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"...for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Deuteronomy 5:9-10

Does this mean I will be punished if my parents or grandparents were God-haters?

The short answer is this: "No: you will only be held to account for your own response to God and His gospel.  But if you, like your parents/grandparents, hate God (as is envisioned by this passage), you will face the same punishment.  And isn't it usually true that God-haters raise God-haters?  Either way, you may certainly bear the sociological consequences of an ungodly heritage in a variety of ways (your disposition, baggage, temptations, challenges).  But God is always willing to forgive the sinner who is truely sorry for their sins and turns to Him in repentance and trust (Luke 15:7,10)

Some reasons for our answer:

  • We must balance these words with Ezekiel 18:20a, "The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them."
  • Deut. 5:9-10 are in the context of covenant, which means God is treating Israel as a whole connected people.  Thus, guilt is viewed collectively and a whole family may be judged.
  • God is setting a contrast before ancient Israel: four generations verses thousands.  God's punishment is restrained.  His blessing is un-restrained.  That's the main point of these words: the blessing of God far outweighs the curse.
  • It was not uncommon for a dad and mom to see four generations of their family.  So this "fourth generation" talk is a shorthand way to say: an entire lifetime.  A man's sin will affect his family.  A God-hater will typically raise God-haters; thus his guilt is also transferred.
  • Important to note that the children are not innocent... but listed as those "who hate God."
  • God reverses this trend significantly in the calling of Abraham out of a pagan background (Gen.12), the saving of Rahab from Jericho (Josh.2), and the conversion of Saul (Acts 9).  Salvation is always a gift of grace, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).