“The Almost Christian”
”Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
As I wrote this article, I was flying a little above 36,000 feet right now on my way to the Anglican Mission’s Winter Conference. That being the case, I only had the Wesley sermons from my Accordance Bible Software to keep me company during this flight and not the massive volumes of Scripture Notes, Letters, and Journals that I would love to refer to for a more comprehensive context.
I still have available to me some very helpful notes from Albert Outler that pertain to the context of this sermon. The context of the first sermon, “Salvation by Faith” was delivered in the context of a post “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate, but “The Almost Christian” (another one preached at Oxford) comes in the midst of the Revival and the exponential growth of Wesley’s Societies. Wesley’s hermeneutic of Acts 26:28 is also noted by Outler as being “a familiar one in Puritan preaching. It was, indeed, already conventional to shift from the text’s plain reference (Agrippa’s being almost persuaded to become a Christian) to a discussion of nominal Christianity.”
It is also highly recommended to read Wesley’s later sermon, “The More Excellent Way” (1787) in dialog with “The Almost Christian.” While there is no change in Wesley’s soteriology, the hard-line between the “almost” and “altogether” Christian becomes more gentle and the emphasis given for both orders of Christian to pursue the “telos” of being in Christ, ‘the more excellent way’ of a pure love of God and a humble ‘love of all men for God’s sake.’” Context matters with both sermons since “Almost Christian” is a polemical sermon delivered to an Oxford audience, whereas “The More Excellent Way” appears to be more pastoral (yet less highly regarded).
Wesley begins by outlining a concept that manifests itself in every age and culture: nominal Christianity. We hear this in those plagued words of Herod, ‘almost thou has persuadeth me to be a Christian.’ Wesley, therefore, draws a hard-line between what he designates as the “almost” and the “altogether” Christian.
The “almost Christians” are characterized by a couple of distinctive features:
- They are culturally moral people: they abide by the standards of morality. Doing things like telling the truth, caring for the poor, doing things in moderation, etc.
- They are outwardly Christians: they do nothing that the Gospel forbids. No excessive drinking, gluttony, no scoffing, gossiping, etc.
- They faithfully attend worship services: they participate in the sacramental life whenever they can and even practice privately the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting.
- They are properly motivated by a desire to serve God and do his will: the almost Christian isn’t a hypocrite, but genuinely is motivated by an inward desire to be faithful to God.
But what more than all this to be an “altogether Christian”?
Wesley outlines three main “paradigm shifts”:
- The Love of God: A complete in-filling in heart and deed of the holy love of God. The entire capacity of our soul, the whole heart, all our affections, and the complete extent of all our faculties should be permeated by this love. That God would dwell in us and us in God.
- The Love of Neighbor: This to Wesley means every man, woman, child, and enemy. That the love in us creates a humanizing energy to see the remnant imago dei in each human person.
- Born of God: Wesley then moves into the reality that ‘To as many as received him gave he power to become the sons of God.’ That this familial relationship with God comes by the right living kind of faith (echoing sermon #1 “salvation by faith” a few years earlier), a faith that brings forth repentance, love, and all good works… this is also tied to believing more than just in the creeds, the Holy Scriptures, BUT ALSO to have a “sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ”
When I initially wrote this short article, I felt a lot like Wesley must have felt like with the Moravians on his turbulant voyage back from America… there was constant turbulence on my flight to Houston and it wasn’t a “comfortable flight.” In this context, I read Almost Christian.
As I sat in my plane seat and attempted to not only digest the substance of Wesley’s sermon, I also pondered the “almost” / “altogether” dichotomy presented by Wesley in this sermon and how it applies to the landscape of American Christianity today. The hallmark of modern evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) is an unwavering assent in word (at its best in deed as well) to the tenants of Wesley’s “Altogether Christians” (but seriously, how many times does the ‘Greatest Commandment’ get abducted into become nothing more than a pithy church slogan/mission statement/marketing mechanism… of “love God – love neighbor”).
In word we say it’s about the Great Commission, the Greatest Commandment, and “being born again”, but in praxis (practice) we are not only “almost Christians’, but “half-ass Christians”… Our church programs, worship services, discipleship, and agendas have deteriorated into the state of become nothing more than a production line for taking “half-ass Christians” and turning them (at best) into what Wesley identifies as “almost Christians.” (read Willow Creek’s book on their megachurch Reveal). How many people even attempt (let alone attain to) the personal piety that Wesley and the “Oxford Holy Club” had:
“Using diligence to eschew all evil, and to have a conscience void of offence; redeeming the time, 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, endeavoring after a steady seriousness of behavior at all time sand in all place… And God is my record, before whom I stand, doing all this in sincerity; having a real design to serve God….”
This is Reverend John Wesley speaking… ordained in the Church of England as a Presbyter, a missionary to the end of the world, Georgia, a faithful observer of daily prayer offices, a diligent student of the Bible, a preacher, and the ‘founder’ of Methodism… And yet Wesley says,
“My own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost that all this time I was but ‘almost a Christian.”
We motivate those whom we Shepherd to study the Bible, go to adult education electives, go on short-term missionary trips, perhaps go to Seminary and get ordained, pray more often, come to this conference, listen to this music, get more involved in ‘church activities’ … this isn’t necessarily ‘bad’, but without the right Spirit behind it we are merely making “almost Christian” disciples …
I submit that as leaders we need to have a “taste and see” or “follow me as I follow Jesus” … An orthopraxis to match the orthodoxy of Wesley’s “altogether christian.” We must ourselves encounter the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in such a way that we are forever changed, marked, adopted as sons and daughters… A paradigm shift must occur from mentally (or emotionally) assenting to propositional truths about Jesus to ontologically being seen/known/rooted in Christ, “being hid in Christ.”
A paradigm shift must also occur in ecclesiology… we must go from seeing “the church as an institution with sacraments” to “a sacrament with institutions.” It is one of the scourges of our age that in order to attract religious consumers, leaders in the church (and wolves) use clumsy sayings like, “its about Jesus not the church” “or I love Jesus but hate the church.”… As I heard it described, “moralistic therapeutic deism“… This may scratch the ears of the consumers of spiritual fads (and sell some books), but it is not in line with ecclesiology according to the Scriptures, creeds, church fathers, and millennia of the church being the “body of Christ.”
I tend to agree more with the tone of Wesley in his much later sermon, “The More Excellent Way.” Perhaps “nominal” or “cultural” Christian is a title more befitting the qualities that Wesley lays out here instead of “almost Christians.”
It’s sermons like this that do convict me in some strange way. They challenge the core of my desire, the inner cry of my soul, the motive behind my movements, so I conclude with this prayer (it should sound familiar if you read the sermon or St. Paul):
“May we all thus experience what it is to be not almost only, but altogether Christians! Being justified feely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus, knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God, and having the lover of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us.”
Written in conjunction with the Wesley 52 Project.