It never ceases to amaze me, when reading books from earlier generations, just how similar the people and culture of that time were to those of ours. The world teaches that people today are so much more developed than our ancestors; that the problems and hardships we face are much more complicated than those faced by people two hundred years ago. Along with this, the Church often teaches that the world has gotten more wicked as time has gone on; that somehow people used to be generally much holier than they are today, because such a large percentage of the people were professing Christians.
I’ve come to believe that these are simply myths with little substance. Human nature has remained the same since the Fall. Sin is still sin, and though it may manifest itself in different ways, it’s still the same exchange of God’s Truth for a lie. The world gives people far too much credit. We really haven’t changed much, and certainly are no smarter or better than we were centuries ago. The Church gives Satan far too much credit. He’s really not that creative… he doesn’t need to be. We still fall for the same lies he’s thrown at us for thousands of years.
Listen to William Wilberforce’s description of the state of Christianity in Britain at the end of the 18th century — when the vast majority of British citizens claimed to be Christians — and see just how many similarities there are with 21st century America, where over 80% of our citizens claim to be Christians. [I’ll add a few bracketed comments and translations of my own for the benefit of those unused to reading old books.]
A very erroneous notion appears to prevail concerning the true nature of Religion. Religion, agreeably to what has been already stated, (the importance of the subject will excuse repetition) may be considered as the implantation of a vigorous and active principle; it is seated in the heart, where its authority is recognized as supreme, whence by degrees it expels whatever is opposed to it, and where it gradually brings all the affections and desires under its complete control and regulation.
But though the heart be its special residence, it may be said to possess in a degree the ubiquity of its Divine Author. Every endeavor and pursuit must acknowledge its presence; and whatever does not, or will not, or cannot receive its sacred stamp, is to be condemned as inherently defective, and is to be at once abstained from or abandoned. It is like the principle of vitality, which, animating and informing every part, lives throughout the whole of the human body, and communicates its kindly influence to the smallest and remotest fibers of the frame. [True Christianity must affect every aspect of our lives.] But the notion of Religion entertained by many among us seems altogether different. They begin indeed, in submission to her clear prohibitions, by fencing off from the field of human action, a certain district, which, though it in many parts bear fruits on which they cast a longing eye, they cannot but confess to be forbidden ground. [This is the same dualism we see today, when many professing believers have a distinction between their church life and their regular life.] They next assign to Religion a portion, larger or smaller according to whatever may be their circumstances and views, in which however she is to possess merely a qualified jurisdiction, and having so done, they conceive that without let or hindrance they have a right to range at will over the spacious remainder. Religion can claim only a stated proportion of their thoughts, and time, and fortune, and influence; and of these, or perhaps of any of them, if they make her any thing of a liberal allowance, she may well be satisfied: the rest is now their own to do what they will with; they have paid their tithes, say rather their composition, the demands of the Church are satisfied, and they may surely be permitted to enjoy what she has left without molestation or interference. [Nominal Christians abstain from the “big sins”, attend church, and tithe, but feel that this gives them the freedom to live the rest of their lives however they want.]
It is scarcely possible to state too strongly the mischief which results from this fundamental error. At the same time its consequences are so natural and obvious, that one would think it scarcely possible not to foresee that they must infallibly follow. [However, Isaiah 44:18-20 shows that deceived, nominally religious people cannot see their error.] The greatest part of human actions is considered as indifferent. If men are not chargeable with actual vices, and are decent in the discharge of their religious duties; if they do not stray into the forbidden ground, if they respect the rights of the conceded allotment, what more can be expected from them? Instead of keeping at a distance from all sin, in which alone consists our safety, they will be apt not to care how near they approach what they conceive to be the boundary line; if they have not actually passed it, there is no harm done, it is no trespass. [Nominal Christians ask how close they can get to sin without sinning.] Thus the free and active spirit of Religion is “cribbed and hemmed in;” she is checked in her disposition to expand her territory, and enlarge the circle of her influence. She must keep to her prescribed confines, and every attempt to extend them will be resisted as an encroachment.
But this is not all. Since whatever can be gained from her allotment, or whatever can be taken in from the forbidden ground, will be so much of addition to that land of liberty, where men may roam at large, free from restraint or molestation, they will of course be constantly, and almost insensibly, straightening and pressing upon the limits of the religious allotment on the one hand; and on the other, will be removing back a little farther and farther the fence which abridges them on the side of the forbidden ground. [The more professing Christians flirt with sin, the less they care that they look just like the world. They begin to feel that Christianity restrains rather than frees them.] If Religion attempt for a time to defend her frontier, she by degrees gives way. The space she occupies diminishes till it be scarcely discernible; whilst, her spirit extinguished, and her force destroyed, she is little more than the nominal possessor even of the contracted limits to which she has been avowedly reduced.
This it is to be feared is but too faithful a representation of the general state of things among ourselves. The promotion of the glory of God, and the possession of his favor, are no longer recognized as the objects of our highest regard, and most strenuous endeavors; as furnishing to us, a vigorous, habitual, and universal principle of action. We set up for ourselves: we are become our own masters. The sense of constant homage and continual service is irksome and galling to us; and we rejoice in being emancipated from it, as from a state of base and servile villainage. Thus the very tenure and condition, by which life and all its possessions are held, undergo a total change: our faculties and powers are now our own: whatever we have is regarded rather as a property than as a trust [“I am not a steward of God’s blessings. My talents, my money, my stuff, and my time belong to me. I’ve earned it!”]; or if there still exist the remembrance of some paramount claim, we are satisfied with an occasional acknowledgment of a nominal right; we pay our pepper corn, and take our estates to ourselves in full and free enjoyment.
Hence it is that so little sense of responsibility seems attached to the possession of high rank, or splendid abilities, or affluent fortunes, or other means or instruments of usefulness. [The more “stuff” people have, the harder it is for them to live as true Christians.] The instructive admonitions, “give an account of thy stewardship,“—“occupy till I come;” are forgotten. Or if it be acknowledged by some men of larger views than ordinary, that a reference is to be had to some principle superior to that of our own gratification, it is, at best, to the good of society, or to the welfare of our families: and even then the obligations resulting from these relations, are seldom enforced on us by any higher sanctions than those of family comfort, and of worldly interest or estimation. Besides; what multitudes of persons are there, people without families, in private stations, or of a retired turn, to whom they are scarcely held to apply! and what multitudes of cases to which it would be thought unnecessary scrupulosity to extend them! Accordingly we find in fact, that the generality of mankind among the higher order, in the formation of their schemes, in the selection of their studies, in the choice of their place of residence, in the employment and distribution of their time, in their thoughts, conversation, and amusements, are considered as being at liberty, if there be no actual vice, to consult in the main their own gratification. [I haven’t cheated on my wife or killed anyone. Why should it matter what I do with my time and money, what I read or watch on TV, where I work or what kind of house I live in?]
Thus the generous and wakeful spirit of Christian Benevolence, seeking and finding every where occasions for its exercise, is exploded, and a system of decent selfishness [I love this term] is avowedly established in its stead; a system scarcely more to be abjured for its impiety, than to be abhorred for its cold insensibility to the opportunities of diffusing happiness. [Decently selfish people have only a false piety. They don’t care about other people, and constantly miss opportunities to bless others.] “Have we no families, or are they provided for? Are we wealthy, and bred to no profession? Are we young and lively, and in the gaiety and vigor of youth? Surely we may be allowed to take our pleasure. We neglect no duty, we live in no vice, we do nobody any harm, and have a right to amuse ourselves. We have nothing better to do, we wish we had; our time hangs heavy on our hands for want of it.” [“I’ve put a roof over my family’s heads and food on the table. I’ve stayed out of trouble, and we aren’t hurting anybody. What else could you ask of me?”]
No man has a right to be idle—Not to speak of that great work which we all have to accomplish [Does everyone have a “great work” to accomplish? Wilberforce’s was the abolition of slavery… what’s mine?], and surely the whole attention of a short and precarious life is not more than an eternal interest may well require; where is it that in such a world as this, health and leisure and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate? Shall Ambition and Avarice never sleep? Shall they never want objects on which to fasten? Shall they be so observant to discover, so acute to discern, so eager, so patient to pursue, and shall the Benevolence of Christians want employment? [Can professing Christians really not see that they are wasting their lives on health, entertainment, and the acquisition of “stuff” when there are so many needs they could be meeting?]
Yet thus life rolls away with too many of us in a course of “shapeless idleness.” Its recreations constitute its chief business. [Check out this list of ways folks wasted time and money two hundred years ago… sound familiar?] Watering places [eating out] — the sports of the field — cards! never failing cards! [video games] — the assembly[politics] — the theater [TV and movies] — all contribute their aid—amusements are multiplied, and combined, and varied, “to fill up the void of a listless and languid life;” and by the judicious use of these different resources, there is often a kind of sober settled plan of domestic dissipation, in which with all imaginable decency year after year wears away in unprofitable vacancy. [Wow!] Even old age often finds us pacing in the same round of amusements, which our early youth had tracked out. [People back then even wasted their retirement years on amusing themselves.] Meanwhile, being conscious that we are not giving into any flagrant vice, perhaps that we are guilty of no irregularity, and it may be, that we are not neglecting the offices of Religion, we persuade ourselves that we need not be uneasy. In the main we do not fall below the general standard of morals, of the class and station to which we belong, we may therefore allow ourselves to glide down the stream without apprehension of the consequences. [So many of these people who claim to be Christians have no idea that they are lost.]
I could go on (Wilberforce’s chapter on this topic is over 100 pages long!), but by now you get the point. The good news is that the remedy for nominal Christianity is also the same today as it was in 1797, which his book was published.
“God requires to set up his throne in the heart, and to reign without a rival.”
Today, as in Wilberforce’s time, the vast majority of people claiming the title “Christian” for themselves live a life in which their practice does not match their profession. These people need to see that Christ is NOT reigning in their hearts. Who will show them if not the true believers? We do this by modeling a life of true religion, teaching them God’s Word, and correcting them… but with gentleness, not hostility. God still saves nominal Christians, too!
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord with a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” ~ 2 Timothy 2:22-26