Bible Exposition

Does God Punish Children for the Sins of Their Parents?

by Kristopher Schaal

closeup of young boy crying

Exodus 34:6–7 belongs on a short list of the most sacred passages in Scripture. However, it also contains one of Scripture’s scariest statements for parents.

Here is some background. Moses is on Mt. Sinai interceding for Israel after the golden calf incident. God had relented from His initial anger and decided not to destroy the nation (Ex 32:7–14). However, He also made clear that He would no longer be accompanying the people to Canaan (33:1–6). Devastated, Moses pleads for God to reconsider, and once again, God agrees (33:12–17). Emboldened by this additional answer to prayer, Moses makes a presumptuous request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex 34:18). Surprisingly, God consents, albeit with conditions. Moses will stand “in the cleft of the rock” as God passes by, God will cover his face with His hand, and Moses will not see God’s face (33:19–23).

True to His word, the next morning, God appears to Moses. It must have been an awesome sight! However, more important than what Moses sees is what Moses hears. As God passes by, He proclaims His name (“Yahweh”) along with a summary of His character. In just 32 Hebrew words, God Himself encapsulates who He is. This is what God said.

“The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6–7)

Most of those descriptions instill comfort, as well they should. However, the conclusion makes us squirm. God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children? How is that fair? Surely, there must be some mistake. But it is not a mistake. God repeats Himself in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9. How then are we to understand this terrifying verse? I’d like to share five considerations that help us to make sense of this statement.

1. God will never hold you personally liable for somebody else’s sin.

One of the most confusing things about this verse is that it seems to contradict other clear Bible statements and principles.

“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut 24:16).

“But the children of the murderers he [Amaziah] did not execute, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, in which the Lord commanded, saying, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; but a person shall be put to death for his own sin” (2 Kings 14:6).

“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek 18:20).1

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10).

“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books” (Rev 20:12).

“[God] ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom 2:6).2

The entire concept of God’s justice in Scripture is predicated on the fact that God holds people responsible for their own actions, as the verses above clearly show. At the judgment one day, the following conversation will never occur.

God: “I’m punishing you for murder.” Individual: “Why?” God: “Because your great–grandfather killed someone.”

Therefore, it is best to understand the “visiting” of Exodus 34:7 in terms of “natural consequences.” However, because God is sovereign, even the “natural” consequences are willed by Him (as the verse clearly states)!

2. Children often perpetuate their parents’ sins.

Amnon followed David his father into sexual sin. Lot’s children became even more worldly than he was. Jacob played favorites at home just like his father Isaac had done. Both Scripture and our own experience are rife with examples of children who repeated their parents’ mistakes. Why? We tend to copy what we see modeled! Because of this, it is often (though not always) the case that the children being “visited” in the way that Exodus 34:7 describes are just as personally guilty as are their parents.

3. Groups rise and fall together.

Exodus 34:7 challenges our western way of thinking. We place so much emphasis upon the individual that we have almost no sense of nations, churches, or families rising or falling together.

Perhaps a sports illustration may help. If the star point guard on a basketball team gets mad and throws a punch, causing him to get ejected from the game, his entire team suffers. No one considers this unfair; it is part of what it means to be a team. In the same way, part of what it means to be a family is that when one family member succeeds, we all benefit, and when one family member fails, we all suffer.

Try telling Daniel that it was unfair for him to be taken captive because of the sins of his people. That is certainly not how he felt, according to his prayer in Daniel 9:1–19! He was part of God’s covenant people, so he shared in the punishment for their sin.

A dramatic example of this concept is how the entire human race fell with Adam. Is it unfair that I suffer because of Adam’s sin? Apparently not! God does not promise to shield others from the consequences of your actions.

4. Forgiveness is always available to those who repent.

Leviticus 26:40–42 includes a wonderful promise to the nation of Israel.

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me… then I will remember My covenant with Jacob….”

The same concept shows up in Ezekiel 18, but on a more personal level.

“If, however, he [a wicked man] begets a son Who sees all the sins which his father has done, And considers but does not do likewise… He shall not die for the iniquity of his father; > He shall surely live!” (Ezek 18:14, 18)

Throughout the Bible, God offers forgiveness and restoration to all who will repent and turn to Him! No one is rejected because of the sins of his parents.

5. This truth serves to heighten personal responsibility.

…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation…

Why did God include this phrase in the Bible? How are we to respond to it?

Some may respond by tossing up their hands and saying, “See! My sin is not my fault!” Others may repeat with Hezekiah, “At least there will be peace in my day.”3 Neither of those responses is correct. God did not include these verses in Scripture to diminish personal responsibility but to heighten it.

As fathers reading these verses, we should be sobered to think that our sins will impact our children. One common lie of Satan is that your sin isn’t hurting anyone, except maybe yourself. Of course, if that were true, we wouldn’t feel nearly as bad about sinning. But it’s a lie. Your sin ALWAYS affects other people––including your children!

Dad, your pornography habit will eventually impact your children. Your addiction to alcohol, prescription drugs, or marijuana will affect them. Your decision not to join and serve in a church family will harm them greatly. This truth should scare us to death and motivate godly living!

If you are reading this post as either a victim of your parents’ sins or a despairing father who is painfully aware of his own failures, I urge you to listen again to the first part of this wonderful passage.

“The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Ex 34:6–7)

Sometimes we get so hung up on the parts we don’t understand that we miss some glorious truths! Most of God’s descriptions of Himself have to do with His love! The LORD is compassionate, generous, patient, and abundantly good. Not only that, but He forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. He longs to forgive your sin! You can be free from the sin that enslaved your parents and set a new pattern for your children. Stop blaming others or beating yourself up and instead, run to Jesus!

Exodus 34:7 may very well contain the scariest phrase in the Bible for dads. The consequences of sin are incredibly frightening. But praise God that “His mercy is more.”


  1. All of Ezekiel 18 is dedicated to this theme!

  2. In this verse, Paul appears to be alluding to the OT (see Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Jer 17:10) or perhaps the words of Jesus (Mat 16:27).

  3. 2 Kings 20:19

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