Does God punish children for the sins of their fathers?

Ezekiel 18 makes it clear that God holds each individual responsible for his or her own sin.

“The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel 18:1–4

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:5–6

So, do children bear responsibility for their parents’ sin?

God judges the heart of each individual. In both the Old and New Testaments, we see God interact with people based on their own faith. In Genesis we see God treat Cain differently from Abel, based on their different actions.

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.” Ezekiel 18:30

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:18

Clearly, salvation is offered to all, regardless of the actions of one’s parents.

On the other hand, the sins of parents do affect their children. David and Bathsheba’s first son died soon after birth due to David’s sin. The Israelites, as a nation, were punished by God for their sin, and that punishment sometimes affected the children as well. Today, we see how parental sin affects children. Those who grow up watching sinful behavior are often more likely to engage in it themselves. Certain sins take parents out of the home or inhibit their ability to be loving caregivers, setting the children up for possible problems in the future. Addiction often has genetic components. The relatively new field of epigenetics is suggesting that trauma can leave “molecular scars” on our DNA—and that those scars are passed down genetically to the third and fourth generation. Even more obviously, Adam and Eve’s sin has affected all of us. We are all born with sinful natures because Adam chose to disobey God. His sin was “passed down” to us.

Sin is never a private issue. It always affects those around us. This is especially true in families. The sins of the parents will affect their children. However, God is gracious and merciful. We are all marred by sin (Romans 3:23). We are all given the option to accept Jesus’ cleansing (Romans 6:23). We can be adopted into God’s family and inherit a new nature. The Bible even speaks of being born again in genetic terms:

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” 1 John 3:9

God forgives sin when we accept the sacrifice of Jesus.

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

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© Tony - W.A.M