Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

Biographies of William Wilberforce regularly highlight his noble statesmanship and tireless efforts at reform. He is often labeled in those biographies as an activist who knew what he believed in and would not give up till he accomplished all he set his mind to do. And though such an evaluation of Wilberforce's work is not without its merit, it utterly fails to get behind the action of the man to the underlying reasons as to why he gave his whole life to such a work. Stated differently, what drives a man to fight twenty years to see the slave trade abolished and another twenty-six years to see slavery as an institution abolished, only to die three days after the final victory? It is this question that John Piper has set out to answer - and answer it he does.

Piper does an excellent job of proving that Wilberforce's reforms (most notably the abolition of the slave-trade and later slavery itself - he was involved in a host of other reforms as well) were founded on and sustained by a vibrant, joy-filled faith in Christ. Arising from a heart transformed by the gospel and energized with the presence of the Spirit, Piper takes pains to show that Wilberforce displayed a liveliness and cheer rarely evidenced among statesman; because he was gifted with, as Robert Southey once put it, "a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit." In other words, Wilberforce knew gospel joy, and it spilled over into all his interactions and relations. Whether at work or at play, whether with children (which he loved!) or adults, Wilberforce left all who he came in contact with a sense for what happiness in Christ really meant.

In the book, Piper provides countless reports from both friends and enemies who received great encouragement from Wilberforce's company, and how his testimony of Christ was immediately evident even on his countenance. As one of his political detractors once quipped, "His mirth is contagious, regularly transforming the devious and manipulative nature of the political environment."

Amazingly, Wilberforce's joy broke forth in steadfast hope, even after years of failed attempts at overturning the slave trade, and multiple physical ailments. Wilberforce always managed, through God's grace and the gift of godly friends (such at William Pitt and John Newton), to maintain an exuberant perseverance for the work of abolition. He was, we might say, a Christian optimist--always clinging to the promises of God in the gospel, and laboring to see the will of God done on earth, even as it is in heaven.

Piper also provides a faithful picture of the thoroughgoing integration between Wilberforce's personal faith and his fight for social justice. In Wilberforce's day, as is often the case in our own, there was a vast gulf between politics and faith. It was the common consensus that one's faith was to be kept separate from one's policies, and that "never the twain shall meet." Wilberforce, however, disagreed vehemently. His person and all his endeavors, political or otherwise, he understood as expressions of his faith in Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, there was no neat separation between faith and politics for Wilberforce, as there was no neat separation between faith and anything else in life. Consequently, his fight for abolition was no mere humanitarian endeavor but a divine commission.

As he writes in his diary on Oct. 28, 1787,"God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [morals]." His abolitionist efforts burgeoned from a deep-seated commitment to the gospel and its accompanying imperatives. Thus, ending the slave trade and finally slavery itself, was not a "noble cause" but a public expression of what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Wilberforce knew that if he was to fight for social justice he would have to live the change he desired. Piper makes it clear throughout the course of the book that Wilberforce believed that integrity was absolutely indispensable in the work of reformation. Indeed, any man, Wilberforce believed, who refuses to embody the reforms he labors to enact cannot claim to truly understand the nature of his call. Wilberforce never believed that Christianity was merely a set of beliefs or tenants to be held at arms length. No, Christianity must be swallowed whole and lived out in happy service to both Creator and creature. This is the substance of saving, working faith.

Behind all Wilberforce's striving, there was one goal: that Christ might be glorified. Nothing mattered but this, and yet all of life mattered because this was His chief end. And so, in a striking final paragraph, Piper calls Christians of the twenty-first century to Wilberforcian stalwartness. Let us head his plea:

"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)."

 John Piper / Illinois: Crossway, 2006
Review by Nate Shurden, Assistant to the Editorial Director