The Influence of the Sins of the Forefathers
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In the Second of the Ten Commandments, the Lord declares that He will visit "the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me..." (Exodus 20:5 NASV). God spoke these grave words to instruct and warn His chosen people. He had just rescued them from captivity in Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. He brought them to Himself in the wilderness to share His love for them and to reveal His ways. He pleads, "Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29 NASV). However, if His people should turn away from Him, they and their sons and daughters would come under captivity, judgement, and destruction.

The "visitation of iniquity" in the second commandment refers to the destructive consequences of sin. God here warns His people that the impact of sin doesn't stop with the sinner. It keeps going for three to four generations. Each succeeding generation must live and deal with the consequences of the sins of the preceding generations. This Biblical principle is clearly seen in the history of the nation of Israel as recorded in scripture. It also operates on a personal level, in the generations of each person's family line.

The Sin Of Idolatry

The specific sin which causes the iniquity of the fathers to be visited upon the children is idolatry. God says, "...Have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3 KJV). He knows that only He is God and that any other "god" will disappoint the hope His people place in it. The Lord then says, "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children..." (Exodus 20:4-5 NASV).

In the Old Testament, idols are crafted objects or images in which a person puts his hope and faith, trusting they will benefit him in some way. Pointing to his idol, a person in effect says: "This is (or represents) the 'god' who has delivered me, provided for me, guided me, or protected me." He then serves it with obedience, worship, and fear. Thus an idol is anything we put before God's face and say "this and not You is what I am going to trust in, serve, worship, fear, or follow after." It can be, as in Bible times, a statue of a god, or it can be a career, a person, a possession, fame or recognition, a fortune, power, or even an idea.

But idolatry is not only an issue of external things, but also an issue of the heart. Ezekiel says "Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity" (Ezekiel 14:3 NASV).

The Bible equates idolatry with certain inner attitudes and choices of the heart. For example, Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5 say that covetousness or greed "amounts to idolatry". When a person sets his heart on having something that he wants, rather than setting his heart on God's kingdom and righteousness, trusting that God in His time will dispense into his life the things that he needs, then that person's covetousness is a form of idolatry. His greed will bring forth evil desire, and evil desire inflames the heart with passion, leading to impurity and immorality. And the result is the wrath and judgement of God (Colossians 3:6), for that person does not have "an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:5 NASV).

A second example of an inner attitude being identified as idolatry is found in I Samuel 15:23 (NASV), where it says: "For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination (stubbornness--KJV) is as iniquity and idolatry." In this passage, King Saul had been commanded by God to utterly destroy the nation of Amalek. Saul defeated the Amalekites in battle, but he did not destroy all that Amalek had, as he had been instructed. Instead, he brought King Agag back alive. He also allowed the soldiers to bring back the best of the flocks to sacrifice to the Lord. Saul's motive in disobeying God appears to be that he wanted recognition from the people for the victory. He wanted glory for himself, and his stubborn refusal to do God's will on God's terms was called "idolatry." It brought him and his descendants under the wrath of God.

A third example of inner idolatry is found in the first chapter of Romans. There Paul shows that men suppressed the truth concerning God. They did not honor or give thanks to God but instead foolishly claimed to be wise. They "exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man..." (Romans 1:23 NASV). In other words, people put their faith in man himself and what he could accomplish. Thus Paul reveals humanism and self-reliance to be idolatry, also.

As the above examples from scripture show, the concept of idolatry covers a lot of ground. It ranges from greed and lust, and the desire to have our own way or to get things God has not entrusted us with, to the embracing of humanistic exaltation of man, to all self-will, and resistance and rebellion towards God.

The Consequence: Two Old Testament Examples of Captivity

When a person walks in idolatry, he or she can anticipate that there will be a visitation of iniquity onto his or her children to the third and fourth generations. Idolatry in the lives of parents, grandparents, great, and great-great grandparents opens the door for this visitation in each of our lives. It is a rare person among whose family no idolatry can be found, going back three and four generations.

The visitation of the iniquity of the forefathers functions to hold a person captive and to enslave them, to rob their freedom, and hinder their growth and maturity in God. This principle can be illustrated from the story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament.

Nehemiah went from Persia to Jerusalem at a time when the Jews who had already returned from the Babylonian captivity were "in great distress and reproach" (Nehemiah 1:3 NASV). The temple, which had been destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and deported the Jews to Babylon, had been rebuilt. But the Jews had not rebuilt the wall or fully restored the city. The Gentile peoples who had been imported into Israel under the Babylonians were hostile to the Jews, exercising authority over them, resisting and persecuting them. Thus the Jews were neither experiencing nor walking in the fullness of their covenant with God, and they were demoralized and oppressed.

Nehemiah revived their spirit and organized the Jews to rebuild the walls of the city in the face of much opposition and harassment coming from the Gentiles (Nehemiah 2-6). Having accomplished in fifty-two days this extraordinary feat, which in effect declared the Jews separation from the world and their consecration unto God, the people then assembled and asked for the Word of God to be read to them (Nehemiah 8:1). For seven days, the scribes read from the books of Moses and explained God's Word to them. As the people remembered the glory of God's plan for them as His chosen people, and realized how far short they had fallen, they responded with conviction and repentance (Nehemiah, Chapter 8).

On the eighth day, the people came together for the purpose of confessing their sins and the sins of their forefathers (Nehemiah 9:1-3). In their prayer of repentance and dedication, recorded in the ninth chapter of Nehemiah, they acknowledged how, throughout the entire history of the people of Israel, the forefathers had periodically forsaken God and turned away from Him to idols, in rebellion and disobedience. As a result, God had repeatedly allowed them to fall into the hand of their enemies. "For Thou hast dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. For our kings, our leaders, our priests, and our fathers have not kept Thy law or paid attention to Thy commandments . . . [they] did not serve Thee or turn from their evil deeds" (Nehemiah 9:33b-35 NASV).

They then describe the consequences which they were currently experiencing because of this history of idolatry and rebellion (Nehemiah 9:36-37 NASV): (1) "Behold, we are slaves today." Enslavement to one's enemies, rather than freedom, is a result of the sins of the forefathers. (2) "And as to the land which Thou didst give to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, behold, we are slaves on it." The people were captive on their land. They were unable to use or enjoy their inheritance in God, which He gave to them for their provision, safety, and blessing. (3) "And its abundant produce is for the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins [implying both their own and their forefathers' sins]." The productivity of their inheritance was being siphoned off by the enemies who ruled over them. (4) "They also rule over our bodies and over our cattle as they please." They were not free to live or to prosper in God's salvation and peace as He had called them to. (5) "So we are in great distress." The distress they experienced was spiritual, emotional, and physical, and affected all aspects of their lives.

The principle of captivity being the consequence of the sins of the forefathers can be seen also in a second example from Scripture. In II Chronicles 29:1-9 (NASV), Hezekiah becomes king of Judah and begins to cleanse the nation from the idolatry and rebellion of his father, wicked King Ahaz. Where Ahaz had "closed the doors of the house of the Lord, and made altars for himself in every corner of Jerusalem" (II Chronicles. 28:24 NASV), Hezekiah opened the doors and called the Levites to consecrate themselves and the temple. He said, "Our fathers have been unfaithful and have done evil in the sight of the Lord our God, and have forsaken Him and turned their faces away from the dwelling place of the Lord, and have turned their backs." As a consequence, "The wrath of the Lord was against Judah and Jerusalem and He has made them an object of terror, of horror, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes. For behold, our fathers have fallen by the sword, and our sons and daughters and our wives are in captivity for this."

How The Sins of our Forefathers Affect Us

If we view the experience of the children of Israel in the Promised Land as a type of our experience in Christ (remembering that "these things happened to them [the Israelites] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" [I Corinthians 10:11 NASV]), we will understand that the influence of our own forefathers' sins can affect each of us. God gave to Israel the physical land of Canaan as an inheritance. The Israelites were to occupy, cultivate, and enjoy the land, and therein be a witness to the world of God's reality and ways. In the same way, Christ has given all who are born again a new and abundant life. This life in God through Christ is the Christian's inheritance. Christ calls the Christian to fully possess it, walk in it, and cultivate it. Through his relationship with Christ, he is to overcome the enemy of his soul, reign in life, and be fruitful. In his inheritance, the Christian, like Israel, is to be both blessed and a blessing.

However, many Christians experience some degree of limitation of freedom and victory in their walk. Just like the Israelites in Nehemiah's time, they are captive, enslaved, and distressed. The forward progress they make is stolen with each step. And like the Israelites of Hezekiah's time, the state they are in causes others to look on with astonishment and terror and horror that they, as a Christian, could be in such captivity. Obviously, if a Christian is willfully disobeying Christ, he will experience such destruction in his life. But many Christians are trying with all their might to live for God and still come up against such hindrances, oppression, and backward pulling. Above and beyond any consequences of their own sins, they are possibly being influenced by the visitation of the sins of their forefathers. This visitation functions as a continual stumbling block, an open door through which the enemy exercises authority over them, robbing them, defeating them, and demoralizing them.

The visitation may come in many forms:

1. Activity and oppression of demonic spirits whose license is idolatry in the family line (I Corinthians 10:20).

2. Destructive effects on a person's soul and spirit of familial neglect, abuse, injustice, strife, rejection, family break-up, etc.

3. Ungodly ideas, world views, attitudes, and prejudices that have been received within the family system. These may even include religious attitudes of pride, phariseeism, deception, apathy, etc.

4. Habits of thought and behavior, including compulsion, self-indulgence, emotional reaction, etc.

5. Hereditary physical stresses.

Freedom From The Visitation of the Iniquity of the Forefathers

In any particular Christian's life, there may be more or less indication of the influence of the sins of the fathers. In our counseling, we address this issue and pray with our clients to sever by faith whatever influence may be operating in their lives. Prayer to deal with the sins of the fathers is based on what Jesus accomplished at the cross and through His resurrection.

Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). When He shed His blood on the cross, He paid the price to redeem His people from sin and all it's bondage and consequences, including from the influence of the sins of their forefathers. Peter says you are redeemed "from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers....with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (I Peter 1:18-19 NASV).

The "visitation of the iniquity of the fathers on the children" is actually one of the "Curses of the Law." In other words, it is the specific consequence defined by God for the breaking of His Law against idolatry. But Paul said that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us" (Gal 3:13 NASV). When Jesus was nailed to the cross, He received in His body all the judgement and wrath of God for the breaking of all the Law through all time. That means He took on himself the visitation of the iniquity of our forefathers. He received in Himself the consequences from their sins which otherwise would fall on each one of us.

Because of Jesus' victory at the cross, each Christian has already been freed from the influences of the sins of his forefathers. This freedom is based on one's position in Christ. But the experience of the freedom often does not come automatically with salvation. It manifests as one understands, claims, and walks in that freedom by faith. Satan often will not relinquish the ground he has been holding in our lives until we discern and evict him by faith in God's promises.

The first step in appropriating freedom from the sins of the forefathers is confession and repentance. In Nehemiah's day, "...The sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dirt upon them...and confessed their sins and the sins of their fathers" (Nehemiah 9:1-2 NASV). In prayer, they confessed and renounced the idolatry and unfaithfulness of the preceding generations. They brought before the Lord their condition of distress which had resulted in part from the sins of the forefathers. Severing themselves from the past influences, they appealed to God's mercy and renewed their covenant with Him.

In counseling, we lead counselees to close the door in their own lives from the influence of their forefathers' sins. In prayer, they acknowledge to God and renounce the sins and idolatry in their own family lines. By faith, they receive the freedom that Jesus purchased for them from the influence of their forefathers' sins. They place the kingdom of darkness on notice that the access into their lives through the sins of their forefathers is removed at the cross.

Having closed the door on the sins of their forefathers, the next step is to cleanse the house from their influence. When Hezekiah dealt with the sins of his forefathers, he sent the priests "in to the inner part of the house of the Lord to cleanse it, and every unclean thing which they found in the temple of the Lord they brought out to the court of the house of the Lord. Then the Levites received it to carry out to the Kidron valley" (II Chronicles 29:16).

In an individual Christian's life, family line demonic oppression must be identified and resisted. The destructive effects of the sins of the forefathers--such as the results of abuse or neglect--must be healed. Attitudes, values, and habits that were shaped under the influence of the sins of the forefathers must be put away and replaced by Godly thought and behavior. As these things are accomplished, the freedom which has been laid hold of by faith will be realized in one's walk. The captivity and destruction from the sins of the forefathers will be replaced by the freedom and fruitfulness which God means for each Christian to enjoy.

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