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.
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 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.
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.