The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself
– Ezekiel 18:20
This verse often is juxtaposed against Exodus 34:7 which sounds the opposite of this one:
“… 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.”
– Exodus 34:7
The point of the two begins with Exodus – God has great patience and will “visit” or continue to discipline and appeal to His people to repent of their sin, even if it takes a long time (four generations). God was ready and willing to forgive but the danger was when parents taught their children that their sinful behavior was not just acceptable but part of the tradition of their family. Their kids learned from their parents and continued this legacy of sinful behavior.
But, Ezekiel reminds us that anyone can break the chain of sinful behavior. There was no guarantee that just because the Father acts badly that the children will automatically follow in that same bad behavior. God reminded Ezekiel that the children will not automatically suffer because of the bad behavior of their parents. The parents will not be punished because of the bad behavior of their children. Clearly, if parents were sinning there was a lack of discipline and maturity in the home; if the children were persistent in a multitude of sinful behaviors (Ezek. 18:10-13), this does not mean they were bad parents. The premise was simple: the person who sins will die (18:20).
No comment was made here about parenting; no comment if bad behavior stemmed from the bad influence of having the wrong kind of friends; no comment on the circumstances of their upbringing or social status. The responsibility of each one was to obey God and everyone was responsible for their own choices.
Ultimately, this proverb, developed by scattered truth mixed with human observation of a person’s circumstances and consequences, was deficient (18:1-4). When Jesus healed the blind man recorded in John 9 the same concern was raised: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind” – by the way very interesting to think of the implications that an unborn man’s sin was responsible for him being born blind – in any event the connection was simply that all negative problem are caused by sin. Of course, Jesus corrects that point immediately corrects their assumptions by saying that family sins were not responsible for his blindness – that this affliction was that the works of God might be displayed in him.
By the way, this was an important truth Jesus taught His men. Certainly, some sin has very adverse consequences to it; many sins seemed to have no adverse effects at all. But God never condemns sin only when it has negative consequences – sin was sinful because it violates God’s standard of godliness and righteousness.
Finally, when we face affliction, as we spoke about on Sunday, ultimately it may be so that the “works of God may be displayed in us”. That does not mean the only way the works of God that are displayed were through miraculous healing but in this case, in the gospel of John it was. God’s works in us can be displayed in much more profound ways than just healing. Affliction was (and is) a profound way, apart from just being the consequence of sin, that the works of God can be displayed in us.