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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






29 August 2005

To the Third and Fourth Generation


Q: When the Bible talks about “suffering” from the sins of our fathers (to the third or fourth generation), what does it mean? I’m not sure about the texts, but I know I’ve heard it several times. Are we plagued with the sins of our great-grandparents without even realizing it? How do we break these sins, if they’ve been passed on to us?

A: Many modern translations do an injustice to the text in Exodus 20:5. Often they speak of “punishing” the succeeding generations. The Authorized Version, as well as some newer translations, including the English Standard Version, speak of “visiting the iniquities of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate” God. This better catches the sense of a word that includes “visiting, searching, hunting, taking care of, longing, or avenging” as parts of its meaning.

God doesn’t necessarily promise to extend punishment. He is also talking about the generational effects of sin and his judgment on it. We see quite often — with child abuse, spouse abuse, drug use, and other sins and crimes — that the visitation still lingers through the generations. It is likely that in all families, the children of Adam still face the consequences of certain sins of previous generations, even as all of us are born inheriting the original sin of Adam himself.

Yet while human sin stains, pollutes, and destroys people and relationships for a set time, note how God’s “steadfast love” extends to “thousands (of generations)” for those who remain in an active faith relationship with Him (verse 6). Often, such language stands for “all time” or even “through all eternity.” Thus, we have a reminder that God’s grace overcomes and outlives human iniquity.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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