Are They Biblical?

QUESTION: Recently I was asked to discuss the Bible's teaching on the subject of generational sins, and generational curses. This is the view that the sins of past generations, and God's punishment of them, can extend down the years, and directly affect our welfare today. That a curse pronounced by God (or even by some individual invoking demon powers), can continue to affect generation after generation.

The idea is said to be based on certain statements in the Bible. For example: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations" (Exod. 20:5, italics mine; cf. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9).

So, is it possible that the problems we're having in our lives today may be traced back to sins committed by, or curses put on, our parents, or grandparents, or even our great-grandparents?

ANSWER: This concept is prevalent in a lot of self-described spiritual warfare and deliverance ministries. It's also present, in a secularized form, in some theories of psychology and psychotherapy. And it's a tantalizing idea. To some extent, it fuels the inborn desire we have to find someone else to blame for our troubles. When the Lord faced Adam and Eve with their disobedience in Eden (Gen. 3:1-13), Adam tried to blame Eve (and God, as well!), and Eve tried to pass the buck to the serpent (Satan). And that's been going on ever since!

It's not difficult to see that what we do as parents has an influence on our children Our conduct brings certain consequences that touch their lives. Racial prejudice provides an example. If children hear parents speaking hatefully of people with a different ethnic heritage or different skin colour, the children can pick up on that. And they in turn may pass the same way of thinking on to their children. With a boost from our sin nature--wrong-headedness and bad habits can certainly show up in one generation after another.

That is likely what's behind Stephen's accusation against the Jewish leaders of his day: "You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you [you're perpetuating the attitudes of your forefathers]" (Acts 7:51, italics mine).

It also seems close to what's in view in First Peter 1:18-19: "You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless [fruitless, empty] conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (italics mine). The phrase "received by tradition from your fathers," in Young's Literal Translation, is simply: "delivered by fathers." The Greek word is patroparadotos, indicating something handed down from one's forefathers. It refers to teachings and practices that are passed on from one generation to the next.

But that's not what is at issue with reference to the generational sins/curses teaching. Influence is not the same as direct causation.

So is it possible that sinful patterns in our lives have been directly transferred from a previous generation by some kind of spiritual osmosis? Or that we are under a curse, and suffering for something done in our grandparents' day? Spiritual warfare proponents such as Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, and Neil Anderson (Freedom in Christ Ministries) think so. Believers are taught to pray for freedom from the bondage of generational sins or curses, in order to gain the victory that's theirs in Christ. But is that helpful? Or even legitimate?

Since there is nothing said in the Bible about the practice just described, where does it come from? It's based on imagination, speculation, pop psychology, and the alleged experiences of some. As well, there's a misinterpretation and misapplication of God's Word (often lifting verses out of their legitimate context).

Not only does the abuse of Scripture do great harm in the specific instance of theorizing about generational sins and curses, it does even more widespread damage. It trains the untaught and unsuspecting to believe that's how God's Word is to be handled, thus robbing them of the help God has provided in other areas.

Instead of producing "freedom in Christ," the teaching often seems to generate anything but! For some it leads to an unhealthy obsession with the past. Or worry about whether they've been able to identify all the relevant sins and curses of past generations. Or uncertainty as to whether they've managed to deal fully and finally with them. For others it's led to a fatalistic philosophy (e.g. "I can't help being this way, because grandpa was the same.") The teaching, by providing an excuse for sinfulness, may actually result in yielding to the domination of the flesh (the sin nature), instead of bringing victory over it.

Even supposing the generational sins/curses teaching to be true (though I don't believe it is), there are practical problems with taking the steps proponents require. We may be unaware of the sins of our ancestors, or any curses placed upon them. We may even be unable to discover who our ancestors are (as in the case of adopted children). This unbiblical notion places those who believe it at the mercy of a lot of subjective guesswork! Thank the Lord we have no need to go through this strange process!

Guilt for sin is a personal thing. Yes, we've all been affected by what happened in Eden, because of being "in Adam" when he sinned. And God placed a curse on creation to remind us of the terrible effects of the fall (Gen. 3:17-19). But over and over the Bible's emphasis is on the individual's responsibility before God.

When David sinned with Bathsheba, Nathan the prophet pointed a rhetorical finger and said, "You are the man!" (II Sam. 12:7). And David in his confession declared, "I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me" (Ps. 51:3, italics mine). He got the point! We need not concern ourselves with the myth of bondage to what grandpa and grandma did. "Each of us shall give account of himself [or herself] to God" (Rom. 14:12, italics mine).

Passages such as Exodus 20:5 must not be made to say that the judgment of God is inherited by succeeding generations. They simply warn of a proneness to learn from and copy the beliefs and behaviour of those who've come before. And if the pattern of sin continues, so will the judgment of God.

Notice two key things about the above text. First, the Lord does not say to Israel that He will "visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations [period]." It is "to the third and fourth generations of those who hate [who defiantly reject] Me" (italics mine). That is an important qualification. The judgment does not automatically encompass four generations. It is incurred by those in each generation who "hate" God--which means it warns of an individual, not a generational condemnation.

Second, ask yourself why it is that the third and fourth generation are specified and no more. Why not "to the sixth and seventh generation"? (And each of the cross references mentioned at the beginning is exactly the same in this.) Think about it. With normal lifespans, four generations are about the limit of those who can be alive at the same time. That is, it is possible for great grandparents to live to see their great grandchildren. But that's about it. Thus we have great grandparents living to have some direct influence upon the fourth generation, and to witness the effects of their sins upon their great grandchildren.

The generational folks are wrong. Rather than focusing on what happened in the past, many Scripture passages refer to our personal and present culpability for our own sins. "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut. 24:16; cf. Jer. 31:29-30; Ezek. 18:20).

When the Lord Jesus forgave a man's sins, He said to him, "Your sins are forgiven you" (Matt. 9:2). It was not, "Your sins and the sins of your great grandparents..." It was a personal and individual forgiveness. Similarly we, as Christians, are told to confess our sins (our own sins) to God, in order to enjoy full cleansing and forgiveness (I Jn. 1:9). We are never commanded to confess the sins of our fathers. Nor are we ever told to deal with curses put on our ancestors.

And consider John 9:1-3. "As Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned.'" Now, the Lord was not saying the three people were sinlessly perfect. He is stating that the sins of the man and his parents were irrelevant, as far as his physical condition was concerned.

But the deliverance people insist that we must research our family skeletons, and cast off these sins and curses, exorcizing them by some kind of ritualistic prayer. Frankly, this is nonsense. As someone has put it, these notions "stem from pop psychology with a veneer of misapplied Bible verses."

What does the Bible say about what happens when a believer is cursed by another person? Several things are made clear about that.

First, a curse that is undeserved will have no effect. "An unfair curse will not land on its intended victim" (Prov. 26:2, NLT). And second, no one can curse another who does not have the authority to do so (specifically, authority from God, Num. 23:8, 20). And though it is an argument from silence, it us surely signficant that the Bible never tells us to ask God to cancel or reverse curses made against us. We are told instead: "Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you" (Lk. 6:28, italics mine).

And incidentally, the passages supposedly proof-texting generational curses have nothing to do with individuals invoking demons or the devil to curse others. They're usually about God's dealings with Israel, and His warnings of coming judgment if they disobey.

Nor does Satan need to be "bound" for people today to be set free from sin or the effects of some demonic curse. Christ provided for victory over Satan at the cross (Col. 2:15; cf. Jn. 16:11; Heb. 2:14). Now we are exhorted to put on the spiritual armour the Lord has supplied to be protected from him (Eph. 6:10-18). Wielding the sword of the Spirit (God's truth) we are to "resist [Satan's lies] steadfast in the faith" (I Pet. 5:8-9). "He who is in you [the Spirit of God] is greater than he who is in the world [Satan]" (I Jn. 4:4).

Have you noticed that most of the passages used by the "generational" folks come from the Old Testament, and relate to the nation of Israel? Note the verses about "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation" referenced at the beginning. All the texts are part of the Mosaic Law (Exod. 20:5; 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9).

These warnings are based on the unique covenant relationship God had (and has) with Israel as a nation. No such statements are made in the New Testament. Even supposing the notion to have validity, if we, on this side of the cross, understand the full scope of salvation in Christ, it will leave no room for generational sins or curses. "[We] are not under law but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). And "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13).

Those who teach the false generational concepts fail to recognize the distinction between Old Testament and New, and between Israel and the church. They take warnings and promises specifically given to Israel, and apply them to the church of Jesus Christ. But the two are quite different. Israel is God's earthly people, a nation, with a God-given earthly land, and an earthly throne. The church, on the other hand, is a heavenly people (Phil. 3:20), made up of all nations, a spiritual body, with no geographical territory of its own, and under the headship of Christ in heaven (Eph. 1:22-23).

The people of Israel descended from Abraham. But for the Christian, such a blood relationship is irrelevant. "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body––whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free" (I Cor. 12:13). Today, we are children of God through the regenerating work of the Spirit of God, and have been made a part of Christ's spiritual body by that same Spirit.

Because Israel is an earthly nation, the Old Testament promises and judgments related to them tended to be earthly and temporal in nature. They were often associated with the enjoyment of the blessings of the Promised Land. That is, if the people served the Lord faithfully, He would bless them with good crops, long life, and material prosperity in the land. If they disobeyed, the opposite would occur (Deut. 28:1-68).

But it is a fallacy to take such things and apply them to the church. I'm not saying that the chastisements of God cannot affect Christians in a material and physical way. Sometimes they do (cf. I Cor. 11:27-30). But our relationship with the Lord is quite different, and God's promises to us focus more on the spiritual and the eternal (Eph. 1:3; Col. 3:1-2; II Pet. 1:2-3).

One assumes we're speaking of Christians with regard to these issues, born again children of God. The theory that believers carry the crippling burden of past generations fails to comprehend the power of the grace of God, and the scope of that great umbrella word, salvation. (The Bible describes about three dozen blessings that are instantly ours, the moment we're saved.)

First Peter 1:18-19, quoted above, reminds us we are redeemed and set free from the follies that plagued previous generations, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

"He [God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love" (Col. 1:13). The Saviour fully satisfied the just demands of a righteous God on the cross (I Jn. 2:1-2). When we trust in the efficacy of His shed blood, the slate is wiped clean. God has reckoned all our sins to Christ's account, and applied His righteousness to our account (II Cor. 5:21; cf. Eph. 1:7; Col. 2:13-15; I Jn. 1:7, 9). That settles it!

When we're saved, we become new creations in Christ (II Cor. 5:17). "Those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!" (NLT). "[We] have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him" (Col. 3:9-10). And listen to Paul: "Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13-14, italics mine).

Christians have no need to fear the past. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk [characteristically] according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made us free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1-2). We are delivered from the past, in Christ. Why turn back to it? "Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord....Present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Rom. 6:11, 13).

Yes, children can be impacted in some ways by the sins of their parents. Our parents and others can have an influence on our lives by their example, or the ideas they communicate to us. But again, influence is not the same as being the direct cause of something. Believers are not slaves to their past in this way. "The Lord is faithful, who will establish [us] and guard [us] from the evil one" (II Thess. 3:3). "The Lord will deliver [us] from every evil work and preserve [us] for His heavenly kingdom" (II Tim. 4:18).

"Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Col. 2:8). "Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge–by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith" (I Tim. 6:20-21).

The power of the indwelling Holy Spirit is far greater than any influence or error passed down from grandpa! Christians should steer clear of those who talk about generational sins and curses, and other psychological or occult notions that are contrary to the inspired Word of God.