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Understanding the “Generational Curse” of Exodus 34:7

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Is the “generational curse” real? Exodus 34:7 says that God “[visits] the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” This worries me because my family has some skeletons in the closet — and sometimes I think past sins are playing out. Does God hold me responsible for something that someone else did?

Be assured: God does not “hold you responsible for something that someone else did.” But to understand the Lord’s words to Moses, we need to consider the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Old Testament doctrine: “Generational curse”

In Romans, chapters 5 through 7, the apostle Paul argues that, from a certain point of view, human sin and death are a corporate problem rather than an individual one. He tells us that “one man’s sin [Adam] brought guilt to all people” (Romans 5:18, NIRV) and that “sin entered the world because one man sinned. And death came because of sin” (Romans 5:12, NIRV).

This is why each one of us remains a “slave of sin” unless we’re “set free” by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:20-22, NIRV).

So here’s what the “generational curse” is really about: The skeletons in your closet weren’t put there by your dad or your grandmother or your great-aunt. They’re the work of your First Parents. You were in Adam when he broke God’s commandment. You were condemned with him. But that’s not the end of the story — praise God!

Just as you were in Adam when he fell from grace, so now, if you believe in Jesus, you are in Christ through faith. This is what Paul means when he says that “one man [Jesus] did obey. That is why many people will be made right with God.” (Romans 5:19, NIRV).

To get out from under the “generational curse,” you have to be grafted into a whole new family tree (Romans 11:11-24).

New Testament teaching: Salvation is individual

There is only one standard God uses to judge the world and determine who is saved and who isn’t: faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible confirms this in several passages, including:

  • “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12, ESV).
  • “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:17-18, ESV).

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote 600 years before the birth of Christ, and he anticipated this New Testament perspective. That ultimately, you will answer for your own actions:

“In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes. But the children have a bitter taste in their mouths.’ Instead, everyone will die for their own sin. The one who eats sour grapes will taste how bitter they are” (Jeremiah 31:29-30, NIRV).

Every individual is responsible for their own choices

In the end, the only choice that really counts is how you answer this question: “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22, ESV)

  • Will you reject Him? Will you spend eternity separated from God (Matthew 8:12, Matthew 13:42)? It won’t be because of the skeletons in your family closet. It will be because you didn’t embrace the gift of God’s forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ (John 1:17, John 3:16).

No one can make that decision for you. Not your parents, your grandparents, your aunts, uncles, spouse, children, grandchildren, or friends. It’s your decision to make. Even the worst offender in a long line of sinners can be saved if they turn to Christ.

But what about addiction and abuse?

Set theology aside for a moment. Common sense tells us that behavior and attitude problems tend to run in families. Just like physical characteristics of height, weight, hair color, and complexion.

In the same way, certain types of sin can pass from generation to generation. This is particularly true of addictive behaviors such as alcoholism. Similarly, physical and sexual abuse might become ingrained in the psychological legacy of certain families.

However, none of this should be viewed in terms of an irreversible “curse.” Spiritual deliverance is available to everyone who sincerely calls upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). And there are many sources of professional assistance for those who need practical help — pastors, therapists, counselors, and doctors.

Would you let us be your starting point for help?

If you’d like to talk more about your specific situation, call our licensed or pastoral counselors for a free over-the-phone consultation. They’d welcome the chance to hear your story and point you to hope and resources.


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