There are times when the Bible seems to contradict itself about whether we are punished for our parents’ sin — sometimes even in the same book. For instance, the second commandment forbids the worship of God through images because the Lord is “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” (Ex. 20:5–6; Deut. 5:9–10). We also read in the book of Numbers that the Lord will “by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Num. 14:18). Yet in Deuteronomy, we read, “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” (Deut. 24:16).
Centuries later, Ezekiel warns, “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. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:20). Similarly, Jeremiah prophesies of a day when “they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ ” (Jer. 31:29). So, which is it? Does God punish children for the sins of their fathers? The answer is yes and no. Let’s get the yes out of the way first.
Adam, federal headship, and original sin
God does punish us for the sins of our first parents (see Rom. 5:12–14; 1 Cor. 15:22). This is because of the covenantal role Adam played as a federal head in the prelapsarian covenant of works. Adam uniquely represented all his posterity, such that when our first parents fell, they incurred punishment not only for themselves but for their descendants — all people who would be born into this world through ordinary generation (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 13–17). The Westminster Confession of Faith explains regarding our first parents and original sin, “They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation” (WCF 6.3). The only way, then, that we’re delivered from the sin and misery brought on us by our first parents is by being united by faith to a faithful head — the Lord Jesus Christ. Concerning our federal parentage, then, God deals with us according to our parents’ sins or obedience. In this way, our answer to the question at hand depends on how we define parents in context.
Now that we’ve discussed Adam and his unique role as federal head in the covenant of works, we can consider the question closer to home — your father and my father, which is typically the way the question is framed.
Individual culpability vs. corporate consequences
Unlike Adam, our parents are not in a position of federal headship in a covenant of works wherein their obedience or disobedience determines everything thereafter for their descendants. Therefore, we can safely say that God does not directly punish children for the sins of their parents. Yet at the same time, the consequences of sin often affect future generations, and in this way, there is a sort of indirect punishment. For example, the sins of idolatry and false worship become deeply planted in the religious life of any society or family. This is why, for instance, in the accounts of the various successive kings in Israel, we often read of kings who follow in the ways of their fathers — whether for good or for ill. King Ahaziah, for example, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 22:52). Idolatry and false worship aren’t easily extinguished once they’re inherited from previous generations. It takes intentional, Spirit-wrought reform, like that carried out by Josiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2) and destroyed the high places upon which idols were worshiped (2 Kings 23).
There is no guarantee, however, that righteous fathers will beget righteous sons and wicked fathers will beget wicked sons. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:32). Hezekiah, on the other hand, had a wicked father in Ahaz (2 Kings 16), yet he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done” (2 Kings 18:3). Notice that the author of Kings mentions David as Hezekiah’s father. Hezekiah followed in the godly ways of David rather than the wicked ways of Ahaz.
In these Old Testament examples, we see that idolatry passes easily from one generation to another, and God often punished the Israelites as a result of their idolatry. Although the Lord does not punish people directly for the sins that their fathers commit (the Lord punishes those who follow in the sins of their fathers), their fathers’ sins often reverberate, and the consequences can be felt for generations to come. Also, although a righteous son will not suffer directly for the sin of an unrighteous father, he’s susceptible to following in the path of his wicked father. He will often indirectly suffer the consequences of some of his father’s unrighteous behavior. For example, if a father is given to drunkenness, his son is more likely to experience abuse and follow in his father’s footsteps. Nevertheless, each human bears the punishment for his own wickedness. As Matthew Henry says, “God does not punish the children for the fathers’ sins unless they tread in their fathers’ steps.”1 Therefore, our answer to the question at hand depends on how we define the word punish in context.
What does this mean for us? We can draw several applications, but let’s just note a few. First, we must be quick to repent, being especially careful with sins that have so easily entangled our family members in the past. Our sins, if not mortified, will affect our children. Second, we’re reminded of the importance of Christian parents’ properly discipling and praying for their children. Typically, God blesses through familial lines. Third, sin has direct consequences for those who commit it, but it can also have indirect consequences for those around us and future generations. Last, we’re not slaves to the sins of our parents. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:12–23). God has providentially placed us in our respective families, cultures, and societies, with all the privileges, temptations, and disadvantages that come with that context (see Acts 17:26). The parentage that truly matters is whether we’re under the headship of Adam or Christ (Rom. 5:12–21).
1. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1374.
Rev. Aaron L. Garriott is managing editor of Tabletalk magazine, resident adjunct professor at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla., and a graduate of Wheaton College and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.