Inheritance of guilt (Exodus 20:4-6)
Most Westerners find the concept of ‘inherited guilt’ an abomination. We live in an individualistic culture that emphasises personal choice and personal responsibility. And so it seems unfair – and totally unworthy of a just and righteous God – that innocent children should suffer because of something that their parents or even grandparents have done. Yet, for example, we are well aware that the children of abusive parents are likely to become abusers of their own children. And any damage that our generation does to the environment will probably have far-reaching repercussions for our descendants. Sin can have delayed effects as well as immediate ones.
“I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Exodus 20:5) This chilling warning forms part of the second commandment, against idolatry, and it is addressed to a community (‘parents’ and ‘children’ are collective terms). “No man is an island”; our attitudes and behaviour inevitably influence those around us, for good or ill. In the case of idolatry (which in its early stages can be very subtle), the full implications can take several generations to develop. The individual who first conceives a false teaching, and the generation that embraces it, may not suffer any apparent consequences – but each succeeding generation will develop the doctrine a bit further, until it becomes a gross error. And so God’s response to our unfaithfulness (for that is what idolatry is) may not be worked out in our own lifetime, but at some later date.
Non-inheritance of guilt (Deuteronomy 24:16)
God may in His wisdom allow future generations to suffer the consequences of our own generation’s sins; but human judges do not have the same mandate at the level of individual cases. Personal responsibility is a foundational legal principle: “Each will die for their own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16) No court should punish a family member for the crimes committed by an absent (or dead) relative, and the crime of one person is no excuse for a vendetta against the rest of their family. The good king Amaziah was commended for putting this law into practice (II Chronicles 25:3,4).
And God does not bear grudges either: when Korah rebelled against Moses’ authority in the wilderness and died as a result, his family did not die out (Numbers 26:9-11) – in fact, some of his descendants later became musicians in the Temple (I Chronicles 6:31-38), and were writers of psalms (e.g. Psalms 42-49).
An example (Jeremiah 15:1-4)
As the period of Judah’s monarchy drew to a close, under the threat of invasion from Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah had the unenviable task of preaching a message of inevitable doom. Moses and Samuel were powerful intercessors of the past; but they had also, to some extent, been able to bring their people back into a relationship with God. Jeremiah had failed – not because he himself had been disobedient or unfaithful, but because the nation had been unresponsive to his sermons and entreaties. The rot had set in almost a century earlier, during the reign of Manasseh (II Chronicles 33:1-9), and it was now too late to reverse it. Manasseh’s legacy was a nation accustomed to idolatry and complacently sure that God would do nothing about it. And the succeeding generations, instead of repudiating this poisonous inheritance, had embraced it with enthusiasm. But eventually, judgement had to catch up with them: their country would be invaded by foreign armies, and the survivors of the war would be taken into exile.
A repeating pattern (Luke 11:47-51)
Five hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, the Jewish authorities professed to honour the prophets of the past by building splendid monuments for them. But they failed to recognise that they were motivated by the same spirit of resistance to God’s Word as the religious leaders of the past. The generation visited by their Messiah would reject him, just as their ancestors had rejected the prophets (Matthew 21:33-41), thus taking the final step in the nation’s estrangement from God.
The guilt of a nation accumulates slowly, over generations, until it becomes ripe for judgement. Notwithstanding the existence of a faithful ‘remnant’ who acknowledged Jesus as Lord (Romans 9:5), judgement would fall and the crimes of centuries would finally be punished, less than 40 years later, in the horrors of the Jewish War.
The underlying problem (Romans 5:12-14)
When Adam broke God’s very first command to the human race, he set a precedent for all his descendants. There were consequences not only for him and his wife (Genesis 3:17-19), but also for the whole human race. From him we have all inherited not only his sinful nature but also its outcome: judgement, condemnation and death.
But it is also true that we die for our own sins. Our own lives recapitulate Adam’s story. Like him, we all rebel against God – and we all die, whether we are basically ‘good’ people or ‘bad’. The human condition is rightly described as a ‘curse’: we cannot change our underlying human nature, and so there is no escape, and no hope for us.
Breaking the cycle (Ezekiel 18:1-23)
What was left of the nation of Israel, exiled in Babylon, found it surprisingly easy to accept that their sufferings were the consequence of their ancestors’ sins; they found it less easy to take responsibility for their own relationship with God. This proverb (verse 2) was used as an excuse for fatalism, spiritual apathy, and moral inertia. They were suffering for the sins of their fathers, so what could they do about it? What was the point of repentance?
But the threat of inherited guilt is a warning, not an inevitable curse. Individual responsibility always trumps corporate responsibility; each of us chooses our own destiny. Ezekiel’s ‘case study’ of a three-generation family proves the point. A righteous, godly man cannot (unfortunately!) ensure that all his children follow his example; one of them may go ‘off the rails’ and become idolatrous, immoral and greedy. But there is also nothing to stop the grandson from learning from his father’s mistakes and turning back to God. Our behaviour is not predetermined for us, either by our genes or by our upbringing; righteousness and wickedness are matters of personal choice.
On an individual basis, God deals with us as individuals. We are neither shackled by the sins of our ancestors, nor contaminated by the sins of our descendants. We do not even need to be bound by our own sins! It is open to anyone – absolutely anyone – to repent, to be forgiven, and to start a new life that is pleasing to God. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)
The Christian family (Proverbs 20:7)
What kind of inheritance do we want to leave to our children? We cannot compel them to be Christians; but the example of a wise and godly life is one of the best legacies we can give them. The same God who punishes the guilty for generations also “shows love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:6) If we devote ourselves to Him, He has promised to reciprocate with His own steadfast love.
It’s our choice.