By David Feddes

The son will not share in the guilt of the father, nor will the father share in the guilt of the son (Ezekiel 18:20).

There’s no question that the Menendez brothers killed their parents.  Lyle and Erik admit blasting their mother and father with a shotgun before going on a spending spree with their parents’ money.  Still, their first trial ended in a hung jury.  The jury couldn’t bring itself to find them guilty.  Granted, they killed two people, but to what degree were they really responsible?  The young men claimed their father had done horrible things to them.  If it was true, if their dad really did those things, who could blame them for doing what they did?

The Menendez murder trial is perhaps the most sensational instance of a mentality that’s becoming more and more common:  excusing individuals by blaming their family or society.

Psychology says that a dysfunctional family or a situation of abuse can do great damage to a person.  Lawyers can use this to excuse the murder of abusive parents, as in the Menendez case, or the mutilation of an abusive husband, as in the Bobbitt trial.

Sociology tells how societal problems, such as poverty and racism and lack of opportunity, tend to breed vandalism, sexual looseness, drug abuse, urban riots, and gang violence.  A clever lawyer can use these sociological ideas to argue that stomping on Reginald Denny and bashing his skull with a brick is really just an expression of rage against an unfair society.

What do we make of all this?  Well, we can’t deny that a lot of families are really messed up, that too many fathers abuse their wives and children or else abandon them.  And we can’t deny that there are many bad neighborhoods and negative social influences.  If we want someone or something to blame for our problems, there’s usually plenty of blame to go around.  But at some point, we need to ask:  Am I responsible for my actions?

I remember times when my mom or dad would ask why I did something they didn’t like, and I’d say, half joking, “Well, was it heredity or environment that made me do it?”  I got all of my heredity, every last bit of my DNA, from my parents.  I also got the biggest share of my environment, my upbringing, from them.  So if I’m the product of heredity and environment, who’s to blame for how I turned out?  My dad and mom.  I’m off the hook, right?

Heredity and environment–that’s what most studies of human behavior tend to emphasize these days.  Some place more emphasis on heredity, others more on environment, but most seem to agree that when you add up heredity and environment, you have the sum total of what a person is.  Man, they say, is a social animal.  There may be disagreement on how much is social, and how much is animal, but there’s a basic assumption that when social environment and animal biology/heredity are added together, you’ve got a complete account of why you are the way you are.

Once man is reduced to a social animal, it’s pretty hard to hold anybody responsible for anything.  Every choice equals heredity plus environment.  Every action equals heredity plus environment.  Every person equals heredity plus environment.  That’s the basic math of human nature.  There’s no place in the equation for the human spirit.  And where there’s no place for the human spirit, there’s no place for responsibility, because responsibility is spiritual in character.

We’ve seen shrewd defense lawyers blame their clients’ crimes on their environment.  They blame abusive parents in the Menendez murders, an abusive spouse in the Bobbitt mutilation, and an unfair society for the Reginald Denny beating.  When someone shoots an abortionist, the lawyers blame pro-life rallies for inciting the killer.  When teenagers commit a ghastly crime, the lawyers blame a movie or a rap singer for giving them the idea.  When a rapist is on trial, the lawyers blame publishers of pornography.  The argument is that people who commit crimes are somehow less responsible, or not responsible at all, if something in their environment prompted them to do what they did.

I’m just wondering how long it will be before lawyers who lose a case based on this environment argument will try an appeal based on a heredity argument.  Why not run a genetic test on their client to see if he has a gene that one study or another has linked with aggressive behavior?  If he has the gene, you can’t hold him responsible for his actions, can you?  “Members of the jury, how can you blame this poor fellow for his heredity?  He can’t help it if he was born with the genes to be violent.”

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in commenting on trials that have been sensationalized by the media, or in trying to analyze the latest shenanigans of high-powered defense lawyers.    But I do want to say at least two things at this point:  First, there’s more to being human than heredity and environment.  We are spiritual beings created in the image of a God who is Spirit.  The physical and social aspects of humanness are important, but so is the spiritual.  Second, the fact that we are spiritual beings means that each one of us is responsible before God for who we are and how we behave.  We inherit certain genes from our parents, we grow up in a certain family situation, we live in a particular neighborhood and society, but important as these things are, they don’t determine our identity or excuse our actions when we sin against God and against others.

Your father can help you greatly or harm you terribly in the way he treats you and the example he sets for you, but you must still take responsibility for yourself.  If your life is a mess, don’t blame dad or anyone else.  Instead, accept responsibility before God for your situation and see if there’s a way out.  When we come to God asking for help instead of offering excuses, he rescues us and makes us new.  That’s why we need to be honest about our sin and take responsibility for it.

No matter what others have done to influence you, you need to come to terms with how you stand before God yourself.  If you’ve been blessed with a good father, you can be very thankful.  But don’t think that because he’s good, you can ride his coattails into heaven.  If you’ve had a bad dad, it’s sad.  But don’t think you’re not responsible if you become bad yourself.  Don’t blame dad.  There’s another road you could be following.

Does this mean that people who influence you for evil aren’t responsible for what they do?  They’re responsible, all right.  The abusive father who assaults the body and spirit of a child, the alcoholic who manipulates everyone around her, the bigot who tries to destroy the dignity and opportunities of other races, the drug dealer who gets rich luring people into deadly addictions, the pornographer who seduces people with sexual filth, the heavy metal band that gets rich inciting teens to kill themselves, the rapper who promotes rape and murder–these are all responsible, and they face dreadful judgment.  Jesus said,

Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin (Luke 17:1-2).

So people who influence others for evil are responsible for what they’ve done.

But does that mean the people they influence are therefore not responsible for falling into evil?  Well, the Bible makes it very plain that although you’re not responsible for what others do to you or how they tempt you, you are responsible for how you deal with it.  God tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  Nobody is a mere victim.  You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.  You are either overcome by evil and become evil yourself, or else you overcome evil with good.

People who abuse others were often abused by their own parents.  Those who become alcoholics often grew up with an alcoholic parent.  The new generation repeats the sin of the old one.  That’s understandable, but it’s not excusable.  The cycle of sin is vicious and powerful from generation to generation, but every person who continues the cycle is responsible for doing so.

When we blame our parents and our world for our own sinfulness, there’s a sense in which we’re right, of course.  We do indeed inherit a sinful nature from our parents, and we often learn the details of particular sins from the example of others.  We can blame our parents for passing sin on to us, and they in turn can blame their parents, and that generation could blame their parents, going all the way back to Adam and Eve.  And when we get back that far, we find that Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.

We’ve all been tempted by someone else.  We’ve all inherited a sinful nature from someone else.  But does this mean none of us is responsible?  No, it means all of us are responsible.  Every person who continues the cycle of sin from generation to generation is responsible for his or her own part in it.  Instead of blaming others for the mess we’re in, we should admit our own part in it and start looking for a way out.

In Ezekiel 18, the Lord speaks to people who were suffering the consequences of sin, and who blamed it all on the previous generation.  At the deepest level, they even blamed God.  They remembered that when God gave the Ten Commandments, he said, “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” (Exodus 20:5-6).  The people of Ezekiel’s day didn’t think that sounded fair.  Why should God punish people for the sins of earlier generations?  These people figured it wasn’t their fault if they were suffering under God’s wrath.  It was their fathers’ fault for sinning, and also God’s fault for having an unfair policy of punishing the next generation.

Well, through the prophet Ezekiel, God said he would put an end to that kind of talk.  Did the Lord punish people in the third or fourth generation for no reason except that those in an earlier generation had hated him?  No, the third and fourth generations were punished because they hated God right along with their fathers.  They were caught in the cycle of punishment only because they were carrying on the cycle of sin.  Each generation is responsible for its own sin.  Each person is responsible for his or her own sin.  So don’t blame dad.

“For every living soul belongs to me,” says the Lord in Ezekiel 18, “the father as well as the son–both alike belong to me.  The soul who sins is the one who will die.”  God then drives the point home with a series of examples.

“Suppose,” he says, “there is a righteous man who does what is just and right.”  He stays away from idol worship.  He doesn’t have affairs with other people’s wives; he avoids degrading sexual behavior.  He doesn’t oppress others or exploit people who owe him.  He doesn’t steal.  He gives food and clothing to those in need.  When he makes a loan, he doesn’t charge outrageous interest.  He refrains from doing wrong.  He is unprejudiced and doesn’t play favorites when there’s dispute to settle.  He obeys God’s commands and keeps his laws.  “‘That man is righteous;  he will surely live,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.”

But, God continues, suppose this good man has a violent, good-for-nothing son who is just the opposite of his father.  He rejects the Lord and wallows in false religion.  He defiles his neighbor’s wife.  He oppresses the poor and needy.  He commits robbery.  He keeps things he should have returned to their owner.  He trusts idols.  He does detestable things.  He gets rich charging the interest rates of a loan shark.  Now, can a wicked man like this enjoy the Lord’s favor by riding his good father’s coattails?  “Will such a man live?” says the Lord.  “He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.”

“But,” the Lord goes on, “suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things.”  He sees his dad’s rotten example but then does the exact opposite.  He stays away from false religion.  He doesn’t trust idols.  He doesn’t defile his neighbor’s wife.  He doesn’t oppress others or exploit people who owe him.  He doesn’t steal.  He gives food and clothing to those in need.  He refrains from doing wrong.  When he makes a loan, he doesn’t charge outrageous interest.  He obeys God’s commands and keeps his laws.  Will God reject such a man just because his father was evil?  No!  “He will not die for his father’s sin,” says the Lord.  “He will surely live.  But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what was wrong among his people.”

“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’  Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live.  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.”

God will judge you for your own character and actions, not for what your parents are like.  If you turn away from God, you can have the saintliest parents in the world, but you’ll still end up in hell.  If you trust God and follow his Way, you can have the most corrupt parents in the world, but you’ll still end up in heaven.  You can be glad if you’ve had good parents, and you can be sad if you’ve had bad parents, but in the end, you still need to face the question:  What kind of person are you?  Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?  Are you walking the road to hell or the road to heaven?  No matter what your parents are like, what kind of person are you?  Are you right with God?

The Bible’s history of the kings of Judah shows us a real-life example of the sort of thing God talks about in Ezekiel 18.  King Jotham, says the Bible, was “a man who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord…  Jotham grew powerful because he walked steadfastly before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 27:2,6).

Jotham was good, the salt of the earth, but his son Ahaz was bad, the scum of the earth.  Ahaz did just about everything possible to enrage God.  He worshipped idols, and he even burned some of his own sons as human sacrifices.

When this horrible man finally died, his son Hezekiah became king.  Hezekiah turned out to be the opposite of his vile father.  He followed the Lord with all his heart.  He ruled the people with justice and compassion.  Hezekiah was one of the best kings God’s people ever had.

Clearly, having an evil father didn’t mean the son had to continue in evil, and having a good father didn’t guarantee that the son would be good.  Each generation had to answer for itself. Ahaz had good Jotham as a father but turned out to be evil.

Hezekiah had wicked Ahaz as a father, but turned out to be good.

And what kind of son did Hezekiah have?  His son Manasseh turned out to be a monster.  Manasseh promoted all sorts of idol worship and witchcraft.  He burned his own sons as human sacrifices.  He set up a carved idol right in God’s holy temple.  The Bible says “Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end” (2 Kings 21:16).  Obviously, then, it’s possible for change to happen from one generation to the next, for better or for worse.

Ezekiel 18 shows that God holds each person and each generation responsible for itself.  Don’t blame dad.  If dad is bad, find out how you can be different.  Be part of the solution, not part of the ongoing problem.  You don’t have to keep repeating your dad’s mistakes.

What’s more, says God, you don’t have to keep repeating your own mistakes.  You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, even if it’s possible to be different from your parents, it’s too late for me.  I’ve sunk deep into sin myself.  Even if God doesn’t punish me for my parents’ sins, I’m still lost.  I’ve been living without God, I’ve lived a life of sin, and that’s just the way I am.  It’s too late for me to change.”

But listen to what comes next in Ezekiel 18.  After saying that you don’t have to be trapped by your parents’ guilt, God goes on to say that you don’t even have to be trapped by your own guilt.  “The wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him,” says God.

But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live;  he will not die.  None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him.  Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live.  Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?

No matter how evil you’ve been, God can give you a fresh start.  Let’s go back for a moment to Manasseh, the monster who rejected the example of his good father Hezekiah, who wallowed in witchcraft, who burned his own sons, and who made his kingdom a bloodbath.  Here’s the rest of the story.

When God’s prophets warned Manasseh, he reacted by becoming even worse.  So the Lord brought an invading army from Assyria.  They “took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him in bronze shackles,” and took him off to a dungeon in Babylon.

In his distress, says the Bible, he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom.  Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

Isn’t that amazing?  God was willing to give even a monster like Manasseh a fresh start when he rejected his old ways and prayed for God’s help.

And that’s what God calls you and me to do.  Take responsibility.  Stop dwelling on your parents or your past, and ask God’s help to enter a different future.  Listen to the end of Ezekiel 18.  This is God speaking to you:

I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord.  Repent!  Turn away from all your offenses;  then sin will not be your downfall.  Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit…  For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord.  Repent and live!

How can God simply forget the sins of your past?  By nailing them to the cross of Christ.  Put your faith in Jesus, and you will find that he bore your sins in his own body when he hung on the cross.  He took the punishment you and I deserve.  God can forget our evil past and bring us back to himself.

How can you break with the old nature you’ve inherited from your parents going all the way back to Adam?  By faith you are no longer just a sinner in Adam but a child of God in Christ.  “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

How can you “get a new heart and a new spirit” and have new desires and a new way of life?  God says in Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

My friend, get rid of your excuses.  Don’t blame dad.  Don’t say you’re in so deep that it’s too late for you to change.  Get rid of the excuses, and take responsibility. Get rid of your sins: trust that Jesus took them on himself on Calvary.  Get a new heart and a new spirit:  receive God’s Spirit through faith in Christ.  Whatever your earthly father’s been like, put yourself in the hands of your heavenly Father. “Repent and live!”


Father in heaven, your judgments are just, and your grace is amazing.  Humble each of us under your judgment which holds us responsible.  Then lift us up by your grace into new life.  Help those who have just heard this message to believe accept your pardon through the blood of Christ, and send your Holy Spirit into their hearts.  We ask this, not because we deserve it, but because of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.