2. The Almost Christian

John_Wesley_by_William_Hamilton.jpg

This post is part of a series of study guides on the Sermons of John Wesley that I'm putting together, mostly as a way to structure my own reading. Most of the sermons can be read for free online here or here

Date and location

July 25, 1741

St. Mary's, Oxford University

Scripture

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

Outline

  1. Traits of an 'Almost Christian'
    1. Heathen virtue
      1. honesty
      2. justice
      3. love and hospitality
    2. Form of godliness
      1. Avoids things the gospel forbids
      2. Works hard at doing good, including evangelism and discipling others
      3. Does these things as often as possible
      4. Leads family in prayer (if head of household)
    3. Does all this with absolute sincerity
      1. The almost Christian really wants to serve God and do his will
    4. Can one do all this and be only 'almost' a Christian?
      1. Wesley claims he did this for years!
  2. Altogether Christian
    1. Love for God
    2. Love for neighbors
    3. Faith
      1. But not a devil's faith, i.e. not merely intellectual assent
      2. Christian faith is rather a sure trust and confidence
    4. Exhortation

In his own words

"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 <i>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 all my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere design to please God in all things?

Are not many of you conscious that you never came thus far? That you have not been even 'almost a Christian'? […] 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 him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?" (II.7-9)

Preach it today

  1. First, although Wesley is using this text in a classical Puritan way, one has to admit that it isn't the most faithful interpretation of this verse. After all, Agrippa, who speaks this line, is not an 'almost Christian' at all in the way Wesley intends. He would likely get poor marks from his preaching professor here! Oh well.
  2. This sermon is a rhetorical powerhouse. When I first read this years ago, as Wesley built up such a high moral and religious standard for the Almost Christian, the sermon had the impact that I imagine Wesley intended: I was genuinely wondering what he was leaving for the Altogether Christian! Great example of creating an 'itch' in preaching - then 'scratching' it.
  3. Being a Christian is not about becoming a good person. The Almost Christian is a fantastic and virtuous human being, and the world would be a much better place if it was full of Almost Christians. But though she is in many ways virtuous, she not yet a Christian!
  4. Being a Christian is about who and how you love - and where your trust and confidence in life lies. I'm hearing anachronistic echoes of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections here!
  5. But an altogether Christian that loves and trusts and is fully confident in God will be morally transformed. No room to rest on your laurels here - holiness matters. 

1. Salvation by Faith

John_Wesley_by_William_Hamilton.jpg

This post is part of a series of study guides on the Sermons of John Wesley that I'm putting together, mostly as a way to structure my own reading. Most of the sermons can be read for free online here or here

Date and location

June 11, 1738
St. Mary's, Oxford University

Scripture

"By grace ye are saved through faith." - Ephesians 2:8

Outline

    I. What faith it is through which we are saved
        a. What this faith is not
            i. It's not heathen faith, i.e. belief in:
                1) God's existence and attributes
                2) moral law
                3) Judgment, reward and punishment
            ii. It's not the faith of devils, i.e. belief in:
                1) Jesus as God's incarnate Son
                2) The truth of the Scriptures
            iii. It's not the faith of the apostles before Easter, i.e.:
                1) Willingness to follow Jesus
                2) Ability to perform miracles
                3) Charge to preach the good news
        b. What the faith is
            i. Faith in Christ
                1) unlike heathens
            ii. Disposition of the heart
                1) unlike devils
            iii. Faith in Jesus' death and resurrection and placing one's confidence in them
                1) Unlike pre-Easter apostles
    II. What is the salvation which is through faith
        a. Present salvation
            i. i.e. it is immanent, it's present here on earth
        b. Salvation from sin
            i. From the guilt of past sin
            ii. From fear of wrath
            iii. From the power of sin
                1) Habitual sin
                2) Willful sin
                3) Sinful desire
                4) Infirmities
    III. Answering objections
        a. This position discourages holiness
            i. No, real faith leads to good works
        b. This position leads to pride
            i. Neither this faith nor this salvation is your doing but only comes to be by grace, therefore there is no room for pride
        c. This position encourages sin
            i. Not for the sincere of heart
        d. This position leads to despair, i.e. because salvation by faith is beyond our control
            i. That's true, but we should despair if we're trusting our own works!
        e. This is an uncomfortable doctrine
            i. Yeah, if you agree with the devil
            ii. It's a comfort for the rest of us
        f. Shouldn't be preached
            i. No, this is the main thing that must be preached
        g. Closing exhortation

In his own words

"Of yourselves cometh neither your faith nor your salvation. 'It is the gift of God,' the free, undeserved gift - the faith through which ye are saved, as well as the salvation which he of his own good pleasure, his mere favour annexes thereto. That ye believe is one instance of his grace; that believing, ye are saved, another. 'Not of works, lest any man should boast.' For all our works, all our righteousness, which were before our believing, merited nothing of God but condemnation, so far were they from deserving faith, which therefore, whenever given is not 'of works'. Neither is salvation of the works we do when we believe. For 'it is' then 'God that worketh in us'. And, therefore, that he giveth us a reward for what he himself worketh only commendeth the riches of his mercy, but leaveth us nothing whereof to glory." (III.3)

Preach it today

    1. From a Christian point of view, it does you no good to believe in God. Theism doesn't get you any points; Jesus is where the action is. 
    2. Christianity is not about what you believe, it's about the disposition of your heart. Who and how do you love?
    3. Good works and a powerful, embodied witness are great. But the cross and empty tomb are greater still.
    4. Salvation matters here and now, and that means the 'saved' will have changed hearts and lives. 
    5. And none of this is about human effort - it's all only by grace.
    6. Wesleyans often think of their heritage as being a very practical one, and that it surely is. But in this first of his "Standard Sermons" Wesley puts forth a vision of salvation with relatively little to be added to his listeners' to-do lists. Here, God does it all, and our work is underemphasized. Sermons need the gospel way more than practical application. What God did for us is more important than what we can do this week. 
 

Foreknowledge and Grace

Following up on yesterday's post, here's another word from Molina on the topic of God's foreknowledge and human freedom:

I think it is sufficiently clear from what we have said thus far that (i) our freedom of choice and the contingency of things is perfectly compatible with divine foreknowledge, and that (ii) such foreknowledge in no way prevents it from being the case that with the help of God, who will always furnish as much help as each person needs, it is within our power to avoid all mortal sins, to recover from them after a lapse, and in the end either to attain or to lose eternal life, and that (iii) if we do not attain eternal life, then we ourselves are to blame in just the way we would be if there were in God no foreknowledge of future things.
— Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge, p. 194

Molina was a sixteenth century Jesuit (=Roman Catholic) theologian. A lot of Jesuits in the sixteenth century were reacting against the Reformation.

Here he says our freedom enables us to avoid sin and attain salvation, with God's help. Taking seriously our absolute need for God's help as a supplement to our freedom is important for those of us who have been shaped by the Reformation (and, to be fair, for all Catholics and Eastern Orthodox too). We have this help, so the rest of the statement holds basically as is. But we do need this help; without it we are quite literally helpless.

Most of the time we call this help grace