Sometimes critics will say that the early parts of the Bible (Exodus 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18) portray God as "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children," while later parts of the Bible (Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2; Job 21:19) reject this and teach that "sons [shall not] be put to death for their fathers." But this evolutionary way of thinking about the development of Bible doctrine does not fit the texts. There are three problems with this view.
1. In the same Biblical books you get both angles. For example, Deuteronomy 5:9-10 says, "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands [of generations, see 7:9], to those who love Me and keep My commandments." But in Deuteronomy 24:16 it says, "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin." Both perspectives are in the same book. (Compare also Jeremiah 32:17-18 with Jeremiah 31:29.)
2. Not only that, there are texts that describe God's punishment as owing to both the sins of the fathers and the sins of the children. For example, in Isaiah 65:6b-7 God says, "I will even repay into their bosom, both their own iniquities and the iniquities of their fathers together." (See also Leviticus 26:39 and Jeremiah 16:10-12.)
3. Even in the early texts that describe the visitation of the fathers' sins on the children, the children are described as those who are opposed to God and therefore deserving of punishment, and those who continue the heritage of blessing as covenant keepers. For example, Exodus 20:5-6 says "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (see also Deuteronomy 5:9-10; 7:9). And Psalm 103:17-18 says, "But the lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them."
What conclusions shall we draw from these observations?
1. The visitation of the fathers' sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers' sin is worked out in their lives. See point three above.
2. There are two kinds of effects of fathers' sins in the lives of children: one is rebellion against God; the other is the calamities of judgment that God brings on the children. We are not told how this rebellious condition is passed to or "visited on" the children. God has the right to punish fathers in the calamities that come upon their children, as Jeremiah 16:10-11 says ("For what reason has the LORD declared all this great calamity against us?"... "It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me"), but he chooses to do this in a way that justly correlates with the children's own guilt.
3. None of this should make anyone feel trapped and without hope because of his parents' sins. For Ezekiel 33:14-15 says, "When I say to the wicked, 'You will surely die,' and he turns from his sin and practices justice and righteousness . . . he shall surely live; he shall not die." The blood of Jesus conquers all sin and judgment for those who believe.
4. And no one who has a child who goes bad and forsakes the way of righteousness, should feel that it is all his fault. For Ezekiel 18:20 says, "The father [will not] bear the punishment for the son's iniquity."
5. All this should make us intensely committed to EDUCATION FOR EXULTATION - at home and at church. Great and lasting things are at stake for future generations not only because of what we teach, but also because of what we are.
Trembling with joy in the forgiveness of Jesus,