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ON VISITING THE SINS OF THE FATHERS UPON THE CHILDREN.
Exod. xx. 5, 6. I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers
upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
This is a text which ought to be known by every Christian. Every Christian ought to have its words in his memory, as well as its meaning in his heart. It may be fairly said that no man can have made any progress in christian knowledge unless he is instructed in that part of the law of God which is called the ten commandments. It is a great mistake to suppose that the ten commandments are only part of the law of Moses. God himself made a great distinction between them and the other parts of that law. The ten commandments only were spoken to all the assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness; and Moses himself says of God, that he added no more. These were all the words which were so spoken. The rest were not spoken to the people, but to Moses only who conveyed them to the people. Moreover, while the rest of the law was written by the hand of Moses, the ten commandments were “written .by the finger of God;" that is, God himself, in an extraordinary manner, caused this part of his law to be engraved on stone, without the assistance of man. We cannot suppose that this difference was made without some especial reason; nor can any better reason be assigned than that these commandments were of a superior kind to the ceremonies of the Levitical service and constitution. Our Saviour himself frequently speaks of them as containing the whole duty of man. He is so far from allowing one of the least of these commandments to fail, that, on the contrary, he carries their meaning much further than it was carried by the Jews of his time. And all that he and his apostles have said concerning our moral obligations, is to be found in brief in the ten commandments.
Hence sponsors are enjoined by the Church chiefly to provide that the child for whom they stand shall learn the ten commandments. And those who do not so provide take a fearful weight of sin upon themselves. Is it not to be feared, however, that some who undertake the awful duties of godfathers and godmothers, cannot teach the ten commandments, inasmuch as they do not know them themselves ? But let them be assured, that if they know not these commandments, they know not their own religion. "When for the time they ought to be teachers, they have need that one teach them again which be the first principles of the oracles of God.”
But, my brethren, I will hope that this is the case with very few. Your parents or your sponsors have taught you the commandments of God. Or you have heard them in our Communion Service. Or you have seen the need of knowing and learning them, and you have, by the grace and help of Him who gave them, taught them to yourselves. I will speak, then, as to those who know the text by heart; who know that it is what God has declared concerning himself. Now to many who know it well and sincerely believe it this text is a difficulty. They cannot understand how God can visit the sin of one person on another without injury to his justice ; and they entertain fears lest the sins of their forefathers should involve them in eternal condemnation and ruin.
To clear this difficulty, and to remedy these scruples, I purpose to consider the text; and from such consideration to make it appear that the difficulty may be explained ; that the scruples are groundless; and that moreover the text is a warning which may be most profitably applied to the good of our own souls.
The first remark which I shall make on the text is, that the visitations and mercies of which it speaks, belong to this world only. This is plain from the whole xviiith chapter of Ezekiel, which sets forth the doctrine in the strongest manner. Let one short extract from it suffice. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." Nothing can be plainer than this. Let not any man after this fear lest he should be punished in the next world for the sins of his forefathers. Whatever miseries his parents may have brought upon him in this life, let him believe and obey the Saviour, and they shall not pursue him into the next world. Neither again let any man be confident of reward because he is descended from pious parents. This was the mistake of the Jews, who thought that God was bound to give them eternal life, because they were the seed of Abraham, to whom the promises were made. But these were not promises which respected the next life. “ Think not," says the Baptist,“ to say that we have Abraham to our father; for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” The children of Abraham who were to receive the heavenly promises were not the natural seed, but the spiritual; those who did the works of Abraham. It is declared so often in Scripture that God will reward every man according to his works, that every true, faithful, penitent, and obedient believer may be assured that his forefathers' crimes will never affect his condition hereafter ; and every presumptuous sinner may be sure that no virtues of his parents will ever avail to deliver him from condemnation.
Neither did God, as the temporal magistrate of Israel, punish the sin of one man upon another; for we read in Deut. xxiv. 16. “ The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers ; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” It is in his providence, that he, both then and now, often makes the sins or virtues of a man the means of misery or happiness to his descendants. And if this be a difficulty in our Bibles, it must be also a difficulty in all we see and know. For that God does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children in this world is too clear
to admit of a doubt. How oft is the candle of the wicked put out! and how oft cometh their destruction upon them! God distributeth sorrows in his anger. They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carreth away. God layeth up his iniquity for his children ; he rewardeth b m, and he shall know it. His eyes shall see his destruction, and he sh.all drink of the wrath of the Almighty. And it is no less evident that the children of pious parents often enjoy advantages in this world which the piety of their parents has, under God, procured for them. Take an unholy man of any kind : perhaps he is idle ; if so, he can make no provision for his children. His children, therefore, suffer through his idleness. Yet this is the appointment of God; it is he who blesses with riches the hand of the diligent, and sets his curse on the house of the slothful. Suppose the man is not wholly idle, but a drunkard, or a spendthrift ; here again his substance is wasted and his children are the sufferers. Yet again this is the appointment of God, who punishes with poverty the sinner and his family. Or suppose the father is a sweirer, a dishonest man, a Sabbath-breaker, or a sinner of any kind : what will be the effect on his children? Will they not almost necessarily be addicted to the same vices? Is it not in the course of nature ? And is not the course of nature only another name for the appointment of God ? Again we see every day the virtues of pious parents rewarded in their children. The diligent labourer lays up for his children as well as for himself. This is no reward of the children's exertions ; it was gained for them before they were conscious of it. Under the appointment of God, it was the work of the parent only: and yet the children derive the advantage. The same may be said of pious parents in general. They set a good example, and they take care to the best of their power, to give their children a good education. These are great blessings, but they are not, in any sense, the effects of the children's conduct. The same children, under ungodly parents would have proved the reverse of what they are. These we see, are natural causes, and common tendencies; but let us remember that causes and tendencies are the appointment of God.
Thus then we learn from our Bibles, and we see with our eyes, that God does visit the sins of the fathers on the children, and sometimes to the third and fourth generation : and that he also shews mercy to thousands for the sake of them that love him and keep his commandments. And what then? Shall we say with perverse and wilful Israel, “the way of the Lord is not equal ?" God forbid, my brethren! Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should commit iniquity : for the work of a man shall he render to him, and cause every man to find according to his ways." In the next world every man will be rewarded according to his works. God's ways are equal ; it is our ways that are unequal. And when he punishes the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, he has the most merciful ends in view. Let us consider them. First let us take the case of the children, who seem to be the aggrieved party. Here we shall find that their sufferings are merciful. As no man would consent to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul; so neither would any man reasonably object to lose the whole world, so that he might save his own soul. St. Paul could say of his earthly advantages, “ What things were gain to me, those I counted lost for Christ :” and whatever we may think in this world, we shall be ready in the next to acknowledge that to win Christ, and to be found in him, is the only thing really worth striving for. Now it is true we have in the Bible exceeding great and precious promises; we have also there the most tremendous threats and most fearful terrors; and we have beside the most engaging motives to believe and obey, founded on the astonishing love of God for us his sinful children. Yet we know from our own experience that we are more apt to look at the things which are seen than at the things which are not seen ; although the things which are seen are temporal, and the things which are not seen are eternal. Now a man finds himself surrounded with disease, pain, and poverty. He reflects whence have these sprung. He knows he is a sinner. He knows, however, that he is industrious and temperate, and he knows that his father was not; the property which should have maintained him was squandered in idleness and sin. Here then is a proof at once-a proof which he can see with his own eyes, of God's displeasure at sin. It wants no learning, no talent, no labour, to discover it. The learned and the unlearned may understand it alike. It is a direct argument from the Holy Spirit of God to the soul of man. And if the sinner has been accustomed to plead the example of his father in excuse for his crimes, he may think again, and say, what is this example which I am so ready to follow ? it is an example which is already ruining me in body, and certainly cannot save my soul. By the grace of God, therefore, I will escape this danger, and take warning by the sorrows which my parent has brought upon me. Perhaps many a son or grandson has been warned by a plain example of this kind, who had read his Bible in vain, and listened to sermon after sermon in vain. And many more, who had been brought up in ignorance, have seen in their own persons the fruits of others' wickedness, and taken warning by the example, just as the shipwrecked mariner carefully avoids the rock which once destroyed his vessel, though ignorant otherwise of the perils of his voyage. Some, indeed, there are, so hardened, that they will not see the finger of God in his plainest dispensations. Yet the mercy of God towards them is not less abundant on that account. He has given the warning, and if they use it not, on their heads must rest the blame. It was part of the accusation against Belshazzar, that he did not humble himself, -although he knew what had befallen his father Nebuchadnezzar: and it will, in like manner, be an accusation in the day of judgment against all children who, though suffering the effects of their parents' sins, have not taken warning by their parents' example.
Next let us take the case of parents. The warning in the text is as merciful to them as it is to their children. Parental love is one of the strongest passions of our nature. It is often stronger than the love of life, often stronger than the very desire of salvation. Men who would sell their own souls for the pleasures of sin, would save them for the sake of their offspring. Many a man who would spend his whole property on guilty pleasures, would renounce his pleasures to maintain his children. Here then again appears the great mercy of God. This powerful motive, implanted in us by him, he engages in the service of our own souls. He speaks to us: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Will we then provoke him to distress our children? nay, our offspring, to the third and fourth generation ? Will we do that whereby we know our beloved children shall suffer ? No, says the sinner ; I cannot do this. I will bear the consequences of the wrath of God against myself, terrible as those consequences are. But I must not sacrifice my children. I must at least spare them. Thus, it may fairly be believed, many a sinner has argued, who has been deterred from his sins solely because he has known that they would bring sorrow and disgrace on his children. It may be said this is not the love of God. That is true. But still some portion of sin has been restrained, and therefore some portion of misery escaped. Beside, it often happens that a man who leaves off sinning from the fear of God, ends by loving him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge ; men begin with this, and afterwards go on with worthier motives. “Knowing the terror of the Lord,” says St. Paul, “ we persuade men.” And St. Jude instructs us to save hardened sinners with fear, that is, through terror of an offended God. And the same motive which has produced the fear of God will also lead to the love of him. For if God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, he also shews mercy unto thousands in them that love him, and keep his commandments. And those who love their children will thus desire to love God; and those who seek and pray to love him will have his love shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Thus it appears that the dispensations of Providence, even where they appear harsh, are, in truth, most merciful. And we may remark further on this subject, that, while punishments are threatened to the third and fourth generation of the wicked, blessings are promised to the thousandth generation of the righteous. For that this is the meaning of the expression shewing mercy unto thousands, is evident from Deut. vii. 9. "The Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations." The obedience of Abraham was rewarded with a blessing and a privilege to his children, such as no nation on earth ever yet enjoyed ; “ the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God and the promises." Theirs were the fathers, and of them as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Yet it was for no merit of theirs, and for no shadow of merit that all these blessings were showered upon the Jews. Not for thy righteousness, said Moses to them, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And even now, though blindness in part has happened unto Israel, God is waiting to be gracious unto them, and so all Israel shall be saved.
And now, my brethren, understanding the gracious mercies of this dispensation, let us profit by them. Are you parents? If so, it need