<< PARADOX V: Iniquity Visited upon Children, but Punishment only upon the Guilty >>
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.–Exodus xx., 6.
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.–Ezekiel xviii., 20
PERHAPS there are few more profitable, and to ingenuous minds, few more interesting inquiries than those upon which we are at present intent from Sunday evening to Sunday evening. There are few more profitable, as I trust we have hitherto found. We shall, let us hope, hereafter find that what has seemed to be difficult, and in some cases apparently contradictory in the Divine Word, really consists only of different sides of the same truth. It is with the Word as it is with the world. It has many sides. Remember the celebrated ancient story of the shield, which was gold at one side and silver at the other. Two travelers coming up from different sides, one asserted the shield was gold, and the other that it was silver. It is said they fought and wounded each other. But at length one happened to catch a glimpse of the other side; and then they found that both had been right, and both had been wrong. It is exactly so with the varied forms in which truth often presents itself to the soul. If we would endeavor to see our neighbors side; if we would endeavor not to forget what others see and try to help us to understand, we should discover that truth has more sides than one, and that each one is a supplement and a complement to the other. Probably many of the religious differences of mankind would be found to resolve themselves into the same thing.
An error is often nothing but an exaggerated truth, a statement quite right in itself, but which has probably been dwelt upon to the exclusion of many other views equally true. Thus there has been formed a contorted idea in the mind. Many things that are required in order that all may have their just proportion are shut out, and a hindrance is thus formed in the way of our advancement in truth and goodness. With this fact in view we would ask you to consider the two sides of Divine Truth presented to us in the differing declarations of the texts before us.
In the first declaration we are assured that the iniquity of the father is visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation,–or, as it might be better rendered, to thirds and fourths; for you will find that the word generation is really not in the text, but is printed in italics. The Divine language continues, that mercy shall be visited on the thousandths of them that love the Lord. It is clear from the most general acceptance of the words how the Divine Benevolence is manifested. You see how infinitely mercy and love abound over this visitation of iniquity. Let us, however, attend to the language of the Divine Word more closely. In pursuing our inquiries into heavenly wisdom it is important to notice exactly what that wisdom teaches. This is illustrated is the case before us in relation to the word iniquity. Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. By a very curious transformation of mind in relation to this passage and some others, the word iniquity is read as if it were punishment. Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children is understood to mean, by those who hear, and those who read very often, (because the idea unhappily got into the theological creeds of past ages,) that the Lord punishes children on account of what their fathers have done.
But the passage does not say, Visiting the punishment but iniquity of the fathers upon the children. Such is the Divine statement. The same thing is attendant upon another famous declaration one that is very commonly used in relation to another very solemn subject of theology, I mean that in Isaiah liii., 5, where it is said, The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
This also has been understood to mean, and by a large number of individuals is still understood to mean, The Lord hath laid on him the punishment of us all. Such a declaration, however, would be quite another thing.
The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity, of us all. And in the passage before us the iniquity of the fathers is visited upon the children. Nothing is said about punishment. Iniquity means depravity of nature. We are born in iniquity. Iniquity is not-equity.
Thus by iniquity in the passage before us is meant depravity. The depravity of our nature is transmitted hereditarily from parents to children. Just as the nature of the parents is, just so it must necessarily be with the children. The fruit cannot be different form the tree, the effect cannot be otherwise than the result of the cause. And in this case the result of that degradation of our nature which is caused by evil must be exactly that which it is described to be in the Sacred Volume. The pages of Revelation, and the teachings of experience agree in this, like parents, like children.
We are told, with an extreme suggestiveness, in the earliest Divine Records, that man was made in the image and likeness of God. But after the fall of man, when the children of Adam are described, it is said that Seth was made in the likeness of Adam. Adam had a son in his own likeness, (Gen. v., 3,) and so it must necessarily be. Inasmuch as God creates children through parents, how could it be otherwise than that they should partake of the character of the would in which they are formed. This law then, unfolded in the language of our text is that sublime law of hereditary transmission–that law by which all the human race are connected in one grand series of links from the beginning onwards, and will ever form one grand network of immortal beings. Each new being is formed by the Lord through the nature that has gone before; and, hence, humanity is one grand chain of being. This law is one of the most weighty character. A similar law exists in every department of creation. In the case of every plant, of every tree, of every transmission of animals, just what the seed is such will the results be. Cause and effect go through the universe. There is a regular consecutive derivation of one generation of beings from another; and so it is that the Divine creation goes on. From the operation of this law in outward nature, we find the grandest results possible.
Geology enables us to trace through immense periods of millions of years, the progress of the earth. The Almighty created the worlds through the son as their parent; and since his grand influences were crystallized and formed into worlds as the suns children, as part of the vast family of God, He still supports them as He created them, through title sustaining sun. Each earth was a vast congeries of rocks bare and naked. But by rain, and air, and time, these rocks were pulverized, or as the word in geology is, disintegrated, and soil bare and thin was formed. In this soil the Divine Wisdom deposited seeds, from these seeds grew plants. From the decay of these plants a better soil was formed, and then more and more by repeated decay, change, and progression through indefinite ages, each stratum coming from that which was less perfect below, and becoming more perfect by the action of life, at length this glorious world of ours, as it is, was formed. Through this grand chain of existence, with the law of successive development and progression, instead of rude bare rocks a world is formed as we have it, so lovely, and so good, so capable of blessing its inhabitants. The splendid marbles that acid magnificence to palaces, and adorn our homes, are the result of shells deposited myriads of ages ago. The rich harvests of today, all that is lovely in flower, and good in fruit, and those grand old growths which form majestic forests, come from deposits of ages long before. The materials of art, by means of which forms of beauty are multiplied are entirely the result of the workings of Providence, through ages astounding in their vast duration, but all connected together.
There is beauty o’er all this delectable world,
Which wakes at the first golden touch of the light,
There is beauty when morn hath her banner unfurled,
Or stars twinkle out from the depths of the night.
Now, this chain through which creation has acted for an indefinite period of time, producing so noble a result, from the hand of Divine Providence, is precisely no image of what has taken place with the world of man. The Lord made man at; first innocent, but ignorant; yet with this power of progression in him. There was this capability of advancement from the gentle but loving state in which he was when first produced. He was tender and inexperienced, yet with all the germs of no angelic nature is him.
With this capability of progression, every quality, every excellence, every attainment, made by any part of the human race would give the proneness to the next succeeding child, to start from a higher plane than that from which his parent started. This was the object of the grand law before us–continual progression, continual elevation; what the parents have won, to be continued and imparted to the children, with the tendency to greater perfection in, and the greater elevation of, the whole race. If man had not perverted this law by his disobedience and fall, the whole race would have been a constantly increasing power of ever-perfecting human love, with all its energies of happiness and perfection.
Even with our rebellion, and the tendency to wrong which has been introduced into our being, this same grand law has yet been so developed, that wonderful talents and powers, stores of knowledge, of philosophic thought, stores of good in society, have still been realized through infinite mercy. Every one may easily see the grandeur of this law as far as the good side is concerned. How much better it is that the Divine Being should have created us in accordance with this law of hereditary transmission, rather than to have made us all like grains of sand, each one independent of all the rest. If each child had been a severed creation, standing by itself, with no father, no mother, no relatives, none of those attachments which group us into families and nations, how inconceivably weak would each have been. Each child would have been a new production, with no relation to what had gone before, and no relation to what was coming alter. There would have been a sort of limitedness, a monotony, a puny being wanting pith and power would have been presented, very different from what is actually produced as a result of this Divine law. It would have been just as if in external society, when a person died, his house, his property, his estate, everything belonging to him, had sunk into the earth and disappeared, instead of being carried on to his children. There would have been no realized mental wealth carried on. But we know what a grand advantage wealth is. Take as an instance this glorious land of ours. What a grand heritage it is! What a mass of riches, fame, power, good of every kind now exists in this country, which has been realizing for a thousand years, advancement of every sort.
That is just the result of the law we are considering, the transmission from generation to generation of everything that has been acquired by our forefathers to their successors.
But evil, although it never creates anything, always perverts what God gives. Hence, the very law of transmission which is so wonderfully merciful and good in itself, becomes by transgression the law by which the iniquity of the father is transmitted to the children. But, even then, it passes on, not in the way of punishment, not in the way of actual sin even, but in the way of impulse; in the way of transmission of nature, as the power of temptation, that is all. Even the perversion of a grand law to a mischievous end, is an act of mercy. The ship that has gone upon a sunken rock, hidden before, and becomes itself a shipwreck, by remaining there and pointing out the mischief, becomes a beacon of mercy to all others. It is just so with the perversions which occur in our nature and bring in evil and punishment. The very disposition which is transmitted onward, tells the child of the mischief that comes from sin. Oh! how I wish that I could stamp this truth upon every soul before me, and especially upon all the young. There are a thousand reasons why we should walk in the path of virtue, a thousand warnings why we should quit, why we should avoid every touch of vice of every kind. But, to all other reasons, to all other cautions and warnings, let me add this,–when you are about to pass into the perversity of sin; when you are trembling and tottering, as it were, upon the path that may lead you to engulf yourselves in wrong, bear this in mind, it is not yourselves only but your children that will suffer. The time will come when the corruption of nature that comes from actual sin, (there is none from mere temptation,) will defile your offspring. When evil has tainted heart and mind, and life, and becomes actual sin, that is transmitted to our children. Until that point there is nothing that goes on. There is nothing which entering into him call defile a man, the Lord Jesus said, but the things which come out. We may be tempted, lured, our lusts excited to wrong of various kinds, but nothing is corrupted until we do that which is sin in the sight of God; then the iniquity is fixed in our nature and is visited on our children.
Hence the apostle James says in these two striking verses, And lust when it is conceived bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.–James i., 14, 15. But, in the form of instigation only, of proneness only, of temptation only, of which the Apostle speaks when he says, A man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lusts, and enticed; in that form, so long as we resist the temptation, it is really a purifying influence, and calls out new virtues. It is just like the leaven that is put among the flour, it helps to get rid of the impurity that is stirred up by the fermentation. It is that which cometh out of the man that defileth a man. For from within, out of the heart of man proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders.
Let us remember this great law, remember it to our eternal good; that the iniquity which has been DONE, passes on to our children, the iniquity that is thought of, but resisted, helps to purify ourselves. So surely as the faces of children are like the faces of parents, so surely are tempers, tendencies, impulses, dualities in parental minds all presented again with some variations, but substantially the same, in the minds of children. Children are reflections of the characters of father and mother, and various blendings of each. An old proverb speaks this truth gathered from observation, He is just a chip of the old block. We shall take no harm from receiving the instigations to do evil, but much good from bringing all the good dispositions me receive from our parents, into play. Iniquity exists in us just as it existed in the nature which our Lord took: from Mary, for that is the signification of what is said by the Prophet, The Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all;–not the punishment of us all, not the guilt of us all, but the iniquity. He took into His human nature all the impulses by means of which He could be tempted, but because of His Divine virtue and inherent infinite goodness He always resisted those impulses, and glorified, and perfected His nature until it was Divinely good, even in body, as well as Divinely good in soul.
Allow me, next, to ask your attention to our second text, The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, which I trust we may now see is only an illustration of all that me have been saying before. A son has in his nature the faulty dispositions of his parents, but he is not to bear them so long as they lie simply in the form of impulses, of proneness, of instigations.
He has not to bear them when a, child. Every child has in him these tendencies to evil, and every child, as far as his inner nature goes, is provided from the Lord with germs of good. These are implanted as a center in his little heart. In every child there is a little heaven. Our Lord Jesus said, Of such is the kingdom of heaven. There is every impulse to virtue there, every holy tendency, everything in germ, that if carried out, will become a character virtuous, beautiful, and angelic.
In the middle ages, our ancestors got into some very sad notions about children. They had a strange way of thinking about almost everything. They speculated much on what they called God’s justice, but which if used in relation to anything else, would have been called the most monstrous injustice that ever existed in the world. They said that God was so very just, that on account of Adam and Eve sinning by taking a forbidden apple, He determined to punish all their posterity then unborn, and many of whom for thousands of years would not be born, by charging them with having done this very thing that Adam and Eve had done. This was said to he the result of God’s justice. He was so very just, that little children were all born under God’s displeasure.
But the Scriptures do not rep resent little children under this ban of infinite wrath, or as it is sometimes called, vindictive justice. On the contrary, every child is represented in the Sacred Volume as being one of that class of which our blessed Lord says, It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. In the old councils indeed many strange judgments were arrived at. They seemed to have an especial spite against little children; they hardly ever met or separated without declaring that all little children were eternally condemned from their birth. They declared that it was impossible for them to go to heaven if they died, especially if they had not been baptized. For little children there was no hope, only by some of them getting faith, and it was supposed that God would only give faith to a few. When He gave faith to those few, Adams sin was entirely removed, and for those few there was hope on earth, sad happiness in heaven.
Up to the seventeenth century these councils and synods hardly ever separated without passing some resolutions embodying these astounding sentiments respecting little children. How different is that language to the language from our Divine Master. He taught that little children are under the especial guardianship of our Heavenly Father. Their angels, He says, do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven; take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones; suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God. He puts a little kingdom of God into every immortal soul, which we feel, and call conscience. It is always to be found in the human breast. Its presence is very troublesome to one who is becoming really wicked. When a young man or a young maiden slips aside from the path of virtue, this inner, better nature will speak. They will have to labor to stifle many a heavenly sentiment, many a tender idea, many a call of mercy. It is indeed a very troublesome thing for a person to make himself a fiend. Horrible thought! And how much less trouble would he have if he would live a simple, straightforward, virtuous life. What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God? The straight course is not a hard one. But when a man breaks the path of right, one violation is not enough, he must go on from day to day, month to month, year to year. Conscience will rise up and assert its prerogative; the voice of truth will come again, and again, and again. The call of heaven will whisper by night and by day, Return to thy fathers house, and learn to be wise, and good, and happy. And as soon as ever the soul in the midst of its sins will really say, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son, make me as one of thy hired servants, for they have bread enough and to spare, as soon as this state comes, our Heavenly Father sees it, even while yet we are very far off, and runs and falls upon his neck and kisses the returning penitent, and says, Bring hither the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring upon his hand, the golden token of that love between the soul and its Savior which is the essence of eternal life. The ring on his hand, and shoes of ready obedience upon his feet; such is the welcome that Infinite Mercy gives and intends for every child of man.
Of such is the kingdom of heaven.
There is, then, a center of good implanted, as there is a center of evil transmitted. There is the upper region where heaven reigns, a little heaven; and there is the lower region where disorder reigns, a little hell. Out of the heart are the issues of life and death. Out of the good and heavenly part of the heart, provided by the Lord, are the issues of life and heaven. Out of the mischievous part of the heart, derived from our forefathers, are the lower passions and impulses, the issues of evil and hell. There is a little heaven and a little hell in the same human being.
In early life, the Lord holds this evil part of man in abeyance. It is early seen. The iniquity is there, but the child does not bear it.
If children are perfectly well, they are good. When they complain, it is because they suffer. When children are in good health, and see only good examples, they are little forms of heaven. What softness, tenderness, gentleness, love, appear in the thousand little ways of childhood! They embody all the charms of endearment and loving-kindness. A little child will pour out all its affections on those whom it knows it can trust and love. It has in it the imperfections and degradations of our nature, but it does not BEAR them. The Lord bears them. As age advances, times come when temptations arise, yet even then the Lord holds our iniquities in check, and we are not tempted more than we can bear. But our characters must be formed. Heaven and hell both operate upon us; we stand between. Character is obtained by the resolution to act with the one or with the other. We stand between; yet even then we do not BEAR the iniquity until our sin makes it our own. Hell presents its incitements, heaven presents its hopes. The bliss, the peace, and the wisdom of angels, and of the Lord Jesus, the God of angels, acting through them and by them, are on the one side; demons are on the other, stirring up the souls passions, and provoking to wrong. Heaven and hell are the two great forces. The human soul is between them, and must say, Here I take my stand, I will be an angel and not a fiend; of these two things I will choose the good. Behold, I place before you, says the Lord, Life and death, blessing and cursing, choose life that you may live.
And every one who becomes an angel, every one that becomes really a man, chooses life, perseveres in choosing life, and out of that life comes out that which is in his character all which is beautiful, glorious, and happy; a continually increasing heavenly state, and at last heaven itself. The soul has not borne the weight of his iniquity; the Lord has borne it for him. Yet he must will that his evil be subdued; his little hell must be checked, beaten down, trodden under foot, and covered up. It is a wonderful conquest. Behold I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, the Lord Jesus says, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. In Psalm xci., 13, how strikingly the Divine Word speaks when it says, Then shalt tread upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him. The passions, the hates, the animosities, the evil instigations of sins are the worst of all lions, the worst of all dragons, the worst of all serpents. We are brought into actual contact with these evils, but when we turn from them, the Lord smites them down. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your pence. How beautiful those words are to me, The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father. The son shall not bear the sins of the father; the Lord bears them; and when we resist and hate them, He entirely takes them away.
In that beautiful allegory the Pilgrim’s Progress, I dare say many of my friends will remember that when Greatheart and others were going up to the temple Beautiful, they were afraid because they saw the raging lions in the way, but Greatheart pointed out that there was an invisible string that held every lion fast, and he could not go beyond the permitted bounds, so even women and children were able to pass in safety. This is just the representation of what our evils and passions are, when they are simply hereditary. Until we have chosen them and carried them out, and thus made them our own, they are all secretly chained by Divine Mercy. They are all kept in abeyance by the Lord. He bears them and controls them. When we are suffered to be tempted by them, He sustains us in the temptation. And when we conquer, He bears them away altogether.
When the Israelites came in sight of the Red Sea, and found their enemies the Egyptians behind them, they were filled with alarm. They had arrived at a spot where they were shut in between the Red Sea before, and the Egyptians behind. They did not then know what they afterwards learned, that every one of those enemies was under Divine control. To every human foe, as to the raging sea, Divine Providence says, Thus far and no farther shalt thou go. There are invisible cords, controlling them, in every direction. The Lord said to Moses, Speak unto the children, of Israel, that they ye shall see them again no more for ever. Exactly thus is it when we are in the trials of spiritual life. Temptations and dangers are always held back until we are strong enough to sustain them. The Lord has borne our iniquity, he has been our shield, our help, and strength, so that the greater part of our lives we did not know that we had these iniquities within us. It is only now and then they come up, and we behold their dark and dreadful nature. But, even then, if we stand firm, resting upon the same God that Moses rested upon, looking up to the great Savior for help, and never making our sin actual, then the Lord will say, The enemies ye see today, ye shall see them no more far ever. Combat, fight with patience against them. Conquer today, and tomorrow you shall have peace, a never-ending peace. You have received the iniquities of your fathers, but you have not had to bear them. The Lord has borne them all the way along, and at length He removes them forever. They shall trouble you no more. You shall be forever free, in the land, where,
The wicked cease from troubling,
And the weary are at rest.
Author: Jonathan Bayley—Scripture Paradoxes -Their True Explanation (1868)