The Almost Christian:
An adaptation of John Wesley’s Sermon
The recent events that have occurred this past year in The United Methodist Church across America have made me personally question my membership in and ordination through our denomination. I will not rehash all that I’ve said several weeks ago. If you weren’t here and want to know more about it, go to byhaliaumc.org and read the sermon called, “The Authority of Scripture.”
Here’s what I think I know about myself: I appreciate the theological and denominational roots predominantly found in the Wesley brothers, John and Charles . Along with the great evangelist George Whitefield , these men are largely credited with the great awakening in England and in America during the 18th century. John Wesley was both practical and organized when it came to his theology, some of which aligned closely with John Calvin and Martin Luther. On the doctrine of justification by faith, for instance, Wesley once remarked that there was not a hair’s breath of difference between he and John Calvin. On other matters, such as entire sanctification and falling from grace, he differed quite a bit and it’s why I’m a Methodist preacher and not a Presbyterian or Baptist (though I have great admiration for both).
In thinking about Wesley lately, with recent issues arising in our denomination, and considering the state of the church at large, I remember a sermon I had to read in seminary entitled, The Almost Christian. It was first preached in on July 25, 1741. [Keep in mind, America wouldn’t declare her independence for another 35 years!] I went back and studied that sermon [IN OLD ENGLISH!] and with the help of a couple of other sources, I would like to present to you the case for being an altogether Christian.
Let me read for you two verses from Acts 26:28-29 from the King James Version, in keeping with Wesley’s time: “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.”
Paul was standing trial before King Agrippa, the Roman puppet tetrarch of Judea, along with Festus the governor of the region. Paul had been accused by religious leaders of blasphemy, among others things, and were plotting to kill him when Paul’s nephew interceded for him. Long story short, he is given a hearing by the king and governor, even though he had also appeal to Caesar.
In his address, Paul gives his audience an account of how Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and given him a mission—to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, so that they may turn from darkness to light, may receive forgiveness of sins and find a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s message was one of repentance and life change. He does a masterful job of identifying the work and person of Jesus Christ with what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass. that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to the Jews and to the Gentiles.
Pretty good argument, right? Well, Festus says, “you’re out of your mind!” Paul turns to King Agrippa and says, “C’mon, man! You believe the prophets? I know you believe.” If the prophets foretold of the coming of Jesus and his resurrection, what was it such a leap for Agrippa and others to accept the message of the Gospel?
Agrippa responds (according to KJV), Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. Almost a Christian. That launched not only Wesley but Whitefield into striking messages by that title… Almost a Christian. What does that mean?
To help bring it into a 21st century context, how many of you have seen the wildly popular Christmas hit, Elf?Here’s the basic story line: Santa Clause is making his rounds one Christmas night and during a visit to an orphanage, an orphan baby sneaks into Santa’s sleigh and ends up riding all the way to the North Pole. The child is discovered, and after realizing that he was an orphan from the orphanage, the elves decide to adopt and raise the baby there at the North Pole. They dress him like an elf, treat him like an elf, and raise him like an elf.
The more time passes, the more evident it becomes that he definitely is NOT an elf. One major clue is that he grows to be over six feet tall. With each passing year, everyone becomes more and more aware that he is not an elf, and no amount of artificial, outward elf-ness can make him truly an elf. Finally, realizing that he doesn’t belong, he goes back to the real world to try to find his biological family, fit in, and become a normal person.
As difficult as it was to try to be an elf, which he wasn’t, it is just as difficult trying to be a normal person because he had been artificially shaped into a form of elf-ness, without truly being an elf. He’s a person who is somewhere in-between, not fitting in anywhere. He is an “almost” elf. He is an “almost” human.
We live in a culture with “almost” Christians. Let me make this first distinction. There are many who claim no religion (“nones”). They would NOT call themselves Christian, nor would they expect anyone else to, either. No, we’re talking about a different group of people who call themselves “Christian” and would be highly offended if you called them “Almost Christian.” Many of our churches are filled with, even led by “almost” Christians. When asked why they don’t participate in a church family, many non-church people say that it’s because of all of the “almost” Christians who are there.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who was almost persuaded to become a Christian, but decided against it saying, “I would become a follower of Christ if it wasn’t for those who claim to follow him.” In other words, he was turned away from Christ by observing the lives lived by “almost” Christians.
So what does an “almost” Christian look like? Looking at Wesley’s sermon, let me give you a number of attributes that he describes. The first thing that we could say about the “almost” Christian is that they are good, ethical people. Wesley called it “heathen honesty.” They know and understand the importance of a good social ethic. They don’t steal. They don’t cheat one another. Lying and slandering one another is totally unacceptable to the “almost” Christian.
They don’t oppress the poor, in fact, they probably look after them; engaging in all sorts of charity work. When they see someone hungry, they feed them. When someone needs clothing, they clothe them. They give generously to social programs…so long as it isn’t too much of a burden on them. Wesley said, “even the heathens gave the things they could spare to those in need even without the full knowledge of God.”
The “almost” Christian is a hard worker, not lazy, but working long, hard hours to earn a good income, provide a comfortable life for his family, be recognized and praised by his superiors as he is promoted up the corporate ladder. This is the person will lives by the credo, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The second thing we could say about the “almost” Christian is that they are good, moral people. The “almost” Christian is someone who works hard at observing and adhering to a code of morality in which it is wrong to kill, commit adultery and other sexual sin, or destroy one another with his words. They avoid moral vices such as drunkenness, drug use, and gambling. This is a person who is generally good to other people and could quote to you and try to live by The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
What else could we say about the “almost” Christian? Well, they are generally good, religious people. They are people who outwardly demonstrate a form of godliness. Every time the church doors are open, they are usually there. If they know you, they will greet you with a big smile, and perhaps a hug and when you ask them how they are they’ll assure you of how “blessed” they are. They listen intently to the preaching and may even offer the occasional “amen.” Because of their religious piety they are often offered seats on the church board, serve as deacons, or teach Sunday School.
I know what you’re thinking. “These sound like the descriptions of a true Christian. Can a person really look like this outwardly and still only be an “almost” Christian? John Wesley was born into a Christian family, the son of an Anglican minister.
He was brought up not only respecting the Christian religion, but himself embodying it. At the age of 22 he was ordained as a deacon and began preaching. Three years later he was fully ordained as a priest in the Anglican church. Over the course of the next ten years he busied himself with teaching and ministry in such places as Oxford University and even as a “wanna-be” missionary to Savannah, Georgia at which he ultimately failed, and returned to England disgraced.
John Wesley was a devoutly religious person, living a religious life, preaching religious sermons, teaching religious thought, leading a religious small group called “The Holy Club.” But by his own admission, he was an “almost” Christian. It wasn’t until May 24th, 1738 , after 13 years of “Christian” ministry, at the age of 35 that John Wesley became “altogether” Christian. Here’s how Wesley described it: “About 8:45 p.m. “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Observing Wesley’s ethical, moral, and religious life, and the ethical, moral, and religious lives of the “almost” Christians that know and love, what is it that makes these seemingly Christian people, “almost” Christian? The difference between an “almost” Christian and a “altogether” Christian person is not what we see or don’t see on the outside, it’s determined by what’s inside of them, driving them to live ethical, moral, and religious lives.
Truth is, every bit of what we’ve been describing—good morality, ethics, and Christian virtue—are attributes that serve US! We get a sense of satisfaction when we serve the poor. We feel accomplished and honored when folks recognize our integrity and even our Christian piety. We are better as human beings because we don’t get drunk, tell lies, and commit sexual sin. All these outward actions, while good, do not mean that we are “altogether” Christian!
According to scripture, the heart remains deceitful and desperately wicked, regardless of how we may outwardly appear. And the almost Christian is to be pitied above all others. As difficult as it was to try to be a Christian, which he wasn’t, it is just as difficult trying to be a non-Christian because he had been artificially shaped into a form of a Christian, without truly being a Christian. He is a person who is somewhere in-between, not fitting in anywhere…like Elf. He is an “almost” Christian. He is an “almost” heathen. He is now one of the hypocrites who so often keeps spiritually hungry people from giving themselves to Christ.
Good News!!! There is an answer for the person who realizes that they are an “almost” Christian. There is hope. There is love. There is grace. The most sensible answer for the “almost” Christian is to become “altogether” Christian. What does it mean to be “altogether” Christian?
Let’s look first at the outward life. It looks much the same as that of the “almost” Christian. The “altogether” Christian person is an ethical person. She is a moral person. And She is a religious person. She values truth, honesty, and charity, caring for the person who is poor and struggling in life.
She faithfully participates in the life of her church family, incorporating spiritual disciplines into her day-to-day life. She respects and cares for her spiritual leadership. She prays for and encourages her brothers and sisters. She worships and listens to and reads the Word of God, applying it to her life. What is different, however, is that all of her outward Christianity is driven by and emerges out of three things that the “almost” Christian has no understanding of.
The first is a genuine, a love for God that engulfs the entire heart, a love for God that captures and transforms all of our interests and desires and passions, a love for God that fills every empty corner of our soul. This love for God causes her to wake up every morning thinking to herself, “Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever!”
The second thing that drives the life of the “altogether” Christian person is genuine love for other people. Unlike the “almost” Christian, this person loves other people not because of what benefit they can receive from that person, but because that person is a living, breathing, feeling human being created in the image of God who needs to feel the love of another as desperately as we do. This kind of love compels us to lay aside concern for ourselves all for the sake of helping someone else know the feeling of being genuinely loved by another human being. It’s a sacrificial love…the kind of love that only God can give us and has demonstrated in his Son, Jesus Christ.
And finally, the “altogether” Christian person is driven by faith. Without faith, the “almost” Christian can never hope to become “altogether” Christian because it is by grace, through faith, that we are truly saved and born again. The faith we’re talking about here is not simply an intellectual belief in God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, Heaven, or Hell. Satan himself along with every demonic being in existence not only believes in God, but has seen Him face-to-face! Satan knows full well that Jesus Christ not only lived, died, but rose from the dead. Satan and his demons believe every article of faith and Christian doctrine that has ever been taught.
No, the faith that we’re talking about here is a faith and belief that Jesus Christ and he alone has made the way for us to become “altogether” Christian, truly reunited with the one true God of creation.
A faith and belief that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ, and now Christ has opened that door to all who will walk through it regardless of their spiritual condition.
Scripture speaks an abundance of good things about this spiritual virtue of faith. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
John said, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12 ESV) “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” (1 John 5:4 ESV)
Wesley said that Altogether Christians have a “steadfast faith and confidence in Christ to save us from everlasting condemnation. It is a certain faith and confidence that one places in God, trusting in the merits of Christ that one’s sins are forgiven and that reconciliation to God has occurred. From this faith proceeds a heart that loves him and obeys his commandments.”
This is a faith that, not only does God forgive us of our sins and erases the debt of eternal punishment for those sins, but God will also transform us into entirely new people, destroying the power of sin in our lives. It is this faith that fuels the all-consuming love for God and love for people, making us truly “altogether” Christian. It’s this faith that frees us from the prison of being “somewhere in-between” and allows us to finally, fully belong.
Oh, that you would experience that faith today! Oh, that you would move from being “almost” Christian to altogether His. As Wesley would ask, “Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?” Can you cry out, “My God, and my All!” Do you desire nothing but Him? Are you happy in God alone? Is the Lord Almighty your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? Does God’s Spirit bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
Truth is, if you don’t have such saving faith, if you were to die without this faith and love, it were better that you had not been born at all. So hear this call upon your heart: Awake then, o sleeper! And call upon your God! Call on him while he may be found. Do not rest another day. For God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Behold, our Lord Jesus stands at the door of your heart and knocks. If any would desire to be an altogether Christian, he can have it this day. Open the door of your heart and let him in!
I close with Wesley’s final word: “May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only, but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!
In the name if the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.