Visiting The Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children

This week’s catechism questions, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, addresses the second of the Ten Commandments:

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 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 fourth generation of those who hate me.'” – Deuteronomy 5:8–9

While the reformation of the 16th century heavily focused on the doctrine of salvation, there was also a major emphasis on reforming the family back to the biblical standards. John Calvin had much to say about the family and put a heavy emphasis on the role of the father.  Below is a brief expert from Calvin on Deuteronomy 5:9.

“But when God declares that He will cast back the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of the children, He does not mean that He will take vengeance on poor wretches who have never deserved anything of the sort, but that He is at liberty to punish the crimes of the fathers upon their children and descendants, with the proviso that they too may be justly punished, as being imitators of their fathers. If any should object, that this is nothing more than to repay every one according to his works, we must remember that, whenever God blinds the children of the ungodly, casts them into a state of reprobation, (conjict in sesum reprobum), and smites them with a spirit of madness or folly, so that they give themselves up to foul desires, and hasten to their final destruction, – in this way the iniquity of the fathers is visited on their children.”[1]

I recently read an article titled, “The Greatest Untapped Evangelistic Opportunity Before The Modern Church” which provided statistics that supported the principal promised in Deuteronomy 5:9. “Of all the studies recently published, the most telling related to the fathers role in discipleship is this: according to a report published by The Baptist Press if a child is the first person in the household to become a Christian, there is a 3.5{e0b72a53c242df1424785628340537005f8b2ebeecfbb0205a95286f7b4c8fc9} probability everyone in the household will follow. If the mother is first, there is a 17{e0b72a53c242df1424785628340537005f8b2ebeecfbb0205a95286f7b4c8fc9} chance everyone else in the household will submit to Christ. Here’s the clincher: If the father professes Christ first, there is a 93{e0b72a53c242df1424785628340537005f8b2ebeecfbb0205a95286f7b4c8fc9} probability that everyone else in the house will heed the Gospel call.” [2]

There are a couple important principles we as fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers, and the church as a whole can glean from these great truths.

First, we see the importance of fathers in the lives of their children to first and foremost teach them the faith in both word and action. Even if the mother is very knowledgeable and godly woman, she cannot replace the role of the father that God has designed.

Second, the command in scripture for fathers to be responsible for raising their children in the faith in no way diminishes the significant role of the mother within the family. Moms play a vital role in raising their children in the Lord. Timothy’s spiritual maturity had a lot to do with a God fearing mother and grandmother, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5). This truth should be of great encouragement to all mothers, especially to those who find themselves raising a child with a physically or spiritually absent father. It’s by God’s grace that he equips both mothers and fathers to raise their children. And in that grace he has also provided the church to support and encourage parents in this process.

Third, we must be careful not to draw unfair conclusions about each other’s parenting practices. Deuteronomy 5:9, much like Proverbs 22:6, (train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it) are principals and not hard and fast rules. A parent can teach their child the faith “perfectly” and they can still turn from the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord; therefore, we are to teach our children and to trust solely upon our sovereign Lord. We can take comfort that God does much of his work through the family but it is no guarantee. Therefore, we must be careful of being overly critical of ourselves or others if our children do not remain in the Lord.

Fourth, Deuteronomy 5:9 does not require perfection from fathers but it does require that they show up to battle. As a father of a young son and another one on the way there are many times I have failed as a parent. But just as in our relationship with Christ, we strive for righteousness, and trust in the grace and mercy of our sovereign Lord. As fathers, we are called to personally and actively teach and lead our children in the faith. The only way we fail at this is if we passively sit back and let the brief time we have with our children pass us by. At Emmaus, we are blessed to have many fathers who are striving to lead their families as God has called them to. Father’s of Emmaus let’s continue to encourage and spur each other on in teaching and leading our children in the faith, passing on what God has given us for generations to come!

[1] Calvin, John, Harmony of the Law, Vol.2, trans. By Charles Bingham (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2003), 75.

[2]  Brown, Scott, “The Greatest Untapped Evangelistic Opportunity Before The Modern Church.”

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warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

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