September 19, 2016

William Wilberforce and the Issues of Life

We should not think of ourselves, as some have suggested, as living in a post-Christian age, but rather a pre-Christian age, with much joyous work to be done for the redemption of life and culture.

The Word of God declares that “out of the heart spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). In Scripture, the heart is the religious centre or religious root of the human personality. Human beings are therefore by nature religious. That is to say, we are all worshipers of one thing or another. We will either worship the living God, or some created thing will be absolutized in place of God in our lives. It is then in terms of that object of worship that people seek to know the full sense (meaning) of things.

People look this way and that to try and find some unity of meaning in their experience – some ultimate truth by which they can interpret and evaluate the “issues of life.” But when this is not done in terms of God and His Word- revelation, people are confronted with a serious problem from which there is no escape. The thoughts of man cannot find anything in temporal reality that can account for and give meaning to all created reality – only a transcendent personality is able to do that.

The Scriptures teach that the kind of total structuring-truth that man seeks about his life is not a lot of separate pieces of information that can be understood purely rationally by analyzing discrete ‘facts’ of experience. Rather The Truth, the root unity of all meaning, is Jesus Christ; in His life and testimony (John 14:6). Jesus Christ reveals the order and structure of things: who we are, who God is, and the meaning of the whole creation. Fallen people do not simply ‘accept the facts’ as though they are self-interpreting; the evidence does not, in fact, speak for itself. Rather, we all interpret human experience in varying degrees of faithfulness to, or rebellion against, God’s creation and word-revelation.

The religious rebel against the living God arranges his data and invents his ideas so that he might feel safe without God – that is to say, outside of Christ man lives The Lie (Rom 1:25). Such a person’s goal is obviously not the knowledge and glory of God and his kingdom. Having cut himself off from The Truth, sinful man inevitably casts about for some other governing religious principle by any other name. As such, spiritual wandering and uprootedness is always characteristic of our anti-Christian age.

This characteristic uprootedness, wandering and divided thinking should not be descriptive of the Christian, however. William Wilberforce, one of the important founders of modern evangelicalism, once wrote,

The grand characteristic mark of the true Christian…is his desiring to please God in all his thoughts, and words and actions; to take the revealed Word to be the rule of his belief and practice; to let his light shine before men; and to in all things adorn the doctrine which he professes.[1]

In this statement we get a sense of the radical religious root unity that actuated this great man’s faithfulness. He had insight into the reality that his faith, by the Word of God, must direct every aspect of his life and thought. This driving motive gets to the core of what transforms the Christian who has grasped their true relation to God, His word, and their calling as His people in the world.

By contrast, in the unbelieving West today we have attained a level of apostasy from the Christian faith so radical that it has become self-conscious and evangelistic. We have, with eyes wide open, turned our backs on the faith that deeply influenced and nurtured the life and freedoms of Western nations for generations and made us, by grace, a blessing to others. That apostasy has spread to all sectors of society and revolutionized Western culture from education and law, to politics, media and art. The late American scholar Evan Runner noted in the latter third of the twentieth century:

We are called upon to live out our lives in dark and terrifying times. From the time of the French Revolution on, our days have been filled with mounting confusion on all sides, with revolutions and acts of violence that seem only to increase in tempo, in range and in intensity. For more and more people life appears to lack any meaning. Even in the churches great numbers of people have accommodated themselves to secular ways of living and thinking, so that the power of Satan to deceive is mighty in the world. We can understand the words of Groen Van Prinsterer, who said, “Modern society, with all its excellences, having fallen into bondage to the theory of unbelief, is increasingly being seduced into a systematic denial of the living God.”[2]

The result of this systematic denial has been the steady moral neutering of several generations and, tragically, the casting adrift of the human personality, the heart of man. It has led to the absolutization of the subjective feeling aspect of human experience so that now, in a malleable, plastic world, “I feel, therefore, I am.” We are being told there is no essential self; the human person and the human family are mere social constructs. We are only what we make and define ourselves to be in terms of a radical autonomy.[3] Man is reduced to little more than mere artifice and is conceived of as bound by nothing outside or beyond him.

This radical relativism has gripped us to such a degree that to notice, or worse point out how created reality conflicts with anyone’s inner, personal fiction is seen as rhetorical violence or hatred. There is to be no judgment, except the condemnation of Christianity as the form of oppression that must be shaken off and disposed of.

For many years (at least until the 1960s), the cultural modus vivendi in the West was the attempt to retain many of the outward forms and public morals bequeathed by Christianity, whilst subverting the central truth and power of the faith by denying the Lordship of Jesus Christ and authority of His word for the social order. This perspective was called secularism and at best it was, for a season, moralistic. But it inevitably steadily disallowed the influence of scriptural truth in public life.

Now, secularism has logically given way to a more radical humanism in which a general recognition of and grudging appreciation for our Christian heritage has largely turned into a real loathing and hatred and, concurrently, overtly pagan forms of religious expression are privileged over against the gospel. At the same time a humanistic political utopianism has supplanted the scriptural teaching of the kingdom of God. Because of all this we live in a time when the outlook appears, on its face, grim.

By this reflection we are not driven to looking back with a naïve nostalgia to some imaginary past where we once had an overtly and robustly Christian cultural order that was radically transformed by the gospel. Even in the West, such a clearly and consistently Christian culture is yet to be historically realized. We might reasonably say that Western nations were profoundly influenced by Christianity, and have had broadly Christianized institutions, but certainly no one in the last four generations has ever lived in a Christian culture, and in the past our nations fell well short of a Christian culture that clearly rejected attempts at a synthesis with humanistic religion emanating from the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome.

This is important to notice in response to those (and especially to misguided Christians) who, in the face of the challenges confronting us, would claim that we are living in a post-Christian age, and so we should abandon our efforts at gospel-cultural reformation in terms of Scripture and just accept that Christianity has lost the so-called ‘culture war’ – that we should recognise that we are, and will remain, just one among many reticent and humble applicants for religious accommodation. Such people miss what William Wilberforce well understood in his eschatological hopes for the success of the gospel, and what the theologian Loraine Boettner has pointed out:

[T]here has never yet been a truly Christian age, nor has so much as one nation ever been consistently Christian. The age in which we are living is still pre-Christian.

He continues,

That the progress of the church through these years has been slow is due to the fact that Christians in general have not taken seriously Christ’s command.… The Great Commission is addressed not merely to ministers and missionaries, but to all Christians everywhere.… The command applies to parents rearing their children, to children in regard to their parents, to individuals in whatever relationship they stand to their neighbors or business or social champions, to those who teach in the schools, to employers and employees in their mutual relationships, to writers, to newsmen, to statesmen, to Christians in general regardless of occupation or station in life.[4]

If it is true, and I believe it is, that we are not in a post-Christian age, but a pre-Christian one, then world history is still moving toward the morning of gospel renewal, not falling off into the night of despair. Jesus Christ is Lord; He governs history and calls His people to be more than conquerors through Him, making disciples of the nations by faith and obedience. A pre-Christian age means difficult times, when people’s hearts may fail them for fear, but history awaits faithful men and women, enlivened by the Word-revelation of God and filled with His Spirit, who will go to battle for His glory as Christ makes darkness flee away.

To face our times with courage we must recover an applied faith for all of life. May God grant us such faithfulness, that we would be gripped by the radical and transforming power of the Word of God in our lives and rediscover, by the unfolding of that Word by the Spirit, our calling as a redeemed royal priesthood in Jesus Christ. The great question every Christian must grapple with in our time is that of the relation of the powerful Word-revelation of God to our life in the world. The answer that we arrive at will determine the course of our nation’s future.


[1] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, (Glasgow: William Collins, 1833), 378.

[2] Evan Runner, Walking in the Way of the Word: The Collected Writings of H. Evan Runner (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2009), 168, emphasis added.

[3] See Jim Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

[4] Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1957). 

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