Exodus 20:5 You shall not bow down yourself to them or serve them [idols]; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, But showing mercy and steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
We believe the issue of generational iniquity is best illustrated in the familiar story of Cain. Let’s review. Cain and his brother Abel brought a sacrifice to the Lord; Abel’s sacrifice was found worthy in God’s eyes, while Cain’s was not. This story marks an important distinction between sin, rebellion and iniquity. When Cain became angry, sad and dejected, the Lord said to Cain, “Sin crouches at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” In response to this, Cain did three things. First, and perhaps most profoundly, he departed from the presence of the Lord. Next, he convinced his brother to come out to the fields, where he killed him. Lastly, when the Lord asked him where his brother was, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And after this answer, the Lord cursed Cain.
We may define sin simply as separation from God, and Cain’s “departing from the presence of the Lord” exemplifies this. In the Old Testament, the law required sin offerings for such things as coming in contact with a dead animal carcass or a dead body, so we can see that sin occurs from actions as simple as taking our eyes off God and going astray; there is not necessarily any malicious intent. Rebellion, on the other hand, occurs when we knowingly do that which God has commanded us and charged us not to do, when we “do it anyway.”
For generational issues, however, iniquity becomes our primary concern, and Cain’s answer to God exemplifies iniquity. The Lord asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” and Cain does not say, “Lord, I have sinned greatly, for I have committed murder upon my own brother.” He does not even respond rebelliously, “Listen, I know it’s against the rules, but I killed Abel, so could we just get this punishment thing over with, Lord?” Instead, he replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain gives an answer that distorts the truth; he chooses not to confess the truth with contrition, nor to tell the truth, albeit without remorse (like the second example response), but his response is crafted to cover his sin and rebellion, and thus evade consequences altogether. Thus, we may define iniquity as a twisted response to God. The Hebrew word avown is translated here as iniquity, and this word comes from the root word avah, which Strong’s translates as “do amiss, bow down, make crooked, pervert.” God curses Cain for his actions, and Cain replies, “My punishment is too great!” The word translated as “punishment” is actually avown; so Cain is quite literally saying, “My crookedness is too great,” where ‘crookedness’ may refer to either his own crooked ways, the punishment that comes with them, or both. Thus, it is quite literally this crookedness, this twisting of the father’s that is visited upon the sons in the sense of the curse, the punishment, but also in the sense of the distorted response.
Let’s get some perspective. The Father sent His Son Jesus to atone once and for all for our sins on the cross. He bore the weight of all our sins, and He became a curse for us, so that we might have freedom. He has conquered sin once and for all. He alone could bear it. The victory is His. If we can become as Paul described, so that “it is not me who lives, but Christ in me,” then we can carry His victory in us. We believe the Father “visits the iniquity of the fathers on the sons” not because He has a heart to burden people, but so that they may be confronted with this twisting of the truth, rise to the challenge and overcome it, not through our own righteousness, but through the righteous sacrifice of the One Who lives in us (that is, Jesus). We believe this occurs so that the sons may be presented with this wrong response, perceive this sin, and be given the opportunity to “master it” that their fathers squandered. Rev 3:5 says the following:
Thus shall he who conquers be clad in white garments, and I will not erase or blot out his name from the Book of Life; I will acknowledge him as Mine, and I will confess his name openly before My Father and before His angels.
The reward is promised to be great for those who persevere and learn to overcome.
That’s So Old Testament!
Yes. That is exactly where it is.
Consider this question: What is a Testament? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it this way: Something that serves as tangible proof or evidence. It comes from the Latin word testis, which can be translated roughly to mean “witness.” Who or what does the Old Testament give evidence of? Who or What is it a witness to? You’re probably already rolling your eyes, because of course it is God that the Old Testament gives witness to. But don’t shrug this aside; it’s the reason we still carry all those pages around in our Bibles. The testament may be old, but as for the God it testifies of, HE IS still the same. He does not change. If doubt still lingers about the relevance of the Old Testament, consider Luke 16:31, wherein Jesus gave us some stunning words in His parable about the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus:
But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.”
Those are probably not particularly comforting words.
Those who find themselves echoing the objection about generational iniquity being confined to the Old Testament probably consider Gal 5:3-4, which says this:
If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey all of the regulations in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
Much of the Old Testament (though not all by any means) describes God’s commands to the Israelites, in other words, the law. Paul exhorts us here not to try and work out our salvation through the law. But even in the Old Testament, God expresses contempt for songs, offerings and festivals because of the people’s attitude. All of these were in keeping with the law. The Lord almost killed Balaam for having a wrong attitude and being spiritually insensitive, even though he was following the command of the Lord.
The law was created to give witness to God, to His holiness. It was created to guard us from sin before we put faith in Jesus (Gal 3:24). It was also created to produce guilt in us, which would, in turn, reveal to us our inability to produce right standing with God through our own efforts (Gal 3:19). For that, we need a Savior. Jesus lived his life in perfect submission to the law, so that we would not place our faith in the law, but in the One who fulfilled it. Again, He said, “I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” Through Him, we can live in harmony as Paul describes in Eph 2:20:
We are His house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself. (Bold added for emphasis)
God can change and has changed His commands in keeping with His time or season. Acts 11 describes how He repealed the commands to only eat the flesh of certain animals just before the first Gentiles received the Spirit. In the verse above, Paul fervently urges the brethren against circumcision. To use an exaggerated example, we would certainly strain ourselves if we tried to simultaneously worship the Lord with joyous shouts and clapping, mourn with loud crying and moaning, and receive Him in quietness and rest.
But the part of Exodus 20:5 describing generational iniquity has no command. It’s not the law. It is not even an impersonal, categorical description of how God’s legal system works, such as, “The wages of sin are death.” Exodus 20:5 describes God! Read it again:
…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, But showing mercy and steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
This describes not the law, but a characteristic of God’s ways and His justice. The Lord loves righteousness right now just as much as He did in the days of Adam. He still does not despise those with a contrite heart and a broken spirit. And although He sent Jesus to be a friend to sinners and release us from its bondage, He still hates sin. What He tells us to do may depend on context, but His character does not change.
Lest there be any confusion about the subject of generational sin in our New Covenant times, consider the words of the Lord in Luke 11:47-51 (Amplified):
Woe to you! For you are rebuilding and repairing the tombs of the prophets, whom your fathers killed. So you bear witness and give your full approval and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they actually killed them, and you rebuild and repair monuments to them…So that the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world may be charged against and required of this age and generation. (Bold added for emphasis)
Clearly, Jesus is explicitly telling us here that as these sons faced the sins of their fathers, they could be held accountable for them according to the way they responded. The Pharisees chose to honor the prophets in much the same way that they honored Jesus; they honored Him with their mouths, but their hearts were far from Him. The word hypocrisy comes from the word for “actor,” or “play-acting.” The honor of the Pharisees was an act. They performed this act so that they would be seen honoring Jesus and the prophets; they were courting the favor of the people and seeking to be esteemed by those who loved Jesus and the prophets. They loved the honor of men, and they loved for men to bow down to them in public.
Deep generational iniquity was being passed down from their fathers, and they chose to treat the outside; they were coating that sin and sealing it in with a thick lacquer of whitewash. I know the following sounds cheeky, but rather, I mean it quite literally and sincerely: if you have issues with a generational paradigm, please take them up with the Lord. Romans 14:23 tells us that whatever does not originate and proceed from faith is sin, so until the day arrives when the Lord allows you to accept a generational paradigm on faith, we will have to live in patience according to Romans 14:3:
The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
Until that day, we’ll just have to believe in a great God, Who is above and beyond all the ways of men, and accepts all kinds of people just for having faith in Jesus Christ.
Okay, I get the idea, but…so what?
So we know that iniquity can be passed down through the generations (thus the term, “generational iniquity”), and we have a very vague idea of what it looks like. We can conceive a seemingly infinite number of scenarios that might indicate the presence of generational iniquity. Generally, though, we look for patterns of destruction and devouring that occur pervasively and repeatedly throughout a family. From here, we do something which we call, “identificational repentance,” a big term that simply means we:
1.) perceive, through the Spirit, the presence of the twistedness, the iniquity,
2.) identify with those in our family line who fell into this sin (as in Dan 9),
3.) confess it as sin,
4.) place that sin in the hands of Jesus on the cross, and
5.) turn away from it and turn back to God (repent).
We also ask the Lord to remove the curses and consequences that resulted from that iniquity. In other words, the process is the same process of repentance described repeatedly by the prophets, and for that matter, by Jesus. The only wrinkle unique to identificational repentance is that we intentionally choose to identify with those in our family line, rather than being like the Pharisee who says, “Thank you, God, that you didn’t make me like that sinner.” God expresses His heart for this repentance clearly in Leviticus 26:40:
But at last, my people will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors for betraying me and being hostile toward me.
In this way, we can “work out our salvation through fear and trembling.”
We must be careful, however, as we walk through this process, to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for we cannot conquer iniquity through our own power or might, but only by His Spirit, Who is released to us through our faith in Jesus. I write this as an aside, but please, let my words implore you to understand this as the primary and the most important caveat of all. Do what you must to get this imprinted; picture a drill sergeant; imagine the sound of thunder booming through these words as you reread them:
***Rely on the Holy Spirit***
So, long story short: identify with those who committed the sin, and repent, through the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I emphasize this again because we cannot manipulate God. He is indeed Jehovah Raphe. He is indeed healing. He is the liberation we seek. But we cannot force His hand by our actions, our formulas, our procedures, or our protocols into acting in a particular manner. He does it because He wants to, because He is our Father and He loves us so much He sent Jesus to bear all the weight that we cannot. He does not act because we found the secret formula to force His hand, or because of our own merits, but because of Who He Is.