James: There is a teaching that claims that if a man is a certain type of sinner, that his son will do the same, until the third or fourth generation. They base it on Exodus 20:5. People claim that if a man is a thief, his offspring will be thieves.
Ben: The fact that such a concept swept the world and became popular so quickly is, by itself, a reason to be very wary. The truth of God always makes slow headway. Let us look at the expression “visit the iniquity of the fathers”. This means that God’s government, his discipline that their sins have caused, will be active upon those - and their immediate generations - that have disregarded Him. It can never mean that God is responsible for destining a person to sin like his father, or anyone else.

James: You had better explain that in more detail.
Ben: “Visit the iniquity” means “place upon them the discipline that such iniquity incurs”. In the original languages, a word sometimes can be used to mean something associated with that word. Here are a few examples: to Cain, God said “sin lies at the door” - meaning “a sin offering lies at the door”; “Christ… was made sin for us”, means “was made a sin offering” for us, as prophesied in Isaiah 53, “when he shall have made his soul an offering for sin”. In the original, ‘sin’ and ‘sin-offering’ is the same word.
In James 5:14-15, the matter of sickness and healing is discussed, as is the possibility of the sickness occurring as discipline for sin; James states, “and it shall be forgiven him”. This obviously does not refer to eternal security; no amount of anointing oil or prayer avails for that – only the blood of Christ can secure that for us. The word “forgiven” in this setting means that if he had committed sin, the discipline, i.e. the sickness, will be removed.

James: You agree that persons may suffer the consequences of the actions of their forefathers?
Ben: Yes. Let me illustrate the verse in Exodus 20:5, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and the fourth generation”. In 1917 in Russia the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the government and the establishment of Communism. It was not until about 1992, in that fourth generation, that God opened the door to free access to the Scriptures and the gospel for that Federation of states. [I treat a generation as 25 years.] It seems to me that God had said: “You want atheism, you will have it, and you will suffer the consequences”. Everyone suffered the effects, but not everyone was a Communist, nor was everyone a member of that Party, nor were all atheists. And every person was still personally responsible to God for their reception or rejection of Christ.

James: I see your point, but we have to be careful about using such examples in this period of grace, because God is not dealing with the world as He was in the time when Israel had “favoured nation” status. He dealt with nations and peoples in a very direct way then, whereas now He often withholds His judgment until a later day.
Ben: Correct.

James: There are many cases where a son takes on his father’s faults.
Ben: Of course, but that was not because God put it on him. God never destines a person to sin; He never tempts persons – James 1:13-14 … “and [God] himself tempts no one. But every one is tempted, drawn away, and enticed by his own lust”. Scripture is clear that every person is responsible for himself, for his own actions. I can never blame another for my sins.

Ben: The fact that a child copies his parents’ conduct is learned behaviour. That can be both good and bad. Take the case of Levi, the high priest in Israel in 1 Samuel 2 and 3. God said of Levi that his sons “had made themselves vile [or, accursed] and he restrained them not”. Samuel had been brought up by Levi from an early age.
The lack of discipline in Levi’s house was experienced by Samuel, because Samuel obviously failed to discipline his own sons, as we see in 1 Samuel 8:1-5. This can be seen frequently - persons who were not disciplined as children are often unable to properly discipline their own children! But that is not God’s doing.

In Ezekiel 18 individual responsibility is carefully declared by God. There was a saying in Israel before and during the time of the carrying away to Babylon, that “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” – see Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2. The people were excusing themselves from their own responsibilities and evil ways, claiming that the troubles that had come upon them were all due to their fathers. God refuted with: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”, Ezekiel 18:4, and beyond. That chapter refers to the righteous government of God, on earth at that time.

Again, the actions of Amaziah, a king of Judah, illustrate God’s word in Deuteronomy 24:16 – “But the children of the murderers he slew not: according to that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, wherein the Lord commanded, saying, The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin" (2 Kings 14:1-6).

On a positive note, although faith is not inherited, how often have you seen that God honours a person’s faith, so that members of the family, and grand-children, come to know Christ as their Saviour. Paul notices the faith Timothy’s mother and grandmother.

MM October 2008