The Almost Christian (Saving Grace #2)

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The Almost Christian (Saving Grace #2)              Saving Grace 02
from John Wesley’s Sermons
Sep 2019, Christ Mountain Top
Matthew 22.34-40
Acts 26.1-9
Moment, Pounding the Pastor
persuaded to ride a roller coaster … twice.
fall, we begin the season with an exploration of our roots in the Christian
tradition, especially in our United Methodist tradition. This year, we’re
dusting off some treasures of the church – John Wesley’s “standard
sermons”, particularly those on the themes of salvation, sin, grace, and
faith. Last week, we looked at the very first of the 53 sermons,
“Salvation by Faith”. This week, we look at the second one, “The
Almost Christian”
, preached on July 25, 1741 at Oxford University. His
text was one line from Acts 26.28, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a
       Paul is sharing his story before Governor
Felix and King Agrippa and his wife Bernice, defending himself against some of
the accusations that had been brought against him and, even more, inviting his
audience to follow Jesus with him. Paul knew that Agrippa had studied the
Hebrew Scriptures and had some level of belief in the writings of the prophets.
So, he was challenging Agrippa to take the next step, attempting to
close the deal. “I know that you believe”, Paul says. “Almost
you persuade me”.
you ever been almost persuaded of something? Getting on that ride at the
amusement park? Signing up at the fitness club? Buying a car? You are right at
the edge and maybe one little push will put you over. So, Paul comes back with,
“I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me this day
might become such as I am – except for these chains”.

we are at the point of decision, we are generally aware of it. But for those
who are brought up in the church, we may miss that point of decision entirely.
We grow up believing in God. There never was a time that we did not believe.
That is a wonderful experience. It wasn’t mine, however, so I remember when I
first began to seek God as a child. While I don’t remember my first decision,
I remember the process and I remember making other clear decisions, being
“persuaded” in the words of Agrippa, at several points in my faith
       One of the things John Wesley attempts to
do in this message is bring us to a point of decision. So much of faith is
process, journey, development. Yet, we still need concrete moments of decision.
In Wesley’s time, as well as ours, there were many “almost
Christians”, or people who otherwise thought of themselves as followers of
Jesus, who were not yet what Wesley described as “altogether a
is plenty of overlap with the first of Wesley’s standard sermons, “Salvation by
Faith” – the themes of salvation, grace, faith, and sin are all connected. Last
week, I said that salvation is 100% God and 0% me. When it comes to what
theologians called “merits” (think of the Harry Potter house points
system of merits and demerits), when it comes to what theologians call
“merits”, our salvation is exclusively due to the merits of Jesus
Christ. That does not mean that we have no part in our own salvation, that we
are simply passive. As much as saving grace is 100% on the merits of Jesus
Christ, saving faith – becoming “altogether a Christian” – requires
you and me being 100% surrendered to God.
       Because, there is an “obedience that
comes by faith” (Romans 1.5, 16.26), and if this obedience does not come,
there is no faith (1 John 5.4-5, James 2.17). Because, there is a
transformation that comes by love, and if that transformation does not come,
there is no love (Galatians 5.6, Matthew 22.34-40).
begins his message by describing the “almost Christian”. First of
all, the almost Christian has what he calls “heathen honesty”.
That is, the almost Christian has a moral and ethical life that at the minimum
meets the basic expectations of people in our world. What do people expect of
what we would call “a good person”? “Feeding the hungry,
clothing the naked”
(I.3), along with a basic trustworthiness. On the
other hand, Wesley describes, “Wilful liars” as “the disgrace of human kind,
and the pests of society”
the “almost Christian” has the “form of godliness”
(2 Timothy 3.5) or what Wesley calls the “outside of a Christian”.
Wesley describes this godliness in the same terms as the three general rules he
gives to the Methodist societies, to do no harm, to do good, to “attend
upon the ordinances of God”. These are the only rules he gives to the
Methodist societies, because you can only legislate the “outside” or
the “form”. You cannot write rules for what happens on the
“inside” of a human being.
       Some of the details: For “do not
or “avoid evil”, the “almost Christian” does
not swear, profane the Lord’s day, commit adultery, do anything that tends to
adultery, use “idle words”, engage in conflict for conflict’s sake,
practice vengeance, does not get drunk.
       The “almost Christian” does
and “does not confine himself to cheap and easy offices of
kindness” (I.6), but does all the good you can to all the people you can
by all the means you can, including leading other people to Jesus. And yet,
they are only an “almost Christian”.
       The “almost Christian” uses
the “means of grace
, all of them, and at all opportunities”
(I.7). Worship, with a focus on God rather than on impressing others by our
dress or presence. Worship that is serious and attentive, not lacking in focus
or disturbing the focus of others by talk or movement. “When he approaches
the table of the Lord, it is … with an air, gesture, and deportment which
speaks nothing else but ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’” (I.7).
Practices family prayers and schedules private prayer.
third feature of an “almost Christian” is “sincerity . . . a
real inward principle of religion
” (I.9). That is, “almost
Christians” do all these things not simply out of a desire to avoid
punishment but because we truly want to serve God.
only the “almost Christian”, not the “altogether
Christian”. What do you mean, John Wesley? This sounds pretty good to me.
Of course it does, and it should. But our goodness doesn’t get us to God, and
our goodness doesn’t make us a follower of Jesus. If we are going to be almost
a Christian, never mind altogether a Christian, however, we should be moving in
this direction. But it is not the same as “knowing God”. What we call
a “good Christian” these days is not much different than Wesley’s
“almost Christian”. There is something more, something significantly
different, that makes us “altogether a Christian”. So, Wesley moves
forward in his attempt to persuade us, just as Paul did with Agrippa.
       Is it possible that any man
living should go so far as this
, and, nevertheless, be only almost a
Christian?” (I.11). Yes. It was Wesley’s own story, and this is where his
message is autobiographical in nature:
did go thus far for many years
… using diligence to
eschew all evil, … buying up every opportunity of doing all good to all men,
constantly and carefully using all the public and all the private means of
grace, … and, God is my record, … doing all this in sincerity, having a
real design to serve God. … Yet, … all this time I was but almost a
Christian. (I.13)
note: It is not necessary to first become an “almost Christian” before becoming
“altogether a Christian.” In the Scripture, we have the story of the man dying
on the cross next to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me.” “Today, with me, Paradise.”
We don’t have to clean up our lives in order to become a Christian. We have to
belong 100% to God. And the engine of transformation is not our will power –
which I’m a big fan of – but the love of God.
does it mean, then, to be “altogether a Christian“? There are
three things that John Wesley lists.
       First, “the love of God“.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22.37). Wesley describes this love
affair with God: It “engrosses the whole heart”, “takes up all
the affections”, “fills the entire capacity of the soul” (II.1).
In the words of the psalms, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is
nothing on earth that I desire other than you” (Psalm 73.25, II.1).
       Second, “the love of our neighbor“.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22.39). This
includes EVERY human being, even our enemies. And, this love makes the lover
the “least, the servant of all” (II.2).
       Third, “faith“. Here,
Wesley reviews some of the themes in the first message, “Salvation by
Faith”, reminding us that faith that is disconnected from personal
transformation, from Scriptural holiness, is “devil faith”.
Wesley is describing as the natural results of faith and love in our lives is
the kind of transformation described by the apostle Paul. There is an
“obedience that comes by faith” (Romans 1.5, 16.26), and if this
obedience does not come, there is no faith (1 John 5.4-5, James 2.17). There is
a transformation that comes by love, and if that transformation does not come,
there is no love (Matthew 22.34-40). “The only thing that counts
[in salvation and holiness] is faith working through love” (Galatians
5.6). “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith”
(1 John 5.4-5). This is what it means to be “altogether a Christian”.
processes that energize the “almost Christian” and the
“altogether Christian” are quite different. The “almost
Christian” sincerely desires to please God, but only develops the
“outside of a Christian”, what Paul calls “the form of
godliness, without the power” (2 Timothy 3.5). This is because the energy
behind the “almost Christian” is our own effort. For the
“altogether Christian”, the energy, the driving force behind the
personal transformation, the holy life, is “faith working through
love”, it is God in our lives, it is inside-out. We do not have to become
an “almost Christian” before becoming an “altogether
Christian”, not because the moral and spiritual implications are
different, but because the energy, the power, is different. For Wesley,
salvation is not limited to forgiveness. Salvation includes holiness, being and
becoming holy as God is holy. And, for the altogether Christian, that happens
as a fruit of faith and love, full dependence on God and total love for our
Savior, not of our own works.
desire is to push us to the point of decision. As he wraps up his
message, he asks pointed questions. Do I have the basic moral qualities
expected of people who do not know God? Have I developed the
“outside” of a Christian? But “good designs and good
desires” do not make a Christian. Wesley quotes the old line, “Hell
is paved with good intentions” (II.9). 
great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in
your heart? … Do you desire nothing but Him? … Do you love your neighbor as
yourself? Even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? As
Christ loved you? … Dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave
Himself for thee? … And doth His Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that
thou art a child of God?” (II.9)
“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!” (II.11)