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Reading Classics Together

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.
March 05, 2009

Today, as part of the Reading Classics Together effort, we begin looking at the next classic of the Christian faith—William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. We’ve gone from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s nothing more than coincidence.

If you are interested in reading along with us, there is still plenty of time. Over the next seven weeks we will be reading this classic of the Christian faith, one chapter per week, and posting thoughts and reflections at this blog. You can go ahead and purchase a copy of the book or even find it online. Do note that the book has gone through many editions and revisions, some substantially longer than others; I will be reading from the David C. Cook edition edited by James Houston.

Our task today was really just to make sure we all have the book and to ensure we have at least a sense of what it is all about. In this excerpt from Wilberforce’s original introduction to Real Christianity (originally titled “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity”), we see his reason for writing it:

I’m not going to attempt to either convince skeptics or answer the questions unbelievers always seem to ask, but rather point out some of the problems with the beliefs and actions of those who already claim to be Christians. I’d like to attempt to contrast what we see in the lives of many, perhaps most, who make this claim with what I understand the Bible teaches about what it means to believe in Christ. I am disturbed when I see the majority of so-called Christians having such little understanding of the real nature of the faith they profess. Faith is a subject of such importance that we should not ignore it because of the distractions or the hectic pace of our lives. Life as we know it, with all its ups and downs, will soon be over. We all will give an accounting to God of how we have lived. Because of this fact, I’m not going to pull any punches in what I write. I hope you will seriously consider what is contained within these pages.

He offers this encouragement to his readers: “If what I write seems too rigid or austere, I would only ask that you check what I have to say against what the Bible teaches. That is the only opinion that counts. If you accept the authority of the Bible, I assume you will agree.”

So it is that simple. The purpose of this book is to help readers discern true faith from false beliefs. It is written in the context of eighteenth century England where Christian faith was assumed; there was a cultural Christianity that led everyone to claim Christian faith even if there was little evidence to back the claim. In that way it is probably not too different from twenty-first century America. And for that reason I think we will find this book both relevant and applicable. I am looking forward to diving into it.

Next Week

For next week, please read the first chapter. Then come back here on Thursday, March 12 with any questions or comments.

February 26, 2009

I posted this last Thursday but wanted to offer this as another reminder…

Real Christianity WilberforceIt is time to think about 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 and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

Today I’d like to announce the next classic. My rationale for choosing this book was that it somehow just seemed to fit. Perhaps it had something to do with the media focus on race or perhaps it was something to do with recent celebrations of William Wilberforce’s life. But as I thought about what I wanted to read next, my thoughts were drawn to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity: Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs. Here is a brief description of the book: “William Wilberforce (1759-1833) came from a prosperous merchant family. A politician by age 21, his early years were relatively unremarkable, but his conversion to Christianity in 1785 soon changed that. Wilberforce committed himself to two ambitious callings: rousing professing Christians to understand the nature of true faith, and bringing about the end of slavery in England’s colonies. Real Christianity challenged the ruling classes of early 19th Century England more than any other writings. To this day, Real Christianity remains a compelling work that soundly teaches the tenets of evangelical faith and stirs the consciences of Christians.”

I do not think we can easily overestimate the impact of Wilberforce’s life. As I read biographies of him last year, as I watched the film that traced his life, I knew that sooner or later I would want to hear him in his own words; I’d want to hear that passion that drove him through year after year of conflict.

And so this seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. The book has just seven chapters so this will be just an eight week study (allowing a week to read the Introductory matter). But I trust it will be a valuable one. As always, you can buy the book at Monergism Books (and I believe you can also find it in various places online if you don’t mind reading electronically). If you scroll down a little bit on that page you’ll see two related books. If you would like a brief biographical sketch of Wilberforce’s life, Piper’s book is worth the read. The other book is (I believe) geared to children so may be worth reading to or with them.

We’ll begin reading Real Christianity on Thursday March 5 and continue reading one chapter per week until it is complete. Please read the introductory matter for March 5.

Buy It Here

February 20, 2009

I am going to address two topics in this post, so be sure to read long enough to catch both of them.

In just a moment I want to tell you about the next classic book of the Christian faith that we will be reading together. But first, I want to announce a special reading project that I’ll be leading.

The Cross He Bore

The Cross He BoreEaster is fast approaching and I think it would be both fun and worthwhile to read a book together as we prepare to remember the Lord’s death and to celebrate his resurrection. The book that always come to mind this time of year is Frederick Leahy’s The Cross He Bore. This is a series of thirteen meditations on the sufferings of the Redeemer, beginning with Gethsemane and ending in the outer darkness. In his Foreword to the book, Edward Donnelly says, “in rereading these chapters, I found myself more than once compelled by emotion to stop - and then to worship. I cannot help feeling that this is exactly how they were written and that the author’s chief desire is that each of us who reads should be brought to gaze in fresh understanding and gratitude upon ‘the Son of God,’ who loved me and give himself for me.”

This book ranks on my list of all-time favorites (read my review here) and I look forward to reading it again this Easter. I’d love to have you read it with me! I assure you that you will find it well worth the read. The book costs only $3.75 when you buy it from MonergismBooks.com. So why don’t you purchase a copy (or two or three) and we’ll read it together. We can begin reading it on Sunday March 29 and read one chapter per day in the thirteen days leading to (and including) Good Friday. I will post a brief reflection on the chapter each morning.

Buy It Here.

Reading the Next Classic Together

Real Christianity WilberforceIt is also time to think about 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 and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

Today I’d like to announce the next classic. My rationale for choosing this book was that it somehow just seemed to fit. Perhaps it had something to do with the media focus on race or perhaps it was something to do with recent celebrations of William Wilberforce’s life. But as I thought about what I wanted to read next, my thoughts were drawn to Wilberforce’s Real Christianity: Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs. Here is a brief description of the book: “William Wilberforce (1759-1833) came from a prosperous merchant family. A politician by age 21, his early years were relatively unremarkable, but his conversion to Christianity in 1785 soon changed that. Wilberforce committed himself to two ambitious callings: rousing professing Christians to understand the nature of true faith, and bringing about the end of slavery in England’s colonies. Real Christianity challenged the ruling classes of early 19th Century England more than any other writings. To this day, Real Christianity remains a compelling work that soundly teaches the tenets of evangelical faith and stirs the consciences of Christians.”

I do not think we can easily overestimate the impact of Wilberforce’s life. As I read biographies of him last year, as I watched the film that traced his life, I knew that sooner or later I would want to hear him in his own words; I’d want to hear that passion that drove him through year after year of conflict.

And so this seemed like a good opportunity to do just that. The book has just seven chapters so this will be just an eight week study (allowing a week to read the Introductory matter). But I trust it will be a valuable one. As always, you can buy the book at Monergism Books (and I believe you can also find it in various places online if you don’t mind reading electronically). If you scroll down a little bit on that page you’ll see two related books. If you would like a brief biographical sketch of Wilberforce’s life, Piper’s book is worth the read. The other book is (I believe) geared to children so may be worth reading to or with them.

We’ll begin reading Real Christianity on Thursday March 5 and continue reading one chapter per week until it is complete. Please read the introductory matter for March 5.

Buy It Here

And do let me know if you’re going to participate in one or both of these projects.

January 29, 2009

Today brings us to our final reading in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. We’ve gone through it quite quickly but this has worked well, I think, as the book lends itself to a quick reading. This week we come to the final pages—chapters seven through eleven of Book 4. There was not a whole lot of discussion last week, but the consensus seemed to be that this is not the strongest section in the book. Lewis has lost a little bit of steam. Having said that, I think this week’s reading improves upon the last one.

Discussion

Then again, though I think that this week’s reading was better than last week’s, it was not without it’s troubling portions.

In these five chapters, Lewis focuses on sanctification, on putting aside the old man and on becoming sons of God. I found a lot of great quotes that were worthy of some highlighting. Because there were so many, I think I’ll focus on simply sharing a few of them today. Here are some favorites:

“We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are.”

“Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats; it only prevents them from hiding.”

“[Putting on Christ] is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity. Christianity offers nothing else at all.”

“Christ says ‘Give me all. I don’t want to much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.’”

“As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God—it is just then that it begins to be really his own.”

“If you are a nice person—if virtue comes easily to you—beware!”

“We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.”

But there were some areas of the chapter that were not so good. for example, in the final pages he writes about evolution and seems to have drunk deeply of that explanation to man’s origins. I find it hard to believe that a man of his insight could have believed in evolution without seeing that it is almost a religion unto itself. And yet he seems to have believed in it wholeheartedly. It certainly puts a damper on the book to have all of that in the final chapter.

There is more. I realize that this statement could be taken two ways, but from what I know of Lewis, he may mean exactly what it seems he means here: “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.” Lewis seems to have believed that other religions could lead people to enough of God’s truth that they could be saved. He does not articulate much further in Mere Christianity but apparently does so elsewhere. Obviously we need to set aside such unbiblical talk, realizing that it simply cannot be supported by Scripture.

So I guess in this last chapter we see again Lewis at his best and his worst. For every five or ten great insights (and many of them truly are great) there is one or two strange and unbiblical beliefs. And it’s too bad, really. I can see why Mere Christianity is regarded as a classic but it seems to me that this must depend largely on Books 2 and 3. It is here that we see Lewis at his finest and it is here that he is at times unparalleled. While there are moments of brilliance in the rest of the book, there are also quite a few moments I think we could do without.

Having said all of that, I am glad that we took the time to read this book and to read it together. It has fed both my mind and my soul.

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.

Next Up…

I guess we will wait just a couple of weeks and then start to think about the next classic we will read together. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments.

January 22, 2009

Today we come to our sixth (and second-to-last) reading in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. This means as well that we have come to the fourth and final book that makes up Mere Christianity. And I think we are beginning to see why Lewis is known more as an apologist than a theologian.

Discussion

Book Three, “Christian Behaviour” was, I think, Lewis at his best. I enjoyed each of the twelve chapters and thought Lewis was brilliant throughout. Through the first six chapters of Book Four, “Beyond Personality,” I’ve been mostly disappointed.

Lewis opens with a chapter on “Making and Begetting.” His opening words are useful as he shows the value of theology. “I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?” I guess people in the 1940’s must have been much like people today, feeling that theology was for theologians, not for those who really wanted to follow God. They wanted to feel God without necessarily knowing God. Lewis counters this well. While he teaches rightly that doctrine is not the same as God, but merely something that points to God, he does not minimize the importance of knowing who God is by knowing God as he is. Theology has real and practical value and he is sure to point this out.

In this chapter he grapples with the difference between making and begetting. “A man begets a child, but he only makes a statue. God begets Christ but He only makes men.” Thus God begets God, something of the same kind of himself. He is careful to show that Christ is not a created being and yet somehow is still begotten of the Father.

In “The Three-Personal God” he tries to offer a reasonable explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. His illustrations prove, as all illustrations must, just how difficult it is to explain the Trinity in human terms. Eventually Lewis concludes that we must trust that God’s explanation of himself as Father and Jesus as Son is the best illustration or metaphor we can have.

In “Time and Beyond Time” he shows how God exists outside of time, seeking to dispel the fears of those who believe that God could not possibly hear a million prayers offered to him at one time. Lewis shows that, though we cannot really understand such a thing, God exists outside of the bounds of time. However, he comes perilously close to open theism when he suggests that there is a sense in which God does not know our future actions until we have done them. I believe Lewis’ issue here is one that plagues every open theist—how God can know our future actions (thus showing that we cannot possibly do anything other than what God foresees) and how at the same time we can retain free will (defined as the ability to choose, of our own accord, the exact opposite of the action we took). Reformed theology offers an explanation to this, of course, saying that we are bound by our natures and are free to choose only as our natures dictate. But this seems to escape Lewis.

Lewis continues through “Good Infection” where he discusses a few topics that somehow did not become bound together in my mind, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers” where he looks at how men can become sons of God and “Two Notes” where he pauses to offer further thoughts on two questions.

As I said at the outset, I found this week’s reading quite disappointing. It occurred to me as I thought about it, that while I had some familiarity with the content of the previous chapters simply by virtue of the vast numbers of times I’ve read them quoted in other works, I do not recall reading any quotes from these past six chapters. And there is, I think, pretty good reason for this. While I think Lewis was wrong on at least one or two points in these chapters, more often he is just a little bit muddled. His arguments lack the force and compulsion of the chapters that came before. Or that was my sense of it. I’d be interested in learning if you agree.

Next Week

For next Thursday, please finish up the book. We’ll read the last five chapters, post some final thoughts, and I guess we’ll then begin to think about the next book we can read together.

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.

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