Summary: Marking the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of Legal Slave Trading in Britain
The title of this message is long and full of historical significance: “The Spring of Persistent Public Love, Marking the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of Legal Slave Trading in Britain: A Sermon on Martin Luther King Weekend.” I hope to weave together three things: 1) a biblical portrayal of the origin of persistent public love, 2) a tribute to the abolition of the salve trade in Britain on February 24, 1807, with a special focus on the biblical roots of this abolition in the life of William Wilberforce, and 3) a connection to the ethnic challenges of our own situation in honor of Martin Luther King Weekend.
Wilberforce, King, and the Bible
First, let’s go to the Bible, God’s word. Both William Wilberforce in Britain two hundred years ago and Martin Luther King in America fifty years ago rooted their persistent, socially transforming, public love in the Bible. I don’t mean that they understood and used the Bible in the same way. Wilberforce was an evangelical, doctrinally orthodox Anglican. King did not, as far as I know, make his doctrinal views explicit as a mature preacher, but his early papers lean toward a kind of liberalism that would not be called orthodox.
But my point is that without the Bible neither man would have been who he was, and neither would have done what he did—Wilberforce being the decisive human instrument under God in defeating the African slave trade in Britain, and King being the decisive human instrument under God in replacing Jim Crow racial discrimination with laws supporting equal rights for all Americans regardless of race. Their lives and their work and their achievement are inexplicable without their dependence on the Bible. Virtually every time King opened his mouth you could hear Bible. And Wilberforce built his whole personal and public life as a Member of Parliament on what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of the Bible. The Bible has a way of exerting its power in very different hands.
To Our Father, Through Jesus
Look with me for a few moments at Matthew 7:7-12. What we saw here two weeks ago at the beginning of Prayer Week was at least eight encouragements to come to God in Christ-dependent prayer. When we come through Jesus, we meet God as our Father who will only give us good things. Verse 11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” He will give good things. He is our Father.
How did he become such a Father to undeserving people like us? The first half of the answer we saw in Matthew 20:28, where Jesus said, “The Son of Man [Jesus] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in Matthew 26:28, where Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So he shed his blood and died to pay our ransom and forgive our sins.
The other half of the answer we saw in John 1:12: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” If we will receive Jesus as our ransom and believe on him as the ground of our forgiveness, God makes us his children. And according to Matthew 7:11, God gives good things to his children who ask. Maybe not the very thing we ask for in the time and the way we ask, but always good things. Always. They may include some of the hardest experiences of our lives, just like God led Joseph down into slavery in Egypt. But it was for a thousand good reasons that would be seen later. Our Father in heaven is never against those who are in Jesus Christ. He has only mercy in his heart for us. Not ease. But always mercy. All his wrath was removed by the ransom Jesus paid and the blood he shed.
Wilberforce Kept Going
That is where we stopped two weeks ago. But William Wilberforce did not stop there. And we must not stop there, because Jesus did not stop there. Wilberforce embraced everything I just said about the Jesus’ ransom, and his blood, and the forgiveness of sin, and necessity of faith in Christ in order to be the child of God and have eternal life. These are what he meant by the “peculiar doctrines” of the Bible. He loved them. But he did not stop with these, or with the great news that God is our Father and is for us and only gives us good things. He went on like Jesus did and saw the next word in verse 12.