So What is Up With Generational Sin?


Recently I have been dealing with the topic of ‘generational sin’ or ‘generational curses’ as part of the material I am covering for a youth retreat.  There is much confusion in the evangelical world on this topic and I wanted to see if I could bring a little clarity.  I wrote a paper while ago, April 1st 2010, in seminary dealing with Ezekiel 18:1-32 entitled, The Explanation of Exile.  Ezekiel 18:1-32 serves as a wonderful guide in putting together the Biblical pieces on the topic of generational sin.

There seems to be two primary schools of thought on this topic, though there are many variations in-between.  The first school understands generational sin or curses as just that, curses that have been imposed on us by God because of our parent’s sin (Deuteronomy 5:9-10 is often cited in support).  These curses then need to be hunted down and broken through many means.  The second school understands generational sin or curses as a product of each individual sinning in the way of their parents.  This can be through a physically passed on propensity (like genetics) or learned behavior.  Children will sin like their parents because they have desired to do so and now reap the consequences (like the pattern of sin given in James 1:14-15).  In this case repentance is all that is needed to ‘break’ the chain of sin.

So how does Ezekiel 18:1-32 play into this?  As I am arguing in my paper, Ezekiel 18:1-32 gives an explanation for the exile of Israel.  Israel had sinned in many ways breaking God’s covenant and was then kicked out of the land to suffer for a generation.  As Ezekiel reasons, the sons suffer the punishment of the father’s sin precisely because they are sinning in the same way.  This should not surprise us since this fits into the Bible’s overall teaching on our sin nature in general.  Because we are human, we inherit a sinful nature from our fathers.  We not only inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin from our fathers (along the lines of Romans 5:16) but we also inherit corruption.  Romans 5:12 teaches that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Ezekiel’s answer to generational sin then fits well within the overall biblical understand of man’s sin.  Ezekiel 18:1-32 starts with an old Israelite proverb in Ezekiel 18:2 that really represents the first position I have mentioned above.  Ezekiel’s answer to the proverb will align with the second position I stated above.  I have aligned my own convictions with Ezekiel 18:1-32 and the second position I have briefly mentioned.

Below I have included the introduction of my paper and what I think to be the particularly important section dealing with a hypothetical question raised in Ezekiel 18:19 that will unlock the idea of ‘generational sin or curses.’  Since the paper is academic in language, I would suggest reading Ezekiel 18:1-32 in its entirety, and then read it again as you see the way I have laid out the chapter in my introduction.  Finally, ponder the answer to the hypothetical question that Ezekiel gives; basically, the children have been eating sour grapes too just like Jeremiah 31:30.  The good news is the Gospel can turn our sour grapes into wine if we are willing to turn from our sin through confession and repentance.

After reading the selections from my paper below, if you have any follow up questions or would like to read this paper in its entirety, please send me an email from my Contact Page.  I would also like to suggest a really succinct article on the subject by John Piper that you can access HERE.  Remember, if you are seminary student, be above reproach and do not plagiarize anything I have written below; cite appropriately, Thanks! 

Below is a selection from:
Ezekiel 18, The Explanation of Exile, A Paper
Presented to: Dr. Jim Hamilton at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
By Jared C. Jenkins, April 1, 2010
Introduction
            “Ezekiel is a strange prophet, perhaps the strangest…”[1] Dumbrell says in the opening paragraph of his treatment on the book of Ezekiel.  A “strange prophet” seems to be the general sentiment among many when they approach the prophecy of Ezekiel.  Despite the out of ordinary acts and visions of Ezekiel the prophet, the book is very important for the exiled Israelite’s understanding of the fall of Jerusalem and the future restoration of the people.[2]  Dumbrell divides the book into three main sections chapters 1-24, which prophesy destruction and exile for Jerusalem and her people, chapters 25-32 which contain prophecies against surrounding nations, and Chapters 33-48, which give prophecies of restoration.[3]  Similarly the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology breaks the book up into the same three distinct sections as Dumbrell, but adds a fourth section by dividing out chapters 1-3 as the call and commission of Ezekiel.[4]  This paper will be focusing on Chapter 18 of Ezekiel, which falls within the first division of the book dealing with the prophecy of destruction for Jerusalem and Judah.  Chapter 18 seems to be quite unlike the chapters before and after, 17 and 19.[5]  The exiled Israelites seem to have settled on the reason why they have been taken to Babylon and it is expressed in an odd proverb cited in Ezekiel 18:2.  Ezekiel meets the proverb’s reasoning with a “complex disputation speech”[6].  The thesis of Chapter 18 and the thesis of this paper is that the Israelites were justly exiled to Babylon by God not because of their fathers sin, but because of there own individual sin in the legacy of their fathers, which if repented of, God will restore them to life.

           The thesis of Chapter 18 is worked out in the following framework of the passage that supports the thesis above.  Chapter 18 verses 1-2 start with a thesis from the Israelites concerning why the Israelites think they are in exile, delivered in the form of a proverb.  These verses set the topic that is in dispute, exiled life bound by the sin of their fathers.  In verses 3-4 there is a counterthesis by God stating the reason for the exile,[7] individual sin.  An exposition of the counterthesis proposed by God is developed in verses 5-18[8] in a walk through three generations of Fathers and Sons, their righteousness, unrighteousness, and return to righteousness, building the case of the counterthesis.  At verse 19 there is a hypothetical question raised[9] that Ezekiel deals with by recapitulating verses 5-18 in a summarized form in verse 20. This restatement of the previous argument builds the support for God’s counterthesis explaining further the reason for the exile as individual sin.  In verses 21-24, Ezekiel sets out a picture of blessing and cursing and the hope for life in a more urgent manner.[10]  These few verses set the stage for discussion of the people’s accusations against God.  Verses 25-29 deal with the people’s accusation against God that He is unjust,[11] similar to the accusation from the people in verse 19.  Finally verses 30-32 give judgment and a passionate call to repentance,[12] in light of the previous two discussions in verses 1-29. The disputational speech of Chapter 18 destroys the popular parable of the Israelites and replaces it with God’s truth.
……
Hypothetical Question: Isn’t This Unjust That the Son is Not Punished for the Father’s
Sin?
In Ezekiel 18:19 we encounter an argument against God’s new thesis of “individual sin brings death” saying, “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’”[13]  Ezekiel answers this objection with another clear cut summary of the tenants of God’s counterthesis as displayed previously in the case study of the 3 generations in 18:5-18.  Here the audience of exiled Israelites is faced with the reality of their own sin.  If God’s counterthesis says that the one who sins will die and the Israelites are facing the “death” of exile, then the only conclusion can be that they are guilty of sin just like their fathers, deserving of the punishment that they have received.[14] A faulty response would be that God is unjust.  The exiled Israelites seem to be struggling with what they think it is they know from the Law.  Deuteronomy 5:9-10 says,
  
   You shall not worship them [idols] or serve them [idols]; for I am a jealous God, visiting
   the iniquity of fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of
   those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and
   keep my commandments.[15]

The Israelites are trying to square what they know of God’s law with the new counterthesis given by God through Ezekiel.  Block makes these comments concerning Deuteronomy 5:9-10,

   The Decalogue statement had originally been intended as a proleptic warning to adults to  
   guard their conduct because of the implications of their actions for their children.  But in
   the mouths of Ezekiel’s contemporaries, it has been transformed into a retrospective
   accusation of divine injustice.[16]

And this is exactly what can be seen in Ezekiel chapter 20.  The history of Israel is a history of continuous rebellion; exiled Israel is sharing in the sins of the past.[17]  This is not a guiltless generation; they have learned sin from their fathers and have participated in it wholeheartedly.
           
The corporate nature of judgment is not arbitrary, any more than is the corporate aspect of salvation, but it is bound up with the transmission of those same sinful characteristics on to the next generation.  Following the example of the fathers, the children have also been eating sour grapes.[18]




[1] William J. Dumbrell, Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 151.
[2] I. M. Duguid, “Ezekiel,” In The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmund Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 229.
[3] William J. Dumbrell, Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 151.
[4] I. M. Duguid, “Ezekiel,” In The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmund Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 229.
[5] Daniel I. Block, Ezekiel Chapters 1-24, a volume of The New International Commentary On The Old Testament, ed. by R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 555.
[6] Ibid., 554.
[7] Ibid., 555.
[8] Ibid., 555.
[9] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, a volume of the The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Mack (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 237.
[10] Daniel I. Block, Ezekiel Chapters 1-24, a volume of The New International Commentary On The Old Testament, ed. by R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 582.
[11] Ibid., 584.
[12] Ibid., 584.
[13] Ezekiel 18:19, NASB.
[14] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, a volume of the The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Mack (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 237.
[15] Deuteronomy 5:9-10, NASB.
[16] Daniel I. Block, Ezekiel Chapters 1-24, a volume of The New International Commentary On The Old Testament, ed. by R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 559.
[17] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, a volume of the The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Mack (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 237.
[18] Ibid., 237.
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