John Wesley’s Sermon #2: The Almost Christian

Introduction

            The foundation for all flavors of Wesleyan theology (United Methodists, Nazarene, Free Methodists, and the newly formed Global Methodists, among others) is the sermons of John Wesley (1703-1791). In these sermons, Wesley spells out the distinctiveness of his approach to holiness, salvation, evangelism, and many other areas of doctrine. In the sermon The Almost Christian, we see Wesely tackle a challenging subject that many of his time (and this present modern age) did not want to take on – nominal Christianity.

            This essay will review the sermon’s content and provide a critical analysis of Wesley’s main theological points. Starting with the occasion behind the sermon, the essay will move to discuss the “almost Christian,” the “altogether Christian,” and the implications for 21st century Christianity. Throughout the essay, the sermon will be analyzed in light of other passages of scripture that Wesley may have been alluding to. Finally, the essay will finish with a personal ministry-oriented reflection. In this essay, the foundational point will be that it is insufficient to be just an “almost Christian.” Jesus calls his followers to be “altogether Christian.”

Occasion

            To understand the context of this sermon, one must look at two critical events of Wesley’s life. The first is his mission trip to Georgia in 1735. This mission trip, by all accounts, was a disaster. He and his brother, Charles, traveled to Georgia on a mission to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. They failed in that endeavor and returned to England in disgrace in 1737. Wesley was left troubled and despondent after returning to England.[1]

            However, soon after his return to England, the second event happened. Wesley was befriended by Peter Boehler, a Moravian (a group that stressed personal holiness). Boehler stressed two crucial points: “dominion over sin, and constant Peace from a sense of forgiveness.”[2] On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended, reluctantly, a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. Upon hearing Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Wesley was spiritually moved and became acutely aware that he was totally forgiven of all his sins and was no longer under the “law of sin and death.”[3]

            With these two aspects in mind, we can approach the sermon in its context. It was delivered July 25, 1741, at the University Church of St. Mary’s, Oxford. The church itself had a long history, including the Oxford Martyrs’ trial in 1550 and the denunciation of the pope by Thomas Cranmer in 1533.[4] Three years later, Wesley would return to this pulpit and “denounced the laxity of senior university members” and was banned from preaching there since then.[5]

The Almost Christian

            The sermon, The Almost Christian, takes its title by, according to Wesley, one of two types of Christians: almost Christians and altogether Christians. Addressing the former, Wesley notes that the almost Christian is marked by “heathen honesty.”[6] Wesley defines heathen honesty as that which the heathens expect from each other.[7] These moral codes include honesty, not stealing, and social justice. The almost Christian cannot abide liars and thieves but offer “sort of love and assistance which they expected one from another.”[8] They have the “form of godliness,” and they do nothing “the gospel forbids.”[9]

            Almost Christians also avail themselves to religious activity. Wesley notes that “He that hath the form of godliness also uses the means of grace; yea, all of them, and at all opportunities. he constantly frequents the house of God.”[10] In this section of the sermon, Wesley observes that these people take advantage of religious and church activity with humility. They have “a real, inward principle of religion, from whence these outward actions flow.”[11] Sincerity is an essential factor in being almost Christian.

            Wesley’s description of the almost Christian is close to the common understanding of what a Christian looks like. This description of the moral and religious life of the almost Christian would call to mind the scene in Matthew 19:16-22. Here, a man approaches Jesus and asks him what good he can do to earn eternal life. Jesus reminds the man that only God is good and to inherit eternal life, and one must obey the commandments. Jesus then describes many of the last six of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:1-17. The man states that he has done these things. However, Jesus then tells the man, if he wants to be perfect, to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor to build up treasure in Heaven, and to follow him. As money was the man’s god (because he was sorrowful at this news), he could not follow the first four of the ten commandments that involve humanity’s relationship to God, which was an exclusive relationship.

            Those who think that Wesley’s description might be pontificating from an exalted spiritual state are quickly brought to reality when he notes that the almost Christian defined his life before Aldersgate. Indeed, he states: “Yet my own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost, that all this time I was but almost a Christian.” (Emphasis mine).[12] Wesley is not just preaching ivory tower theology; he is preaching on a deeply personal subject for him. As Wesley was almost Christian at an earlier time, his revelation is a transparent glimpse into his life. Who he was before Aldersgate was not whom he became after Aldersgate.

The Altogether Christian

            If Wesley were to leave the sermon here, there would not be much room for growth. However, he transitions to a description of what he calls “the altogether Christian.” This form of Christianity has all of the marks of the almost Christian but has several key additions. First, the altogether Christian is marked by the love of God. This love is not casual, but a love that “engrosses the whole heart, as rakes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties.”[13] This statement would draw the audience to the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as well as Mark 12:28-34. These passages drive home that love of God is to be complete and involve the entire being. Love of God is not segregated into a category of Christian living but is to be the basis for the entire spiritual life of the Christ-follower.

            This complete love of God is expressed, secondly, in the love of neighbor. Wesley describes the love of neighbor as love for “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.”[14] Love of neighbor is hard. Loving enemies is even more challenging. However, this comes straight from Jesus (Mark 12:31 and Leviticus 19:18) and is coupled with complete love of God. Loving one’s neighbor is as essential as loving God.

            Thirdly, the altogether Christian is marked by faith. Faith is not just the knowledge of God and his work but actually trusting in him. This faith is:

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. (Emphasis mine)[15]

Correct belief of facts is not enough. Correct doctrinal positions are not enough. Even Satan and the demons have correct knowledge of God. The unconditional love of God, love of neighbor, and faith (trust and hope in God) are the marks of the altogether Christian.

Wesley then transitions the sermon from description to an evangelistic calling. He calls the readers and hearers of the message to self-examination to where they stand. He asks his audience:

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? And is this commandment written in your heart, ‘That he who loveth God love his brother also?’ Do you then love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul as Christ loved you?[16]

This call to self-examination is serious business. God knows the entire heart, and eternal separation from God awaits the almost Christian.

The almost Christian need not stay in that state. Indeed, Wesley finishes the sermon with an exhortation:

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![17]

The life of the altogether Christian is available to anyone who places their unconditional love and faith in God and demonstrates that love by loving all humanity. Eternal fellowship with God awaits the altogether Christian.

Conclusion: Personal Ministry Reflection and Application

            The almost Christian and the already Christian concepts challenge some of our preconceived notions of who is and who is not an authentic Christ-follower. As I live in the American South East, the church culture can sometimes define Christians the same as how Wesley describes the almost Christian. To these churches, Christianity is adhering to a moral code more than it is serving a Savior. These people want to do good, and they want to please God, but the church culture revolves around correct behavior and right belief instead of a right Savior.

            Sound doctrine is essential. Having orthodox beliefs lays the foundation of our growth in God. However, I must not rely on the correct doctrine for salvation. Indeed, the right doctrine is an expression of an already present dedication to Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Doing good works is essential. The apostle James’s sermon makes it evident that faith is useless unless good works accompany it. But the core of salvation is not doing meritorious works. Salvation is based upon putting our love entirely into God and having faith in his saving work so that we can love our neighbors with the compassion of Jesus.

            As stated above, being almost Christian is insufficient. Although bathed with good intentions, it falls far short of the sort of commitment Jesus has called his followers to. Jesus wanted us to love God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, all of our minds, and all of our strength. When we have started there, we must continue in faith to do the good works of the gospel as an expression of total devotion. When total love of God, total faith in Jesus, and total love for other people is firmly in place, then one is an altogether Christian, and the almost Christian is left behind.

Works Cited

Oden, Thomas C. John Wesley’s Teachings Volume 2: Christ and Salvation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2012.

Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey. Edited by Kenneth J. Collins, & Jason E. Vickers. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2013.

Woodbridge, John D., and Frank A. James III. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.


[1] John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James II, Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2013), 407.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings Volume 2: Christ and Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2012), 182.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2013), 96.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 97.

[11] Ibid, 98.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 99.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 100.

[16] Ibid, 100-101.

[17] Ibid, 101.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s