Monday, September 17, 2012

Saving Grace (2): The Almost Christian

Audio available, and here.
Acts 26 (especially 26.28); Matthew 22.34-40; 1 John 5.15

Each 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 Christian".

Paul had been 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".

Have 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".

When 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. I remember making a clear decision, being "persuaded" in the words of Agrippa, at several points in my faith journey.

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 Christian".

There is plenty of overlap with last week’s message – 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).



Wesley 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 the 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. As Wesley writes, "Wilful liars . . . the disgrace of human kind, and the pests of society" (I.2).

Secondly, 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 harm" 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 good 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.

The 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.

This 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:

I 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)

What 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".

What 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".

The 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 dependance on God and total love for our Savior, not of our own works.

Wesley’s 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). 

"The 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)

Blessing:"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)

Resources:
John Wesley, "The Almost Christian", in Standard Sermons

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