The Bible seems to indicate that descendants bear some weight of the sins of their ancestors. The Old Testament prophets confessed the past sins of Israel and included themselves as sharing in that guilt. However, the book of Ezekiel rejects the idea that a son is held guilty for his father’s actions. How are these things to be understood? Are Christian’s today guilty for sins committed by their fathers?
Consideration needs to be given to office of prophet. The prophets of Israel spoke to Israel on behalf of God. Moses, Daniel and Nehemiah show that prophets also spoke to God on behalf of Israel. As prophets they held a position and responsibility that is not held by any man in the church today. The prophet’s ability to speak to God for the nation does not exist in the New Testament church. Even if the prophets could be said to represent a principle that Christians today should follow, this kind of confession is very rare. Though Israel spent a thousand years in miscellaneous rebellions against God, the prophetic kind of confession only occurs a few times in the Old Testament.
When God decrees a fathers guilt is passed down to the children He does so primarily for the purpose of salvation. All are guilty in Adam that we all may be redeemed by Jesus. (Romans 5:19; 11:32) God does not hold children guilty as a way of penalizing them for sins they have not committed. God condemned all men in Adam that He might have mercy upon all.
In the books of Moses God warned that later generations would suffer as a result of the sins of their fathers. When one generation began to worship God they were taken into captivity. Of course, their children went with them. These children grew up in captivity, and at times had their own children in captivity. The sins of the fathers brought suffering to their descendants, but God did not hold the children guilty for that which their fathers did.
The book of Ezekiel is clear that all guilt for sin falls upon the people who commit it. While later generations may suffer because of the sins of their forefathers, God only holds them guilty for their own sin. The New Testament makes this even more clear. Romans 14 says, “So then everyone of us shall give account of himself to God.” The New Testament never calls converted slave-holders, government officials, tax collectors or false teachers to confess any sin but their own. Herod came in a long line of despicable Herods yet John the Baptist called him to repent of his own sin, not the sin of his father.
This does not mean Christians today should ignore the sin of previous generations. We ought to honestly acknowledge the errors of those who have gone before us, but we do not confess those sins as if we somehow bear responsibility for them. If a denomination, church or Christian engaged in racism or allowed racist practices, then they should repent of their own sin without making excuse for the sin of previous generations. The sinner ought to acknowledge that he has disobeyed God. However, the Bible does not place upon him any extra burden of guilt because of what his fathers did.