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