Posted on Feb 7, 2010
A reference in J.P. Moreland’s modern classic, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, steered me toward another classic, this one by William Wilberforce: Real Christianity. The link there is to a modern language update published in 2007. I’ve been reading it in ebook form, so I won’t be able to supply you page numbers, and the passages I bring you will be as Wilberforce wrote them. In view of what I am going to quote, I have some qualms about even referring to a modern language update. You’ll understand what I mean as you read what he wrote. But one has to start somewhere, and I can’t object to some editor giving Christians an easy launching point. (I’ve been doing something similar myself lately.)
Wilberforce (1759-1833) is well known as one of the most influential Christian leaders of the past several hundred years. A British politician converted to Christ in his mid-20s, he devoted the rest of his life to two grand passions, one of which was abolishing slavery. His decades of persistence against slavery were met with partial success in 1807 when Britain’s slave trade was abolished by Parliament; and with final success (as far as Britain and her colonies were concerned) in 1833 when Parliament voted £20 million to be given to slaveowners in compensation for freeing all slaves. The outcome of that vote was assured just three days before Wilberforce’s death. (This story is told in Michael Apted’s 2007 film Amazing Grace.)
A man with such credentials has my attention: he understands what it means really to believe God’s word. Wilberforce’s second grand passion was to lead his country men to the same understanding. Speaking of himself in the third person, he explains in the Introduction why he wrote Real Christianity:
The main object which he [the author] has in view is, not to convince the Sceptic, or to answer the arguments of persons who avowedly oppose the fundamental doctrines of our Religion; but to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity.
Now, where do you suppose someone like Wilberforce, a man of social action and of worship, would begin his discourse on real Christianity? Moreland noted how striking this was. Wilberforce did not begin with prayer or piety, though he made both central in his life; nor did he begin with service, though he was such a great example of using one’s gifts to improve the world in Christ’s name. He began with the life of the mind, with apologetics, even.
View their [English Christians'] plan of life and their ordinary conduct; and not to speak at present of their general inattention to things of a religious nature, let us ask, wherein can we discern the points of discrimination between them and professed unbelievers? In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in them any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith which they profess, and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? They would blush, on their child’s coming out into the world, to think him defective in any branch of that knowledge, or of those accomplishments which belong to his station in life, and accordingly these are cultivated with becoming assiduity. But he is left to collect his religion as he may; the study of Christianity has formed no part of his education, and his attachment to it (where any attachment to it exists at all) is, too often, not the preference of sober reason, but merely the result of early prejudice and groundless prepossession. He was born in a Christian country, of course he is a Christian; his father was a member of the church of England, so is he. When such is the hereditary religion handed down from generation to generation, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend. Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall perhaps into the company of infidels; and, as might be expected, they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had they been grounded and bottomed in reason and argument, would have passed by them, “as the idle wind,” and scarcely have seemed worthy of serious notice.
Wilberforce instructed me in a further reason for discipling our minds, one I should have included in my list last Monday: accountability and stewardship before God.
It were almost a waste of time to multiply arguments in order to prove how criminal the voluntary ignorance, of which we have been speaking, must appear in the sight of God. It must be confessed by all who believe that we are accountable creatures, and to such only the writer is addressing himself, that we shall have to answer hereafter to the Almighty for all the means and occasions we have here enjoyed of improving ourselves, or of promoting the happiness of others. And if, when summoned to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our bodily organs, and of the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow creatures; how much more for the exercise of the nobler and more exalted faculties of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory; and for our employment of all the instruments and opportunities of diligent application, and serious reflection, and honest decision. And to what subject might we in all reason be expected to apply more earnestly, than to that wherein our eternal interests are at issue? When God has of his goodness vouchsafed to grant us such abundant means of instruction in that which we are most concerned to know, how great must be the guilt, and how aweful the punishment of voluntary ignorance!
But let us not suppose this will come without some effort; and why should it, anyway?
And why, it may be asked, are we in this pursuit alone to expect knowledge without inquiry, and success without endeavour? The whole analogy of nature inculcates on us a different lesson, and our own judgments in matters of temporal interests and worldly policy confirm the truth of her suggestions. Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry.
This all sounds eerily like 21st century America. Friends, we have some work to do