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Reading Classics Together

June 25, 2009

Today we come to our second reading in Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. If you have not yet started the book but would like to read along with us, you’re not too late. We are only two chapters in and you can still easily catch up.

Last week I had said that we would read chapters 2 and 3, but several participants in this program suggested that was hurrying things too much. I think they are right, so this week we will look only at chapter 2 and next week will turn to the third chapter. We will try to maintain a good, slow-for-summer pace of a chapter per week.

Summary

It is undoubtedly a little too early to get too excited about the book, but through the first couple of chapters I feel like this book is going to be one of my favorites. Everything Burroughs writes seems to smack me right between the eyes. He so clearly has that ability so many of the Puritan writers had to probe into the deepest recesses of the heart and to bring truth to bear on it.

In this chapter Burroughs looks to “The Mystery of Contentment.” The business of this book, he says, is to do just this—to open to you the art and mystery of contentment. The mystery is this: how can a person be content with his affliction and yet thoroughly sensible of it at the same time, so that he even endeavors to remove it. “How to join these two together: to be sensible of an affliction as much as a man or woman who is not content; I am sensible of it as fully as they, and I seek ways to be delivered from it as well as they, and yet still my heart abides content—this is, I say, a mystery, that is very hard for a carnal heart to understand.”

He provides seven “things for opening the mystery of contentment,” though he assures that reader that much more could be side besides these.

First, it may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contended man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world. A man who has learned how to be content can be satisfied with any low condition in the world and yet he cannot be at all satisfied in the enjoyment of all the world. It is worth sharing a lengthy quote here:

A carnal heart could be satisfied if he might but have outward peace, though it is not the pace of God; peace in the state, and his trading, would satisfy him. But mark how a godly heart goes beyond a carnal. All outward peace is not enough; I must have the peace of God. But suppose you have the peace of God. Will that not quiet you? No, I must have the God of peace; as the peace of God so the God of peace. That is, I must enjoy that God who gives me the peace; I must have the Cause as well as the effect. I must see from whence my peace comes, and enjoy the Fountain of my peace, as well as the stream of my peace. And so in other mercies: have I health from God? I must have the God of my health to be my portion, or else I am not satisfied. It is not life, but the God of my life; it is not riches, but the God of those riches, that I must have, the God of my preservation, as well as my preservation.

Second, a Christian comes to contentment not so much by way of addition as by way of subtraction. In other words, a Christian finds contentment by subtracting from his desires rather than adding to them. A carnal heart believes it can only be made content by adding such and such possessions; a Christian heart realizes that “the root of contentment consists in the suitableness and proportion of a man’s spirit to his possessions. … The heart is contented and there is comfort in those circumstances.”

Third, a Christian comes to contentment not so much by getting rid of the burden that is on him as by adding another burden to himself. This is to say that a Christian labors and burdens himself with his own sin. “The heavier the burden of your sin is to your heart, the lighter will the burden of your affliction be to your heart, and you shall come to be content.”

Fourth, it is not so much the removing of the affliction that is upon us as the changing of the affliction, the metamorphosing of the affliction, so that it is quite turned and changed into something else. “You shall be poor still as to your outward possessions, but this shall be altered; whereas before it was a natural evil to you, it comes now to be turned to a spiritual benefit to you. And so you come to be content.”

Fifth, a Christian comes to this contentment not by making up the wants of his circumstances, but by the performance of the work of his circumstances. “A carnal heart thinks, I must have my wants made up or else it is impossible that I should be content. But a gracious heart says, ‘What is the duty of the circumstances God has put me into?’” Burroughs says also, “I know nothing more effective for quieting a Christian soul and getting contentment than this, setting your heart to work in the duties of the immediate circumstances that you are in now, and taking heed of your thoughts about other conditions as a mere temptation.” Here he offers a great illustration about a child climbing a hill, but I will lead you to seek that out on your own.

Sixth, a gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires; by this means he gets contentment. “In one sense, he comes to have his desires satisfied though he does not obtain the thing that he desired before.” He does this by making God’s will and his own the same.

Finally, the mystery consists not in bringing anything from outside to make my condition more comfortable, but in purging out something that is within. Those who are worldly demand what is outside themselves to bring out contentment; Christians know that contentment comes by putting to death the evil desires that lurk within.

As I read this week’s chapter, challenged at each of the seven points (and wishing that I could read it again and again) I realized that this is a book useful for arming me before trials come. Sure, it would be a book to read in the midst of a trial, but even better, I think, it is a book to read in times of peace, in times of relative contentment. Here we can arm ourselves for those tough times, those inevitable tough times, when we will be faced with great discontentment and will have to choose whether we will embrace the circumstances and find joy in them or whether we will become bitter, allowing our circumstances to master us.

What a treasure this book is. And we are only two chapters in.

Next Week

For next week, simply read chapter 3. Then, on Thursday, swing back by this site and we can discuss the chapter together a little bit.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.
June 18, 2009

Today we start reading another classic book—Jeremiah Burrough’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. This follows some other great classics we’ve read together: Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Real Christianity by William Wilberforce.

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment was first published in 1648 and, since then, has been regarded as a true classic of the Christian faith. It deals, quite obviously, with fighting for, finding and enjoying contentment in Christ. Over the next couple of months we will be reading a chapter or two per week and then gathering here on Thursdays to offer thoughts and reflections on it. I’d invite you to read along, if you so choose, or to simply read these weekly recaps. Visit this post for more information.

Summary

In the book’s first chapter Burroughs begins with Philippians 4:11 and seeks “to show what a great mystery there is in Christian contentment, and how many distinct lessons there are to be learned, that we may come to attain this heavenly disposition, to which St. Paul attained.” He demonstrates four things: what Christian contentment is, the art and mystery of it, what lessons must be learned to bring the heart to contentment, and in what qualities the glorious excellence of this grace chiefly consists.

Burroughs defines contentment in this way: Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition. The bulk of the chapter is a point-by-point explanation of this definition. For example, he looks to the inward quality of contentment, saying that “if the attainment of true contentment were as easy as keeping quiet outwardly, it would not need much learning.” He looks to contentment as a frame of spirit, saying “the contentment of a man or woman who is rightly content does not come so much from outward arguments or from any outward help, as from the disposition of their own hearts. The disposition of their own hearts causes and brings forth this gracious contentment rather than any external thing.” And so it goes, through each word or each phrase of the definition.

As I read this week’s selection, I was immediately struck by the pastoral tone of Burroughs’ writing. I have seen this before in the other works of his that I’ve read, but it stood out to me afresh as I read The Rare Jewel. Though history has recorded the Puritans as being dour and sour and ruthless, the reality was anything but. In this book, Burroughs preaches directly to the hearts and souls of his readers and he does so in a way that is at once sensitive and passionate. He says things like, “If a man is to be free from discontent and worry it is not enough merely not to murmur but you must be active in sanctifying God’s name in the affliction.” He does not pass over the affliction heartlessly, but still teaches that even through the greatest affliction, the Christian will and must sanctify God’s name.

His passion comes out in a passage like this one. Can’t you hear him preaching this to his congregation, as he begs them, exhorts them, to submit themselves to the Lord?

But now comes the grace of contentment and sends it under, for to submit is to send under a thing. Now when the soul comes to see its own unruliness-Is the hand of God bringing an affliction and yet my heart is troubled and discontented-What, it says, will you be above God? Is this not God’s hand and must your will be regarded more than God’s? O under, under! get you under, O soul! Keep under! keep low! keep under God’s feet! You are under God’s feet, and keep under his feet! Keep under the authority of God, the majesty of God, the sovereignty of God, the power that God has over you! To keep under, that is to submit. The soul can submit to God at the time when it can send itself under the power and authority and sovereignty and dominion that God has over it. That is the sixth point, but even that is not enough. You have not attained this grace of contentment unless the next point is true of you.

There were several other quotes that stood out to me, often in just a line or two at a time. “When God casts us down, we must be content to lie till God bids us stand up, and God’s Spirit enters into us to enable us to stand up.” “In his submission he sees his sovereignty, but what makes him take pleasure is God’s wisdom.” “In contentment there is a compound of all graces, if the contentment is spiritual, if it is truly Christian.” And this one, slightly longer: “Now Christian quietness is opposed to all these things. When affliction comes, whatever it is, you do not murmur; though you feel it, though you make your cry to God, though you desire to be delivered, and seek it by all good means, yet you do not murmur or repine, you do not fret or vex yourself, there is not a tumultuousness of spirit in you, not an instability, there are not distracting fears in your hearts, no sinking discouragements, no unworthy shifts, no risings in rebellion against God in any way: This is quietness of spirit under an affliction, and that is the second thing, when the soul is so far able to bear an affliction as to keep quiet under it.”

All-in-all, chapter one was already very encouraging to me and I’m sure we’ve found here a classic book that has a lot to teach anyone who takes the time to read it. I’m glad that so many of you have chosen to read it with me. Let’s press on!

Next Week

Next week we’ll read chapters two and three. Please read those two chapters and check in on Thursday.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these classics together. So if there is something you’d like to share about what you read, please feel free to do so. You can leave a comment or a link to your blog and we’ll make this a collaborative effort.
June 06, 2009

The Rare Jewel of Christian ContentmentI wanted to offer one more reminder that we’ll soon be starting to read our next classic Christian book together. We will be reading The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. I chose this book for a few reasons, among them its status as a true classic of the faith and one that is both pastoral and applicable, even today. We live, after all, in a world that is profoundly discontent and it seems to me that many modern technologies and innovations really just lead us into greater and deeper discontentment. I think we need the message of this book as badly as any generation in history.

Here is what the publisher says about this book:

Burroughs’ writings, some published before and others after his death, were numerous, but The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is one of the most valuable of them all. Its author was much concerned to promote:

1. peace among believers of various ‘persuasions’
2. peace and contentment in the hearts of individual believers during what he describes as ‘sad and sinking times’.

The Rare Jewel concentrates upon this second aim. It is marked by sanity, clarity, aptness of illustration, and warmth of appeal to the heart. ‘There is an ark that you may come into, and no men in the world may live such comfortable, cheerful and contented lives as the saints of God’. Burroughs presses his lesson home with all the fervor and cogency of a true and faithful minister of God.

So here is the plan. Beginning three weeks from today, June 18, we will begin to read this book together. Prior to June 18, then, I’d ask that anyone who wishes to participate secures a copy of the book and reads the first section titled “Christian Contentment Described.” On June 18, visit this site. I will post an article giving a few of my thoughts. You can read this and, if you choose, post a comment of your own. And so we’ll continue until the book is done.

This book is available as part of Banner of Truth’s Puritan Paperback series. I’ve arranged for Monergism Books to carry (hopefully) enough stock so everyone who wants one can get one. You can Buy It Here.

Buy It Here

You can also find it free online, if you would like to read it that way (though I wholly recommend that if at all possible you buy a printed copy). You can find the text right here or, if you want a real challenge, a much older edition here (note the download button at the top-right). Looking elsewhere you can even find a course in audio format that is drawn from the book: click here.

May 28, 2009

It is time to announce the next classic book of the Christian faith that we will be reading together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. This program allows us to read them together, providing both a level of accountability and the added of interest of comparing notes. Those who have participated in each of the programs will now have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Real Christianity by William Wilberforce. I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too. The format is simple: every week we read a chapter or a section of a classic of the Christian faith and then on Thursday we check in here to discuss it. It’s that easy.

I’d love to have you participate in this next effort. Keep reading to find out how you can do that…

The next classic we will be reading together is The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. I chose this book for a few reasons, among them its status as a true classic of the faith and one that is both pastoral and applicable, even today. We live, after all, in a world that is profoundly discontent and it seems to me that many modern technologies and innovations really just lead us into greater and deeper discontentment. I think we need the message of this book as badly as any generation in history.

The Rare Jewel of Christian ContentmentIn one description of the book I found these words: “Burroughs’ exposition is always straightforward, often poetic. He begins by laying out a clear, precise, yet loving definition of contentment—‘that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition’—and proceeds to examine each part of this definition in detail, but not without a pastoral explanation of why he thinks it is an important endeavor—‘l shall break open this description, for it is a box of precious ointment, and very comforting and useful for troubled hearts in troubled times and conditions.’”

This sounds good to me! Here is what the publisher says:

Burroughs’ writings, some published before and others after his death, were numerous, but The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is one of the most valuable of them all. Its author was much concerned to promote:

1. peace among believers of various ‘persuasions’
2. peace and contentment in the hearts of individual believers during what he describes as ‘sad and sinking times’.

The Rare Jewel concentrates upon this second aim. It is marked by sanity, clarity, aptness of illustration, and warmth of appeal to the heart. ‘There is an ark that you may come into, and no men in the world may live such comfortable, cheerful and contented lives as the saints of God’. Burroughs presses his lesson home with all the fervor and cogency of a true and faithful minister of God.

So here is the plan. Beginning three weeks from today, June 18, we will begin to read this book together. Prior to June 18, then, I’d ask that anyone who wishes to participate secures a copy of the book and reads the first section titled “Christian Contentment Described.” On June 18, visit this site. I will post an article giving a few of my thoughts. You can read this and, if you choose, post a comment of your own. And so we’ll continue until the book is done.

This book is available as part of Banner of Truth’s Puritan Paperback series. I’ve arranged for Monergism Books to carry (hopefully) enough stock so everyone who wants one can get one. You can Buy It Here.

Buy It Here

You can also find it free online, if you would like to read it that way (though I wholly recommend that if at all possible you buy a printed copy). You can find the text right here or, if you want a real challenge, a much older edition here (note the download button at the top-right). Looking elsewhere you can even find a course in audio format that is drawn from the book: click here.

Do let me know by leaving a comment if you are going to participate in this effort.

April 16, 2009

So this is it. As of today we’ve read the final chapter of William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. This marks the seventh classic we’ve read together. I am going to offer a few closing remarks and then open it for discussion in case you’d like to reflect on the book. And then I guess we’ll have to start thinking about what comes next.

Discussion

In the book’s final chapter, Wilberforce offers “Practical Hints for Real Christianity.” To be honest, I was not entirely sure how the chapter title accurately summarizes the chapter contents. I guess I was expecting something a little bit more practical in nature than what was actually there. But no matter. This chapter seemed to tie up a few loose ends—to offer reflections on a variety of issues. Hence I will just offer some loosely connected quotes that stood out to me.

I enjoyed Wilberforce’s words about the dread of sin that is a sure characteristic of the true Christian. “Such a dread causes him to look back upon the vices of his own youthful days with shame and sorrow. Then instead of conceding to young people to be wild and thoughtless—a privilege of their age and circumstances(!)—he is prompted to warn them against what has proved to him to be a matter of such bitter reflection.” Too often I have seen Christians look back on their wild days of youth with a certain fondness or even jealousy rather than the shame that seems more fitting to one who truly understands how even then he was living in utter rebellion against his God.

His words on humility were worth highlighting. The more I read of the lives of great men, the more I see how they emphasized humility. This was true of Wilberforce. “In proportion as a Christian grows in grace, so he grows in humility. Humility is indeed the principle first and last of Christianity. By this principle it lives and thrives. As humility grows or declines, so Christianity must flourish or decay.”

Writing about people who have satisfy themselves with a kind of “general Christianity,” Wilberforce says “they feel a general penitence and humiliation from a general sense of sinfulness and have general desires for holiness.” Biting words, those, and ones worthy of reflection. Do you feel only a general dislike for sin and desire a general holiness?

I think the best words in this chapter came in the final section where Wilberforce challenged people to be true Christians because of the state of the times. He knew what a nation of such Christians could accomplish and desired that the people of his nation and of his time would turn to the Lord, putting aside their general Christianity, their counterfeit Christianity, and that they would truly embrace the Lord. The final five or six paragraphs stands as his challenge to them. It could as easily stand as a challenge to us today, as we live in nations that are quickly becoming post-Christian, looking more and more like the nation he describes throughout this book. “Let [Christians] boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them accept the duty to serve, if not actually save, their country. Let them serve not by political interference, but by that sure and radical benefit of restoring the influence of true religious and of raising the standard of morality.”

And so Real Christianity, written though it was hundreds of years ago, is applicable and relevant even today. Wilberforce’s challenge is one we can ignore, regarding it as trapped in a different nation and a different time. But we do well, I think, to see that nations come and go but the spiritual realities remain the same. At any time there are many who profess faith, but there is usually only a remnant who truly embrace that faith and who live lives subjected to the Scriptures. Our task, like Wilberforce’s, is to urge people to give up their counterfeit faith and to turn to the freedom, the beauty, of real Christianity. And all for the glory of God.

Now What?

Now what? That’s a good question. In a week or two I will announce the next book we will be taking on. I think we are going to go Puritan, though I am open to any and all of your suggestions.

April 09, 2009

Today we come to the second-to-last reading in William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. Though I am enjoying this book I can’t deny that it is not my favorite of the classics we’ve been reading. There is lots to enjoy but perhaps not quite as much that stands as a challenge to my faith, at least when compared to Overcoming Sin and Temptation or The Religious Affections. Not to complain, though, as I have derived benefit from it and, well, the purpose of this program is to read classics, regardless of whether they are enjoyable or not!

Discussion

This week we read two chapters. The first was very short and looked at the excellence of real Christianity. Perhaps due to the brevity of the chapter, I found little to latch onto in this one.

In the second part of our reading, chapter 6, Wilberforce looks to the present state of Christianity. There is a sense in which he has been doing this all along, but here he looks with greater focus on what passed for Christianity in his day. And once again, the similarities with the Christianity of our day were quite apparent. He sought to show how the state of affairs in that day were substantially worse than they had once been.

These words were worth thinking about: “Christianity especially has always thrived under persecution. For at such times it has no lukewarm professors. The Christian is then reminded that his Master’s kingdom is not of this world. When all on earth looks black, he looks up to heaven for consolation. Then he sees himself as a pilgrim and a stranger. For it is then as in the hour of death that he will examine well his foundations and cleave to the fundamentals. But when religion is in a state of quiet and prosperity, the opposite effect tends to take place. The soldiers of the church militant will then tend to forget they are at war. Their ardor slackens and their zeal languishes. John Owen has made an apt comparison: Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.” Of course we should not wish for persecution. However, we ought to be aware of our tendency to take the faith for granted and to be mere pretenders, lukewarm professors, during times of plenty.

When discussing people’s propensity to take their faith for granted, Wilberforce says this: “The time fast approaches when Christianity will be almost as disavowed in the language as it is already nonexistent in the people’s conduct. Then unbelief will be rated the necessary accessory of a man of fashion, and to believe will be considered an indication of a feeble mind and a limited intelligence.” And this is a day we are close to today. One can be a Christian today provided that he does not believe it too strongly or allow it to impact his life too deeply. We can have respect for faith, provided that we do not become to given over to it. And those who have no faith at all are gaining respect and demanding new respect for themselves in society. Wilberforce continues with words that describe us just as well: “God is forgotten. His providence is explained away. We do not see God’s hand. While He multiplies Him comforts to us, we are not grateful. He visits us with chastisements, but we are not contrite.”

And one final quote, describing where the clergy went wrong in their teaching: “They professed to make it their chief end to instill in their people the moral and practical precepts of Christianity, which they argued had been neglected. But they did so without maintaining sufficient theological foundations for the sinner’s acceptance before God or without pointing out how the practical precepts of Christianity grow out of its distinctive doctrines and are inseparably connected with them.” In other words, at least as I understand this, the clergy desired the moral benefits of Christianity but without building upon a foundation of sound theology. And such a thing is, of course, impossible. True Christianity must be built upon true doctrine. The parallels to so many churches, so many preachers, of our day is impossible to miss.

Next Week

We’ll conclude this round of Reading the Classics Together next Thursday with the seventh and final chapter: “Practical Hints for Real Christianity.”

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.
April 02, 2009

We continue today with our effort to read through William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. As you know, this book seeks to help the reader discern true faith from false beliefs. This week we come to the fourth chapter, “Inadequate Conceptions Concerning the Nature and the Discipline of Practical Christianity.”

Because this was a very long chapter, I will simply summarize it and provide a few favorite quotes for each of the chapter’s headings.

Discussion

Wilberforce begins the chapter this way: “People commonly believe that if a man admits to the truth of Christianity in general terms, we have no reason to be dissatisfied with him.” The purpose of this book, of course, is to discern the marks of a genuine commitment to Christianity—the marks of a genuine faith. So Wilberforce wants to draw a contrast between genuine Christianity and the fraudulent, inculturated Christianity so prevalent in his day and, depending where you live, so prevalent in our day.

He divides this chapter into six parts:

First, The Discipline of Christianity as Stated in Scripture. Here he looks to questions of morality, questions of Christian practice. He shows that Christians gradually become holy and that they do so for no other motivation, or no other ultimate motivation, than for the very sake of holiness. There is no self-interest in it. “In greater or lesser degrees, a warm appreciation of the excellencies of God will affect all believers. Common to all is the desire to devote themselves to God, to serve Him, and to be to His glory. Common to all is the desire for holiness, for continual progress toward perfection. Common to all is the abasing consciousness of their own unworthiness and of their many besetting weaknesses, weaknesses that so often corrupt the simplicity of their intentions and frustrate their purer purposes.” I thought this was a wise warning: “Idolatry does not consist so much in bowing the knee to idols as it does in expressing internal homage of the heart to them. It consists in feeling toward idols any of that supreme love or reverence or gratitude that God reserved for Himself as His own exclusive privilege.”

Second, Notions of Practical Christianity Generally Prevalent. Here he turns from Scripture to society, showing how counterfeit Christianity is practiced around him. He describes “the notion of religion entertained by many among us” in this way. “They begin by fencing off from the field of action a certain territory that may be fruitful and that they may even have looked at with a longing eye. Nevertheless, they see it as forbidden ground. Next, they assign to religion a plot of land—larger or smaller according to their views and circumstances—in which it has merely a qualified jurisdiction. This done, they presume they have a right to roam at will over the spacious remainder of the territory. In other words, religion can claim only a stated proportion of their thoughts, their time, they money, and their influence.” Such people, then, assign religion to a part of their lives but fence it off carefully so it does not impede on the rest of life. Wilberforce could as easily be describing our day as his own. Here is a line I had to highlight: “If the affections of the soul are not supremely fixed on God, and if our dominant desire and primary goal is not to possess God’s favor and to promote His glory—then we are traitors in revolt against our lawful Sovereign.” And another: “Bad affections, like bad weeds, sprout up and flourish all too naturally, while the graces of the Christian’s spirit are like exotic plants in the soil of the human heart. They require not only light and the air of heaven to quicken their growth, but also constant attention and diligent care on our part to keep them healthy and vigorous.”

Third, The Desire for Human Admiration and Applause. This is a point of contrast between biblical Christianity and counterfeit Christianity. One seeks the approval of God while the author seeks the approval of men. “We ought to have a due respect and regard for the approval and favor of man. These, however, we should not value chiefly. They might serve to aid only our own self-gratification. Instead, they should only furnish means and instruments of influence that we may turn to good account. Or we can make them subservient to the improvement and happiness of our fellow creatures and thus be conducive to the glory of God.” “A distinguishing glory of Christianity is not to rest satisfied with superficial appearances but to correct the motives and purify the heart. The true Christian obeys Scripture by nowhere keeping over himself a more resolute and jealous god than the god that desires to control the yearning for human estimation and distinction. Nowhere does he more deeply feel the insufficiency of his unassisted strength. And nowhere does he more diligently and earnestly pray for divine assistance.”

Fourth, The Common Error of Substituting Pleasant Manners and Business in the Place of True Religion. Writing of those who merely display pleasant manners as a substitute for true religion, Wilberforce says this: “It is obvious that the moral worth of these sweet and benevolent tempers tends to be overrated. They readily disarm us, because of their popularity and general acceptance. But they may be no more than a mask worn in public. Follow inside the home the one who displays such traits. You may find inside that home selfishness and spite that harass his own household and subject it to his unmanly tyranny.” A man can change his outward, public persona without ever changing his heart.

Fifth,Some Other Major Defects in the Practice of Most Nominal Christians. Here Wilberforce looks quickly to a handful of defects in the way nominal Christians seek to practice their “faith.” Looking to the Scripture’s clear teaching that some humans are of God and some of are of the Devil, he warns against assuming one is saved. “Such a division of those of God and of Satan flatly contradicts the general notion of so many people that if one is born in a country where Christianity is the established religion, he is born a Christian.”

Sixth, Major Defect in Neglect of the Distinctive Doctrines of Christianity. It ultimately comes down to this. Nominal Christians may have appearances of following the faith, but in the end they will always deny some of the critical doctrines of the faith. “These are the corruption of human nature, the atonement of the Savior, and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. This, then, is the great distinction between the religion of Christ and that of the majority of nominal Christians.” He concludes with these words: “We should not forget that the main distinction between real Christianity and the system of the bulk of nominal Christians chiefly consists in the differing place given to the Gospel. To the latter, the truths of the Gospel are like distant stars that twinkle with a vain and idle luster. But to the real Christian, these distinctive doctrines constitute the center in which he gravitates, like the sun of his system, and the source of his light, warmth and life. Even the Old Testament itself, though a revelation from heaven, shines with but feeble and scanty rays. But the Gospel unveils to our eyes its blessed truths, and we are called upon to behold and to enjoy ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).”

Next Week

We’ll continue next Thursday with Chapters 5 and 6 (since chapter five is only a few pages long. It should still prove a simple enough read).

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.
March 26, 2009

We continue today with our effort to read through William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. As you know, this book seeks to help the reader discern true faith from false beliefs. This week we come to the third chapter, “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.”

Incidentally, if you are interested in hearing a bit about “Reading the Classics” you can listen to the latest Boundless Show podcast. I was a guest on the show to talk about these books we are reading.

Discussion

Wilberforce begins this chapter by laying out some of the very basic beliefs of the Christian faith and says that few churchgoers are so attentive as to be entirely ignorant of them. His concern, though, is that people can hear such great truths about human sin and God’s redemption and remain unmoved and unaffected. “Let the most superficial observer compare the sentiments and views of the bulk of the Christian world with the articles of faith that still appear in their creed. An amazing discrepancy must strike him! Thus, in the minds of the crowd, religion appears to be wholly excluded from the business world and the vanities of life.” In other words, the creed people profess seems to have no bearing on their lives. Says Wilberforce, “Vainly you strive to bring them around to speak on this topic. One would expect the subject of God to be uppermost in the hearts of redeemed sinners. But they elude all your endeavors. If you make mention of it yourself, they do not give it a cordial welcome; indeed they greet it with unequivocal disgust. At best the discussion remains forced and formal.”

Wilberforce uses this chapter to write about four topics, all of which fit under the heading of “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.” He says that people have an inadequate conception of Christianity as a faith. This is shown in an inadequate appreciation of Christ, an inadequate appreciation of the Holy Spirit and inadequate conception of Christian behavior. He then looks to the validity of emotions within religion, carefully defending his view that, though professed Christians have long turned to emotional fanaticism instead of true belief, it is presumptuous “to propose excluding from the Christian religion such a large part of the composition of man.” “Surely our all-wise Creator had just as valuable a purpose in giving us the elemental qualities and original passions of the mind as He did in giving us the organs of the body.” Our emotions must be subject to our reason, but they must still be exercised. And how do we know if these emotions are being used properly? We can simply ask this: “Do they motivate the love that keeps His commandments?”

He turns in the third place to inadequate conceptions of the Holy Spirit’s operations, saying “the tendency prevalent among the bulk of nominal Christians is to form a religious system for themselves, instead of taking it from the Word of God.” We see this in the neglect of the doctrine of the influence of the Holy Spirit. People prefer to follow their own religious systems instead of relying on the Spirit to point us to God’s religious system. And finally, Wilberforce looks at mistaken conceptions of the terms of acceptance with God. Such theology is, of course, absolutely foundational the Christian faith. “If anything is unsound and hollow here, the superstructure cannot be safe. That is why it is important to ask the nominal Christian about the means of a sinner’s acceptance by God.” Here we will find that many people rely wholly or substantially on their own efforts, not believing or understanding that the Christian must depend entirely on Christ.

I enjoyed these closing remarks:

The title of Christian is a reproach to us if we turn ourselves away from Him after whom we are named. The name of Jesus is not to be like Allah of the Muhammadans, or like a talisman or amulet, worn on the arm as an external badge and symbol of a profession, thought to preserve one from evil by some mysterious and unintelligible potency.

Instead, we should allow the name of Jesus to be engraved deeply on the heart, written there by the finger of God Himself in everlasting characters. It is our sure and undoubted title to present peace and future glory. The assurance that this title conveys of a bright turning toward heaven will lighten the burdens and alleviate the sorrows of life.

As I read this book, written centuries ago, I continue to be amazed at its relevance to our day. As the French say, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same).

Next Week

We’ll continue next Thursday with Chapter 4, “Inadequate Conceptions Concerning the Nature and the Discipline of Practical Christianity.” Do note that this is the longest chapter in the book. You will not want to leave it all until Wednesday evening or Thursday morning!

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.
March 19, 2009

This is a slightly abbreviated version of my usual “Reading the Classics” post. I am in Orlando and about to begin blogging the Ligonier Ministries National Conference. I am going to need to head to the church in just a few minutes. So I will to leave it to the other participants in this effort (that’s you!) to add a little bit more detail about the contents of this chapter. For now, here are just a few brief notes.

Discussion

I tried something different this week. We had a long drive this week, traveling from Toronto to Chattanooga and, while we were driving, I asked my wife to read this chapter to me. It’s the first time I’ve listened to a chapter of the classics instead of reading a chapter of the classics. I quite enjoyed it.

In this chapter of Real Christianity, Wilberforce writes about “Inadequate Conceptions of Human Nature.” He shows that one of the keys to discerning true from false beliefs relies on a person’s understanding of human nature. He believes rightly that a proper understanding of human nature “lies at the very root of all true religion. And it is the basis and groundwork of Christianity.”

“Most educated, professing Christians,” he writes, “either overlook or deny the corruption and weakness of human nature.” Though they are forced to acknowledge that something is amiss with human behavior, they will deny sin and depravity and speak instead of frailty and infirmity, of petty wrongdoings rather than indwelling sin. “The majority of professing Christians usually speak of man as a being who is naturally pure. He is inclined to all virtue. Only occasionally something draws him out of the righteous course…” Wilberforce compares and contrasts such a view to the Bible’s understanding of humanity which describes man as desperately wicked and sinful to the very core.

He is right when he declares “They who have formed a true notion of their lost and helpless state will most gladly listen to good news. And they will have a high estimation of the value of such a deliverance.” I almost wonder if he was thinking of his friend John Newton when he wrote these words. Regardless, he goes on to say that, though talk of man’s depravity is a difficult and painful discussion that does damage to man’s pride, it is one that is necessary for one who would truly understand the great work of the gospel. “The mind listens to it with difficulty, nay, with a mixture of anger and disgust. Yet it is here that our foundation must be laid. Otherwise our superstructure, whatever we may think of it, will one day prove tottering and insecure.”

Next Week

We’ll continue next Thursday with Chapter 3, “Inadequate Conceptions of God and of Christian Behavior.”

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.

March 12, 2009

This morning brings us to week two of this round of Reading the Classics Together. We are reading William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. Last week we covered the introductory matter, leaving us this week to read through the first chapter. I am going to provide just a few introductory thoughts and then invite your comments, questions or further discussion.

Discussion

William Wilberforce’s A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity was first published in 1797. However, but for the antiquated language and the references to the Church of England, it could just as easily have been written in modern day North America. What afflicted Christianity in Wilberforce’s day afflicts Christianity today, and especially so, I think, in the United States. Where Christianity is assumed, moralism prevails. It is a concern for us today as it was for Wilberforce in his day. Real Christianity is his attempt to help his readers discern true faith from false beliefs; true faith from mere moralism done in the name of God. But “with Christianity, professing Christians are little acquainted.” For so many people “attachment to Christianity is merely the result of early and groundless prepossession.” “In a great measure, the bulk of the Christian world knows so little, and mistakes so greatly, the foundational principles of the religions that it professes!”

Wilberforce proposes examining professing Christians by listening to “the unreserved conversation of their confidential hours” because “here, if anywhere, one sees the interior of the heart laid open.” And here we will see that many people show few traces of real Christianity. Their faith is shown to the public and in polite, convenient circles; but when they are alone, their faith means nothing, their faith is nothing.

Real Christianity, says Wilberforce, forms itself from the study of the Scriptures while this fraudulent Christianity forms itself from commonly received maxims of Christendom. He describes this as a “voluntary ignorance.” “When God of His goodness has granted us such abundant means of instruction, how great must be the guilt, and how awful must be the punishment, of voluntary ignorance!” Here is a quote that stood out to me as a challenge: “Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, it does not bestow its gifts to deduce us into laziness. It bestows gifts to arouse us to exertion. … Yet we expect to be Christians without labor, study, or inquiry!” In other words, God’s gracious provision of his Word should not causes us to be complacent but should cause us to work hard, to work earnestly, to devour it, to know it, to live it. In fact, the only way we can really know the value of Christianity is to exert ourselves in the study of Scripture. It is by studying our faith that we will know the value of our faith!

As the chapter draws to a close, Wilberforce offers two reasons why people who profess to be Christian may actually persist in a state of “lamentable ignorance.” The first suggests that “it signifies little what a man believes; look to his practice.” The second, related to the first, suggests that “sincerity is all in all.” We see both of these just as clearly and just as often today; I’ve often thought they are related to the postmodern mindset that pervades the culture and the church today, but Wilberforce writes from centuries before the dawn of postmodernism. Perhaps such lamentable ignorance is a universal product of sin and not something connected to any one culture force or worldview.

I was both surprised and delighted at just how relevant Wilberforce’s words are to us today. I am looking forward to continuing through this book!

Next Week

Next week we’ll read chapter two. I am going to be at a conference and my schedule will be different than what I am accustomed to. But I will try to get the chapter posted here early in the day.

Your Turn

Reading the Classics Together is, at its heart, an interactive effort. If you have read the chapter and have comments or questions, please feel free to post a comment. If you have a blog of your own and have written about the book there, please feel free to leave us a link to your article.

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