The Sins of Generations

It’s natural for anyone who seriously considers sin to eventually come around to the matter of sin and the family unit. We might ask “Is a father (or mother) responsible for the sins of the child? After all, they were responsible for raising the child.” Or we might ask, “Are the sins of the father (or mother) passed on to the children? After all, the children are their descendants.” Of course people can consider the matter with more nuance, but for the sake of conciseness we will simplify the expression to those examples.

Now, looking around at the state of the world and what we can see with our eyes, a logical conclusion is that “family sin” is very real. That term is exceedingly vague (what exactly do you mean if you say that?). So, I will try to get a handle on what is meant by an example:

Papa Joe was an adulterer. Sonny Joe Jr. grows up to be an adulterer.

We’ll call that an example of “family sin” or “inherited sin.” Papa Joe was an adulterer and the evil effects of that were passed onto his son. Maybe it wouldn’t manifest itself in the son in exactly the same way as the father, (let’s not get too picky,) but the effects and the results of the sin come down on Sonny Joe Jr. manifesting in more sin, and that is passed on down to little Sonny Joe III. It is a vein of ugly evil that will keep getting passed down through the family unless something is done to break it.

If we were going to express this idea in a proverb it would go something like this, “A father eats sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Dad eats the sour grape (fornication, etc) and the children’s teeth are set on edge (they reap the result). It makes sense.

This is one of those issues that I think deserves lengthy handling as a lot of Christians struggle with it, and it can be very confounding. Various questions crop up with any serious study of the matter which ought to get full consideration and thoughtful answers. But, given the limitations I am working with, and my resolution to write what I can now, I will address this subject briefly. Perhaps I will be able to come back to it later.

It is interesting how, when reading through some portion of the Bible, something will leap out of the text at you. I was continuing my reading through Ezekiel when this happened.

Say that we think that “A father eats sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” is a pretty good description of things. So we come to Ezekiel chapter 18:

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
” ‘The fathers eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.

“Suppose there is a righteous man
who does what is just and right.

He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of the house of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife
or lie with a woman during her period.

He does not oppress anyone,
but returns what he took in pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.

He does not lend at usury
or take excessive interest.
He withholds his hand from doing wrong
and judges fairly between man and man.

He follows my decrees
and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign LORD.

“Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things (though the father has done none of them):
“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.

He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.

He lends at usury and takes excessive interest.
Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.

“But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things:

“He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of the house of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife.

He does not oppress anyone
or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.

He withholds his hand from sin
and takes no usury or excessive interest.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.
He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.

“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.

“But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. 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?

“But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, O house of Israel: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?

“Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

The Lord, through Ezekiel, goes into quite a bit of detail, but we might reduce it to the statement, “The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”

To natural thinking there is a certain logic to saying, “Because of what took place in my family I have this sin to deal with and this trouble in my life.” Or “Because of what my father did I have this sin to deal with and this trouble in my life.” Certainly this type of reason made sense to the nation of Israel.

But what does God say?

I find it very distressing how various groups within Christianity fail to take this (and similar passages of Scripture) into account when considering sin and its relationship to families. I am aware that there are passages of Scripture which can seem to lead people to the conclusion that “A father eats sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge“. No doubt it was Israel’s failed understanding of these other passages of Scripture which lead them to need this rebuke. Rather than being caught in the same failed understanding of other portions of Scripture, Christians should consider what is said here in Ezekiel.

If we have sins or problems in our life, the natural reactions seems to be to look to our surroundings or our parents for the source. It is my sin, some people say, but the source is my family life growing up. But what does God say here in Ezekiel?

Isn’t God saying explicitly that for the sins and problems in our lives we must look no further than ourselves. Isn’t God saying that we shouldn’t bring our parents, our family, or anyone else into the picture for our sins and problems? We witness many sins in the lives of those around us, but we are completely and solely responsible for the sins in our own lives.

There is both great condemnation and great hope in this truth. Great condemnation, because all of the sin in our lives is laid directly at our own feet. There is no cause to go to Mom or Pop and say, “Look here, because of your failures there is this sin in my life.” There is no collective blame, no dispersion of responsibility. Every fault and failure in your life comes right back to you.

But there is great hope because, “I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. [. . .] Repent and live!

We must not loose sight of this truth. Sin is not properly dealt with if we try to diversify the blame and make the problem bigger than ourselves. It’s you. Period. Face up to it, God says. Further, not only must we exhort others to face the fact that their sin is their responsibility alone, and repent of their sins, (as we ourselves must repent,) but we also ought to give comfort to the hurting, reminding them that they need to give no accounting for the sins of their fathers, mothers, grandparents, or anyone else. There are Christians with parents who have committed terrible sins–murder, rape, adultery, etc–and there are preachers and teachers telling them, “You have to deal with those sins of your parents. Those sins are going to come down to you.” And so they heap all sorts of fear and guilt and sorrow on these children. But is not this teaching of this preachers and teachers contrary to what God has said through Ezekiel? How ought we to regard ourselves and others in light of what God has said through Ezekiel?

Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?” we ask. But God says, “The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.

So then, do not look behind you to the sins of your father, mother, grandfather, or grandmother. Do not look to either side to the sins of your brother, sister, neighbor, or friend. Look to yourself, and then look to God and repent.

Repent and live!

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