Question: When parents dedicate their children to the Lord then backslide, how far does God hold the parents and disobedient children accountable?
The limit of parental accountability is an emotional as well as spiritual issue. We all know stories of poor parenting where the children have grown up to be responsible, spiritually mature adults, and great parents whose children rebel and become a source of grief to their parents. In the latter case, the parents cannot help but ask, ‘Where did we go wrong?’
The truth is, responsibility and accountability are both shared by parent and child, once the child becomes personally responsible for his or her own actions. There is no magical age of accountability here.
There was a popular belief in ancient Israel that God would punish parents for the sins of their children and even grandchildren. Behind this belief was a misunderstanding of the second commandment:
… I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me… (Ex. 20:5).
The “punishment” is aimed at “those who hate me.” If the sin of idolatry is passed down from one generation to the next, it will reveal itself in each generation in a hatred for God, and that generation will be punished for its own sin. This commandment against idolatry reveals how sin is so easily passed on from one generation to the next; but that punishment for the sin is leveled only against those who actually commit it:
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin (Deut. 24:16).
Even so, the idea that parents would be held responsible by God for the sins of their children took on the form of a popular saying:
‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezek. 18:2b).
God set the record straight through the prophet Ezekiel:
Ezek. 18:4 For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.
And to make sure that Israel got the message right, the Lord emphasized again:
Ezek. 18:20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.
There is no question that God will hold parents responsible for the way they raise their children, as the story of Eli and his wayward sons illustrates (1 Sam 2:22; 1 Sam. 3:12-14; 1 Sam. 4:13-18; 1 Ki. 2:27). But God is just; He does not charge the sins of the children to the parents, or the sins of the parents against their children.