Does God visit the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation? Some texts seem to say he does and others seem to say he doesn’t. Our job is to figure out the sense in which he does and the sense in which he doesn’t.
On the one hand it seems as if he does:
The Lord...visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7 = Deuteronomy 5:8-10)
“Because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them.” (Leviticus 26:39)
On the other hand it seems that he doesn’t:
Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers.” (Deuteronomy 24:16)
[Amaziah] did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.” (2 Kings 14:6)
The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. (Ezekiel 18:20, cf. Jeremiah 31:30)
How do these passages fit together? This matters for the sake of God’s character, and the Bible’s coherence, and how we counsel those whose parents were wicked or just garden variety sinful.
Here are my two conclusions that helps me put them together:
1. The sins of the fathers are punished in the children through becoming the sins of the children.
I the Lord...visit 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 20:5; cf. Numbers 14:18)
The generations to come who experience the penalty of the fathers’ sins are those who hate God. We are not told how the fathers’ sins become the children’s sins. But what we are told is that when the father’s sins are visited on the children it is because the children are really sinful. That is the form in which the fathers’ sins are visited. Therefore, all judgment is really deserved by the person who is punished.
2. Because of God’s grace, which is finally secured by Christ, the children can confess their own sins and the sins of their fathers and be forgiven and accepted by God.
But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers...if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob” (Leviticus 26:40-42).
The precious words of Exodus 34:6-7 are not nullified by the generational migration of sin.
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.