The Almost Christian — Sermon 2

This is part of a larger project on “John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.”

Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Acts 26:28 (KJV)

And many people go this far. Ever since the Christian religion was in the world, there have been many in every age and nation who were almost persuaded to be Christians. But since it gives us no benefit before God to go only this far, it forces us to consider,

First. What is implied in being almost,

Secondly. What in being altogether a Christian?

I.

(I.) 1. Now, being almost a Christian implies, first, heathen honesty. I doubt anyone will question this. Especially since by heathen honesty here, I mean, not just what is recommended in the writings of their philosophers, but what the common heathens expected of each other, and what many of them actually practiced. By their own rules they were taught that they shouldn’t be unjust; not to take away their neighbor’s possessions, either by robbery or theft; not to oppress the poor, or to extort from anyone; not to cheat or put into debt either the poor or the rich, in whatever business they had with them; to defraud no one of any rights; and, if it were possible, to owe no one anything.

2. Again: the common heathens agreed that they should pay attention to truth, as well as to justice. Accordingly, they not only regarded as unclean anyone who swore falsely or called God as their witness to a lie; but also anyone who was known to be a slanderer of their neighbor, who falsely accused anyone. And they didn’t consider intentional liars of any sort much better, considering them the disgrace of humankind, and the pests of society.

3. Yet again: there was a sort of love and assistance that they expected from one another. They expected people to give whatever assistance they could give someone without harming themselves. And they extended this belief not only to those little deeds that can be done without any expense or labor, but also to feeding the hungry, if they had food to spare; clothing the naked with their own extra clothing; and, in general, giving anything they didn’t need themselves to anyone that was in need. Heathen honesty went at least this far. That’s the first thing implied in being almost a Christian.

(II.) 4. A second thing implied in being almost a Christian is having a form of godliness – that godliness we see prescribed in the gospel of Christ: having the outside of a real Christian. In this respect, those who are almost Christians do nothing that the gospel forbids. They don’t take the name of God in vain; they bless, and do not curse; they do not swear an oath at all, but say simply, “Yes,” or “No.” They don’t desecrate the Sabbath, nor allow it to be desecrated by causing someone else to work for them. They not only avoid all sexual immorality and impurity, but also every word or look that either directly or indirectly could lead toward those. They avoid all empty words, abstaining from belittling, slandering, gossiping, and from “all foolish talk and coarse joking,“[1] even though eutrapelia[2] – the word St. Paul used for “coarse joking” – was considered a virtue by heathen moralists. In a word, they abstain from all conversation that is not “helpful for building others up,”[3] and that consequently “grieves the Holy Spirit of God, with whom we were sealed for the day of redemption.”[4]

5. They abstain from getting “drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery,”[5] from orgies and gluttony. They avoid, as far as it depends on them, all strife and conflict, continually trying to live at peace with everyone.[6] And if they suffer wrong, they do not take revenge or repay evil for evil. They don’t slander, don’t brawl, and don’t scoff at the faults or weaknesses of their neighbors. They don’t willingly wrong, hurt, or bring grief to anyone; but in all things, they act and speak by the plain rule, “What you would not have others do to you, do not do to them.“[7]

6. And in doing good, they don’t confine themselves to cheap and easy acts of kindness, but work and suffer for the good of many, so that by all means they may help some. In spite of toil or pain, “whatever their hands find to do, they do it with all their might;“[8] whether it be for their friends, or for their enemies; for evil people, or for good people. For “never lacking in zeal” in serving,[9] as they “have opportunity” they “do good,” all types of good, “to all people;“[10] and to those people’s souls as well as their bodies. They correct the wicked, instruct the ignorant, support the doubting, inspire the good, and comfort the afflicted. They work to awaken those that sleep; to lead those whom God has already awakened to the “fountain opened to cleanse them from sin and impurity,“[11] that they may wash there and be clean. They work to stir up those who are saved through faith, to make the gospel attractive in every way.[12]

7. Those that have the form of godliness also use the means of grace; yes, all of them, and at all opportunities. They constantly visit the house of God; and not with the attitude some have, who come into the presence of the Most High showing off expensive clothing and jewelry, or with insincere flattery to others or an impolite, lighthearted attitude, denying all claims to even the form of godliness, as well as its power. If only there were no people among us who fall under that condemnation! Who come into God’s house staring aimlessly, or with all the signs of the most lifeless, careless indifference, though sometimes they may seem to pray to God for his blessing on what they are doing; who, during that awe-inspiring service, are either asleep, or reclined in the most convenient posture for it; or, as though they supposed God was asleep, talking with each other, or looking around, as if they have nothing to do. Don’t let any of these be accused of the form of godliness! No; those who have even the form of godliness behave with seriousness and attention in every part of that majestic service. More especially, when they approach the table of the Lord, it is not with a light or careless behavior, but with an air, gesture, and behavior that indicates nothing else but “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!“[13]

8. If we add to all of this regular family prayer by those who are heads of families, and setting times apart for private prayers to God, with daily devotion, then those who consistently practice this outward religion have the form of godliness. They lack just one thing more in order to be almost a Christian, and that is sincerity.

(III.) 9. By sincerity I mean a real, inward concept of religion, from which these outward actions flow. And, indeed if we don’t have this, we don’t have heathen honesty; no, not so much of it as will answer the demand of a heathen Epicurean poet. Even this poor wretch, in his sober intervals, is able to testify,

Oderunt peccare boni, virtutis amore;

Oderunt peccare mali, formidine poenae.

[Good men avoid sin from the love of virtue; Wicked men avoid sin from a fear of punishment.]

So that, if a person only abstains from doing evil in order to avoid punishment, Non pasces in cruce corvos, [You shall not be hanged.], says the pagan Horace. There, “you have received your reward in full.“[14] But even he will not allow such a harmless person as this to be so much as a good heathen. If, then, any person not only abstains from doing evil, but also does plenty of good, and uses all the means of grace out of the same motive – namely, to avoid punishment, to avoid the loss of friends, or money, or reputation – still we could not say with any respectability that this person is even almost a Christian. Someone who does not do these because of a motivation of the heart is only a hypocrite.

10. Sincerity, therefore, is a necessary part of being almost a Christian; a real intention to serve God, a wholehearted desire to do his will. This person has a sincere view of pleasing God in all things; in all conversation; in all actions; in all done or left undone. This intention, for anyone who is almost a Christian, runs through the whole course of their life. This is the moving principle, both in their doing good, their abstaining from evil, and their obeying the laws of God.

11. But some people will probably ask, “Is it possible for any living person to go this far and still be just almost a Christian? What more than this can be implied in being a Christian altogether? My answer: First, it is possible to go this far, and still be just almost a Christian. I learn that not only from the words of God, but also from the testimony of experience.

12. Brothers and sisters, “I speak to you with great frankness”[15] in this matter. And “forgive me this wrong“[16] if I declare my own foolishness from the rooftop for yours and the gospel’s sake. Allow me to speak freely about myself, even as I would speak about another person. I am willing to be humbled so you may be exalted,[17] and to become even more undignified for the glory of my Lord.

13. I did go this far for many years, as many here can testify. I worked hard to refrain from all evil, and to keep my conscience clear.[18] I made the most of every opportunity.[19] I found every opportunity to do all kinds of good for all people. I constantly and carefully used all the public and all the private means of grace. I worked toward a devout seriousness of behavior, at all times, and in all places. And (God is my witness, before whom I stand) I did all this with sincerity, having a real intention to serve God, a wholehearted desire to do his will in all things – to please him who had called me to “fight the good fight,“[20] and to “take hold of eternal life.“[21] Yet my own conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit,[22] that all this time I was just almost a Christian.

II.

If you ask, “What more than this is implied in being altogether a Christian?”

(I.) 1. I answer first, the love of God. For his word says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”[23] This kind of love occupies the whole heart; it includes all the emotions; it fills the entire capacity of the soul and uses the full extent of all its powers. Those that love the Lord their God like this have spirits that continually “rejoice in God their Savior.“[24] Their delight is in the Lord, their Lord and their All, to whom they “give thanks in all circumstances. God’s name and renown are the desire of their hearts.“[25] Their hearts are always crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.“[26] Indeed, what can they desire beside God? Not the world, or the things of the world: for they are “crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to them.“[27] They are crucified to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.“[28] Yes, they are dead to boasting of every kind, for “love is not proud“[29] but “whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”[30]

(II.) 2. The second thing implied in being altogether a Christian is the love of our neighbor. For our Lord said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.“[31] If anyone asks, “Who is my neighbor?“[32] we reply, Every person in the world; every child of God, who gives breath to all living things.[33] We cannot exclude our enemies or the enemies of God and of their own souls. All Christians love these also as they love themselves, even more, “as Christ loved us.“[34] Consider St. Paul’s description of this love to more fully understand what kind of love it is. It is “patient and kind. It does not envy.“[35] It is not reckless or hasty in judging. It “is not proud“[36] but makes the one that loves into  a servant of all, serving as one of the least. Love “does not dishonor others,“[37] but becomes “all things to all people.“[38] It “is not self-seeking“[39] but seeks only the good of others, so that they may be saved. “Love is not easily angered.“[40] It drives out wrath, for if anyone has wrath, they are lacking in love. “It keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.“[41]

(III.) 3. There is still one more thing implied in being altogether a Christian that may be considered separately, though it cannot actually be separate from love of God and love of neighbor. And this is the foundation of it all: faith! Glorious things are said about faith throughout God’s word. “Everyone who believes,” says the beloved disciple, “is born of God.“[42] “To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.“[43] And “this is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.“[44] Indeed, our Lord himself declares, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”[45]

4. But here let no one deceive themselves. “Note carefully: the faith that does not bring forth repentance, and love, and all good deeds, is not a right, living faith, but a dead and demonic one. For even the demons believe that Christ was born of a virgin, that he worked all kinds of miracles, declaring himself God, that he suffered a most painful death for our sakes, to redeem us from eternal death, that he rose again the third day, that he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father and at the end of the world will come again to judge both the living and the dead. These articles of our faith the demons believe, and so they believe all that is written in the Old and New Testament. And yet for all this faith, they are only demons. They remain in their condemnable state, lacking the true Christian faith.”[46]

5. “The right and true Christian faith is” (to go on the words of our own Church – the Anglican Church), “not only to believe that Holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ. It is a sure trust and confidence which people have in God, that, by the merits of Christ, their sins are forgiven, and they are reconciled to the favor of God; and a loving heart follows from this, to obey his commandments.”

6. Now, whoever has this faith – a faith which “purifies the heart“[47] (by the power of God, who dwells there) from “pride, anger, desire, from all unrighteousness” from “everything that contaminates body and spirit,“[48] which fills the heart with love stronger than death, both for God and for all human beings; love that does the works of God, gladly spending for people everything it has and expending itself as well,[49] and that endures with joy, not only the disgrace of Christ (being mocked, despised, and hated by everyone) but whatever God in his wisdom permits people or demons to inflict with their malice – whoever has this faith that acts in love is not just almost, but altogether, a Christian.

7. But who are the living witnesses of these things? Now brothers and sisters, as you are in the presence of God, before whom “Death and Destruction lie open – how much more human hearts!“[50] – each of you should ask your own heart, “Am I of that number? Do I practice justice, mercy, and truth, as even the rules of heathen honesty require? If so, do I have the outside of a Christian? the form of godliness? Do I abstain from evil – from whatever is forbidden in the written Word of God? Do I do whatever good my hand finds to do, and do it with all my might?[51] Do I seriously obey all the laws of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere intention and desire to please God in all things?”

8. Aren’t many of you aware that you never came this far; that you haven’t been even almost a Christian? That you haven’t come up to the standard of heathen honesty? Or at least not to the form of Christian godliness? Much less has God seen sincerity in you, a real intention to please him in all things. You never so much as intended to devote all your words and works – your business, studies, diversions – to his glory. You never even intended or desired that anything you did would be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus,“[52] and so would be “a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Christ.“[53]

9. But assuming you had intended all this, do good intentions and good desires make a Christian? By no means, unless they are acted on. “Hell is paved,” they say, “with good intentions.” The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God poured out in your heart?[54] Can you cry out, “My God and my All”? Do you desire nothing but God? Do you delight in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister”?[55] Do you then love your neighbor as yourself? Do you love every person, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as yourself? as Christ loved you? Even more, do you believe that Christ loved you, and gave himself for you? Do you have faith in his blood? Do you believe the Lamb of God has taken away your sins and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he has canceled the charge of legal indebtedness that stood against you, taking it away, nailing it to the cross?[56] Do you indeed have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of your sins? And does his Spirit testify with your spirit that you are a child of God?[57]

10. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who now stands in the midst of us, knows that if anyone dies without this faith and this love, it would be better for them if they had never been born. Wake up, then, sleeper, and call on your God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest until he causes his “goodness to pass in front of you;“[58] until he proclaims his name, the Lord, in your presence, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.“[59] Let no one persuade you by empty words to stop short of this prize for which God has called you heavenward.[60] But cry out to him day and night, who, “when we were still powerless, died for the ungodly,“[61] until you know whom you have believed,[62] and can say, “My Lord and my God!“[63] Remember “always to pray and not give up,“[64] until you also can lift up your hand to heaven, and declare to him that lives for ever and ever, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.“[65]

11. May we all thus experience what it is to be, not just almost, 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 poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us!

See more at “John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.”

Not all Bible quotations are exact. They are used the way that Wesley used them.

[1] Eph 5:4

[2] The Greek word for “coarse joking” in Eph 5:4 is eutrapelia, which Aristotle called a virtue. Aristotle defined the term as “saying and hearing such things as are consonant with modest and liberal pleasure.” It had to do with conversation that was pleasant and socially entertaining, finding middle ground between excessive indulgence and excessive restraint.

[3] Eph 4:29

[4] Eph 4:30

[5] Eph 5:18

[6] Rom 12:18

[7] negative of Matt 7:12

[8] Eccl 9:10

[9] Rom 12:11

[10] Gal 6:10

[11] Zech 13:1

[12] Titus 2:10

[13] Luke 18:13

[14] Matt 6:2

[15] 2 Cor 7:4

[16] 2 Cor 12:13

[17] Matt 23:12

[18] Acts 24:16

[19] Col 4:5

[20] 1 Tim 6:12

[21] 1 Tim 6:12

[22] Rom 9:1

[23] Mark 12:30

[24] Luke 1:47

[25] 1 Thess 5:18, Isa 26:8

[26] Ps 73:25

[27] Gal 6:14

[28] 1 John 2:16

[29] 1 Cor 13:4

[30] 1 John 4:16

[31] Matt 22:39

[32] Luke 10:29

[33] Num 16:22

[34] Eph 5:2

[35] 1 Cor 13:4

[36] 1 Cor 13:4

[37] 1 Cor 13:5

[38] 1 Cor 9:22

[39] 1 Cor 13:5

[40] 1 Cor 13:5

[41] 1 Cor 13:6–7

[42] 1 John 5:1

[43] John 1:12

[44] 1 John 5:4

[45] John 5:24

[46] From “Homily on the Salvation of Man”

[47] Jas 4:8

[48] 2 Cor 7:1

[49] 2 Cor 12:15

[50] Prov 15:11

[51] Eccl 9:10

[52] Col 3:17

[53] 1 Pet 2:5

[54] Rom 5:5

[55] 1 John 4:21

[56] Col 2:14

[57] Rom 8:16

[58] Exod 33:19

[59] Exod 34:6

[60] Phil 3:14

[61] Rom 5:6

[62] 2 Tim 1:12

[63] John 20:28

[64] Luke 18:1

[65] John 21:17

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com  The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

2 thoughts on “The Almost Christian — Sermon 2

  1. Pingback: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today « teddy ray

  2. You did a good job on this. Thank you. I am leading a small group study on the sermons of Wesley for 6 weeks. I will recommend the link for this sermon for them. Its too bad that many people won’t put in the effort to read Wesley’s sermons in the “original” Georgian English.

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