out in our lives so that we are more willing to accept punishment or retribution from others or society in general. This exact situation has recently come to light with the murder of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white cop. As tragic as that incident is, this essay aims to show that it is unhealthy for any ethnic group to feel like they have to take some form of abuse to atone for the racial injustices of the past committed by prior generations.

We will examine the O.T. which seems to expressly teach that God holds one accountable for the “sins of the fathers” and then look at some passages which seem to teach the exact opposite. Based on my assumption that the Bible does not contradict itself in matters of doctrine, we will seek a better approach to reconciling the arguments for and against especially in light of the completed revelation of the grace of God which was shown in the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some passages which seem to emphasize “sins of the fathers” starting with the second commandment from Yahweh to the Israelites at Sinai (Exodus 20:4-6):

4 “You shall not make for yourself a divine image with any form that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. 5 You will not bow down to them, and you will not serve them, because I am Yahweh your God, a jealous God, punishing the guilt of the parents on the children on the third and on the fourth generations of those hating me, 6 and showing loyal love to thousands of generations of those loving me and of those keeping my commandments.

Exodus 31:18 indicates the two tablets with the commandments were written with the finger of God but it did not take the Israelites very long to break this very same command with the abomination of the golden calf (Exo. 32:15-18) which they commanded Aaron make for them. Upon Moses’ descent, from receiving the law he discovered the sin of the camp and threw the first set of stone tablets in disgust. Interestingly, Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites as Jesus would later do for His people, and Yahweh did not utterly destroy them nor visit the sins of the fathers upon the third and fourth generations but graciously provided them with another copy of the ten commandments which Yahweh later commanded Moses place in the ark of the covenant. At the second meeting Yahweh describes his own character once more and includes the “sins of the fathers” clause as a warning:

And Yahweh passed over before him, and he proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding with loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love to the thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and he does not leave utterly unpunished, punishing the guilt of fathers on sons and on sons of sons on third and fourth generations.”

In chapter 5 of Deuteronomy Moses rehearses the ten commandments and once more the “sins of the fathers” is proclaimed as a warning (Deut. 5:9).

After receiving the law, the people of Israel were led by Yahweh to the promised land which He had promised to give Abraham hundreds of years before the Israelites were held captive in Egypt. Before entering the promised land, they decided to send twelve spies to have a good look around (Num. 13) but when they returned with a negative report and sinned with unbelief Moses again had to intercede on their behalf (Num. 14:19). It is during this encounter that Moses reminds Yahweh of His character (Num. 14:18):

‘Yahweh is slow to anger and great of loyal love, forgiving sin and rebellion; but surely he leaves nothing unpunished, visiting the sin of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generations.’

Gracious and merciful Yahweh forgives the people while showing sin has consequences and only the guilty are condemned to wander the desert until that evil generation dies out. Notice those without sin, Joshua and Caleb are spared that fate. Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb was from the tribe of Judah. Start thinking about how, if this promise of punishment for the sins of the fathers is literal, is it possible for there later to be all twelve tribes in the land of Israel? If it is taken at face value then only two tribes would have entered, those that Joshua and Caleb represented and all other children of the ten other tribes would have been punished with the judgment their fathers experienced i.e. perishing in the wilderness. No, something deeper is going on here as we will see next.

The prophet Jeremiah repeats a popular proverb which seems to teach the same idea (Jer. 31:29):

In those days they will say no longer, ‘⌊Parents⌋ have eaten unripe fruit, and the teeth of the children ⌊are set on edge⌋.’

Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 18:2) says:

“What do you mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers, they ate unripe fruit, and the teeth of the child became blunt.’

People who believe this fail however when they do not quote the proverb in its entirety neither do, they seek to understand the reason the prophets under the divine inspiration of God the Holy Spirit include the proverb in their books. The proceeding verse in Jeremiah says,

But each will die because of his iniquity, everyone who eats the unripe fruit, their teeth will be set on edge.

The Faithlife Study Bible explains why Jeremiah and Ezekiel bring up this proverb:

This proverb, which also appears in Ezek 18:2, carries an implicit criticism of Yahweh for punishing people for the sins of others. The proverb is succinctly refuted in Jer 31:30 with the assertion that everyone is punished for their individual sin. Ezekiel might be quoting from Jeremiah here and expanding on the concept more fully. See note on Ezek 18:2; compare Ezek 18:1–32 and note. (Barry et al., 2012, Je 31:29)

A proverb could be either wise sayings from important teachers or conventional adages by common people and learning to understand them translates into gaining wisdom (Prov. 1:6). (Barry et al., 2012, Ezek. 17:2; 18:2)

Note that this is of the latter type, a popular proverb whereby people were criticizing Yahweh unjustly and attributing to Him the blame that He is unjust for punishing them for the sins of their parents. It is to this unjust human judgment that the prophets are responding when they unequivocally deny their basis in fact. Here Ezekiel (18:3-9):

As I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, it will surely not any longer be appropriate for you to quote this proverb in Israel! Look! All lives are mine. The lives of father and son alike are mine. The person sinning will die. And if a man is righteous and does justice and righteousness, and on the mountains he does not eat and he does not lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, and the wife of his neighbor he does not defile and he does not approach a woman of menstruation, and he oppresses no one and he returns a pledge for his loan and he commits no robbery and he gives his bread to the hungry and he covers a naked person with a garment, and he does not charge interest and he takes no usury, and he holds back his hand from injustice and he executes a judgment of fairness between persons, and in my statutes he goes about and my regulations he keeps, performing faithfully —then he is righteous, and certainly he will live,” declares the Lord Yahweh.

It is clear that Yahweh uses Jeremiah and Ezekiel to warn unjust people from repeating this proverb. This does however not clear up the confusion associated with the second commandment. How are we to understand not the confused judgments of man but the very words God Himself uses to describe Himself? It is important to distinguish between the origin of the judgments and their associated truthfulness and the audience intended to receive them.

Everything God says in the Bible is true and perfectly coherent and there is never any inconsistency therein. If we suspect, we have found such an inconsistency then we need to look deeper for an understanding and through God the Holy Spirit we may be given the illumination if we seek (Lk. 11:13) with all our hearts to understand provided He has made his abode with us (Jn. 16:13; Eph. 1:13).

Because humans are fallen not everything depicted in the Bible is right. For example, it was possible and lawful in Israel to divorce or to have more than 1 wife (polygamy) without it being God’s ideal and the best plan for creation (Matt. 19:8 c.f. Gen. 2:24). Similarly, there is a type of judgment that exists in the world which is false and that is often what we today see as certain factions within the population reserving prejudice toward other persons over things they cannot control. I was born in South Africa as a white Caucasian male and that is not something I had any control over. Another person may have been born in America as a black person and that is similarly not anything they can control. Just as it would be wrong for me to harbor resentment or prejudice toward the American, it is equally prejudiced and wrong for him to harbor resentment toward me because I am a white South African living in America. Having said that, this is exactly what I have experienced and it seems that possibly I may have to endure, teach my children to endure, and after three or four generations that animosity and prejudice may be removed as a form of unjust human judgment that is all too common in this fallen world. So, it is equally true that we can feel we are under unjust judgment from our neighbors while maintaining that God is not the author thereof. That is what I meant when I said we must be careful to distinguish between the origin of judgments. Now for the other point, distinguishing between the audience to whom the warnings are given.

In the ten commandments, we have a nation of Israel under the command of Yahweh God himself who is ruling over them through his prophet Moses. The commandments have personal applications as far as not stealing, coveting, murdering, and so forth but they also have corporate applications. It is vital to distinguish between the two. If we confuse the application of the “sins of the fathers” warning by applying it individually when God intended, it to be taken corporately then we end up with the problem of not being able to reconcile it within our understanding of the Bible as a whole. The glaring inconsistency could be used by the accuser of the brethren to weaken our shield of faith and eventually grind down our hope until the light of the gospel of Christ is extinguished from our hearts. Here we have the mutual consequences of sin whereby the culture would be built up by following the law and broken down when the law was rejected. That is clearly evident in the decay of social cohesion as marked in the judges, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes, notwithstanding the exile of Northern tribes to Assyria and Southern tribes to Babylon. One final quote soundly rejects vicarious judgment (Deut. 24:16):

“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, and children shall not be put to death because of their fathers; each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”

An emphatic assertion is hereby made :

The OT contains no examples of people being vicariously punished for the sins of others. In fact, Deut 24:16 explicitly rejects vicarious punishment. Yet others would ultimately experience the consequences of sin. (Barry et al., 2012, Ex. 20:5)

Although we may experience the consequences of the sins of others, Yahweh extends mercy and grace to thousands of generations of those who seek His face (Exod. 34:6-7).

And Yahweh passed over before him, and he proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding with loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love to the thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and he does not leave utterly unpunished, punishing the guilt of fathers on sons and on sons of sons on third and fourth generations.”

In summary, we have seen that at the sin of the golden calf, after Moses destroyed the first tablets with the commandments and warnings for disobedience, the children of Israel did the very thing God commanded them not to do, worship an idol, and although Yahweh and Moses were both angry, Moses interceded for them and Yahweh did not utterly destroy them which was the just reward for breaking His Holy law. At the second great sin of unbelief in the sending of the twelve spies and the evil report and subsequent complaining and unbelief at the promises Yahweh had made, the dispising of His goodness by attributing to His character the evil in their hearts, Yahweh once more punished only that generation and spared Joshua and Caleb because they had not sinned but believed He would enable them to overcome if they entered by faith. Additionally, we see that the mere fact that Israel occupied the promised land later in their history and that all twelve tribes were represented indicates that there must be some deeper meaning to the warning of the “sins of the fathers” than a surface reading of the text can provide. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel take this illegitimate complaint, in the form of a proverb widely repeated and probably originating with the common people, head-on and refute its accuracy and declare unequivocally that there is no vicarious punishment. It is possible to feel guilty for the sins of your fathers because of the prejudicial judgment others project upon you but it is through the accuser of the brethren that such baggage is willingly accepted, and it is unhealthy. God’s judgment in contrast to man is always perfectly just and right. When we read the “sins of the fathers” warnings in context and understand both there individual and corporate applications we can clearly see that the consequences of the sinful actions of the prior generations are felt by subsequent ones as the social cohesion of society is eroded through lawlessness and rejection of God to the point experienced in judges and during the exiles.

In conclusion, we are hereby challenged to look not to the false human judgments on the character of God but to His perfect Holy nature whereby in such mercy as has never been comprehended prior nor since His incarnation, Yahweh Himself took on the tent of a baby and became the perfectly Holy God-Man Jesus. He came to earth to live the perfect life under the perfect law of God and thereby obtain the right to redeem His people from out of the enemy’s hands, into whom humanity was in bondage since the fall of man. Only a man could pay for the original sin and only God could pay for so much sin as has been accumulating since the beginning of the time. He willingly laid down His life and took upon Himself the wrath of God the Father and assuaged the righteous recompense His people deserved. By simple childlike faith in His atonement His people can know that they have been reconciled to God the Father through the death of the Son by the illuminating light of God the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2; Rom. 8). Oh, what grace. Oh what love. We are unworthy.

Now that I have been freed from the guilt of sin and made alive in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), I no longer accept the guilt and shame for sin, whether they be mine or another’s, but confess them to the Triune God and ask for cleansing (1 John 1:9). I will therefore never kneel to another human being. How could I, did they take the wrath of God while they hung on the tree? How could they? Not only were they never raised from the dead as only Jesus can claim, but they are a mere fallen human and a created being themselves. They are not the creator. The creator Himself died in my place and to kneel before another human being would be to trample his grace underfoot and the warnings for doing so are clear (Heb. 10:29):

How much worse punishment do you think the person will be considered worthy of who treats with disdain the Son of God and who considers ordinary the blood of the covenant by which he was made holy and who insults the Spirit of grace?


Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012,

2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Je 31:29). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

  • Paul Eriksen December 30, 2020 at 8:21 am

    Very interesting. If I hear you right, the judgment to the third and fourth generations is His acknowledging the fact that People will exercise this judgment, as evinced by “man judges by the outward, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I.e. He allows it.

    Contrariwise, His mercy is boasted of as spanning to thousands of generations. In which case, He visits for good based on fondness for servants long since gone.

    • Sean January 5, 2021 at 2:05 pm

      exactly right Paul. Together with the idea, that God allows the outward judging based on appearance, is the fact that sin spoils, spreads and separates by default. Individual elect believers and corporately as the church only escape the curse by God’s grace being applied to our lives while God heals us from the corruption by God the Holy Spirit.
      The final thought is related but a little different in that the curse is applied corporately to the human race which nobody would argue is getting better. As sin spreads the depravity of humanity increases. Yet the hope is that He will draw and give unmerited sinners to the Son by the work of the Holy Spirit inspired Bible and witness of the redeemed remnant through the great commission.

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