An apostate is “one who separates from truth, God, and His people.” He revolts against God and is a rebel and a deserter and has fallen away. The history of God’s people is littered with many tragic and terrible cases of apostasy. No wonder the Bible commands and encourages people to be alert to possibilities of apostasy (Luke 21:36; Acts 20:31; 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8)!
The apostasy of the Israelites following the death of Joshua provides a good illustration of how it works (Judges 2:7-23). It appears that three generations are distinguishable: Joshua and his contemporaries (Judges 2:7), the generation following Joshua (Judges 2:7), and the next generation (Judges 2:10). Apostasy is typically a slow, gradual, even multi-generational process (cf. Galatians 1:6). “Christians usually fall into error gradually rather than instantly. A small compromise here, a little concession there, and before you know it the whole has changed. … It is an apostasy of attrition” (Gregory Alan Tidwell, Gospel Advocate, March 2016, pg. 15).
Three Generations/Stages in the Process of Apostasy
First generation – Silence
Once the victory has been won, or at least the battle lines have been clearly drawn, a kind of “peace” settles over the scene of the conflict. The guns are silenced, as an uneasy armistice becalms the former warzone. A kind of “battle fatigue” has set in. The war has been fought, and the issues have been settled for the immediate period. People become complacent and cease to teach the principles and make the applications which once so much concerned them.
This silence is itself a problem. Satan is taking advantage of this “quiet time” to get ready for his next offensive. Later generations are not being taught principles which will prepare them to identify the same threats in (slightly) different forms. It is important to convey Biblical truths to the next generation, lest they forget them (cf. Exodus 12:26ff; Joshua 4:6).
Second generation – Apathy
As a result of not teaching certain Biblical principles or their importance, the next generation becomes indifferent toward them. This indifference might even evolve into hostility toward these principles. People become increasingly intolerant of critical sermons. They want “truth” which is palatable and imbalanced in favor of subjects which are offensive (Isaiah 30:10; Amos 7:10ff; 2 Timothy 4:1-5). They might conceal their desires for “indistinctive preaching” by calling, instead, for emphasis on preaching which is more devotional or “positive” or which focuses on supposedly neglected subjects. While there might be some real validity to their complaints, they might also be taken to the opposite extreme and used to justify their apathy.
Third generation – Reintroduction
The third generation experiences the reintroduction of those elements which their forebears found so offensive. Not only have they not experienced the battles which their forebears fought, but they have not heard much about them or been taught the principles involved. They have not been taught to care about such matters.
By the end of the New Testament, as the second and third generations of Christians were beginning to come on the scene (1 John 2:12-13), apostasy was already beginning to arrive (cf. Hebrews 2:1; 1 John 2:18), and later generations of Christians were being drawn back to that which their forebears had rejected. While Peter wrote of apostasy in the future tense (2 Peter 2:1ff), Jude later writes about the same apostasy as already occurring (Jude 1:4ff).
If both Scripture and historical experience teach that apostasy is virtually inevitable (cf. Matthew 18:7; 1 Corinthians 11:19), why should Christians today think that they, their children, or their grandchildren are immune to it? Biblical truths and their proper applications are a “tradition” (1 Thessalonians 3:6) which must be taught to succeeding generations, for time and lack of direct experience leads succeeding generations to forget their importance (Exodus 1:6-8; Judges 3:1-2).