God punishes people for their own, personal sin. Nowhere in the Bible do righteous believers pay eternally for their parents’ sins. God clearly states that a son who acts righteously, even though he has a sinful father, “will not die for his father’s sin” (Eze 18:14–20). The law states, ”Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Dt 24:16).
This is not to say, however, that nothing is passed on through the family tree. Sinful patterns of behavior are often passed on to family members. For example, an environment of alcoholism, sexual abuse or violence can scar children for life. But the children will answer to God for their own lives, not for those of their parents.
There are instances in the Bible where children experience the tragic consequences of their parents’ sins. For example, David’s affair with Bathsheba resulted in the death of the son from that union (see 2Sa 12:14,18). Today “crack babies” suffer for their mothers’ behavior of using crack cocaine. Until the addictive cycle is broken, generation after generation will be trapped by sin.
The good news of the gospel is that the cycle can be broken through obedience by faith. Hezekiah, the son of the wicked King Ahaz, broke the cycle when he turned to God. So did Josiah, the son of the tyrant Amon. When children break the pattern set by sinful parents, they can receive God’s blessing. The gospel of Jesus Christ offers power to break sin’s grip on families.