by George Whitefield
"Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28).
St. Paul, giving an account of his wonderful conversion to Christianity, before Festus a Gentile governor, and King Agrippa, knew full well that the opportunity to give his testimony was the main reason why his blessed Master permitted his enemies to arraign him at a public bar.
He therefore endeavored to convert his judges. And this he did with such demonstration of the spirit, and of power that Festus, unwilling to be convinced by the strongest evidence, cries out with a loud voice, "Paul, much learning doth make thee mad." To which he responded that he was not mad, but spoke "forth the words of truth and soberness."
But observing in King Agrippa an inclination to know the truth, he applied himself more particularly to him: "The king knoweth of these things; before whom also I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him." And then he added: "King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest them." At this, the passions of the king began to work so strongly, that he cried out, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."
And this same reception so often now-a-days meets Christ's ministers, who come in the power and spirit of St. Paul. For though they, like this great apostle, "speak forth the words of truth and soberness" with such energy and power that their adversaries cannot justly gainsay or resist; yet, too many, like Festus deny the truth of their report, or like Agrippa, are only almost persuaded. I must warn my hearers of the danger of such a state, and therefore, shall endeavor to show these three things:
I. What Is an Almost-Christian?
An almost Christian wavers between Christ and the world. He has an inclination to religion, but he is very cautious not to go too far. His false heart is always
crying out, "Do yourself no harm." Thus he is very partial in his obedience, and fondly hopes that God will not be extreme to mark every thing that he willfully does amiss; though an inspired apostle has told him that "he who offends in one point is guilty of all."
But chiefly, he depends much on outward ordinances. He is fond of the form, but never experiences the power of godliness in his heart. He goes on year after year, attending on the means of grace, but then, like Pharaoh's lean cows, he is never the better, but rather the worse for them.
He depends much upon being negatively good, and contents himself with the consciousness of having done no one any harm; though he reads in the gospel, that "the unprofitable servant was cast into outer darkness," and the barren fig-tree was cursed and dried up from the roots, not for bearing bad, but no fruit.
He favors public charitable contributions, if not too frequently recommended. But he thinks visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, and relieving the hungry in a private manner are duties only for the clergy. He is blind to the condemnation by Jesus Christ, not merely of fornicators, drunkards, and extortioners, but also those who neglect these charitable offices: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, he shall set the sheep on his right-hand, and the goats on his left. And then shall he say unto them on his left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick and in prison, and ye visited me not ... Then shall he answer them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have not done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it not unto me: and these shall go away into everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:31ff). Our Savior laid a particular stress upon this passage; yet it is so little regarded, that were we to judge by the practice of Christians, one should be tempted to think there were no such verses in the Bible.
The almost Christian is honest to his neighbor, and is likewise sober-but both his honesty and sobriety proceed from the same principle of a false self-love, because he is cautious of forfeiting his reputation.
In short, he is guided more by the world, than by the Word of God: for his part, he cannot think the way to heaven so narrow as some would make it; and therefore considers not so much what Scripture requires, as what such and such a good man does, or what will best suit his own corrupt inclinations.
For this reason, he is likewise very careful of young converts, whose faces are set heavenward; and therefore is always acting the devil's part and bidding them spare themselves, though they are doing no more than what the Scripture strictly requires. The consequence of which is, that "he suffers not himself to enter into the kingdom of God, and those that are entering in he hinders."
From these outlines and sketches of his character, if your consciences have done their proper office, and made a particular application of what has been said to your own hearts, I fear that some of you may observe some features in his picture, resembling your own; and therefore I cannot but hope, that you will join with the apostle in the words immediately following the text, and wish yourselves "to be not only almost, but altogether Christians."
II. Why Are So Many Only Almost-Christians?
1. The first reason is because so many set out with false notions of religion. Though they live in a Christian country, yet they know not what Christianity is. This may be a hard saying, but experience sadly evinces the truth of it; for some place religion in being of this or that communion; more in morality; most in a round of duties, and a model of performances; and very few acknowledge it to be what it really is: a thorough inward change of nature, a divine life, a vital participation of Jesus Christ, a union of the soul with God; which the apostle expresses by saying, "He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit."
Hence so many, even of the most knowing professors, are quite ignorant of the heart of the matter. No marvel, then, that so many follow the form, when they are strangers to the power of godliness; or content themselves with the shadow.
2. A second reason is fear of man: multitudes, who though awakened to a sense of the divine life, and have tasted and felt the powers of the world to come; yet out of fear of being counted "different," or scorned by men, have suffered all those good impressions to wear off.
They have a mind to see Jesus, but then they cannot come to Him for fear of being laughed at and ridiculed by those with whom they used to sit at meat. But well did our Savior prophesy of such persons: "How can ye love me, who receive honor one of another?" Alas! Have they never read, that "the friendship of this world is enmity with God." No wonder that so many are no more than almost Christians, since so many "love the praise of men more than the honor which cometh of God."
3. A third reason why so many are no more than almost-Christians, is a love of money. This was the pitiable case of that forward young man in the gospel, who came running to our blessed Lord, and inquired, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He averred that he kept the commandments, but when our Lord proceeded to tell him, "Yet lackest thou one thing; Go sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor; he was grieved at that saying, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions!" Poor youth! He had a good mind to be a Christian, and to inherit eternal life, but thought it too dear. And thus many, both young and old, now-a-days, come to inquire what they must do to inherit eternal life: but when they find they must renounce the self-enjoyment of riches, and forsake all to follow Christ, they cry, "We pray thee, have us excused."
But is heaven so small a trifle in men's esteem, as not to be worth a little gilded earth? Is eternal life so mean a purchase, as not to deserve the temporary renunciation of a few transitory riches? Apparently it is. But however inconsistent such a behavior may be, this inordinate love of money is too evidently the common and fatal reason why so many are no more than almost Christians.
4. Nor is the love of pleasure a less fatal cause why so many are no more than almost-Christians. Multitudes, who when they are told that our blessed Lord has said, "Whosoever will come afterme must deny himself," go away sorrowful, for they have too great a love for sensual pleasures. Tell them of the necessity of mortification and self-denial, and it is as difficult for them to hear, as if you were to bid them "cut off a right-hand, or pluck out a right-eye." They cannot think our blessed Lord requires so much at their hands, though an inspired apostle has commanded us to "mortify our members which are upon earth." And the apostle himself, even after he had converted thousands, and was very near arrived to the end of his race, yet professed that it was his daily practice to "keep under his body, and bring it into subjection, lest after he had preached to others, he himself should be a cast-away!"
But some men would be wiser than Paul, and chalk out to us what they falsely imagine an easier way to happiness. They flatter us that we may go to heaven without offering violence to our sensual appetites; and enter into the strait gate without striving against our carnal inclinations. And this is another reason why so many are only almost, and not altogether Christians.
5. The last reason I shall assign why so many are only almost-Christians is a fickleness and instability of temper
Many a minister and sincere Christian has wept over numbers of promising converts, who seemingly began in the Spirit, but after awhile fell away, and basely ended in the flesh, through an instability and fickleness of temper. They had followed Him for a season, but having no root in themselves, no inward principle of holiness and piety, like Jonah's gourd, they were soon dried up and withered. In short, they set out well in their journey to heaven, but finding the way either narrower or longer than they expected, through an unsteadiness of temper, they made an eternal halt, and so "returned like the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire!"
I tremble to pronounce the fate of such unstable professors, who having put their hands to the plough, for want of a little more resolution, shamefully look back: "If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him:" And again, "It is impossible for those that have been once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and the powers of the world to come, if they should fall away, to be renewed again unto repentance."(O that none of us here present may ever be such!)
III. The Ineffectualness and Danger of Almost-Christians.
1. The first proof I shall give of the folly of such a proceeding is, that it is ineffectual to salvation. To almost hit the mark is really to miss it. God requires us "to love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength." He loves us too well to admit any rival. The devil, indeed, would have our hearts divided, but God will have all or none. "My Son, give me thy heart," thy whole heart, is the general call to all: and if this is not done, we never can expect divine mercy. Persons may play the hypocrite; but God at the Great Day will appoint them their portion with hypocrites and unbelievers.
2. Almost-Christians are wolves in sheep's clothing. They would persuade men that the way to heaven is broader than it really is. These are the men that turn the world into a lukewarm Laodicean spirit; and so shipwreck unthinking benighted souls in their voyage to the haven of eternity. These are greater enemies to the cross of Christ than outright infidels, for an almost-Christian, through his subtle hypocrisy, draws away many after him; and therefore must expect to receive the greater damnation.
3. Thirdly, it is a great instance of ingratitude towards our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. For did He come down from heaven, and shed His precious blood to purchase these hearts of ours, and shall we only give Him half of them? O, how can we say we love Him, when our hearts are not wholly with Him? How can we call Him our Savior, when we will not endeavor sincerely to approve ourselves to Him?
O let us scorn all such base treatment of our King and Savior, of our God and Creator. Let us not take some pains all our lives to go to heaven, and yet plunge ourselves into hell as last. Let us give to God our whole hearts, and no longer halt between two opinions: Why should we not wholly renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, which, like so many spiritual chains, bind down our souls, and hinder us from flying up to God?
Do you think that being only half religious will make you happy, but that going further, will render you miserable and uneasy? Alas! This is delusion. It is this half piety, this wavering between God and the world, that makes so many utter strangers to the comforts of religion. They choose just so much of religion as will disturb them in their lusts, and follow their lusts so far as to deprive themselves of the comforts of religion. Whereas if they sincerely give their hearts wholly to God, they would then (and they cannot till then) experience the unspeakable pleasure of having a mind at unity with itself, and enjoy such a peace of God, which even in this life passes all understanding.
It is true, if we will devote ourselves entirely to God, we must meet with contempt; but that is because contempt is necessary to heal our pride. We must renounce some sensual pleasures, but then it is because those unfit us for spiritual ones, which are infinitely better. We must renounce the love of the world, in order that we may be filled with the love of God. And when that has once enlarged our hearts, we shall think nothing too difficult to undergo, no hardships too tedious to endure, because of the love we shall then have for our dear Redeemer.
And when once we throw off these bodies, and our souls are filled with all the fullness of God, think you that we shall repent we had done too much? Or rather shall we shall not be ashamed that we did no more; and blush we were so backward to give up all to God; when He intended hereafter to give us Himself?
My brethren, no longer be laboring to compound matters between God and the world; but, on the contrary, be daily endeavoring to give up yourselves more and more unto Him-always watching, always praying, always aspiring after further degrees of purity and love, and consequently always preparing yourselves for a fuller sight and enjoyment of that God, in whose presence there is fullness of joy, and at whose right-hand there are pleasures for ever more. Amen! Amen!
Thanks to the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics
In 1737, when only a twenty-two year old Oxford graduate, George Whitefield's voice startled England like a trumpet blast. Attacked by clergy, press and mob alike, Whitefield nevertheless became the most popular and influential preacher of the age. For thirty four years his voice resounded throughout England and America. Certainly no English-speaking evangelist has ever preached the gospel with more effect and determination than George Whitefield. "He lived," wrote C. H. Spurgeon. "Other men seemed to be only half-alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire, wing, force. My own model, if I may have such a thing in due subordination to my Lord, is George Whitefield; but with unequal footsteps must I follow in his glorious track."