Are the Penalties for Sins Passed Down?

Jesus saw a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Are penalties passed down?

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” (This story is found in John 9:1-3.) In this example neither the parents nor the son had sinned to bring on the blindness. But if a parent does sin, can sin itself be passed down?

Sin, which is the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4), does not get passed to the next generation. In this case Christ said that the man wasn’t blind because of sin (his own or his parents’), but because it was a way for the works of God to be revealed in him. It was a way for a miracle to be performed to show where God was working.

But can the effects of sin be passed down?

Notice what God said when giving His law (specifically about idols): “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity [sins] of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5).

Does this mean that the sins of parents can affect their descendants?

The answer is clearly yes. Explaining this point, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible defines “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” in this way: “Sons and remote descendants inherit the consequences of their fathers’ sins, in disease, poverty, captivity, with all the influences of bad example and evil communications.”

Oftentimes because of upbringing, children will follow in the footsteps of their parents in bad habits and sins. In such cases the pattern of sin becomes repetitive, and the effects of sin continue.

Are there different penalties for sin?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). There is one absolute penalty for sin—death! No one is exempt, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But sin often also carries physical penalties and consequences.

Let’s look at a modern-day example: If a parent struggles with controlling anger and violent tendencies, then it is not only he or she who suffers, but other individuals around him or her, including the children. Children often see and mimic this habit and can eventually become angry and abusive themselves or choose to marry someone who is abusive.

Chronic anger has been shown to have a connection to heart disease and a variety of other health problems; and abuse, of course, can cause severe physical injuries. A person may go to God in heartfelt repentance, and ask Him for forgiveness, but oftentimes the physical consequences of the sin will remain. The physical, mental and emotional effects that anger and abuse have on future generations may take a long time to heal as well.

Sin carries consequences

Notice what happened to some of the descendants of ancient Israel because of the sins of the fathers: “We have given our hand to the Egyptians and the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread. Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we bear their iniquities” (Lamentations 5:6-7, emphasis added throughout). The descendants went into captivity because of the nation’s continuing pattern of sin.

Here we have the children suffering for the sins of their forefathers that brought the nation into 70 years of captivity. Some children were small when taken captive and others were born in captivity. These children suffered along with their parents. God had warned Israel that they and their children would suffer if they turned away from Him (see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). But soon the captivity would end, and God inspired Ezekiel to prophesy of a time when the children would no longer suffer for the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

God is always merciful. “And those of you who are left shall waste away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; also in their fathers’ iniquities, which are with them, they shall waste away. But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me … then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham” (Leviticus 26:39-40, 42).

What happens if a person chooses not to follow his or her parents’ paths?

Speaking of God, the book of Jeremiah states, “You are great in counsel and mighty in work, for Your eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men, to give everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 32:19).

Since each of us will have to account for our choices, what kind of life will we choose to live?Every person will at some point give account for his or her personal sins. “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

Since each of us will have to account for our choices, what kind of life will we choose to live?

Change is a choice!

Notice God’s perspective again in Leviticus: “If their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt—then I will remember My covenant” (Leviticus 26:41-42).

God is merciful and can grant forgiveness when a person confesses his or her sins to Him and comes to Him in repentance (1 John 1:9; 2 Timothy 2:25). The wages of sin—eternal death—can be removed, and many times the consequences of sin can also be alleviated. God can begin to reward those who diligently seek and follow Him, just as He said He would remember the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Romans 3:23; Hebrews 11:6). See more about this in the articles under “Sin” in the “Change” category.

It is God’s desire that we repent of sin

We understand more about the process of God’s forgiveness and His desire for our change when we read 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

God is patient and can lead us to repentance. His desire is that we repent and change, not only for ourselves, but because the consequences of sin are often passed on to our children, our grandchildren and, in some cases, even to our great-grandchildren.

Each person has the choice to change the generational way of life

In Ezekiel 18 God shows that we receive punishment for our own sins—and we can change. A son who sees his father’s sins and “does not do likewise … shall not die for the iniquity of his father; he shall surely live!” (verses 14, 17).

“As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, robbed his brother by violence, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.

“Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. 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.

“But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live” (verses 18-22).

Sin has a way of leading to more sin (Romans 6:19). The ultimate penalty of sin is death. There are also other consequences of sin that can continue on until sin has been acknowledged, stopped, repented of and replaced by righteous, godly conduct.

We are told that what a man sows, that he will also reap (Galatians 6:7). If we are reaping the consequences of sin, we can change what we are doing and walk in a newness of life. That can happen through the process of repentance and baptism and by the help of God’s Holy Spirit (Romans 6:4; Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:24-25).

There is a way to break the yoke of sin!

Notice 1 John 2:1-3: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

Christ is the propitiation or “atoning” for our sins. He was willing to die to pay the penalty for our sins when we repent. But, along with repentance of sin, obedience to God’s law is also required.

When we overcome the “habit” of sin, it can change our lives and also have a positive effect on the lives of our children and grandchildren.

We also have the responsibility to teach our children God’s beneficial laws and the right way to live: “Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Each person must decide

Generations of obedience to God can begin with you! The Bible gives examples of those who followed the right paths, even though their parents were sinners.

One example is Josiah. His father, Amon, had disobeyed God. However, “Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah the daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (2 Kings 22:1-2).

This article began with Exodus 20:5: “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” Notice also that God continued speaking in verse 6: “But showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

The passing down of the effects of sin from generation to generation can stop with you. God has made a clear path for us to follow. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The determination to follow that path can lead you and your future generations out of sin.

Notice the encouragement King David wrote in Psalm 103:17-18: “But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.”

You can change your life—and benefit the lives of your children who will live after you! God leads us to a way of life that can provide blessings for us now, and for our children and future generations.

What kind of legacy will you leave for your children and grandchildren?

Read more about how to make these changes by downloading our booklet Change Your Life.

About the Author

Paul Carter

Paul Carter is pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California. He is a contributing writer for Life, Hope & Truth, as well as the director of two summer camps for teens and preteens in the Southwest. He is married with three wonderful children, and enjoys the outdoors including hunting, fishing, hiking and volleyball.

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