In 1797, with the battle against the slave trade under way, William Wilberforce wrote the first of his three books, with the imposing title A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middles Classes of this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. Today it is often referred to in more manageable terms, such as A Practical View of Christianity. As a parliamentarian, in the House of Commons, Wilberforce argued as one who was immersed in the Scriptures. Hence he referred to ‘the fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines’, adding that ‘Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.’
We think this way in other areas of our lives. If we have hopes – or pretensions – of competing in the Olympics, we know that our hopes have to be nurtured and strengthened by exercise and training. If we wish to pass an exam, some study is in order. If we want to cook a meal, we need to act on that impulse. In a not totally dissimilar way, Christianity does not come to us as a series of ideals which we embrace. In fact, this is one of worst heresies of the last 170 years or so. Christianity has been presented both in the church and the world as a body of ideals that one might live up to.
Somehow this seems not to have worked. It would be tedious to list the imbecilities and dangerous absurdities that have come upon us like a flood in recent times. Apparently, Mr Potato Head is too gender-specific, so for a time he was threatened with becoming just Potato Head. When performed by certain misogynist cultures, female genital mutilation is regarded with horror, but when performed by progressives who seek the applause of the transgender lobby, it is a right which is not to be contravened. The Australian National University has suggested ‘non-birthing parent’ and ‘gestational parent’ to replace the archaic and discriminatory terms ‘father’ and ‘mother’. The British Parliament seriously debated the advisability of using the expression ‘pregnant persons’, somewhat blissfully unaware that only women can fall pregnant.
Poor Jonathan Swift! When he lampooned the Royal Society in Gulliver’s Travels, he had to make up some of his material. God is the source of all wisdom and goodness, and when we depart from Him, we construct our own version of wisdom and goodness. The further we travel down this track, the blinder we become. Universities, parliaments and the media are in the business of pronouncing abject nonsense and perversion as enlightened truth.
In reality, Christianity begins with a pronouncement of what God has done. He has created the heavens and the earth (Gen.1:1), and when it fell into sin and rebellion He sent His Son to die to pay the penalty for that sin and rebellion and to rise from the dead to usher in a new creation (1 Cor.15:3-4). If these things did not happen, so-called Christian ideals mean nothing, and Christians are a people most to be pitied (1 Cor.15:19). We are not called upon to believe in integrity and honesty to be saved, but to come to Christ in faith (Matt.11:28; John 6:37). Our first work must be to believe in the work of another, of Christ whom the Father has sent into the world (John 6:28-29). What we are to do is a result of what Christ has done (e.g. Rom.12:1; Eph.4:1).
This takes us back to Wilberforce’s point. There is such a thing as common grace, where people who are not Christians live better lives than their creed warrants (some of your neighbours may well be pleasant people); and there are genuine believers who do not live up to what they profess (note Lot, Samson, King David with Bathsheba). But it is the full-orbed revelation of God which sustains sinners who come to faith in Christ. Today’s buzz words – equality, being true to oneself, love, compassion, courage – take on very different meanings without a foundation in Scripture. Humanly speaking, Paul fought with the beasts at Ephesus, which is probably a vivid way of saying that he faced great dangers (1 Cor.15:32). He could only do so because Christ was risen from the dead. In other words, his courage was derived from his faith in Christ who had literally defeated death.
Without God we are lost in the wilderness of increasing intellectual darkness and moral decadence. To add to that, we are deceived. Those who think they are progressives are in fact marching back to the ancient sin where everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Such anarchy leads to authoritarianism. Those with authority and prestige coerce those without such advantages. In short, ideals become rubbery terms, which mean whatever the latest fad determines that they mean, resulting in more harm than good. Without the gospel, we lack power; without the law, we lack knowledge. Wilberforce got it right.