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.
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).”