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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Action, Meet Consequence

Do children bear the sins of the fathers or not? In one sense, absolutely.

Actions have consequences. My body and yours will not last forever because “in Adam all die”. The default mode of human existence is death, and every week, month and year on our march toward futility, decrepitude and (in some cases) eternal judgment drives home that reality.

Thanks, Adam. If it’s any consolation, I have no evidence from my own experience that I’d have done a better job as federal head of humanity.

National Sins of the Fathers

But the “sins of the fathers” (or can we just say parents?) concept has to do with more than just the consequences of original sin.

The notion of judgment from God that extends beyond the life of the original sinner is first laid out in the second of the ten commandments:
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for 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.”
The reason given for Israel to avoid idolatry is that the consequences of rejecting God pass from one generation to the next. This is true primarily of Israel and primarily in a national sense (that “third and fourth generation” thing sounds awfully similar to the duration of the Babylonian captivity, which not coincidentally had a great deal to do with national idolatry). So God may well be speaking corporately here.

Individual Sins of the Fathers

But then God restates this truth to Moses upon the renewal of the covenant after the golden calf rebellion at Mount Sinai:
“Jehovah, Jehovah … keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Here, I take this as a generalism about Jehovah rather than a specific corollary to the second commandment. I think God is telling us this is how we can expect him to behave simply because he is who he is. He allows people to experience the consequences of their choices. The inevitable corollary of human responsibility (or “free will”, “freedom of choice”, or however you’d like to characterize it) is that others are very significantly affected by the things we do.

I think this is true individually as well as corporately, and true generally throughout human history. The evidence is all around us.

The Transmission of Iniquity

Let’s go back to the command about idolatry. If I decide to worship Allah instead of Jesus, Islam becomes the default mode of my household. That’s true regardless of whether my neighbours make the same choice. My children will be steeped in Muslim ritual and worldview, their perception of God will be markedly different from the reality, their sense of justice will be skewed, their attitude to the nation of Israel will be poisonous, etc. Unless they opt to consciously reject what they have absorbed from me, they will repeat my errors when they raise their own children.

Thus my iniquity may be visited on my children to the third and fourth generation, perhaps longer. Even if my children reject my views and become secularists and atheists, it was I who poisoned the well for them. For that matter, even if they become Christians, to the extent they fail to confront each error inadvertently absorbed in childhood and reject it, their faith will be the weaker and more tainted for it.

Thanks, Dad!

The Obvious Example

Take another example: I cannot divorce my wife without it affecting my children. Their attitudes about my choices will inevitably affect their children too, and so on. It may come out in unwillingness to embrace the institution of marriage, its meaning and permanence; in their ability to risk being hurt in relationships, and so on. It may manifest in misogyny, misandry, anger issues, same-sex attraction, depression or nihilistic indifference, as it so often does today. It will reveal itself differently in different individuals but one thing is absolutely certain: it’ll be there. My iniquity will be visited on my progeny in perpetuity.

We are now learning that our sins may even come out in our children genetically. Trauma of various kinds changes our DNA, and we pass on the changes.

Truly, parents bear an awesome and terrifying responsibility. Action, meet consequence!

The Role of Free Will

Such things must happen in our fallen world if choice is to have any real meaning. If God proactively intervened and corrected every false notion I distributed to others and every hurtful act I have performed, I would cease to be a truly independent being: my autonomy would be frustrated, my responsibility lessened, my agency with respect to God nullified.

In one sense we can call this cycle of cause and effect the natural result of sin. In another sense, it is the judgment of God. An indirect judgment, certainly. One that may be mitigated, very possibly. Still, a judgment all the same.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that every man and woman in each generation remains responsible before God to choose his or her own path, notwithstanding the genetic and cultural influences found in our homes. We are not called to account to God for predispositions and beliefs transmitted to us from the previous generation. We are called to account for how WE respond when we see how miserably our “default settings” fail us in the real world, and what WE decide to do about it.

The Legal Implications

When we come to Deuteronomy, we might think we observe a reversal in God’s approach:
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Hmm. Here the sins of the fathers are NOT visited on the children or vice versa.

But God is not suddenly changing his tune. This is an instruction to Israelite law enforcement, not an observation about the effects of sin on the next generation of offspring. Apples and oranges. So far as the legal system is concerned, it is only reasonable that a man be judged and sentenced for his own actions, not the actions of others. My kids may be predisposed to certain behaviours and desires by the genetic package I gave them and by the things I did and said when they were growing up, but the social and legal consequences of how they choose to respond are very much on them.

Sour Grapes and Children’s Teeth

Now we come to something a little different. Ezekiel 18 records God’s rebuke of his people concerning their use of a proverb:
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”
Matt Slick says this passage is “merely recounting the Law of the Pentateuch”, essentially confirming the Deuteronomy 24 commands about how the legal system in Israel is to operate under the Law of Moses. But this cannot be correct. Ezekiel 18 has nothing to do with the Jewish court system, which was inoperative at the time he wrote. Neither is Ezekiel addressing the damage caused by the individual sins of parents in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Rather, the prophet is speaking to exiles under Babylonian rule who were citing the “sour grapes” proverb to justify themselves before God, making the case that they were suffering for the sins of their ancestors.

Direct Judgment of God

It seems to me Ezekiel is speaking of the direct judgment of God in the wake of this life. He’s anticipating for us (albeit in a legalistic, Jewish, earthly way) the first part of the truth later laid out by the apostle Paul, who tell us “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Ezekiel makes the reality of individual responsibility before God explicit: “Behold, all souls are mine”. None of us will stand before God and be able to use our fathers and mothers as a shield (“I’m a Christian because I was raised in a Christian home” will not fly), and equally none will be able to use our bad upbringings as an excuse for the evil things we have done.

No, the question of whether we must experience the eternal judgment of God for our sins turns on neither nature nor nurture. It turns on our personal response to the free gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Action, meet consequence.

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