Becoming a World-changer: Lessons from William Wilberforce

#1 on Your Christmas List

Are you looking for a great Christmas gift that every member of your family will appreciate? How about a gift that will change the world for the better! You may be thinking, what kind of gift would do that? Let me explain.

What’s the greatest gift you can give someone? As Christians, our immediate answer to that question is “Salvation, God’s free gift!” That’s true. In fact, Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20 has been the marching orders for the church throughout the past 2,000 years. And usually we think of presenting the Gospel as the primary means of fulfilling the command to “make disciples of all nations.”

However, Jesus’ commission means more than just sharing the gospel message. It also involves teaching disciples to “observe all things” that Jesus commanded. What did Jesus command? Think, for example, about Jesus’ second greatest commandment — loving your neighbor — and how he illustrated his point with the story of the Good Samaritan. Or, consider how Jesus called his followers the “salt and light” of society. In these and many other ways, Jesus taught that those who followed him should be in the forefront of helping the poor, the sick, and the oppressed.

The Great Commission, then, involves changing hearts, but also addressing social evils as well. Historically, the church has taken seriously both aspects of Jesus’ commission. From the earliest years of the Christian era, believers began making a difference in their communities by infusing Jesus’ teachings into the social fabric. Individuals rescued abandoned babies. They cared for the ill and infirm. They fed the poor and looked after the needs of widows. As time passed, communities of Christians started orphanages, hospitals, and schools.

The church taught against social evils such as the Gladiatorial games, infanticide, and slavery. 1 It was the teachings of Jesus that elevated the status of women, established the dignity of labor, and provided the foundation for economic freedom and personal liberty. Later, it was Jesus’ followers who developed the scientific method for unlocking nature’s secrets, giving birth to new technology for easing humanity’s daily struggle for survival. 2 And as they gained in numbers and influence, believers took roles in government, again, for the purpose of securing liberty and spreading God’s blessing throughout society.

Be the One Percent

So, you ask, what does this historical look at involvement in the Great Commission have to do with your Christmas shopping list? Just this. Why not give a gift that encourages every member of your family to take an active role in changing the world for the better. What gift would do that? I suggest the newly released DVD of Amazing Grace, an inspiring true story of Christian commitment and conviction. Even if you saw the film in theaters this past February, this is a story that deserves repeated viewings.

The biopic chronicles the decisive years of William Wilberforce, who, with a small group of friends, eradicated the British slave trade. It tells of Christians struggling for godly righteousness against the tide of popular opinion, powerful corporate interests, and political opposition. And it records the persistence of these men and women in the face of seeming defeat, and how, by taking small incremental steps, victory was at last achieved. 3

Bob Beltz, 4 an associate producer for Amazing Grace, wrote in a recent article,

Wilberforce was a man who made his life count! Without question, he was a person who changed the world, one of few men and women who have had such a significant impact. It’s common these days to hear people talk about changing the world, but it is estimated that 99 percent of the people who populate the planet live under conditions created by the other 1 percent. Most of us are not world changers, but Wilberforce was . . .

One day during the production of the film, I asked myself, “What was it in the life of Wilberforce that made him a world-changer?” I believe that as followers of Jesus Christ, God has chosen each of us to be a part of the 1 percent who make a difference. So how do we do it? How did Wilberforce do it?

Principles for Changing the World

In his article, Beltz outlines five principles that shaped Wilberforce’s life. They were:

    1. Pardon: Wilberforce had a deep relationship with Jesus Christ — the first element that ultimately made him a world-changer.
    2. Purpose: Wilberforce mightily struggled with a decision whether to stay in politics or enter the clergy. The two friends who influenced the outcome of his decision were John Newton and William Pitt. When Wilberforce met with Newton for the first time in nearly 20 years, his early mentor suggested that perhaps William had been placed in politics to accomplish some God-given purpose. Pitt reinforced this thinking with his famous quote, “Surely the principles of Christianity lead to action as well as meditation.”
    3. Partners: Wilberforce surrounded himself with a group of like-minded people — partners — who together worked to accomplish these things.
    4. Power: Wilberforce wrote a book in 1797 titled, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. In this book, Wilberforce reveals his need for God’s power through maintaining a disciplined practice of Bible study (usually in the original languages), prayer, worship, and fellowship.
    5. Persistence: Wilberforce first introduced his ideas for the abolition of the slave trade to Parliament in 1789. His first abolition bill was placed on the floor in 1791 and was defeated 163-88. Virtually every year for 17 years, and sometimes multiple times in a year, Wilberforce continued rolling out a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Finally, on February 23, 1807, Wilberforce’s bill was passed and the British slave trade was outlawed (but only the buying and selling of slaves). On July 26, 1833, a bill outlawing slavery itself passed its third reading in Parliament — effectively ending slavery throughout the British Empire. A world-changing decision, to be sure.

Three days after that final bill passed, Wilberforce died. In many ways, the world continues to reap the benefits of the tireless efforts of Wilberforce and his friends. Yet, there is still so much that needs to be done.

You Can Change the World

Every generation of Christians who take the role of “salt and light” seriously must carry on the struggle to stem the tide of evil and suffering. Even today, disease and hunger is rampant in many countries around the world. Slave labor and human trafficking continues unabated. The UN estimates that 20 million people are enslaved worldwide — the majority in South Asia. 5 Millions of people lack basic liberties under oppressive regimes in nations such as Cuba, China, Nicaragua, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Uzbekistan. 6 And the legalized slaughter of innocent children prevails, including in the United States, where the current death toll since 1973 is over 43 million!

But we need to realize, especially during this political election cycle, we can’t rely on government alone to do all the changing. Government has a role, as Wilberforce clearly demonstrated. But Wilberforce also understood that in a free society, the government only moves as far as its citizens allow. Therefore, there is a need to change the attitudes of the people before the political climate will change. As Chuck Colson recently wrote:

. . . if we really want to change America for the better, we need to get rid of the idea of a “top-down” approach that says that if we just get the right people elected, the right judges appointed, the right laws passed, all will be well. What’s going to change the course of history — as Wilberforce showed us — is moral reformation and recommitment to the common good . . . . There is a wonderful scene in [Amazing Grace] where Wilberforce says, “God has laid before me two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” You see, he realized that in order to get rid of a systemic evil, you had to begin to change the way in which the people lived their lives, in which they thought about the real purposes and meaning in life. 7

So the question comes back to: What will you do to change the world?

May I suggest setting aside an evening with your family during this Christmas season to watch Amazing Grace? Afterwards discuss Wilberforce’s five principles for being salt and light. Then, assess how God has gifted each member of your family, including each one’s abilities and desires to serve Him. Third, research how people are hurting and pray about what specific way(s) God can use you to make a difference. 8

It may be feeding the hungry through your community soup kitchen or volunteering in the local Pregnancy Resource center. Or, it could involve raising money to supply fresh water for remote villages or raising awareness in your church or school of human trafficking throughout the world. Whatever the cause, there are ways to be involved in the Great Commission in your community, nation, and world.

Jesus said, ” . . . if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).

This Christmas, be the one percent. Be a world changer. Share the cup of brotherly love with a thirsty world.

Resources for Further Study


  1. For the history of how Christians have fought against slavery, see the February, 2007 Truth & Consequences.
  2. For details of the biblical influence leading to modern science, see the June, 2004 Truth & Consequences.
  3. For a summary of how Wilberforce succeeded in winning the issue over slavery, see Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint commentary on Amazing Grace, “One Bite At a Time: How to Take on Social Evils,” accessed 11/10/2007.
  4. Bob Beltz is an executive and special adviser at Walden Media, which distributed Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to this year’s, Amazing Grace.
  5. See video reports on current-day slavery compiled by the BBC at, accessed on 11/10/2007.
  6. Freedom House is an organization that compiles statistics concerning the amount of freedom people experience in each nation. See their reports at Also, see a summary of their findings in the July 2004 Truth & Consequences.
  7. Changing Hearts and Minds” by Chuck Colson, Breakpoint Commentaries (November 19, 2007), accessed 11/20/2007.
  8. Samaritan’s Purse and The Salvation Army are just two Christian organizations providing relief efforts around the world.