A woman from the United Arab Emirates, who wishes to remain anonymous, writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, what does it mean in Exodus 20:5 that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children? Does this refer to ‘generational sins’ or ‘generational curses’? How does this principle relate to us and to our children under the new covenant? Will my children somehow be punished for my own sins?”
I suppose we should get the relevant texts in front of us, including the one that she mentioned.
Exodus 20:5–6: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Exodus 34:6–7: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Leviticus 26:39: “Because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.”
However, there are other texts, which are absolutely crucial for sorting out what the Bible means in those first texts.
Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
2 Kings 14:6: “But he [Amaziah] did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lᴏʀᴅ commanded, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.’”
Ezekiel 18:20: “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.”
So there you have the two clusters of texts that are both true, both inspired by God, and both infallible. How do they fit together? And what can we learn about so-called generational sin? Here are my observations:
First, the sins of the fathers are punished in the children through becoming the children’s own sin. That is really crucial. So here is the key text: Exodus 20:5. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” In other words, the hatred of God is the embodiment of what the father’s problem was.
We are not told how the father’s sins become the children’s sins. That is a mysterious thing left in God’s mind. But they do. What we are told is that when father’s sins are visited on the children it is because the children have become sinners like the fathers.
The father’s sins are the children’s sins. So no innocent child has ever been punished for a father’s sins; only guilty children are punished and are guilty of the very sins that their fathers sinned. That is the first observation.
Second, because of God’s grace which is, of course, finally secured for us by Jesus on the cross, the children can confess their own sins and the sins of their fathers and be forgiven and accepted by God.
Nobody is trapped in his father’s sins — or even in his own sins. We already see it in the Old Testament. Leviticus 26:40–42, “If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers . . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob.”
So nobody in the Old Testament or the New Testament is trapped or enslaved or in bondage or under an unbreakable curse because of something the fathers did, or something they did. The precious words of Exodus 34:6–7 are not nullified by generational migration of sin. It says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands” — and then as if to get the point across he gives three words — “forgiving iniquity and forgiving transgression and forgiving sin.”
I mean you can’t get clearer at the center of the Mosaic Law than “from generation to generation” God forgives the sins of those who repent.
Third, none of this should make anyone feel trapped and without hope because of his parents’ sins.
Ezekiel 33:14–15 says, “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”
The blood of Jesus conquers all sin and judgment for those who believe. And you get a beautiful sweeping statement in Acts 10:43: “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” So nobody is trapped in anybody’s sin — their own or someone else’s — because of the cross.
Fourth, no one who has a child who goes bad and forsakes the way of righteousness should feel that it is all his fault.
Ezekiel 18:20, “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.” In other words, there are real responsibilities in our children’s hearts, and we will not be found guilty because of our children’s guilt if we deal, of course, with our own sins. This means that you can’t be paralyzed by the guilt of thinking, “I guess my children’s problems are all owning to me.”
Finally, when it comes to generational curses, Christians should lay hold on Galatians 3:13. “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.’”
Christ has paid every debt and broken every curse. The key is to believe that and act on it. The blood of Christ covers all curses.
I remember going to the hospital one New Years Eve night, when the third heartache and tragedy had come into one of the young families of our lives. And they wondered, how worse can it get? And the father took me out in the hall from the place where his child was dying, and asked, “Pastor John, can a Christian be under a curse? I don’t know any explanation why so many bad things are happening to me.”
I said, “You may tonight be free from any kind of curse, from God’s Law, or from any voodoo or any hex because Christ bore every curse for you (Galatians 3:13).” That brought him great comfort, and they worked their way through that in a wonderful way.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.