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SERMON II.-The Almost Christian :
Preached at St. Mary's, Oxford, before the University, July 25, 1741.
“ Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian," Acts xxvi, 28.
And many there are who go thus far: ever since the Christian religion was in the world, there have been many in every age and nation, who were “almost persuaded to be Christians.” But seeing it avails nothing before God, to go only thus far, it highly imports us to consider,
First, What is implied in being almost;
I. (I.) 1. Now, in the being almost a Christian is implied, first, heathen honesty. No one, I suppose, will make any question of this; especially, since by heathen honesty here, I mean, not that which is recommended in the writings of their philosophers only, but such as the common heathens expected one of another, and many of them actually practised. By the rules of this they were taught, that they ought not to be unjust; not to take away their neighbour's goods, either by robbery or theft; not to oppress the poor, neither to use extortion towards any; not to cheat or overreach either the poor or rich, in whatsoever commerce they had with them; to defraud no man of his right; and, if it were possible, to owe no man any thing.
2. Again, the common heathens allowed, that some regard was to be paid to truth as well as to justice. And, accordingly, they not only held him in abomination, who was foresworn, who called God to witness to a lie ; but him also, who was known to be a slanderer of his neighbour, who falsely accused any man. And, indeed, little better did they esteem wilful liars of any sort, accounting them the disgrace of human kind, and the pests of society.
3. Yet, again there was a sort of love and assistance, which they expected one from another. They expected, whatever assistance any one could give another, without prejudice to himself. And this they extended not only to those little offices of humanity, which are performed without any expense or labour, but likewise, to the feeding the hungry, if they had food to spare; the clothing the naked, with their own superfluous raiment; and, in general, the giving, to any that need ed, such things as they needed not themselves. Thus far, in the lowest account of it, heathen honesty went, the first thing implied in the being almost a Christian.
(II.) 4. A srcond thing implied in the being almost a Christian, is, the having a form of godliness, of that godliness which is prescribed in the gospel of Christ; the having the outside of a real Christian. Accordingly the almost Christian does nothing which the gospel forbids. He taketh not the name of God in vain : he blesseth and curseth not: he sweareth not at all, but his communication is yea, yea; nay, nay. He profanes not the day of the Lord, nor suffers it to be profaned, even by the stranger that is within his gates. He not only avoids all actual adultery, fornication, and uncleanness, but every word or look, that either directly or indirectly tends thereto; nay, and all idle words, abstaining both from all detraction, backbiting, tale bearing, evil speaking, and from "all foolish talking and jesting,”—suspanelsa, a kind of virtue in the heathen moralist's account ;-briefly, from all conversation that is not “ good to the use of edifying,” and that, consequently, “ grieves the Holy Spirit of God, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.”
5. He abstains from “wine wherein is excess ;" from revellings and gluttony. He avoids, as much as in him lies, all strife and contention, continually endeavouring to live peaceably with all men. And, if he suffers wrong, he avengeth not himself, neither returns evil for evil. He is no railer, no brawler, no scoffer, either at the faults or infirmities of his neighbour. He does not willingly wrong, hurt, or grieve any man; but in all things acts and speaks by that plain rule,“ Whatsoever thou wouldest not he should do unto thee, that do not thou to another."
6. And, in doing good, he does not confine himself to cheap and easy
offices of kindness, but labours and suffers for the profit of many, that by all means he may help some. In spite of toil or pain, “ Whatsoever his hand findeth to do, he doeth it with all his might;" whether it be for his friends, or for his enemies; for the evil, or for the good. For, being not slothful in this, or in any business, as he hath opportunity he doeth good, ali manner of good to all men ; and to their souls as well as their bodies. He reproves the wicked, instructs the ignorant, confirms the wavering, quickens the good, and comforts the afflicted. He labours to awaken those that sleep; to lead those whom God hath already awakened to the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness, that they may wash therein and be clean ; and to stir up those who are saved, through faith, to adorn the gospel of Christ in all things.
7. Íle that hath the form of godliness, uses also the means of grace; yea, all of them, and at all opportunities. He constantly frequents the house of God; and that, not as the manner of some is, who come into the presence of the Most High, either loaded with gold and costly apparel, or in all the gaudy vanity of dress, and either by their unseasonable civilities to each other, or the impertinent gayety of their behaviour, disclaim all pretensions to the form, as well as to the power of godliness. Would to God there were none even among ourselves who fall under the same condemnation : who come into this house, it may be, gazing about, or with all the signs of the most listless, careless indifference, though sometimes they may seem to use a prayer to God for his blessing on what they are entering upon; who, during that awful service, are either asleep, or reclined in the most convenient posture for it; or, as though they supposed God was asleep, talking with one another, or looking round, as utterly void of employment. Neither let these be accused of the form of godliness. No; lie who has even this, behaves with serionsness and attention in every part of that solemn service. More especially when he approaches the table of the Lord, it is not with a light or careless behaviour, but with an air, gesture, and deportment, which speak nothing else, but“ God be merciful to me a sinner.”
8. To this, if we add the constant use of family prayer, by those who are masters of families, and the setting times apart for private addresses to God, with a daily seriousness of behaviour; he who uniformly practises this outward religion, has the form of godliness. There needs but
one thing more in order to his being almost a Christian, and that is, sincerity.
(III.) 9. By sincerity, I mean a real, inward principle of religion from whence these outward actions flow. And, indeed, if we have not this, we have not heathen honesty ; no, not so much of it as will answer the demand of a heathen Epicurean poet. Even this poor wretch, in his sober intervals, is able to testify,
Oderunt peccare boni, virtutis amore;
Oderunt peccare mali, formidine pænæ.* So that, if a man only abstains from doing evil in order to avoid punishment, Non pasces in cruce corvos,f saith the pagan; there, “ Thou hast thy reward.” But even he will not allow such a harmless man as this, to be so much as a good heathen. If then, any man, from the same motive, viz. to avoid punishment, to avoid the loss of his friends, or his gain, or his reputation, should not only abstain from doing evil, but also do ever so much good; yea, and use all the means of grace ; yet we could not, with any propriety, say, this man is even almost a Christian. If he has no better principle in his heart, he is only a hypocrite altogether.
10. Sincerity, therefore, is necessarily implied in the being almost a Christian ; a real design to serve God, a hearty desire to do. his will: it is necessarily implied, that a man have a sincere view of pleasing God in all things; in all his conversation ; in all his actions; in all he does, or leaves undone. This design, if any man be almost a Christian, runs through the whole tenor of his life. This is the moving principle, both in his doing good, his abstaining from evil, and his using the ordinances of God. 11. But here it will probably be inquired, Is it possible, that
any man living should go so far as this, and nevertheless, be only almost a Christian? What more than this can be implied in the being a Christian altogether? I answer, first, that it is possible to go thus far, and yet be but almost a Christian, I learn, not only from the oracles of God, but also from the sure testimony of experience.
12. Brethren, great is “my boldness towards you in this behalf.” And " forgive me this wrong," if I declare my own folly upon the house top, for yours and the gospel's sake.—Suffer me then, to speak freely of myself, even as of another man. I am content to be abased, so ye may be exalted, and to be yet more vile, for the glory of my Lord.
13. I did go thus far for many years, as many of this place can testify; 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; endeavouring after a steady seriousness of behaviour, at all times, and in all places; and, God is my record, before whom I stand, doing all this in sincerity; having a real design to serve God; a hearty desire to do his will in all things; to please him, who had called me to“ fight the good fight," and to " lay hold on eternal life." Yet my own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost, that all this time I was but almost a Christian.
* Good men avoid sin from the love of virtue : Wicked men avoid sin from a fear of punishment. Thou shalt not be hanged.
II. If it be inquired, What more than this is implied in the being altogether a Christian ? I answer,
(1.) 1. First, The love of God. For thus saith his word, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” Such a love of God is this, as engrosses the whole heart, as takes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul, and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties. He that thus loves the Lord his God, his spirit, continually “rejoiceth in God his Saviour." His delight is in the Lord, his Lord, and his All, to whom “ in every thing he giveth thanks." “ All his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.” His heart is ever crying out, “ Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.” Indeed, what can he desire beside God ? Not the world, or the things of the world. For he is “crucified to the world, and the world crucified to him.” He is crucified to the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, and the pride of life. Yea, he is dead to pride of every kind; for, “ love is not puffed up;” but “ he that, dwelling in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him," is less than nothing in his own eyes.
(II.) 2. The second thing implied in the being altogether a Christian, is, the love of our neighbour. For thus said our Lord, in the following words, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” If any man ask, Who is my neighbour ? we reply, every man in the world ; every child of his, who is the Father of the spirits of all flesh. Nor may we in any
wise except our enemies, or the enemies of God and their own souls. But every Christian loveth these also as himself, yea, Christ loved us.” He that would more fully understand what manner of love this is, may consider St. Paul's description of it. It is “ longsuffering and kind." It “ envieth not." It is not rash or hasty in judging. It “ is not puffed up," but maketh him that loves, the least, the servant of all. Love“ doth not behave itself unseemly,” but becometh“ all things to all men. She “ seeketh not her own,” but only the good of others, that they may be saved. “Love is not provoked.” It casteth out wrath, which he who hath, is not“ made perfect in love." It thinketh no evil. It rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. It covereth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things."
(III.) 3. There is yet one thing more that may be separately considered, though it cannot actually be separate from the preceding, which is implied in the being altogether a Christian, and that is the ground of all, even faith. Very excellent things are spoken of this throughout the oracles of God. Every one," saith the beloved disciple, " that believeth, is born of God.” • To as many as received him, gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe in his
And “ this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our
Yea, our Lord himself declares, “ He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life; and cometh not into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life.”
4. But here let no man deceive his own soul. “ It is diligently to be noted, the faith, which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith which is here spoken of, but a dead and devilish one. For, even the devils believe that Christ was born of a virgin ; that he wrought all kinds of miracles, declaring
himself very God; that, for our sakes he suffered a most painful death, to redeem us from death everlasting ; that he rose again the third day; that he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and at the end of the world shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. These articles of our faith the devils believe, and so they believe all that is written in the Old and New Testament. And yet, for all this faith they be but devils. They remain still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith.”*
5. “ 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.”
6. Now, whosoever has this faith, which purifies the heart, (by the power of God, who dwelleth therein,) from pride, anger, desire, from all unrighteousness, from “all filthiness of flesh and spirit;" which fills it with love stronger than death, both to God and to all mankind; love that doth the works of God, glorying to spend and to be spent for all men, and that endureth with joy, not only the reproach of Christ, the being mocked, despised, and hated of all men, but whatsoever the wisdom of God permits the malice of men or devils to inflict; whosoever has this faith, thus working by love, is not almost only, but altogether, a Christian.
7. But who are the living witnesses of these things ? I beseech you, brethren, as in the presence of that God, before whom “hell and destruction are without a covering,-how much more the hearts of the children of men;"—that each of you would ask his own heart, “ Am I of that number? Do I so far practise justice, mercy, and truth, as even the rules of heathen honesty require ? If so, have I the very outside of a Christian ? The form of godliness? Do I abstain from evil, from whatsoever is forbidden in the written word of God ?. Do I, whatever good my hand findeth to do, do it with my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities ? And, is all this done, with a sincere desigu and desire to please God in all things ?”.
8. Are not many of you conscious, that you never came thus far ; that you have not been even almost a Christian ; that you have not come up to the standard of heathen honesty; at least, not to the form of Christian godliness ?-much less hath God seen sincerity in you, a real design of pleasing him in all things. You never so much as intended to devote all your words and works, your business, studies, diversions, to his glory. You never even designed or desired, that whatsoever you did should be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus," and as such, should be a "spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ."
9. But supposing you had, do good designs and good desires make a Christian? By no means, unless they are brought to good effect. “Hell is paved (saith one) with good intentions." The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart ? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All ?" Do you desire nothing but
* Homily on the Salvation of Man.