Awhile back, I found a copy of Real Christianity, Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs by William Wilberforce at the thrift store. The edition is by Victor Classics (2005), and it had been edited and abridged for the modern reader.
William Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian in 18th century England, and he is most well known for leading the movement to abolish the slave trade. In Real Christianity he addressed the problem of cultural Christianity in England during his time. Many people claimed to be Christian but it had no influence or effect on how they lived their daily life. (Hmm…sound familiar?)
Wilberforce does not mince words, and calls out the biblical illiteracy and behavioral hypocrisy he observed in so-called church people. Wilberforce gets to the heart of the matter. Such as in one section where he outlines 3 ways that Christians have an inadequate conception of Christianity: 1. inadequate appreciation of Christ 2. inadequate appreciation of the Holy Spirit, and 3. inadequate conception of Christian behavior.
Note the order of those 3 points. It is purposeful. Behavior is last. Perhaps you think there is a contradiction here? Wilberforce was concerned about the hypocritical behavior of Christians, so shouldn’t addressing behavior be number 1?
But that is the precise problem.
Perhaps you have heard the phrase “Christless Christianity”?? This is referring to the problem where the main focus of Christian preaching and teaching ends up about morality, good advice about life, or positive self-help/motivational principles. Morals, advice, and optimistic motivation can be found in many places (secular sources and other religions) but only Christianity can point people to Christ! Christianity is about Christ, and behavior must flow from our beliefs about Christ. Wilberforce states:
“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. By this fatal error the very genius and essential nature of Christianity imperceptibly changed. So Christianity no longer retained its distinctive features or produced the appropriate spirit that had characterized its followers.” (page 147)
We are in a similar situation today in modern America, and Wilberforce’s book from 1797 is tremendously relevant in a variety of ways. I love history. I have since childhood. I’ve never quite understand why so many dislike it. History is important. And history repeats itself. We can learn from the past.
Note the statement “the essential nature of Christianity imperceptibly changed.” In my book Positively Powerless, How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity I trace the development of the positive thinking/self-help/optimistic motivation movement in 20th century American and how it influenced Christianity. It changed the very nature of Christianity, but in subtle ways. Christ was dethroned and the self was made sovereign, rewiring our minds and weakening our faith. History repeats itself.
But I digress. In another post, I’ll share more thoughts from Wilberforce.