Philemon, Wilberforce, Abolition, and the Glory of God

Posted on September 14, 2015


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Finishing up his series through Philemon yesterday, Pastor Jesse Johnson preached a message titled, “If God Is Sovereign, Why Work for Social Change?” This was an incredibly helpful sermon for me as for the last couple of years I have been working through the Christian’s role in the culture.

Is there more to our responsibility of making disciples through the preaching of the Gospel? I answer that with a resounding yes! We are not only to preach the Gospel, but to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8). We are not only to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, but we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27).

I think I’ve concluded upon hearing the term “Christian activism” used in a negative connotation, in many cases, it’s an excuse to not love one’s neighbor as themselves and a condemnation of those seeking to apply the second greatest commandment. Or, it’s at least a crippling misunderstanding of the Christian’s role in society to “do justice and love mercy.” The Great Commission, seeking the peace and prosperity of the land, and doing good to our neighbor are not enemies, but the best of friends. Truly, a habitual lack of love for one’s neighbor is at best an unbalanced faith, or worse runs the risk of being a callous, dead faith (James 2:17).

There seems to be a danger among reformed Christians to hide behind the sovereignty of God. That God allows the slave trade, legalized abortion, human sex trafficking, or oppression of blacks in America – the Christian shouldn’t really be active in trying to make changes. We don’t really have a calling to get involved in politics or seek social change for good in the culture. To get involved in social causes is to be distracted away from the Great Commission. It’s to take our eye off “the Main Thing”. It’s to “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” – if the ship is going down, why would we attempt to make things better? These ideas reflect an extreme derelict of duty, and highlights a lack of compassion in those who fail to apply the sound, lofty doctrines of the reformed faith.

Pastor Jesse brings out several important historical and theological points, using William Wilberforce as an example of what God can do through a faithful servant seeking His glory in the abolition of human slavery. Seeking God’s glory must be the thrust of any work we do. Wilberforce said:

For the good of society, the good of society must never be the primary good.

In other words, we should not seek to end legalized abortion for the sake of ending abortion; we should seek the glory of God, which manifests itself in seeking to end legalized, sanctioned evils. Otherwise, we not only push away an objective standard for morality, but we put the cart before the horse and abolishing slavery or abortion becomes the “Main Thing”. It becomes a social gospel, and fighting for social change becomes synonymous with Christianity.

Ending slavery or abortion is not the Gospel; the Gospel effects the change that leads to ending slavery and abortion. Yet, there is danger in separating the social welfare of our neighbor from the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel produces love for neighbor. We must not live for social change, we must live for the glory of God, and a fruit of that is working for the good of our neighbor. It’s the essence of our being pilgrims in this world.

I hope you’re encouraged by Pastor Jesse’s sermon from Philemon 21-25. May it light a spark in the next William Wilberforce to lead the way to abolish legalized abortion to the glory of God. You might also consider reading Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.