Do children get punished for the sins of their parents?

There are two main views regarding the idea that children are punished for the sins of their parents. Those who believe children are punished (called intergenerational sin) often refer to Exodus 20:5 that teaches, "You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me."

However, this verse is in the context of worshiping other gods. This practice clearly had impact upon entire families. In extreme cases, this included the sacrifice of children. Deuteronomy 12:31 illustrates, "You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods."

Further, Exodus 20:5 is part of the Mosaic Law that was given to the Jewish people in the wilderness. This generational curse would have been upon the collective nation of Israel rather than applicable to Christians today. In fact, the Old Testament revealed times when the sins of the nation of Israel led to judgment upon the nation that lasted for several generations.

The accurate biblical view, however, is found in Ezekiel 18:20 that reads, "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." In other words, each person is responsible for his or her own sins.

One important note regarding this issue, however, relates to the consequences of sin upon others. Though a person is only responsible for his or her own sins, the consequences of a person's sins can greatly impact other people. For example, a drunk driver's sin can cause the injury or death of other people in an accident. This sin can hurt a family and entire community as a result. Also, keep in mind that parents greatly influence their children's understanding of the world and their behavior. If a parent models a particular sin, a child may more easily carry out that same sin.

In addition, the consequences of sin among believers also impact the entire body of Christ. First Corinthians 12:26 teaches, "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." One person's sin can cause much suffering. Though others are not responsible for their sin, they can certainly be harmed by it.

Each person is responsible for his or her own sins. Every person sins and these sins cause separation from God (Romans 3:23). As a result, every person needs forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ to receive eternal life (John 3:16).

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