The phrase, “the sins of the father,” is of Biblical origin. But “sins of the father” also appears in select works of antiquity. The phrase itself and the concept of the consequences of sin passing from one generation to another are found throughout English literature, film, and even popular music.
Where the Bible Mentions "Sins of the Father"
The phrase, "sins of the fathers" appears in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy and Exodus. The phrase also appears in the book of Numbers and in Jeremiah. So, the phrase is linked to the keeping of the commandments and the consequences of sin passing through the generations. But the phrase is also a concept that is observed; sin does have consequences. The children of those who sin do in fact inherit the seed of sin and the sin nature. Moreover, certain sins carry intergenerational consequences. One thinks of abuse, alcoholism, and other sins of personal assault, violations of the image of God in the human being. Let's examine the quotes from Scripture:
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
“The Lord is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18).
“You shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, and doing mercy to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:9-10)
“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the parents’ sins into the laps of their children after them. Great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord Almighty” (Jeremiah 32:17-18).
Ancient References and Origin
It is not surprising that Gentile philosophers observe the reality of God's law at work in creation. Thus, we possess examples of extra-Biblical usage of father's sins:
- Euripides (c. 485-406 B.C.) Phrixus: "The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children."
- Horace, Odes: "For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer."
- Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: "The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."
What "Sins of the Father" Does NOT Mean
The phrase, unexamined, has led some to foolishly charge the Almighty with a capricious nature. Some might even be led to think that a philosophy of determinism is evident in the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth. God does not will suffering upon human beings. God is just and righteous in all of his ways. Determinism is a pagan philosophy. Such a view of God and His universe has nothing to do with the doctrine of predestination or the sovereignty of God.
God is completely free to govern his universe. There is nothing that is outside of his sovereign will. But God grants free agency to his creatures. We are moral beings given choices to make. It is our nature that is bound in sin. One whose disposition is sinful will, quite naturally, follow the “north star” of such a nature. Conversely, one who has been redeemed from sin by the grace of God in His Son our Savior Jesus Christ has the opportunity to choose what is good and what is right.
It is important to remember these overlapping doctrinal truths, and to compare Scripture with Scripture as we think about this passage in its meaning.
What "Sins of the Father" DOES Mean
There are three responses we might have from the Scriptures that are given.
The phrase, “the sins of the father," as they occur in the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy remind us that God's law has been established with blessings, as well as judgment. It is a serious matter, indeed, to have one's life characterized by the violation of God's laws. One cannot live in violation of God’s commandments and expect those closest to him to experience no effect from his sin. This reality should stir us to fidelity to God’s word. We should also recognize our need of a Savior and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. A person who has lived in sin all their lives can have a powerful influence on the next generation by the confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Even when such a confession comes after one has lived an entire life of willful disobedience to God's law, some consequences will naturally follow, but the legacy will not be of sin. The legacy of anyone who turns to Jesus Christ is the legacy of the power of the cross of Christ.
In Numbers, for instance, one notes that God’s judgments, including “the sins of the father,” are sometimes the observation of sin’s multi-generational consequences in the “natural order” of life. “The sins of the father” represent an inherent divine judicial reality in Creation. In this sense, the phrase, “sins of the father,” is descriptive and pervasive. Pastors, as well as family counselors, will sometimes draw a “diagram” to better discern the “virus” of sinful behavior in a family. Then, through family memory that is spoken in honesty, one may see how sinful cycles of pain can infect successive generations. The rebellious nature of one generation will have an invariable effect upon the following generation and even the generation after that. Sin is like an infection that spreads throughout the whole body. It can spread throughout the family system. This can happen in a single-family unit or it can happen in a larger family such as a nation.
The passages in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah are very important. The careful student of the Bible will read the rest of the story. The full implication of the covenant of God's grace is that while a second or third generation may experience "the sins of the father," God's mercy and grace extends — not to one or two generations — but to a thousand generations. We know that a thousand in the Bible means "a very long time." What a gracious and beautiful Scripture is this:
“For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:9-10).
The Bible Does, Indeed, Teach That Sin Has Consequences
Those sad consequences are transmitted through the generations. However, the glorious good news of the gospel is that this is a chain that can be broken. The blood of Jesus Christ demonstrates the sacrifice of God for the sins of the world. The righteousness of Jesus Christ fulfills the life that we cannot live. Whenever we trust in Jesus Christ the chain of sin's consequences, the sad and sordid "sins of the fathers" is, through the power of God in Jesus Christ, snapped as easily as one snaps a twig.
I am certain that some reading these words today have experienced the consequences and effects of sin from another generation. Perhaps you struggle with the same addictions your father or your grandfather struggled with. Perhaps a legacy of unrepented sin has left you in some kind of poverty of life.
My dear friend, we have good news in the gospel of God. God’s mercy and grace is greater than all of our sins. Let no one feel that they are victims by the chains of their past, locked down by an unforgiving and inhuman force of destiny. God loves you. For in Jesus Christ there is always hope of a new day and a new tomorrow. And instead of a generational pattern of sin, God establishes a new pattern of life. It is in this sense that we can pray for those who come after us: that they may be protected from any legacy of our sinfulness, and that they are covered with our prayers in the glorious gospel of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
The covenant of grace tells us that Jesus lived the life we could never live and died the death that should have been ours. This great exchange — we get his life and he gets our punishment — frees us from the cycle of sin and its sorrows. We may therefore pray with expectation that there will be a multitude of our family members safe in the arms of Jesus when he comes again.
The “sins of the father” are no match for the righteousness and sacrifice of the Son.
Photo credit: Pixabay/ljcor
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.