Pastoral Perspectives

Generational sins – what does the Bible have to say?

Jane is a Christian who comes from a family steeped in idol worship. There are many divorces in her family tree – her mom is divorced from her dad; her uncle (mom’s brother) is a divorcee and her maternal grandparents were also divorced. She wonders whether her family is under a curse and fears that if she were to marry, her marriage would also end up in a divorce.

John was sickly when he was young. Thus, his parents decided to let him be adopted by one of the deities whom they worshipped, with the hope that he would become healthier. This was a mindset that had been passed down from his ancestors. He has since become a believer but is troubled because whenever he struggles with sin, his church leaders would question him on whether he has cut off all ties with those deities. Otherwise, it would be an open door for demonic influence, they say, which will make him more susceptible to sin.

The above examples are what some Christians would call generational sins. They are sins that are passed down to us by our forefathers through the generations.  With sins come the curses, so generation sin and generational curse go hand in hand. Those who subscribe to this belief will find their basis in verses like Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:9.

You shall not bow down to [carved images] or serve them, for I the Lord your God am 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. (Exodus 20)

The point of this passage is not to communicate the number of generations who will be either blessed or cursed. Rather, it is to communicate that God’s mercy far exceeds His wrath (a thousand generations compared to third and fourth generation). However, it still seems to state that God would punish the children and their children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation. This means that later generations would suffer as a result of the sins of their fathers. Therefore, some would infer that there is a need for believers to repent of their ancestors’ sins to avert the curse.             

Does this make sense? Why should a child be punished for the sins of his father? Didn’t the Psalmist say that justice and righteousness are the foundation of God’s throne? (Psalm 97:2) Is it just for God to require children to pay for the sins of their fathers?

What about verses like Ezekiel 18:20, 2 Kings 14:6, Jeremiah 31:29-30, Deuteronomy 24:16, Leviticus 26:39?

20 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. (Ezekiel 18)

29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31)

When the father’s sins are visited on the children, it is because the children have become sinners like their fathers. No child should be punished for the iniquity of the father. The children of the third and fourth generations are punished because they are guilty of the very sins that their fathers had committed. Like their fathers, they too hated Yahweh!

In biblical times, people lived longer. It was not uncommon for three to four generations to stay under one roof. Hence, whatever the head of the house decided, the rest of the family could be culpable too. When it was discovered that Achan had secretly kept some of the plunders when they were supposed to be totally destroyed, he and his whole family were stoned to death, including his sons and daughters (Joshua 7:24-25). His family was guilty too because they were likely active participants in the whole ploy.

It is true that children often suffer due to the poor choices of their parents. However, they are not held under the same judgment as their parents—unless they wilfully follow in the same sinful patterns. 

There can be patterns of sins that are very entrenched in a family spanning generations. Behaviour and attitude problems tend to run in families because these are learned behaviour. If children have fathers who are drug addicts, there is a higher likelihood that they will follow suit as they may have been exposed to drugs at a very young age. This is also true of alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse. It is a consequence of negative examples and influences that are passed on from one generation to the next. Similarly, the descendants of those who hate God are likely to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers.

Overarching all these is the generational sin and curse which was handed down to us from Adam and Eve, our very first parents. Theologians call it ‘original sin’. We are born sinful and we stand condemned in Adam. We live under the curse of the law because we fail to obey it. The good news is that Jesus Christ, the second Adam, by his act of obedience has come to rescue us by becoming a curse for us so that in him we are justified and made righteous.

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3)

Praise be to God that when we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. We are crucified with Christ, buried and raised to newness of life. We become a new creation – the old has gone and the new has come. We share in the victory of Christ over all demonic forces for the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.

Nobody is in bondage or under an unbreakable curse because of something that their forefathers did, or something that they did. The blood of Jesus conquers all sin and judgment for those who believe. At the same time, the power of Christ’s resurrection enables us to overcome our sins and addictions. In Christ, we have been set free!

It is therefore erroneous to say that generational curses can only be broken when all the sins of our ancestors have been confessed. In saying that, we are heaping an unnecessary burden on ourselves since it is not possible for us to remember all the sins of the ancestors we don’t even know. Moreover, we are not accountable for their sins and there is no need to repent on their behalf.

Well, we can acknowledge the errors of those who have gone before us if we are aware of them but we do not need to confess their sins as if we somehow bear responsibility for them. But what about Daniel or Nehemiah who offered corporate prayers of confession for sins committed by previous generations? Those sins were true of their generations too, so they were confessing their own sins with Daniel (Chapter 9) and Nehemiah (Chapter 1) leading them, like how our worship leaders lead us in corporate confession.

I conclude by reminding us of the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. He is preeminent and most superior. He has dominion and power over all rulers and authorities. He has forgiven all our sins and erased all our curses. When we exercise genuine faith in Christ, the power of the cross is more than sufficient to secure our salvation and sanctification.

Therefore, Jane does not need to worry that her marriage will fail as long as she and her husband centre their marriage on Christ. And John’s leaders should not be paranoid over his ties with deities because when he gave his life to Jesus, and acknowledged him as Saviour and Lord, those ties had already been severed!

Rev Lee Kien Seng

November 8, 2020