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Some passages plainly state that children are not held accountable by God for the sins of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). But other passages indicate God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, even to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5; 34: 6,7; Deuteronomy 5:9). How can these passages be harmonized?
Note the statement of Exodus 20:5,6: For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on 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.
How can God visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children? Does this teach Calvinistic original sin: that all babies are born depraved because they inherit guilt for the sin of Adam?
1. Guilt of sin and eternal condemnation cannot be inherited Ezek. 18:20; 2 Cor. 5:10. We are guilty or not according to our own conduct: 1 John 3:4; James 1:14,15; Rom. 1:32; 2:6-11; 6:16,19; etc. I urge the reader to go to our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/ and study there our free article about Individual Responsibility and our article about Original Sin and Inherited Depravity. These articles show numerous passages that plainly teach that children do not inherit guilt and will not be punished eternally for the sins of their parents. No passage of Scripture should be viewed as teaching any such doctrine.
2. Ex. 20:5 does not mention Adam or Adam´s sin. It does not say we inherit sin from Adam. Ex. 20:5 says the sins of the parents are visited on the third or fourth generation. We are much further from Adam than that. So, whatever these passages teach, they cannot possibly be taken to teach that babies today are born guilty of Adam´s sin.
3. These verses could refer to physical consequences of sin in this life, rather than guilt and eternal consequences. Iniquity (Heb. AVON) is elsewhere translated punishment in ten instances. Visiting (Ex. 20:5) is translated punishing in NIV and in NKJV footnote. The specific examples cited are all examples of consequences in this life. This would mean that the children are not considered guilty of sin and would not be punished in hell, simply because their fathers committed sin, but that the children would suffer physical consequences in this life as a result of their parents´ sin. We often see children in this life who suffer because they have sinful parents.
4. But note specifically that the verse says: third and fourth generation of those who hate me (Ex. 20:5). This is more likely to be an expression of God´s longsuffering (see context of Ex. 34:6,7). If one generation hated God (referring here to idolatry see the context), He would rebuke but not destroy the nation. If repentance occurred in a future generation, he would spare the nation. But if three or four generations in a row hated God, He would send the nation into captivity. This explanation again means that the punishment referred to is punishment in this life; and it refers to punishment upon future generations, not as individuals but as a nation. And even then the punishment occurs only if the future generations continue to hate God by practicing idolatry. This is exactly what we see happening in the succeeding generations of the nation of Israel. In any case, once again the passage does not teach that children are born guilty of their parents´ sins or that they will be punished in eternity for their parents´ sins. (See Clarke & Keil.)
On the other hand v6 shows that God will show mercy on those who love and obey Him. Note that love and obedience always go hand in hand in our service to God (see John 14:15; 1 John 5:3; etc.). So, if future generations would love and obey God, He would show them mercy, not punishment.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 7/2007
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.