7 And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. . . 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.
Judges 2:7-12 (ESV)
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals among the Victorians traces the abandonment of Christianity by certain descendants of the evangelical Clapham Sect, whose members included Henry Thornton and Hannah More. Indeed, so far did their offspring move from Christ that within two generations, Thornton’s great-grandson and More’s goddaughter’s great-nephew, E. M. Forster was a member of the socially dissolute Bloomsbury Set, which included Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.
Israel knew all about the failure to pass on God’s ways across several generations. Having brought the people into the promised land of Canaan, led them through many victories, and set a good example of trust in God, Joshua died when he was 110 years old (v. 8). After his death, other contemporaries lived on for a while, but then they too died out (v. 10a). God’s people served God faithfully as long as these eye-witnesses of God’s goodness to Israel preserved the memory of God’s greatness (v. 7). But when Joshua’s generation died out, their descendants lacked that personal knowledge of God and promptly forgot all that the Lord had done for their nation (v. 10b).
The new generation’s ignorance led them into idolatry that kindled God’s anger against them (v. 11-12), beginning a cycle repeated throughout Judges (cf. 2:14-19). Somehow Joshua’s generation failed to keep the record of all that God had done for them alive. They had forgotten that the first responsibility of parents after loving God is to store God’s word in their hearts and pass it on to their children (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-19). Hence, the parents’ failure to pass on to their children a testimony to the reality of God’s grace and power (cf. Joel 1:3) resulted in a “generational gap.”
If God’s people do not constantly ponder and pass on the good news of salvation, their children’s faith will last no longer than the morning dew. The Bible contains no guarantee that salvation automatically transfers from parent to child, a fact that should sober even Christ’s most faithful servants. Certainly, a mother or father’s life of holiness and biblical instruction are means by which boys and girls come to know the Lord. But family religion alone is not enough. One becomes a Christian by faith and grows as a Christian only through a deeply personal walk with Jesus, and a life that is hidden in God. It is a lesson so obvious that it is easy to forget. And it most definitely is a leading reason why Europe—once a thoroughly Christian continent—now copes with the emptiness of secularism’s spectre and countless young people who embrace no belief save nihilism.
Parents and pastors know within their own families and churches how easily people presume to live on their parents’ spiritual capital. While the Clapham evangelicals are praiseworthy for their gospel stand on many social ills in Victorian England, not least child labor and the slave trade, their descendants stand as reminders that Christ cannot be received by osmosis.