According to the Bible, does a son inherit the sins of the father? A recent article ("The Sins of the Fathers," TSR, November/December 1996, pp. 10-11) sought to answer that question. Because the Bible says nothing directly about a son inheriting the sins of the father, that question is misleading.
The real question that the author sought to answer was: According to the Bible, can a son be punished for sins committed by his father? The Bible provides a very clear answer to this: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut. 24:16). In case Deuteronomy was too difficult to understand, God provided us with an example of the law in action as implemented by Amaziah, a king of Judah.
"In the second year of Joash son of Jehoahaz king of Israel reigned Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah.... And it came to pass, as soon as the kingdom was confirmed in his hand, that [Amaziah] slew his servants which had slain the king his father. But the children of the murderers he slew not: according unto 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).
This illustrates one of the major, consistent themes of the Bible. Every individual is personally accountable for his/her own sin and this accountability is certain. This can be seen in the following Scriptures.
"It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27).
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
"The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him" (Ezek. 18:20).
Further evidence of this theme is found in an event involving Israel in the Wilderness:
"And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book" (Ex 32:30-33).
The Bible makes it clear that each person is responsible for and accountable to God for his own sin. No person is accountable for the sin of any other person. The question, then, is: Do we find a contradiction between this clear expression of accountability and other Scriptures?
To answer this, we must distinguish between punishment for sin and suffering as a consequence of sin. Suppose a person robs a bank killing two people in the process. He attempts to escape by jumping into a car that is waiting at a traffic light outside the bank and forcing the driver to speed off. Bank guards fire at the car as it speeds away causing it to crash which results in the deaths of both the bank robber and the driver. Was the driver punished for the bank robber's sin or did the driver, being an innocent party, die as a consequence of that sin?
In the above example, we see that sin can influence events far beyond the person who commits the sin. Many illustrations of this can be found in the newspapers. Two men use the highway for a drag race. One driver loses control of his car, crosses the medium strip, and hits an oncoming car head on. An innocent family in the oncoming car is killed. A person smokes in bed and falls asleep. A resulting fire leads to the deaths of the smoker as well as his family. A man gets married, but after a few years, he walks out leaving his wife with the financial burden of caring for their children all by herself. As a result, the man's wife and children live in poverty.
We would not conclude that the innocent people in these examples were punished for another person's sin. Certainly, a young boy living in poverty because his father walked out on his family is not being punished for his father's sin. The boy suffers as a result of, or as a consequence of, his father's sin but he is not being punished as a substitute for the father. It is evident from these examples that people can suffer as a consequence of another person's sin.
Sometimes people can appear to suffer from the consequences of sin, but they are not exactly innocent bystanders. This situation is described in the following Scriptures:
"Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach. Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows... Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities" (Lam. 5:1-7).
In this, we find the lamentation of the children of Israel. Their fathers had sinned against God. Now, they appeared to face the consequences of that sin. There is more to the story, however, as we find in the following:
"And God spake all these words, saying... Thou shalt have no other gods before me... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Exodus 20:1-6).
"The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation" (Num. 14:18).
A superficial reading of these passages might lead one to conclude that the Bible is saying that God will punish the children of the third or fourth generation for the sins of the fathers. Because the Hebrew word translated as "visit" can be translated as "punish" when a different form of the Hebrew word is used, many people interpret it to mean punish in the above verses. That is not the case, however.
Instead, God is saying that He will tolerate the iniquity introduced by the fathers for no more than three or four generations. In other words, God will allow a father to teach his children to disobey His commandments, and then allow those children to teach their children to disobey God's commandments. However, in the third or fourth generation, God will visit the children with the intent of taking action against the sins of the fathers. God will look to see if the children are following after those same sins or whether they have turned away from them to obey God.
"Them that hate me" in Exodus 20:6 refers to the children of the third or fourth generation. If the children have continued in their father's sins, God implies that He will punish the children, not because their fathers hated God, but because the children also hate God. Here, we find that one consequence of a father's sin is the imitation of the father's actions or the adoption of the father's sins by the children so that the children do the same sinful deeds. People sometimes complain that they suffer because of what others have done when they really suffer because they do the very same things.
The TSR article focused its attention on the account of the death of the baby born to David and Bathsheba as a result of their adulterous relationship. "And Nathan said to David... Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.... And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.... Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick" (2 Sam. 12:7-15).
Was the baby punished for David's sin or was the baby's death a consequence of David's sin? When confronted with his sin, we are told that David responded saying, "I have sinned against the LORD." As a result of David's admission of guilt, Nathan responds, "The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." In other words, Nathan declares that God had forgiven David of his sin. With the sin forgiven, God can no longer punish David for that sin, much less the baby or anyone else. Thus, we know that the baby's death cannot be a punishment for David's sin.
Here we must distinguish between forgiveness of sin and the effect of forgiveness on the consequences of sin. David arranged for Uriah to be killed. God later forgave David for that sin. Did that forgiveness bring Uriah back to life? Of course not.
When a person sins, that sin can set in motion a chain reaction of consequences. Sin earns God's punishment. That punishment can be avoided through forgiveness. However, forgiveness does not keep the consequences of sin from continuing or from affecting innocent bystanders. A man may start a forest fire for which he is later forgiven. However, the consequences of the fire would continue. The destruction of the trees cannot be undone. With the loss of the trees, spring rains can cause soil erosion and flooding of streams and rivers that damages the homes of innocent families. Sin can set in motion a series of events that continue even when the sin is forgiven.
The Bible agrees with this when it says that people must reap what they sow. "Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same" (Job 4:8). "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Gal. 6:7-8).
What we see, then, is that forgiveness of sin does not restrain the consequences of sin. One consequence of David's sin was that he gave "great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme." David set out only to satisfy his fleshly lusts. He ended up providing the enemies of God an opportunity to blaspheme. As a further consequence, God told David that the baby must die, and we are told that God struck the child and the child died. The child died as a consequence of David's sin.
This brings us to the issue of original sin which God explains in Romans 5. "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.... Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom. 5:12-19).
Adam's sin had deadly consequences. One consequence was death for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Not only did Adam become subject to death but as a consequence, all Adam's progeny would inherit death from him. Since there can be no death where there is no sin we see a further consequence. Adam's nature was altered. He became a sinner and his progeny would also inherit his sinful nature. They would be sinners even from conception.
The doctrine of original sin, however, goes even further. It says that Adam acted as mankind's agent, so to speak. This is like a sports agent who negotiates a contract that an athlete then signs. Whatever the agent requests is viewed as a request from the athlete. As mankind's agent, Adam's sin became mankind's sin and every individual became subject to punishment as if each individual had committed the sin instead of Adam. Mankind was a full partner with Adam in that first sin.
The Scriptures tell us that the son cannot be punished for the sins of the father. The son can be punished, however, if he commits the same sin as his father even if he does so only because that is what his father taught him to do. The son can also suffer from the consequences of his father's sin. Sin can be pervasive and its effects far reaching.
(Roger Hutchinson, 11904 Lafayette Drive, Silver Spring, MD
20902; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)