Do the sins of parents get passed down to their believing children? Is there such a thing as “generational sin” in the life of the Christian? Should believers be concerned that sinful patterns identified in their own lives are a direct result of sins somehow transferred from previous generations? What are the similarities and dissimilarities of generational sin and originale peccatum (original sin)? Or, does generational sin somehow only apply to the unbeliever?
On a popular level, generational sin is typically treated in the context of spiritual warfare. In some theological circles, believers are encouraged to pray for freedom from the bonds of generational sin and gain the victory that is theirs in Christ. Neil Anderson’s Freedom In Christ Ministries had gained a huge following because of this teaching. Moreover, in an interview with Evander Holyfield, New Man magazine records the heavyweight champion’s victory over generational sin (from “The Power Inside,” New Man, March/April: 1998). Some offer biblical support for generational sin by pointing to Exodus 20:5 and 34:6,7 (cf., also Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9). Exodus 34:6-7 reads:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
In addition, we have Abraham’s deception of Abimelech about Sarah (Genesis 20:2-13), Isaac deceiving Abimelech about Rebekah (Genesis 26:7-11), and Jacob deceiving Isaac regarding Esau’s blessing (Genesis 25:27-34) all suggesting sins passed on through generations. Let’s not forget Simeon and Levi deceiving Hamor and his son Shechem regarding the promise of marriage to their sister Dinah (Gen. 34:7-26). Some may even go so far as to suggest that Stephen blamed resistance to the Holy Spirit on generational sin (Acts 7:51). It appears, therefore, that generational sin carries the weight of Scripture behind it.
But does this square with the whole biblical record?
PROBLEMS WITH GENERATIONAL SIN
How might “generational sin” mesh with the following texts?
Again Exodus 34:6-7:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
Commenting on this passage, Wayne Grudem says:
This statement shows the horrible nature of sin in the way it has effects far beyond the individual sinner, also harming those around the sinner and harming future generations as well. We see this in tragic ways in ordinary life, where the children of alcoholics often become alcoholics and the children of abusive parents often become abusive parents. Christians who are forgiven by Christ should not think of these phrases as applying to them, however, for they are in the other category of people mentioned just before this section on “the guilty”: they are among the “thousands” to whom God continually shows “steadfast love,” and in continually “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (v.7). When someone comes to Christ the chain of sin broken (1 Peter 1:18-19)” Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem. Zondervan: 1994, 209-210.
Also, the law of individual responsibility is clearly demonstrated in Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.”
Moreover, in announcing the new covenant made with Israel, God says in Jeremiah 31:27-30:
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and of animals. Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge. “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”
Although the Jews of Jesus’ day saw a connection between the sins of parents and their children, Jesus suggests otherwise. The opening verses of John 9 read: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'” Jesus flatly denies any antecedent parental cause to the beggar’s blindness, “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'” (9:3). Even though Jesus had opportunity to affirm “generational sin,” he in fact explicitly denies it.
Finally, consider Peter who, when highlighting the effects of the cross for believers, states “for you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Using a term from secular literature that denotes religious and ethical lifestyles which were “handed down to you” (πατροπαραδότου), Peter’s readers would have understood their redemption (or “ransom”) was a complete release from every kind of bondage; especially to an “empty way of life.” All enslavements to traditions or customs are broken through the work of the cross, which is the key to freedom from our past and sets the basis for the new identity we have in Christ.
BELIEVERS’ SOLUTION TO GENERATIONAL SIN
Those who suggest believers are under some spiritual bond or stronghold brought on by sinful parentage make two mistakes. One is that they fail to distinguish conditions from causes. A believer’s sinful behavior may have been accommodated by conditions surrounding their prior experiences, but one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate with certainty a causal chain of events that directly result in specific sinful acts. In other words, believers are not mere products of nature and/or nurture being tossed around by fatal forces from the past. Although significantly influenced by them, believers are not slaves to environment, circumstances, nerve endings, psyche, chemical soup, or parentage. These elements are conditions, not causes.
Second, and most importantly, regeneration so radically transforms the human soul that the “old is gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17) because “the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5). Our essential human nature has been radically transformed. For every believer, God’s Spirit is at work fighting against the flesh and, slowly but certainly, prevailing in victory. This is not to make light of the complex socio-psychological/environmental matrix to which everyone is subject. But, a deep and abiding deference to God’s rule in the lives of God’s people by the power of God’s Spirit is the prevailing force governing every thought and action, rather than any psychological or sociological impact/influence.
Moreover, the reign of God through his Spirit is the apostle Paul’s basis for appeal to every believer for all time and is the theological presupposition behind every New Testament imperative written to the Church (see Romans 8:2-4, for instance). Paul does not intimate something like, “Do the best you can because I know it’s hard with your past and all.” Instead, he assumes the ability to rise up and move forward in holy living is the reality of every genuine believer propelled by God’s Spirit.
Therefore, with the Spirit of God introduced into our lives at regeneration comes a new way to view the past. We’ve been given a new orientation: Looking up and leaning forward. Allow me to explain what I mean by that.
Since our “life is now hidden with Christ” (Colossians 3:3), we have been given a unique orientation. Scripture has numerous examples of this “looking up and leaning forward” idea. Paul, for instance, writes “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way” (Philippians 3:13-15). Hebrews admonishes us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1-2). As we look up to Jesus we lean forward in holy living. John puts it this way: “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself [present tense] as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Our certain future will in fact impact our present living.
Peter insists that looking up and leaning forward must have a tangible impact upon our ethical living, because
“the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2 Peter 3:10-14).
I honestly believe that if our daily lives were governed more by the anxious expectation of our Lord’s return and its implications for our lives, there would be far less psychosis and far more hope-filled believers who eagerly live for Christ. Indeed, it is this forward focus that propels our new life in Christ. It provides a fresh and exciting orientation for living as people of God whose identity is found solely in Christ Jesus. Our past does not define us!
You see, when Christ enters our lives we are set on a new course. Quite simply, being born again means that something happens to us at the deepest level of our existence. Being born again is the activity of God whereby he radically transforms our moral, mental, emotional, and volitional fiber through the unique power of the Holy Spirit. Our value systems are wholly renovated, not just modified; old impulses and habits are gradually yet certainly replaced with new ones (Galatians 5:19-24; Colossians 2:11-12). In our second birth a spiritual death takes place of the old self or nature (Galatians 2:20), which was dominated by sinful desires and activities (Romans 6:1-11), and we are given a new life that is inclined toward loving and serving the living God who by grace alone through faith alone saved us to a living hope that is never to be corrupted (1 Peter 1:4). Being born again begins this new journey in a process theologians call “sanctification,” broadly defined as the gradual but certain transformation of our lives in growing conformity to Christ’s life through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is our heritage and this is our future. Influenced by the past? Yes. Dominated by it? μὴ γένοιτο: (may it never be!) because “it was for freedom that Christ set us free!”