George Whitefield Sermon 43

The Almost Christian

Acts 26:28, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

The chapter, out of which the text is taken, contains an admirable

account which the great St. Paul gave of his wonderful conversion from

Judaism to Christianity, when he was called to make his defense before

Festus a Gentile governor, and king Agrippa. Our blessed Lord had long

since foretold, that when the Son of man should be lifted up, "his

disciples should be brought before kings and rulers, for his name's sake,

for a testimony unto them." And very good was the design of infinite wisdom

in thus ordaining it; for Christianity being, from the beginning, a

doctrine of the Cross, the princes and rulers of the earth thought

themselves too high to be instructed by such mean teachers, or too happy to

be disturbed b such unwelcome truths; and therefore would have always

continued strangers to Jesus Christ, and him crucified, had not the

apostles, by being arraigned before them, gained opportunities of preaching

to them "Jesus and the resurrection." St. Paul knew full well that this was

the main reason, why his blessed Master permitted his enemies at this time

to arraign him at a public bar; and therefore, in compliance with the

divine will, thinks it not sufficient, barely to make his defense, but

endeavors at the same time 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 earning doth make thee mad." To which the brave apostle (like a true

follower of the holy Jesus) meekly replies, I am not mad, most noble

Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness." But in all

probability, seeing king Agrippa more affected with his discourse, and

observing in him an inclination to know the truth, he applies 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, that if possible he might complete his wished-for

conversion, he with an inimitable strain of oratory, addresses himself

still more closely, "King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that

thou believest them." At which the passions of the king began to work so

strongly, that he was obliged in open court, to own himself affected by the

prisoner's preaching, and ingenuously to cry out, "Paul, almost thou

persuadest me to be a Christian."

Which words, taken with the context, afford us a lively representation

of the different reception, which the doctrine of Christ's ministers, who

come in the power and spirit of St. Paul, meets with now-a-days in the

minds of men. For notwithstanding they, like this great apostle, "speak

forth the words of truth and soberness;" and with such energy and power,

that all their adversaries cannot justly gainsay or resist; yet, too many,

with the noble Festus before-mentioned, being like him, either too proud to

be taught, or too sensual, too careless, or too worldly-minded to live up

to the doctrine, in order to excuse themselves, cry out, that "much

learning, much study, or, what is more unaccountable, much piety, hath made

them mad." And though, blessed be God! All do not thus disbelieve our

report; yet amongst those who gladly receive the word, and confess that we

speak the words of truth and soberness, there are so few, who arrive at any

higher degree of piety than that of Agrippa, or are any farther persuaded

than to be almost Christians, that I cannot but think it highly necessary

to warn my dear hearers of the danger of such a state. And therefore, from

the words of the text, shall endeavor to show these three things:

FIRST, What is meant by an almost-Christian.

SECONDLY, What are the chief reasons, why so many are no more than

almost Christians.

THIRDLY, I shall consider the ineffectualness, danger, absurdity, and

uneasiness which attends those who are but almost Christians; and then

conclude with a general exhortation, to set all upon striving not only be

almost, but altogether Christians.

I. And, FIRST, I am to consider what is meant by an almost Christians.

An almost Christian, if we consider him in respect to his duty to God,

is one that halts between two opinions; that wavers between Christ and the

world; that would reconcile God and Mammon, light and darkness, Christ and

Belial. It is true, he has an inclination to religion, but then he is very

cautious how he goes too far in it: his false heart is always crying out,

Spare thyself, do thyself no harm. He prays indeed, that "God's will may be

done on earth, as it is in heaven." But notwithstanding, 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 is one that depends much on outward ordinances, and on that account

looks upon himself as righteous, and despises others; though at the same

time he is as great a stranger to the divine life as any other person

whatsoever. In short, 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 kine [cow?], he is never

the better, but rather the worse for them.

If you consider him in respect to his neighbor, he is one that is

strictly just to all; but then this does not proceed from any love to God

or regard to man, but only through a principle of self-love: because he

knows dishonesty will spoil his reputation, and consequently hinder his

thriving in the world.

He is one that 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 is no enemy to charitable contributions in public, if not too

frequently recommended: but then he is unacquainted with the kind offices

of visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, and relieving the

hungry in a private manner. He thinks that these things belong only to the

clergy, though his own false heart tells him, that nothing but pride keeps

him from exercising these acts of humility; and that Jesus Christ, in the

25th chapter of St. Matthew, condemns persons to everlasting punishment,

not merely for being fornicators, drunkards, or extortioners, but for

neglecting 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 they also say,

Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or a-thirst, or a stranger, or naked,

or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 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 unto me: and these shall go away into

everlasting punishment." I thought proper to give you this whole passage of

scripture at large, because our Savior lays such a particular stress upon

it; and 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.

But to proceed in the character of an ALMOST CHRISTIAN: If we consider

him in respect of himself; as we said he was strictly honest to his

neighbor, so he is likewise strictly sober in himself: but then both his

honesty and sobriety proceed from the same principle of a false self-love.

It is true, he runs not into the same excess of riot with other men; but

then it is not out of obedience to the laws of God, but either because his

constitution will not away with intemperance; or rather because he is

cautious of forfeiting his reputation, or unfitting himself for temporal

business. But though he is so prudent as to avoid intemperance and excess,

for the reasons before-mentioned; yet he always goes to the extremity of

what is lawful. It is true, he is no drunkard; but then he has no CHRISTIAN

SELF-DENIAL. He cannot think our Savior to be so austere a Master, as to

deny us to indulge ourselves in some particulars: and so by this means he

is destitute of a sense of true religion, as much as if he lived in

debauchery, or any other crime whatever. As to settling his principles as

well as practice, 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. Upon this account, he is not only very cautious himself, but

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 them to do: The consequence of which is, that "he suffers not

himself to enter into the kingdom of God, and those that are entering in he


Thus lives the almost Christian: not that I can say, I have fully

described him to you; but 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 cannot

but fear that some of you may observe some features in his picture, odious

as it is, to near 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


II. I proceed to the second general thing proposed; to consider the

reasons why so many are no more than almost Christians.

1. And the first reason I shall mention 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 perhaps may be esteemed 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 few, 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, an union of the soul with God;

which the apostle expresses by saying, "He that is joined to the Lord is

one spirit." Hence it happens, that so many, even of the most knowing

professors, when you come to converse with them concerning the essence, the

life, the soul of religion, I mean our new birth in Jesus Christ, confess

themselves quite ignorant of the matter, and cry out with Nicodemus, "How

can this thing be?" And no wonder then, that so many are only almost

Christians, when so many know not what Christianity is: no marvel, that so

many take up with the form, when they are quite strangers to the power of

godliness; or content themselves with the shadow, when they know so little

about the substance of it. And this is one cause why so many are almost,

and so few are altogether Christians.

2. A second reason that may be assigned why so many are no more than

almost Christians, is a servile fear of man: multitudes there are and have

been, 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 a base sinful fear of

being counted singular, or contemned by men, have suffered all those good

impressions to wear off. It is true, they have some esteem for Jesus

Christ; but then, like Nicodemus, they would come to him only by night:

they are willing to serve him; but then they would do it secretly, for fear

of the Jews: they have a mind to see Jesus, but then they cannot come to

him because of the press, and 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;" and that our Lord himself has threatened, "Whosoever

shall be ashamed of me or of my words, in this wicked and adulterous

generation, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the

glory of his Father and of his holy angels?" 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

reigning love of money. This was the pitiable case of that forward young

man in the gospel, who came running to our blessed Lord, and kneeling

before him, inquired "what he must do to inherit eternal life;" to whom our

blessed Master replied, "Thou knowest the commandments, Do not kill, Do not

commit adultery, Do not steal:" To which the young man replied, "All these

have I kept from my youth." 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, if it could be purchased at

no less an expense than of his estate! And thus many, both young and old,

now-a-days, come running to worship our blessed Lord in public, and kneel

before him in private, and inquire at his gospel, what they must do to

inherit eternal life: but when they find they must renounce the self-

enjoyment of riches, and forsake all in affection to follow him, they cry,

"The Lord pardon us in this thing! 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? Surely it is. But

however inconsistent such a behavior may be, this inordinate love of money

is too evidently the common and fatal cause, why so many are no more than

almost Christians.

4. Nor is the love of pleasure a less uncommon, or a less fatal cause

why so many are no more than almost Christians. Thousands and ten thousands

there are, who despise riches, and would willingly be true disciples of

Jesus Christ, if parting with their money would make them so; but when they

are told that our blessed Lord has said, "Whosoever will come after him

must deny himself;" like the pitiable young man before-mentioned, "they go

away sorrowful"" for they have too great a love for sensual pleasures. They

will perhaps send for the ministers of Christ, as Herod did for John, and

hear them gladly: but touch them in their Herodias, tell them they must

part with such or such a darling pleasure; and with wicked Ahab they cry

out, "Hast thou found us, O our enemy?" Tell them of the necessity of

mortification and self-denial, and it is as difficult for them to hear, as

if you was 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 who 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 this great apostle, and chalk out to

us what they falsely imagine an easier way to happiness. They would flatter

us, 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 fifth and last reason I shall assign why so many are only

almost Christians, is a fickleness and instability of temper.

It has been, no doubt, a misfortune that many a minister and sincere

Christian has met with, to weep and wail over numbers of promising

converts, who seemingly began in the Spirit, but after a while fell away,

and basely ended in the flesh; and this not for want of right notions in

religion, nor out of a servile fear of man, nor from the love of money, or

of sensual pleasure, but through an instability and fickleness of temper.

They looked upon religion merely for novelty, as something which pleased

them for a while; but after their curiosity was satisfied, they laid it

aside again: like the young man that came to see Jesus with a linen cloth

about his naked body, they have followed him for a season, but when

temptations came to take hold on them, for want of a little more

resolution, they have been stripped of all their good intentions, and fled

away naked. They at first, like a tree planted by the water-side, grew up

and flourished for a while; but having no root in themselves, no inward

principle of holiness and piety, like Jonah's gourd, they were soon dried

up and withered. Their good intentions are too like the violent motions of

the animal spirits of a body newly beheaded, which, though impetuous, are

not lasting. 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 have made an eternal halt, and so "returned

like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow that was washed to her wallowing

in the more!"

But 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. How shall I repeat to them that dreadful threatening,

"If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him:" And again,

"It is impossible (that is, exceeding difficult at least) 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." But notwithstanding the gospel is so severe against

apostates, yet many that begun well, through a fickleness of temper, (O

that none of us here present may ever be such) have been by this means of

the number of those that turn back unto perdition. And this is the fifth,

and the last reason I shall give, why so many are only almost, and not

altogether Christians.

III. Proceed we now to the general thing proposed, namely, to consider

the folly of being no more than an almost Christian.

1. And the FIRST proof I shall give of the folly of such a proceeding

is, that it is ineffectual to salvation. It is true, such men are almost

good; but almost to 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; because, so far as our

hearts are empty of God, so far must they be unhappy. The devil, indeed,

like the false mother that came before Solomon, would have our hearts

divided, as she would have had the child; but God, like the true mother,

will have all or none. "My Son, give me thy heart," thy whole heart, is the

general call to all: and if this be not done, we never can expect the

divine mercy.

Persons may play the hypocrite; but God at the great day will strike

them dead, (as he did Ananias and Sapphira by the mouth of his servant

Peter) for pretending to offer him all their hearts, when they keep back

from him the greatest part. They may perhaps impose upon their fellow-

creatures for a while; but he that enabled Elijah to cry out, "Come in thou

wife of Jeroboam," when she came disguised to inquire about he sick son,

will also discover them through their most artful dissimulations; and if

their hearts are not wholly with him, appoint them their portion with

hypocrites and unbelievers.

2. But, SECONDLY, What renders an half-way-piety more inexcusable is,

that it is not only insufficient to our own salvation, but also very

prejudicial to that of others.

An almost Christian is one of the most hurtful creatures in the world;

he is a wolf in sheep's clothing: he is one of those false prophets, our

blessed Lord bids us beware of in his sermon on the mount, who would

persuade men, that the way to heaven is broader than it really is; and

thereby, as it was observed before, "enter not into the kingdom of God

themselves, and those that are entering in they hinder." These, these are

the men that turn the world into a luke-warm Laodicean spirit; that hang

out false lights, and so shipwreck unthinking benighted souls in their

voyage to the haven of eternity. These are they who are greater enemies to

the cross of Christ, than infidels themselves: for of an unbeliever every

one will be aware; but an almost Christian, through his subtle hypocrisy,

draws away many after him; and therefore must expect to receive the greater


3. But, THIRDLY, As it is most prejudicial to ourselves and hurtful to

others, so it is the greatest instance of ingratitude we can express

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, and so let him see the

travail of his soul, and be satisfied!

Had any of us purchased a slave at a most expensive rate, and who was

before involved in the utmost miseries and torments, and so must have

continued for ever, had we shut up our bowels of compassion from him; and

was this slave afterwards to grow rebellious, or deny giving us but half

his service; how, how should we exclaim against his base ingratitude! And

yet this base ungrateful slave thou art, O man, who acknowledgest thyself

to be redeemed from infinite unavoidable misery and punishment by the death

of Jesus Christ, and yet wilt not give thyself wholly to him. But shall we

deal with God our Maker in a manner we would not be dealt with by a man

like ourselves? God forbid! No. Suffer me, therefore,

To add a word or two of exhortation to you, to excite you to be not

only almost, but altogether Christians. O let us scorn all base and

treacherous treatment of our King and Savior, of our God and Creator. Let

us not take some pains all our lives to go to haven, and yet plunge

ourselves into hell as last. Let us give to God our whole hearts, and no

longer halt between two opinions: if the world be God, let us serve that;

if pleasure be a God, let us serve that; but if the Lord he be God, let us,

O let us serve him alone. Alas! why, why should we stand out any longer?

Why should we be so in love with slavery, as not wholly to renounce the

world, the flesh, and the devil, which, like so many spiritual chains, bind

down our souls, and hinder them from flying up to God. Alas! what are we

afraid of? Is not God able to reward our entire obedience? If he is, as the

almost Christian's lame way of serving him, seems to grant, why then will

we not serve him entirely? For the same reason we do so much, why do we not

do more? Or do you think that being only half religious will make you

happy, but that going farther, will render you miserable and uneasy? Alas!

this, my brethren, is delusion all over: for what is it but this half

piety, this wavering between God and the world, that makes so many, that

are seemingly well disposed, such 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 on the contrary, would they sincerely leave

all in affection, and 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, and which they were entire strangers to

before. It is true, it we will devote ourselves entirely to God, we must

meet with contempt; but then it 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; but then it is that we may be filled with

the love of God: and when that has once enlarged our hearts, we shall, like

Jacob when he served for his beloved Rachel, think nothing too difficult to

undergo, no hardships too tedious to endure, because of the love we shall

then have for our dear Redeemer. Thus easy, thus delightful will be the

ways of God even in this life: but when once we throw off these bodies, and

our souls are filled with all the fullness of God, O! what heart can

conceive, what tongue can express, with what unspeakable joy and

consolation shall we then look back on our past sincere and hearty

services. Think you then, my dear hearers, we shall repent we had done too

much; or rather think you not, we shall 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?

Let me therefore, to conclude, exhort you, my brethren, to have always

before you the unspeakable happiness of enjoying God. And think withal,

that every degree of holiness you neglect, every act of piety you omit, is

a jewel taken out of your crown, a degree of blessedness lost in the vision

of God. O! do but always think and act thus, and you will 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; you will be always watching, always praying, always aspiring after

farther 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!