William Wilberforce: The Gigantic Truths of the Gospel
By John Piper
Author of Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce
The main burden of Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity is to show that true Christianity, which consists in these new, indomitable spiritual affections for Christ, is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about sin and Christ and faith.1 “Let him then who would abound and grow in this Christian principle, be much conversant with the great doctrines of the Gospel.”2 “From the neglect of these peculiar doctrines arise the main practical errors of the bulk of professed Christians. These gigantic truths retained in view, would put to shame the littleness of their dwarfish morality. . . . The whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis.”3 There is a “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.”4 And thus it is a “fatal habit”—so common in his day and ours—“to consider Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines.”5
Christ Our Righteousness
More specifically, it is the achievement of God through the death of Christ that is at the center of “these gigantic truths” leading to the personal and political reformation of morals. The indomitable joy that carries the day in time of temptation and trial is rooted in the cross of Christ. If we would fight for joy and endure to the end in our struggle with sin, we must know and embrace the full meaning of the cross.
If we would . . . rejoice in [Christ] as triumphantly as the first Christians did; we must learn, like them to repose our entire trust in him and to adopt the language of the apostle, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ” [Gal. 6:14], “who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” [1 Cor. 1:30].6
In other words, the joy that triumphs over all obstacles and perseveres to the end in the battle for justice is rooted most centrally in the doctrine of justification by faith. Wilberforce says that all the spiritual and practical errors of the nominal Christians of his age—the lack of true religious affections and moral reformation—
RESULT FROM THE MISTAKEN CONCEPTION ENTERTAINED OF THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme “for justifying the ungodly” [Rom. 4:5], by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [Rom. 5:6-8], a scheme “for reconciling us to God—when enemies [Rom. 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.7
Politician with a Passion for Pure Doctrine
It is a stunning thing that a politician and a man with no formal theological education should not only know the workings of God in justification and sanctification, but consider them so utterly essential for Christian living and public virtue. Many public people say that changing society requires changing people, but few show the depth of understanding Wilberforce did concerning how that comes about. For him, the right grasp of the central doctrine of justification and its relation to sanctification—an emerging Christlikeness in private and public—were essential to his own endurance and for the reformation of the morals of England.
This was why he wrote A Practical View of Christianity. The “bulk” of Christians in his day were “nominal,” he observed, and what was the root difference between the nominal and the real? It was this: The nominal pursued morality (holiness, sanctification) without first relying utterly on the free gift of justification and reconciliation by faith alone based on Christ’s blood and righteousness. “The grand distinction which subsists between the true Christian and all other Religionists (the class of persons in particular whom it is our object to address) is concerning the nature of holiness, and the way in which it is to be obtained.”8 What they do not see is that there must be a reconciliation with God and an imputed righteousness from him before we can live holy and righteous lives in the world. This was all-important to Wilberforce.
He saw that the nominal Christians of his day had the idea that “[morality] is to be obtained by their own natural unassisted efforts: or if they admit some vague indistinct notion of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it is unquestionably obvious on conversing with them that this does not constitute the main practical ground of their dependence.”9 They don’t recognize what constitutes a true Christian—namely, his renouncing “with indignation every idea of attaining it by his own strength. All his hopes of possessing it rest altogether on the divine assurances of the operation of the Holy Spirit, in those who cordially embrace the Gospel of Christ.”10
This gospel that must be “cordially” embraced (that is, with the heart and affections, not just the head) is the good news that reconciliation and a righteous standing with God precede and ground even the Spirit-given enabling for practical holiness. “The true Christian . . . knows therefore that this holiness is not to precede his reconciliation to God, and be its cause; but to follow it, and be its effect. That, in short, it is by faith in Christ only that he is to be justified in the sight of God.”11 In this way alone does a person become “entitled to all the privileges which belong to this high relation,” which include in this earthly life a “partial renewal after the image of his Creator,” and in the life to come “the more perfect possession of the Divine likeness.”12
Perhaps Our Greatest Need
Is it not remarkable that one of the greatest politicians of Britain and one of the most persevering public warriors for social justice should elevate doctrine so highly? Perhaps this is why the impact of the church today is as weak as it is. Those who are most passionate about being practical for the public good are often the least doctrinally interested or informed. Wilberforce would say: You can’t endure in bearing fruit if you sever the root.
From the beginning of his Christian life in 1785 until he died in 1833, Wilberforce lived off the “great doctrines of the gospel,” especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is where he fed his joy. Because of these truths, “when all around him is dark and stormy, he can lift up an eye to Heaven, radiant with hope and glistening with gratitude.”13 The joy of the Lord became his strength (Neh. 8:10). And in this strength he pressed on in the cause of abolishing the slave trade until he had the victory.
Therefore, in all our zeal today for racial harmony, or the sanctity of human life, or the building of a moral culture, let us not forget these lessons: Never minimize the central place of God-centered, Christ-exalting doctrine; labor to be indomitably joyful in all that God is for us in Christ by trusting his great finished work; and never be idle in doing good—that men may see our good deeds and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
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Excerpted from Chapter Five of Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper. Copyright © 2007 by John Piper. Used by permission of Crossway Books.
1 Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, 118.
2 Ibid., 170.
3 Ibid., 166-67.
4 Ibid., 182.
5 Ibid., 198.
6 Ibid., 66.
7 Ibid., 64. Emphasis added, but the capitalization is his emphasis.
8 Ibid., 166.
11 Ibid. Capitalization is his.
13 Ibid., 173.
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