Does God punish children for the iniquities of their parents?

Exodus 20:5 says, “you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. 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.” Why does the Lord use such language here? Many people have therefore concluded that children get punished for the sins of their parents. However, a difference should be made between the natural results of a sinful life, and punishment inflicted because of it.

God does not punish one person for the evil works of another (Ezekiel 18:2–24). Each person is responsible before God only for their own deeds. At the same time God does not interfere with the laws of heredity and protect one generation from the evil works of its fore fathers, because that will be inconsistent with His character. It is only through these laws of heredity, set by the Creator (Genesis 1:21, 24, 25), that divine justice visits the “iniquity” of one generation upon the next.

No one can escape the consequences of disease, addiction, evil-doing, ignorance, and bad habits passed on from generation to generation. The descendants of evil idolaters and the offspring of evil and wicked people generally begin life with the physical and moral sin, and reap the fruit of seed sown by their parents. This is because children genetically inherit tendencies from their parents as well as learn habits and customs via the environment provided by their parents.

We have ample proof that the Lord is loving and just, we should therefore trust Him to deal justly with each individual, making due allowance for the disadvantages of birth, the inherited predispositions, and the influence of environment upon character (Psalms 87:6; Luke 12:47, 48; John 15:22; Acts 17:30; 2 Corinthians 8:12). Having said that, it should be our goal to obtain victory by the grace of God over every inherited and cultivated tendency to evil. Finally, it should be added that the Lord “visits” or “appoints” the results of sin, not spitefully, but to teach that an evil course of action will bring unfavorable consequences.

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In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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