Are We Held Accountable for the Sins of Our Forefathers? – Kyle Dillon

In Jeremiah 31–32, the prophet offers words of hope to his fellow Jews exiled in Babylon. In response to their complaint that they were suffering unjustly for the sins of their forefathers, Jeremiah assures them a day is soon coming when God will establish a new covenant with them, restoring them to their homeland and revealing his justice to them. But what exactly will this justice look like? In this article, I want to examine two passages:

In those days they shall no longer say: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. (Jer. 31:29–30)

You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God, whose name is the LORD of hosts. (Jer. 32:18)

Jeremiah seems to set forth two contradictory principles here: on the one hand, he says each individual should bear the guilt for his or her own sins; on the other hand, he says God visits the guilt of fathers upon their children.

Given that Jeremiah juxtaposes these two principles in back-to-back chapters, it’s surprising he doesn’t show any awareness of a tension here.

So which is it? Do children suffer for their fathers’ sins, or not? Given that Jeremiah juxtaposes these two principles in back-to-back chapters, it’s surprising he doesn’t show any awareness of a tension here. Further, his words raise a number of theological and practical questions for us: how does this all square with the doctrine of original sin? Is there such a thing as generational sin or generational curses? Does God expect us to repent of other people’s sins?

Two Principles: Individual and Generational Judgment

It may be helpful to look at the broader context of the Old Testament, which provides clarification on both of these principles.

The first principle—we can call it the “individual judgment” principle—is repeated verbatim in Ezekiel 18:1–20. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was a prophet of the exilic period, suggesting that the “sour grapes” proverb was common at the time. God promised that this proverb would soon be rendered obsolete, as each would be judged for his own sins only.

The individual judgment principle is also found in Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” It’s important to note that this verse applies to human judicial contexts, but not necessarily to God’s dealings with humanity—similar to how vengeance is a right that God reserves for himself (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).

The second principle—we can call it the “generational judgment” principle—is also widely attested in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 32:18 is essentially a repetition of God’s own self-description in Exodus 34:7: “keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (see also Ex. 20:5–6).

Likewise, Lamentations recognizes the exile as a generational judgment: “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” (Lam. 5:7). One could also cite numerous Old Testament examples of children falling under the judgment of their fathers: the generation of Noah (Gen. 7:21); Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–25); Achan (Josh. 7:24–25); the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2–3); the sons of Saul (2 Sam. 21:6–9); Jeroboam (1 Kings 14:9–10); Ahab (1 Kings 21:21–22); and many others. Additionally, we find corporate prayers of confession offered for sins committed by previous generations (Dan. 9:4–19; Ezra 9:6–7).

Since both principles are clearly present in Scripture, we have to discern how they can be compatible with each other—and what they mean for us today.

Help from a Reformed Scholastic

Of course, these questions aren’t new. They’ve surfaced throughout church history, especially in debates over the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that humanity has inherited a condition of guilt and corruption resulting from Adam’s first sin—essentially the broadest form of generational judgment. The church’s numerous responses to denials of original sin help us make sense of Scripture’s teaching on both individual and generational judgment.

Original sin is essentially the broadest form of generational judgment.

One of the best early Protestant defenses of the doctrine of original sin comes from Francis Turretin (1623–1687) in his magnum opus Institutes of Elenctic Theology. In his section on sin, Turretin addresses whether Adam’s first sin is imputed directly against his descendants, or whether they’re counted guilty only for their own sins (I.613–629).

In defending the justice of imputed sin, Turretin clarifies that the guilt or righteousness of one person cannot be imputed to another unless there exists some “peculiar connection” between the two. This connection can be: (1) natural, as a father to a child, (2) federal, as a king to his subjects, or (3) voluntary, as between friends. For the relation between Adam and his descendants, the first two categories apply (natural and federal); for Christ and believers, the second and third apply (federal and voluntary).

In his arguments for imputed sin, Turretin examines the various biblical examples of the principle of generational judgment mentioned above, concluding: “From this it evidently appears that the imputation of another’s sin is not to be traduced either as unusual or unheard of (since it can be proved by so many examples) or as absurd, unjust and cruel (since God himself professes to be the visitor of the crimes of parents upon their children).”

But What About Individual Judgment?

Turretin anticipates an objection based on the principle of individual judgment, citing Ezekiel 18:20. He responds that this principle shouldn’t be taken absolutely or universally, lest we contradict the principle of generational judgment, as well as the substitution of Christ in our place.

Rather, we should treat the individual-judgment principle according to certain qualifications.

1. It applies to adult children who depart from the iniquity of their parents and don’t imitate them.

Conversely, those who continue to practice their parents’ sins will be held guilty of their parents’ sins, just as Christ warned that his unbelieving Jewish contemporaries would be held guilty of the shed blood of the righteous from Abel to Zechariah (Matt. 23:35). While it is true that children often suffer because of the poor choices of their parents, they are not held under the same judgment as their parents—unless they willfully follow in their same sinful patterns. Kevin DeYoung has highlighted this point in his own recent comments on Turretin: “Culpability for sins committed can extend to a large group if virtually everyone in the group was active in the sin or if we bear the same spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of the past.”

2. It applies to personal and particular sins, not to common and general ones.

This excludes Adam’s sin, since he was acting as a public representative for all humanity. This qualification is also key in understanding the church’s practice of corporate repentance. Those sins that the church—and especially its leaders—commit broadly and publicly, and which influence the larger society and future generations, require public confession. This is not to say that present-day believers are guilty of the sins of past believers, but due to our special covenantal connection to God’s people throughout time, it is right for us to acknowledge the church’s past public sins and to renounce them.

Those sins that the church—and especially its leaders—commit broadly and publicly, and which influence the larger society and future generations, require public confession.

3. It applies as a special concession, not as a general principle of justice.

With respect to the “sour grapes” proverb mentioned by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it’s important to note that God never validated the Jewish exiles’ underlying complaint. Although it was just for them to suffer for their fathers’ sins, God promised to deal with them more leniently than he had a right to. Turretin refers to generational judgment as God’s “highest right” according to strict justice, while individual judgment is his “forbearing right” which he may exercise according to his grace.

One aspect of judgment that Turretin doesn’t directly address is the difference between historical judgment and final judgment (Al Mohler has recently commented on this). The former is often generational, while the latter is almost exclusively individual (unless the individual follows in the same pattern of a corporate sin). This explains why Scripture often portrays children suffering for sins which they themselves did not commit; it is often a natural and historical consequence of parents’ sins. On the other hand, when we stand at last before the judgment seat of God, we will each answer for our own sins (cf. 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:12–13).

Deliverance from All Judgment

In view of all this, we can say that individual judgment and generational judgment are fully compatible with each other when understood in their proper context. While we have all inherited Adam’s guilt, and while we all have a natural tendency to walk in the sinful patterns of our parents, God has graciously promised not to deal with us according to their faults, provided that we turn from their rebellion and turn to Christ.

In confessing our sins—both personal and corporate—we can have confidence that we will be covered not with the iniquity of our fathers, but with the righteousness of Jesus.

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