“The Almost Christian” (Sermon II) is a sermon that John Wesley delivered before the university at Oxford in 1741. In it he argues that a person can assent to all the right beliefs, participate in all the rituals of the church, make use of all the means of grace, and live according to the highest of moral standards, and yet not truly be a Christian. The “almost Christian” may by all outward appearances look like a Christian, but not truly be a Christian, what Wesley calls an “altogether Christian.”
What is required for someone to be an altogether Christian, a true Christian, according to Wesley, is an inward transformation of the heart to go along with the outward profession of the lips and behavior. Even the most orthodox professions of faith, and the most meticulously religious of lifestyles, may not necessarily spring from a pure and godly heart. Wesley himself admitted that he was but an altogether Christian for a long time, even as a minister in the Church of England who labored diligently to live a holy life.
To be an “altogether Christian” more is required than assent to Biblical truths, religious practices, and even a moral lifestyle. And this more that is needed is not something we can do for ourselves; it is something that only God can do for us through Jesus Christ and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The more that we need is not just conformity to Biblical standards. According to Wesley we need an inward transformation of the heart. To be an altogether Christian, we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which will consequently lead us into genuine love of our neighbors, including enemies. We may say and do all the right things, but if we do so with the wrong motive of heart, namely love of self, then we are still far from the kingdom of God. In other words, we need to be born again (John 3:3-7).
In addition to love, Wesley said, to be an altogether Christian, we need a true and living faith. Indeed, genuine faith inspired by the love of God for us activates genuine godly love in us. But Wesley was quick to point out that the faith of which he spoke should not be confused with mere assent to a certain set of beliefs and practices, no matter how right and true they may be. Indeed, he said, “the faith which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith, but a dead and devilish one” (II:4).
In fact, Wesley was so bold to say that even the demons believe in the virgin birth, miracles, the divinity of Christ, that he died for the sins of humanity and rose again on the third day, that he ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. He said they, the demons, even believe the articles of religion (of the Church of England at that time) and “all that is written in the Old and New Testament” (II:4 emphasis mine). Wesley went on to say, “And yet for all this faith, they be but devils. They remain still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith.”
So the faith that Wesley was talking about involved much more than intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, important as that is. The faith of which Wesley spoke, is an genuine trust and absolute commitment to the person of God the Father through Jesus Christ. This is the faith that issues in repentance, love, and all good works. According to Wesley:
“The right and true Christian faith is” (to go on in the words of our own 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 a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments.” (II:5)
As John Wesley righty discerned, the word of God calls us into a true and living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We enter this living relationship only through a true and living faith. Of course Wesley wasn’t pitting an experience of faith against the content, the specific beliefs, of the Christian faith. He was simply calling people to receive the inward transforming power of God by faith in addition to the outward conformity to the content of the Christian faith. In other words, he wasn’t suggesting, as some do, that the content of the faith is not that important.
What is really astonishing is that many of the things that Wesley listed as things that even demons know and believe to be true, are not accepted by a lot of people who consider themselves Christian today, even ministers. There are plenty who do not believe that all of the Bible is true. Sure, there are those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but, as with many things, it’s not the words that are used, but the meaning attached to those words that really matters. Often those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but reject orthodox doctrines (as I used to), insist on new interpretations to bring Scripture in line with their reason, desires, and/or sensibilities. Some will cling to their novel interpretations and their claim to a high view of Scripture, but others when pressed and unable to substantiate their views from Scripture will resort to questioning it’s trustworthiness in favor of their own views. Indeed, one of the surest ways to draw the ire of many a Mainline minister today, is to insist that Scripture is without error or infallible, which is a belief that can easily be traced back through the early church fathers to the apostles and Jesus himself.
Others will claim to believe in the orthodox doctrines concerning the nature of God, but, again, radically redefine them. How for instance can one really believe in the Triune God in light of the First Commandment and yet claim that other gods are just as valid? Some will speak of the Triune God and perhaps belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but what does that mean when it comes from someone with a pluralistic, syncretistic worldview that insists all religions lead to the same place? I think the meaning of those orthodox terms would be radically different than within a worldview that whole-heartedly believes the First Commandment understood in its historical, biblical context. As the United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden said he used to do before he experienced the change of heart that Wesley preached, some use the language of orthodoxy while all along undermining its true meaning.
In contrast to Wesley, some today seem to insist that even what Wesley called almost Christian may be too much to expect. Despite the attempts of some to narrow the range of what he considered to be essential doctrines that one must believe in order to be considered Christian, John Wesley included obedience to the moral law to be among the essentials and part of the ground for genuine Christian fellowship within the church universal. In his sermon “Catholic Spirit” he writes:
Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?” Sermon 39: Section 1:16
While Wesley made abundant room for varying opinions regarding modes of worship, baptism, and the particulars of church government, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he would allow for differing opinions regarding basic Christian morality. Indeed, I have no doubt that he would have no patience whatsoever for anyone who would insist on rejecting any of the clear moral commands of Scripture, which he, along with David (Psalm 19:7-11), Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20), and Paul (Romans 7:12), believed to be holy and perfect.
Yet some still want to insist that we don’t even need the faith of what Wesley called an “almost Christian”, really even what Wesley described as the faith of demons. Instead for many Christian-ish is plenty. Some want to insist that theology, or beliefs about God are all that really matter, and that issues of holiness are secondary matters. Some want to boil it all down to the least they have to believe to still be considered Christian. But if someone’s faith falls short of what Wesley said even the demons believe, can they possibly have a living faith that leads to “a loving heart, to obey [God’s] commandments”? (‘The Almost Christian” II:5)
Maybe Wesley was too extreme. Maybe being “almost Christian” is enough. Maybe even less than that, just being kind of sort of Christian-ish is enough. Then again, maybe Wesley was right, and being either of those is to still be totally lost.
Maybe settling for the minimum set of theological beliefs about God apart from the particulars of a holy life is foolish when the God we say we believe in says he created us in his image and says to us, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 quoting Leviticus 11:44 – KJV).
Assenting to a particular set of beliefs is not enough. Living according to a particular set of standards is not enough. But God’s grace to forgive us and cleanse us by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out is more than enough. What would Wesley tell us to do?
Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. (emphasis mine). But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”
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! (“The Almost Christian” Section II:10-11)