“The sins of the fathers......” and the mercy of God John Goris

One of the time-honoured customs in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand is the regular reading of the Ten Commandments in our morning worship services.

On hearing the second commandment read out, one cannot help being arrested by the phrase, “visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations..” (Exodus 20:5,6).

Let's do some meditating on this phrase, and its implications. Meditating in the Hebrew (and Christian) sense is reflecting on God's Word with heart and mind. It is “chewing over” the truth of God (Psalm 1:2). That is a worthwhile and enriching exercise.

As we get older we become more conscious of certain things, and no wonder (as time goes on), we are confronted more and more with the results of the upbringing of our children. (Let no one boast prematurely!)

It is then that words like those in the second commandment become particularly forceful.

As the years pass we see developments that gladden our hearts immensely. But we also see things which immensely sadden us. We see straying, rebellious covenant kids. And the question pops up, “Where did we go wrong?”

Meditate a little on these words in the home situation. That's where the focus of its application is found. What is the “sin of the fathers” referred to here?

It has to do with our worship of God: the sin of a false representation and a false expression of the worship of the true God. That may appear to be only an outward thing, but it is ultimately an inward thing! It is much deeper than a ritual matter; it is a heart matter. Even when ritually everything is above board, the heart cannot escape Scripture's evaluation that it is “deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9).

As parents we shall always have to confess that we do not serve God as we ought, and therefore, we place (consciously and unconsciously) a stained, marred and biased presentation of worship before our children. Besides that, we are inclined to “provoke our children ....” (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21).

Of course, the application of this second commandment does not just stop at home. The Lord Jesus frequently warns the covenant community against placing stumbling blocks before any one of these little ones (Matt 18:1-10; Mk 9:42; Lk 17:1,2). Let us not forget that the purer our doctrine, the more striking the contrast is when it is contradicted by our life-style. And children spot inconsistencies!

Again, it does not end here. The “sins of the fathers” can also be extended by adding unwarranted requirements over and above the Word, e.g. Col 2:16-23; Matt 23:4.

There is a need for a healthy kind of concern, when we meditate on the second commandment with the heart-searching question, “Where did we go wrong?”. But there can also be an unhealthy kind of worry. Our heavenly Father knows our needs and is a gracious Provider. We can trust Him.

Likewise, there is a need for taking responsibility for our own failures (instead of blaming others), AND there is also a need for taking refuge in God's sovereignty!

Without minimising our covenant responsibility, we need to maximise our trust in God's covenant promises. We do not know all the ins and outs of God's election, but we do know that God has chosen “these little ones” (now often grown up!) to be born in the context of the covenant. We may therefore claim the covenant promises.

We tend, however, to depend too much on our performance for purely spiritual results such as the regeneration of our children. Yet, it is the Lord's doing!

First and foremost, our attitude must be one of prayer and faith, and faith is described as being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see (Heb 11:1).

Along with this, there must also be repentance. We seek God's forgiveness for our sins.

The second commandment is not only the sternest and most searching of the commandments, it also opens the gate to God's mercy (Ex 20:6) and the super-abundance of God's grace (cf Romans 5:21).

This is why we take refuge in God's sovereignty: we trust His covenant mercies and His drawing power (Jer 31:3).

We are all sinners saved by grace, and we dare not claim any credit for our own salvation, nor for that of our children! Let us reckon more with that grace!

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