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
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 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! 12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
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.
In the ESV, it is “so.” “So whatever you wish that others would do to you . . . .” A stronger translation would be “therefore.” They mean the same thing. The word signals that what Jesus just said leads somewhere. What he just said is taking us somewhere and enabling us to go somewhere with the power that he just spoke into our lives. Where does the word so or therefore lead us? This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. We know it as the Golden Rule: “So [or: therefore] whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The Word So in Verse 12
The main thing I want you to see today is that the word so at the beginning of verse 12 implies three things: 1) that you can’t live the Golden Rule—treat others the way you would like to be treated—without experiencing the truth of verses 7-11—that is, without the deep confidence that your Father will give you every good thing you really need; 2) that if you really experience the truth of verses 7-11—the assurance that your heavenly Father meets all your real needs—you will have the inner freedom and impulse to live the Golden Rule: to do the good to others that you would like them to do for you; and 3) that the reason the Golden Rule fulfils the law and prophets is that it assumes the love of verse 12 is all flowing from faith in the work of Jesus Christ to ransom us by his blood and secure for us God’s mercy and everlasting Fatherhood.
All of that is implied in the word so—1) if you really treasure your heavenly Father who meets all your needs by only giving you what is good for you, then you can live for others; 2) if you really treasure your heavenly Father who meets all your needs by only giving you what is good for you, then you will live for others; and 3) if your living for others flows from trusting in your Father through the Messiah, Jesus, who paid your ransom and forgave your sins, then this kind of life fulfills all that the law and the prophets were aiming at.
So when I titled this message “The Spring of Persistent Public Love,” this is what I was referring to. Doing to others what you would have them do to you is what I mean by persistent public love. And the spring of it is explained by the word so or therefore. You have a Father in heaven who, because of Christ’s work, only gives his children what is good for them. Therefore, love people persistently. Treat them the way you would like to be treated. Your Fathers’ blood-bought care for you is the spring of your persistent public love. If you experience him as this kind of Father, you will love people like this.
The Flow from Verses 7-11
Before we unpack the Golden Rule in relation to the issue of race and ethic relations, let’s make sure we see why it must flow from verses 7-11. The reason is that treating others the way you want to be treated involves an amazing, profound, supernatural change in the way you make choices. Once upon a time, you chose things mainly because they benefited you; but now you choose things because they benefit others. And here’s the catch: You may start by thinking, “If I treat others the way I would like to be treated, then I will get treated that way too.” But Jesus never makes that promise. He never promises, “If you treat others the way you would like to be treated, you too will get treated that way by others.”
In fact, he promises that the opposite will often happen. For example, Matthew 5:1, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In other words, when you trust me and persist in love the way I call you to, it will cost you dearly.
The Father Gives Everything You Need to Endure
Now do you understand why the so at the beginning of verse 12 is so important? If the people that you treat lovingly according to the Golden Rule often return evil for your good, how do you keep on loving? How can you keep on returning good for evil? Jesus answers: because you have a Father in heaven who gives every good thing you need when you ask him. He doesn’t spare the trial. In fact, he promises it. But he does give you everything you need to endure it and become more Christ-like through it. The assurance of verses 7-11 is the only Christ-exalting, God-honoring, and everlasting spring of persistent public love.
If you know God as your Father through Jesus Christ, and if you trust him to give you only good things, only mercy—now in real daily life—and to satisfy your heart in every trial, then you can and you will persist in doing to others what you would have them do to you, even if they don’t do the same back to you.
The Golden Rule and the End of the Slave Trade
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, about three million African slaves had been transported to the Americas on British ships.1 It was a profoundly racial issue—not only, but profoundly. The only people being stolen and stripped of all human dignity and ripped apart from their families and tortured on the way to work as sub-human beings were black. It was a profoundly racial issue and the sinful attitudes connected with it are not gone from our day or our land or the church.
William Wilberforce, with many others in his day became deeply persuaded that this traffic was a great moral evil for many reasons, not the least of which was its utter inconsistency with Jesus’ Golden Rule. Many of the Christian abolitionists of his day pressed the nation to look at things from the slaves’ point of view and to do to others as you would have them do to you. Abraham Booth, for example, a Calvinist Baptist preacher, preached a message in London on January 29, 1792, titled “Commerce in the Human Species, and the Enslaving of Innocent Persons, Inimical to the Laws of Moses and the Gospel of Christ.” One of the most moving parts of the message was his imagining the slave ships landing on British shores and raiding London and Bristol and Liverpool kidnapping your loved ones and dragging them away never to be seen again.2
Five years earlier on October 28, 1787, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary at the age of twenty-eight, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of [Morals].”3 For twenty years Wilberforce endured setback after setback in his persistent public love. But he never gave up and on February 24, 1807, at 4:00 AM, twenty years later, the decisive vote was cast and the slave trade became illegal.
Five years ago I called that kind of persistent public love coronary Christianity rather than adrenaline Christianity. Adrenaline gives you energy for a moment and then lets you down. That’s the way many people engage in a cause of love and justice. But the heart keeps beating as long as you live. That’s what I meant by coronary Christianity; it persists in loving and serving and doing justice year after year after year. And I asked, Who of you will be the coronary Christians in the cause of racial harmony and the sanctity of life?
Applying Wilberforce’s Gospel-Based Persistent Love
Today, let me apply the Golden Rule—Matthew 7:12, with its all-important therefore—and the example of Wilberforce’s gospel-based persistent love like this: There will always be challenges to love people different from ourselves—whether the differences are ethnic or in some other way. If Christ is your Lord and Savior and Treasure, and if God is your Father through Christ, and if you trust him to give you only what is good, then you will be growing (and helping your children grow) in the application of the Golden Rule to ethnic differences, as well as other differences.
One practical way to approach this in your family would be to work with your spouse and children—or a group of singles together, or a small group—and make a list of attitudes and words and behaviors which you could express to a person of another ethnic group but which you would not want expressed toward you. The list might sound something like this: Would I want to be made fun of because of the way I look? Would I want to be shunned by others? Would I want to be talked down to as an inferior? Would I want to never be invited over for dinner? Would I want to never be considered for a job I’m qualified for? Would I approve if people didn’t want to be my neighbor? Would I approve if no one would consider me for a home loan though my credit is good? Would I approve if I was never considered for a promotion at work though I am qualified for it?
Jesus Is Even More Radical
But even that set of questions is not radical enough, because Jesus, unlike others in his day, did not say “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” He said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That is even more radical, because it means that we are to become creatively proactive in our relationships—across ethnic lines and every other way. So make another list: What things might I do for another person (of another race) that I would want done for me in his shoes?
If God is your Father through the ransom of Jesus Christ that Jesus paid with his own blood, and if you trust him to give you freely and sufficiently everything you need to live for his glory, the answers to those questions and many more will shape your life into a life of persistent private and public love. You may live to see a great victory like William Wilberforce did on February 24, 1807, with the abolition of the British slave trade (two hundred years ago next month). Or you may be cut down in the middle of the battle the way Martin Luther King was at age thirty-nine on April 4, 1968.
In either case, you will not have wasted your life. Not if you have persisted in lifelong public love rooted in the faith that your Father will give only good things through Jesus to those who ask.
Display Christ’s Many Glories
I pray that you will take the little book Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce and read it and drink in the spirit of this man—the spirit that persists, perseveres, endures in the cause of public love, righteousness, justice, the Golden Rule. And I pray that all year long—while it is in 2007 the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, you will use the book and other means as a witness to Christ and as a way to display some of his many glories.
John Coffey, “The Abolition of the Slave Trade: Christian Conscience and Political Action,” Cambridge Papers Toward a Biblical Mind, Volume 15, number 2, June 2006, p. 1 (see Jubilee Centre). ↩
See Michael Haykin, “A Spirituality of Activism: 18th Century Baptists and the Fight Against the Slave Trade.” ↩
John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable and Company, 1977), p. 69. ↩