What is Generational Sin?

I never realized how much my infant son’s developmental journey would be a reflection of who I am.

I’ll give you a small example of what I mean. Whenever Silas gets into something he knows he’s not supposed to (like the trash can or the toilet), I tend to let out a heavy sigh of frustration. But I honestly had no idea how often I did it—until I noticed that Silas makes the exact same noise every time he can’t fit his star shaped block into a circle hole.

You always hear about the way you’ll influence your child. It’s a given. But I guess I never fully wrapped my mind around the truth of it. Or I guess I didn’t realize how quickly it would happen until now. But I’ve become so deeply aware of how my responses to situations and even my subconscious actions are teaching Silas about life, whether I like it or not.

There’s something about seeing your less-than-perfect response to a situation being mimicked by a one year old that’s really humbling.

The current generation will always influence the next, whether you have children or not. Your life will impact the next generation. That sinks in a bit deeper when you literally see it playing out before your eyes.

This is also a biblical principle. And it’s one I’ve often heard quoted often when a child picks up a parent’s bad habit. Oftentimes, Christians quote Old Testament scriptures that speak about the “sins of the father” being visited on the son unto the fourth generation. Though I’m not sure we’re always reciting these verses in context.

Nevertheless generational sin is an important biblical category that I’d love to dive into.

Understanding Generational Sin

The often quoted verse about the “sins of the father” comes to us in God’s giving of the Ten Commandments. More specifically, it’s a warning borne out of God’s command for the people not to worship idols.

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6)

But what did God mean when he said that? In order to best understand this passage and others like it (such as Exodus 34:6–7 & Leviticus 26:39), we must first understand the way the Bible frames the overall idea of sin. In the Old Testament, we find both corporate and individual responsibility for sin.

In the bible, we find both corporate and individual responsibility for sin. Share on X

What is Corporate sin? 

The idea that one man’s sin can make an entire group of people guilty is really hard for us to understand. It’s perhaps an easier concept for non-westerners to understand because many other cultures are built around a communal mindset. As westerners, our worldview is very individualized. So it seems unfair for us to carry responsibility for the actions of others. But it’s important for us to expand our understanding of sin to include a sense of collective responsibility.

There are many biblical examples of an entire group carrying the responsibility of one man’s sin. In fact, this is how sin originally entered the world. It was through one man, Adam, that the seal on sin was broken and is now impacting all of humanity (see Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-28).

But this isn’t the only place we see the concept of corporate sin.

In the book of Joshua, the Israelites were called to take the land of Jericho, but they had strict orders to leave nothing and take nothing. In Joshua 7, it says that the Lord’s anger burned against Israel because they didn’t obey his command. But it wasn’t all of Israel that didn’t obey.

As it turns out it was one man—Achan. He had taken possessions from the land of Jericho that he was supposed to destroy. Because of the sin of Achan, God allowed the army of Israel to be defeated at the battle of Ai. Through the culture and lens of the Old Testament, this was not a foreign concept. Though one person has sinned, the entire group is held responsible.

The corporate aspect of sin is foundational to better understand the topic of generational sin.

The idea of corporate sin is foundational to our understanding of generational sin. Share on X

Passing Sin Down Through The Generations 

Now, none of this is to say that innocent children are being punished because of their father’s sin. But what we do see is the sin committed by the previous generation being further carried out by the next generation.

So the generational sin we see talked about in the Old Testament is actually twofold. There’s the communal sin that’s part of our very existence in humanity. And there’s the individual responsibility of the sin patterns committed by previous generations being passed down to the next generation. And this isn’t necessarily an act of God cursing generations for the sake of punishment or discipline. It’s just the natural progression of sin moving from generation to generation.

A perfect example of generational sin is seen in the life of Abraham. He had a history of lying, which was exemplified when he told the king of Egypt that his wife was actually his sister (which was half true). He did this out of fear that Pharaoh would kill him and still his wife. But this same exact sin was replicated by Abraham’s son, Issac. Both Abraham and Issac lied about their wives out of their own sin built in fear. And if you know anything about Isaac’s son, Jacob, you know that he was quite infamous for his lies and trickery.

Through the life of Abraham, we can see that it wasn’t necessarily God punishing Issac or Jacob for their fathers’ sin. Rather, these men adopted and expanded the sin patterns of Abraham.

We see this in our own families today. But we don’t have to be stuck in the sins of our families.

Innocent children aren't punished for their fathers' sins. But the sin committed by the previous generation is often carried out by the next on. Share on X

Breaking Generational Sin

My family history has been filled with substance abuse. And it has been a huge weight from generation to generation. I would be lying if I said I don’t fear my sons struggling with this in their future, because of how prevalent it has been in my family.

But in the moments of praying for my own sons, I’m encouraged by the promise that Jesus has come to break chains and set us free from the sins that hold us captive.

Here’s some truly good news: you are not left alone to the sin patterns plaguing your family history. You are not bound to inevitably repeat the sins of your fathers. There is a better way forward.

This is the promise Jesus came to fulfill. What a huge relief to know that the sins of the next generation do not solely rest on my ability to get it right. Certainly, we should take responsibility for the influence we have over our children. But we shouldn’t take up a yoke that we were never meant to carry.

You are not left alone to the sin patterns plaguing your family history. Share on X

In Jesus, there is freedom. 

Jesus can release you and your family from the sin that has continued generation after generation. There’s another way. But it can only be found in him. It doesn’t matter how deeply rooted a sin pattern has grown into your family or how ugly it is. Jesus can remove it.

There is freedom for you and for the generations to come. And it doesn’t depend all on you getting it right. We have to lay down these sin patterns down at the feet of Jesus and know he is the one who will care for them. Your freedom has never been found in your ability to change your behavior. The truest form of freedom from deeply entrenched sin is the blood of Jesus.

I encourage you to not just chalk up the sin patterns in your family to “this is how we are.” Recognize them and come boldly before the throne of Jesus to set your family free.