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  • Writer's pictureLynn Holzinger

Breaking Off Generational Curses and the Meaning of Exodus 20:5

"You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD

your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the

parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."

Exodus 20:5

I grew up as a PK (Preacher's kid) in the largest evangelical church in my city. I graduated from Moody Bible Institute. Not once in all those years do I remember hearing about generational curses and the importance of breaking them off. Verses such as Exodus 20:5 had only to do with Old Testament times and how God dealt with sin. So why are we teaching that breaking off generational curses is necessary today?

When we moved to a different church, I was struggling with severe depression. It was during that time I began to seek out freedom and deliverance. I was told things about the demonic that I had not been taught before. Through various pastors, one seminary professor, a few books, and the beginning of our church's freedom ministry, I was introduced to the doctrine of breaking off generational curses.

Because they quoted Scripture and were more knowledgeable than I was, and because I didn't really know what the verse meant and had no reason to think they would lead me astray, I believed them; I trusted that what they were teaching about Exodus 20:5 and related verses was right. Bob Dewaay writes, "Oftentimes when a passage is unclear it is used to support false teachings. Because when many Christians are unsure of the meaning of a passage, they are less able to discern erroneous teaching based on the verses in question." (Generational Curses) Bob's statement surely applied to me. At some point, when nothing was changing, and I wasn't getting free, I did two things: looked for more teaching on generational curses and questioned if breaking off curses was biblical. It would be many years before I paid attention to those questions I first had. Today I want to tell you what came of the doubts once I started looking more closely.

Other than a few verses that say that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him, I have never read any stories in the Bible of someone breaking off generational curses nor found any Scripture explaining that Exodus 20:5 is connected to the demonic. The Bible doesn't give instructions on how to counter God's iniquity by breaking off generational curses. I had two main questions: 1) Where did this teaching come from? And 2) What does Exodus 20:5, and verses like it, mean? I will attempt to answer both questions. But first, I must define what a generational curse is and a bit about the warfare worldview.


Hank Hanegraaff says, "A generational curse is believed to be passed down from one generation to another due to rebellion against God. If your family line is marked by divorce, incest, poverty, anger, or other ungodly patterns, you're likely under a generational curse." (Are Generational Curses Biblical?)

Jessica Brodie, a contributing writer at, says, "A generational curse is also known as a family curse, an ancestral curse, or a hereditary curse. It is a curse on a family based on the sins, misdeeds, or other actions of a relative long departed and passed on for generations." (Are Generational Curses Real Today?)

I came to understand that somewhere in my ancestry, someone sinned and didn't repent. Satan took advantage of the unconfessed sin, even if it was done in ignorance because he has the legal right and doesn't play fair.


Breaking off generational curses is part of a broader warfare worldview. The warfare worldview "sees bad things as resulting from the devil and his demons. When bad things happen, it is due to the spiritual warfare people find themselves in." [1]

Through the freedom ministry, I was taught that generational iniquities were real; and they needed to be identified and removed. Iniquity was defined as "an unholy influence that entered into a family and continues to create a spiritual, physical, and emotional sickness from generation to generation" (Northwoods Community Church: Freedom Encounter Workbook, 22). I'm not sure where the Bible teaches that definition. They defined sin as "missing the mark." Notice there is no mention of the demonic and is more about sin being passed down from generation to generation. An example is given of Abraham who lied (Gen 12 & 20); his son, Isaac, who lied (Gen 26); and Isaac's son, Jacob, who lied (Gen 27). Lying was a sin that was passed down. In fact, Jacob's ten sons all deceived their father into believeing their youngest brother, Joseph, was dead. But Joseph was alive, and he didn't repeat the pattern of lying. Did he break off the generational curse? Not according to the Bible. When you read the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you will find no teaching that the sin of lying was passed down through their bloodline. If the practice of breaking off generational curses is biblical, why doesn't the Bible teach it? Why aren't we given examples of sin being passed down through bloodlines and then seeing someone break off the curse to stop it from being passed down further and at the same time getting free?

The Freedom Encounter Workbook goes on to say, "The truth - God does not torment us because of the sins of our ancestors. His desire is that we are free from the bondage and negative results passed on to us. The same victory that Jesus won at the cross is available to us today. We just need to receive what God desires for us. The same blood that Jesus shed to forgive our sins has the power to remove iniquities." Yes, God made Jesus, "who had no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). What the freedom ministry fails to show is where Scriptures teaches that we need to break off these curses in the first place. Didn't Jesus do that on the cross?

Although the Bible does not specifically define "generational curse," those who teach breaking off these curses get their definition from verses such as Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:17, Numbers 14:18, and Deuteronomy 5:9. These verses all say God punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. It's important to note that these verses say nothing about the demonic, nothing about breaking off the curses, nor anything about passing it down through the bloodline. So to use these verses to support breaking off generational curses is an addition to Scripture. And that some teachers use verses such as Exodus 20:5 to claim that demons have taken advantage of past unrepentant sin is also adding to Scripture.

I learned that somewhere in my ancestry, someone sinned and didn't repent. Someone told me that the more I knew about my ancestors' ungodly patterns, the more precise I could be at breaking off any curses. No one ever could explain why I was not successful. I did everything they told me to do, and yet I remained in bondage. That's because these verses don't talk about our need or ability to break off the curses from generations past. Because of my depression, I was told that I must be under a generational curse. I spent years breaking off the possible curses that may have contributed to my depression to no avail. I didn't find the lasting freedom I was looking for.

My earliest introduction to the concept of breaking off generational curses came from Neil T. Anderson's book, The Bondage Breaker. Neil says, "The last step to freedom is to renounce the sins of your ancestors and any curses which may have been placed on you."[2] Neil goes on to quote Exodus 20:4-5 and continues with, "The fact that demonic strongholds can be passed on from one generation to the next is well-attested by those who counsel the afflicted."[3] But believers must teach what Scripture teaches, not what experiences tell us or what "those who can attest to it being true" tell us.

Neil Anderson does not tell you where the practice of breaking generational curses is found in the Bible, nor does he say that any sense of freedom you feel afterward is only temporary. True freedom, given by God, is complete and lasting. For me, renouncing the sins of my ancestors did not bring either complete or lasting freedom. But when I first was reading Neil's book, I was convinced he was the answer. One day in a panic, I showed up at my husband's worksite and informed him I was on my way to California to see Neil Anderson. Fortunately, my husband was able to calm me down and convince me we could find someone closer for me to see, and that was the beginning of me going from one pastor to another in search of this elusive freedom I so desired. I can't speak for other people's experiences, but experience isn't what anyone should hang their beliefs on anyway. It's much more important to know what the Bible says.


Teachers such as Randy Clark and Greg Boyd say the warfare worldview was the early Church's position for approximately the first thousand years. But for the last thousand years, we have refused to fight. Instead, we have left it up to God's will. Breaking off generational curses is part of the battle we fight "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12). But without actual teaching from the Bible for breaking off generational curses or reading examples of people doing it, why should we believe it's biblical?

I am still looking for when the practice of breaking off generational curses first began. I didn't find it before and couldn't find much in researching for this article. I've seen a lot of information on whether breaking off generational curses is biblical or not, but nothing on when it became something Christians needed to do. The only thing I found is from Randy Clark. In his book, The Healing Breakthrough, Randy talks about the beginnings of the warfare worldview, so we can assume it started sometime after that. To my knowledge, there are no actual examples of anyone breaking off generational curses in early history, even when some teachers say the early Church had a warfare worldview. But in 1608, the Arminians came out with the Remonstrance, a document that challenged "the blueprint understanding of sovereignty that would make up part of the thought of Augustine, Aquinas and especially Calvin." [4] I'm not sure how the Remonstrance connects to the doctrine of breaking off generational curses, but at the very least, it gives us some insight into the beginnings of the warfare worldview.


Some questions to keep in mind when reading Exodus 20:5:

"You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD

your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the

parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."

  • What does this verse say about demons?

  • What does this verse teach about curses being transferred through bloodlines?

  • What does this verse say about verbally renouncing the sins of your ancestors?

You shall not bow down to them or worship them. God just told the Israelites in v.3-4, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." The giving of the ten commandments and, more specifically, the sin of idolatry is the context for which God is speaking in Exodus 20:5.

For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. God says, "I will not give My glory to another" (Is 42:8).

Punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. God entered a covenant relationship with His people at Mount Sanai. They were to love Him and obey the commandments He gave them. Worshiping other gods was like committing spiritual adultery and would bring consequences. At first glance, this verse seems to say that God would punish the children for the sins committed by their parents, but when you look at other Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:19-20, you find that everyone is responsible for their actions and will be punished for their own sin and not the sins of their parents. Walter Kaiser, a contemporary Old Testament scholar, writes, "Children who repeat the sins of their fathers evidence it by personally hating God." (Generational Curses) Kaiser is saying that the children also hate God, not just the parents, and therefore continue committing the same sins that their parents committed.

Jeremiah 32:18-19 (NLT) says, "You show unfailing love to thousands, but you also bring the consequences of one generation’s sin upon the next. You are the great and powerful God, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. You have all wisdom and do great and mighty miracles. You see the conduct of all people, and you give them what they deserve." A Jewish interpretation of these verses says, "Perhaps the strongest Scriptural support for the interpretation that 'poqed 'avon abot 'al banim' [visits the iniquities of fathers on sons] applies only to children who continue the sinful ways of their father has been brought from Jeremiah 32:18-19. There, in two consecutive verses, the prophet cites God's attribute of cross-generational reward and punishment immediately followed by the principle of individual accountability." (Generational Curses)

Exodus 20:6 is also an important verse for seeing God's character: "but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." There is a contrast here between God's punishment to the third and fourth generations of those who hate him and God's lovingkindness to a thousand generations of those who love Him. This contrast shows that God wants to extend mercy and grace to all rather than punishment, but because He is a just, holy, and righteous God, He cannot leave the guilty unpunished. God must punish sin, but He would rather show mercy.


In short, Exodus 20:5 doesn't teach what proponents of "breaking off generational curses" teach. It isn't taught in this verse or any other passages that talk about God's punishment to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him. Breaking off generational curses is a recent teaching that has no basis in the Bible. Christians are not victims of generational curses, nor are they responsible for breaking them off to find freedom or to keep it from passing on to the next generation. It sounds like good theology, but it's not in the Bible. Jesus broke the power of sin when He died on the cross. We are free from sin's penalty.

Although I wrote about my negative experience with breaking off generational curses, someone reading this may have had a positive experience. Our experiences, either good or bad, do not tell us what is true or false. Only the Word of God reveals truth to us. Anything we teach must be grounded in what the Bible says in context and not what we want it to say or what sounds good. Twisting Scripture, adding to Scripture, or taking away from it is never okay. Our experiences are subjective and may originate from sources other than God. Any teaching that is not from God is subject to error.

[1] Randy Clark, The Healing Breakthrough (Chosen, 2016), 37.

[2] Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker (Harvest House Publishers,1990), 201

[3] Ibid, 201

[4] The Healing Breakthrough, 39

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