After falling asleep to the sound of tree debris pelting the house, we woke the next morning to a power outage. The electric company’s answering service had no estimates for power restoration. So, I settled down to a day of hard copy reading next to our wood stove and a western window.
I completed the book Unplanned, which I was halfway through, before dinner. By kerosene lamp, I finished another I’ve been reading off and on for months, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, revised and updated by Bob Beltz. The following morning, I journaled on how both books address the contrast between cultural and authentic Christianity.
At age 26, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a British reformer and member of the House of Commons (1780-1825), experienced a transformation in his Christian faith.
On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce recorded that God had set before him two objectives: to end the slave trade and improve public morality.
To help reshape the culture, he wrote a book originally titled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System…Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797). This instant bestseller went through 15 editions in Britain and 25 in the US and was translated into five languages by 1826.
In it, Wilberforce contrasts authentic Christianity with cultural Christianity. An authentic Christian allows the Word of God to transform his life, and the cultural Christian does not. They may go through the motions of being “good,” but their priorities are comfort and being accepted by society.
When cultural Christians speak about their faith, “you will see how little of their Christianity has anything to do with the faith taught by Jesus. Everything becomes subjective. Their conduct is not measured against the standard set by the gospel. They have developed their own philosophies, which they attempt to pawn off as Christian faith” (Wilberforce, 21).
Authentic Christians, on the other hand, work out their faith.
Carefully studying the Bible will reveal to us our own ignorance of these things. It will challenge us to reject a superficial understanding of Christianity and impress on us that it is imperative not to simply be religious or moral, but also to master the Bible intellectually, integrate its principles into our lives morally, and put into action what we have learned practically” (Wilberforce, 22-23).
In sum, biblical Christians study the Bible and incorporate its teaching into their attitudes and actions.
Wilberforce also explains that cultural Christians are ignorant about how the Holy Spirit operates in a person’s life. They think they can be moral on their own, whereas only through the Holy Spirit can people live as authentic Christians.
[T]he Bible teaches that the state of mind most conductive to our true condition is one of humility and recognition of the extent of our flaws. We are told that in order to live in a way that pleases God, we need to aggressively fight against our natural tendencies toward arrogance and self-importance. Any natural advantages we might have over another, or any progress in virtue, should be viewed as the work of God in our lives (Wilberforce, 85).
A person can only conquer the power of the sinful nature through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Society Needs Authentic Christians
Wilberforce states that without citizens with a vital, authentic faith, the nation will sink into the immoral morass.
Political decay can thrive under cultural Christianity, but authentic faith will bring it to a sudden halt. As things stand at the present moment, we need authentic faith desperately. If we do not pursue such faith as a nation, not only will we not experience the great benefits that such faith brings, but we will also be in danger of losing the blessings we enjoy as a result of such faith in the past. We are headed toward a society that incurs the multitude of evils that result from living with no religion at all (Wilberforce, 156).
It feels as if we live in a world in which a brood of moral vipers has been hatched that are waiting to unleash themselves on the world…All attempts to restore or protect the values and morals that have made this nation great will be in vain without the restoration of a vital Evangelical Christianity (Wilberforce, 161-162, italics in the original).
This change needs to start, says Wilberforce, with the local clergy and the restoration of the education system, which now totally ignores the promotion of morality and vital Christianity.
We battle a culture that is out of tune with God, a personality shaped outside the influence of the Holy Spirit, and an unseen universe in which powerful evil forces are allowed to exercise a degree of autonomy until Jesus Christ returns (Wilberforce, 182).
Only authentic Christians are equipped for this battle.
Just as William Wilberforce exposes the difference between cultural Christianity and authentic Christianity, Abby Johnson’s story in Unplanned illustrates it.
Although she grew up in a Christian home, Abby never let the Word of God transform her life. She attended church weekly. Her family was pro-life and held the Christian value that sexual intimacy was to be saved for marriage. Unfortunately, her behavior didn’t follow her Christian values. Taking her cues from the world, she was a cultural Christian.
Abby’s enjoyment in helping people led her to earn a degree in psychology. It also attracted her to the Planned Parenthood recruiter at a college volunteer opportunities fair.
In a Texan drawl, the woman stated, “We believe that every community really needs a clinic women can turn to when they find themselves in trouble or needing help. We help women who are facing a crisis” (Johnson, 12).
Abby said she wasn’t too sure about abortion, but the woman explained that Planned Parenthood’s goal was to make abortion rare. However, if abortion was made illegal, women would risk their health and lives by seeking back-alley abortions.
That made sense to Abby, and she signed up to be a volunteer.
Wanting God Without Seeking Him
As she climbed the position ladder at Planned Parenthood and became the youngest director of a clinic, Abby struggled to feel close to God. She held secrets in a mental box that she wouldn’t share with the Lord or anyone else: two abortions while attending college.
Once it had take hold within me, my secret had the power to shape and influence my reasoning, my perspective, my conscience. Years later, I would discover that the box in my soul wasn’t sealed as well as I had thought. It was releasing undetectable yet poisonous fumes that wafted through my soul in silence and contaminated my heart (Johnson, 26).
Instead of being empowered by the Holy Spirit, Abby was held hostage by her sin.
Us Versus Them
A tall fence surrounded the Planned Parenthood clinic to keep out protesters. Standing outside the fence, pro-life volunteers from Coalition of Life gave friendly greetings, prayed quietly, or counseled anyone who sought their help.
Abby recognized that these people were Christians and acted friendly toward them. Yet, she viewed the situation at the fence as us versus them.
When the Coalition for Life began their 40 Day for Life prayer campaign, Abby struggled with her feelings about it.
On the one hand, as a believer in God, how could I be unhappy about people praying? I fact, I wished I had the kind of prayer life some of the…volunteers appeared to have—it seemed so real to them. My own efforts at prayer had been steadily drying up. I argued to myself that I should welcome these prayers…On the other hand, I have to admit that I resented it. Clearly, the implication was that God was on their side, not ours…I considered myself a pro-choice Christian and knew lots of other people like me. I was helping people who needed help and, I believed, saving and improving lives. I didn’t appreciate being surrounded and constantly watched by people who believed I was on the devil’s side…Then at night I would chastise myself: What was the matter with me? How could I resent prayer? (Johnson, 58).
Instead of measuring her conduct by the Bible’s standards, she compared her behavior with others who agreed with her, as Wilberforce points out that cultural Christians will do.
Looking for Church Home
When Abby became engaged to Doug, they decided to find a church together. They found one they liked, but each Sunday, Abby “felt like a spiritual misfit, surrounded by people in touch with God while [she] just felt left out in the cold. But [she] wanted to belong—really belong—among other Christians” (Johnson, 63).
Several months later, they asked about membership. A staff member said Abby was welcome to attend, but she couldn’t join because of where she worked. The church was pro-life.
That deeply hurt Abby. But she didn’t try to resolve the issue. As she put it, “I didn’t search God’s Word for His will or seek counsel from other believers. As with so many other troubling thoughts, I let it pass out of my conscious awareness. I was leading an unexamined life, filled with inconsistencies” (Johnson, 64).
Wilberforce stressed the importance of carefully studying Scripture so that one would move beyond being a superficial Christian and live as an authentic one. This requires self-examination that Abby didn’t do at this stage of her life.
Later, she and her husband moved to a pro-choice Episcopal church where she didn’t have to hide where she worked. Attending a high church and following a liturgy was new to them. The recitation of the confession of sin moved her, but she also struggled with it:
I sensed that I was nearing God, and I wanted that, even though I squirmed in discomfort for fear that God disapproved of my job. Week after week I’d struggle, believing on the one hand that I was doing God’s work by helping women in need and yet fearful of discovering that God might want me to leave a career I was enjoying… (Johnson, 99).
When she became director of her clinic, she instructed her staff to focus on decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies so they could reduce the number of abortions. This action caused Abby to come face to face with Planned Parenthood’s real business plan.
At a regional board meeting, clinic directors were told that Planned Parenthood was losing money and, therefore, they needed to increase the number of abortions performed because that service produced a profit. They also planned to open a new clinic that would offer late-term abortions, which Abby had always opposed. This wasn’t what she had signed up for.
A month later, Abby was asked to assist in an ultrasound-guided abortion. Even though she had worked at the clinic for eight years, she had never watched an abortion. What she saw horrified her.
Now that she understood Planned Parenthood’s true purpose and had seen the reality of abortion, she wanted out. The next day was Sunday, and during the confession of sin, Abby poured out her heart to God, seeking forgiveness for all the abortions she had been involved with. She had been helping women on the world’s terms, not God’s. She made plans to quit in two weeks.
A week later, Abby simply dreaded going to the clinic. As she drove into the parking lot, she glanced at the protesters along the fence —the enemy. Sitting in her office, Abby then realized, no, not the enemy. She was on the wrong side of the fence! She dashed out of her office, drove to the Coalition for Life’s office, and poured out her soul to the people there.
As they prayed over her, Abby said, “I felt the presence of God—felt the connection I’d been longing for over the past few years. I knew I was in the presence of Almighty God…” (Johnson, 156).
She had moved from being a cultural, pro-choice Christian to being an authentic Christian by confessing her sins to God, recognizing her life’s choices did not please him, and choosing now to align her life to the will of God. She then found joy and joined the pro-life movement.
“[A] vital faith can actually provide a proper motivation for the pursuit of social activity that increases a person’s effectiveness and enables him or her to better focus his or her energy on the task at hand… This is, in fact, the ‘secret’ of living a life that is both useful and happy” (Wilberforce, 150).