by Mike Ratliff
θεὸν ὁμολογοῦσιν εἰδέναι, τοῖς δὲ ἔργοις ἀρνοῦνται, βδελυκτοὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀπειθεῖς καὶ πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἀδόκιμοι. (Titus 1:16 NA27)
They profess to know God, but by their works, they deny Him, being detestable and as to every good work, unfit. (a personal translation of Titus 1:16 from the NA27 Greek text)
A good friend loaned me a book by Puritan Matthew Mead, The Almost Christian Discovered. I have not finished it yet, but I have read enough to discern that if Pastor Mead was alive today preaching as he did in the 17th Century, he would be quite controversial. In our time we lament what cheap grace and easy-believism and post-modernism have done to our churches’ ecclesiology, watering down the Gospel and doing away with rightly dividing the Word of Truth while turning the what should the weekly gathering of the local church into some sort of sales promotion or entertainment event. Those terms would be unknown to Pastor Mead, but he would have been quite familiar with one coined by Martin Luther, antinomianism. This describes those who desired to be called Christian, with all of its benefits, but shunned all of its obligations.
I was listening to an episode of the White Horse Inn from early in May in which Michael Horton read an account written by a 1st Century Roman magistrate named Pliny the Younger of a strange people who were followers of a certain “Christus,” who even under torture refused to bow the knee to Caesar, calling him lord, et cetera. Those who refused went to their deaths, however, there were some who when threatened with persecution while given the option of escape if only they would call Caesar Lord, renounced their faith in “Christus,” threw the incense in the fire and went their way as free men. These who escaped that persecution were “almost Christians,” but those who refused and went to their deaths despite the offer of a way of escape did so via a strength that Pliny the Younger could never understand because it came from the Holy Spirit.
What is an “almost Christian”? If you read the passage at the top of this post, you will see people described by the Apostle Paul who were attacking the Church from within. They were false teachers, but as you see, Paul knew very well that they were not genuine believers. How did he know? They professed to know God, but by their works, they deny Him, and this very thing made them unacceptable as Christian leaders. In our day, the visible church is replete with so-called “chirstian leaders” who would fit that description. That phrase “by their works” means they preached and taught and did things that were unbiblical. In our day, that is what those we are continually warning you about are doing as well. We are not doing this to be mean or unkind. There are a lot of other things I would rather do than discernment ministry stuff, like teach from God’s Word, but there are times when I must do so.
However, in this post, instead of talking about things in the visible church, I want to share something with you that will cause you to examine yourself. This is what Pastor Matthew Mead’s book was all about. The title came from Acts 26:28.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. (Acts 26:28 KJV)
Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” (Acts 26:28 NASB)
And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 ESV)
ὁ δὲ Ἀγρίππας πρὸς τὸν Παῦλον· ἐν ὀλίγῳ με πείθεις Χριστιανὸν ποιῆσαι. (Acts 26:28 NA27)
And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a little while you are persuading me, to make me a Christian.” (a personal translation of Acts 26:28 from the NA27 Greek text)
Here are Pastor Mead’s words on this passage:
“Almost” –The words make some debate among the learned. I shall not trouble you with the various hints upon them by Valla, Simplicius, Beza, Erasmus, and others. I take the words as we read them, and they show what an efficacy Paul’s doctrine had upon Agrippa’s conscience. Though he would not be converted, yet he could not but be convinced; his conscience was touched, though his heart was not renewed.”
I agree with him. He then defines for us what a genuine Christian is. What a concept!
A Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ, one that believes in, and follows Christ. As one that embraces the doctrine of Arminius, is called an Arminian; and he that owns the doctrine and way of Luther, is called a Lutheran; so he that embraces, and owns, and follows the doctrine of Jesus Christ, he is called a Christian.
I like that. The next paragraph eliminates the wiggle room.
The word is taken more largely, and more strictly: more largely, and so all that profess Christ come in the flesh, are called Christians, in opposition to heathens, that do not know Christ; and to the poor blind Jews, that will not own Christ; and to the Mahometan that prefers Mahomet above Christ. But not, in Scripture, the word is a more strict and narrow acceptation; it is used only to denominate the true disciples and followers of Christ” “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed:” that is, as a member and disciple of Christ; and so in the text, “Almost thou persuadest me to be Christian.”
The observation that I shall propound to handle is this:
Doctrine—There are very many in the world who are almost—and yet but almost Christians; many who are near heaven—and yet are never the nearer; many who are within a little of salvation—and yet shall never enjoy the least salvation; they are within sight of heaven—and yet shall never have a sight of God.
There are two sad expressions in Scripture, which I cannot but take notice of in this place. The one is concerning the truly righteous. The other is concerning the seemingly righteous. It is said of the truly righteous, that he shall “scarcely be saved;” and it is said of the seemingly righteous, he shall be almost saved, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The righteous shall be saved with a scarcely, that is, through much difficulty; he shall go to heaven through many sad fears of hell. The hypocrite shall be saved with an almost, that is, he shall go to hell through many fair hopes of heaven.
There are two things which arise from hence of very serious meditation. The one is, how often a believer may miscarry, how low he may fall—and yet have true grace. The other is, how far a hypocrite may go in the way to heaven, how high he may attain—and yet have no grace. The saint may be cast down very near to hell—and yet shall never come there; and the hypocrite may be lifted up very near to heaven—and yet never come there. The saint may almost perish—and yet be saved eternally; the hypocrite may almost be saved—and yet perish finally. For the saint at worst—is really a believer; and the hypocrite at best—is really an unconverted sinner.
I would like to close this post with Pastor Mead’s very wise encouragement for genuine believers in this exhortation.
Before I handle the doctrine, I must premise three things, which are of great use for the establishing of weak believers, that they may not be shaken and discouraged by this doctrine.
First, There is nothing in the doctrine that should be matter of stumbling or discouragement to weak Christians. The gospel does not speak these things to wound true believers—but to awaken unconverted sinners and formal professors. As there are none more averse than weak believers, to apply the promises and comforts of the gospel to themselves—for whom they are properly designed; so there are none more ready than they to apply the threats and severest things of the Word to themselves—for whom they were never intended. As the disciples, when Christ told them, “One of you shall betray me;” they those who were innocent suspected themselves most—and therefore cry out, “Master, is it I?” So weak Christians, when they hear unconverted sinners reproved, or the hypocrite laid open, in the ministry of the Word, they presently cry out, “Is it I?”
It is the hypocrite’s fault to sit under the trials and discoveries of the Word—and yet not to mind them: and it is the weak Christian’s fault to draw sad conclusions of their own state from premises which do not concern them.
There is indeed great use of such doctrine as this is, to all believers:
1. To make them look to their standing, upon what foundation they are—and to see that the foundation of their hope be well laid, that they build not upon the sand—but upon a rock.
2. It helps to raise our admiration of the sovereign love of God, in bringing us into the everlasting way—when so many perish from the way—and in overpowering our souls into a true conversion, when so many take up with a graceless profession.
3. It incites to that excellent duty of heart-searching, that so we approve ourselves to God in sincerity.
4. It engages the soul in double diligence, that it may be found not only believing—but persevering in faith to the end. These duties—and such as these, make this doctrine of use to all believers; but they ought not to make use of it as a stumbling-block in the way of their peace and comfort.
My design in preaching on this subject, is not to make sad the souls of those whom Christ will not have made sad. I would bring water—not to “to quench the flax that is smoking,” but to put out that false fire that is of the unconverted sinner’s own kindling, lest walking all his days by the light thereof, he shall at last “lie down in sorrow.” My aim is to level the mountain of the unconverted sinner’s confidence, not to weaken the hand of the true believer’s faith and dependence. My aim is to awaken and bring in secure formal sinners—not to discourage weak believers.
Secondly, I would premise this; though many may go far, very far in the way to heaven—and yet fall short, yet that soul that has the least true grace shall never fall short; “the righteous shall hold on his way.” Though some may do very much in a way of duty, as I shall show hereafter—and yet miscarry; yet that soul that does duty with the least sincerity, shall never miscarry; “for he saves the upright in heart.” The least measure of true grace is as saving as the greatest measure; it saves as surely, though not so comfortably. The least grace gives a full interest in the blood of Christ, whereby we are thoroughly purged; and it gives a full interest in the strength and power of Christ, whereby we shall be certainly preserved. Christ keeps faith in the soul—and faith keeps the soul in Christ; and so “we are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation.”
Thirdly, I would premise this; those who can hear such truths as this, without serious reflection and self-examination, I must suspect the goodness of their condition. You will suspect that man to be next door to a bankrupt, who never casts up his accounts, nor looks over his book; and I as truly think that man a hypocrite, who never searches nor deals with his own heart. He who goes on in a road of duties without any uneasiness or doubting of his state—I doubt no man’s state more than his! When we see a man sick—and yet not sensible, we conclude the tokens of death are upon him. So when sinners have no sense of their spiritual condition—it is plain that they are dead in sin; the tokens of eternal death are upon them!
These things being premised, which I desire you would carry along in your mind while we travel through this subject, I come to speak to the proposition more distinctly and closely.
Doctrine: That there are very many in the world, who are almost—and yet but almost Christians. I shall demonstrate the truth of the proposition, and then proceed to a more distinct prosecution.
I. I shall demonstrate the truth of the proposition; and I shall do it by scripture-evidence, which speaks plainly and fully to the case.
First, The rich young man in the gospel is an eminent proof of this truth; there you read of one who came to Christ to learn of him the way to heaven, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do—that I may have eternal life?” Our Lord Christ tells him, “If you will enter into life—keep the commandments.” And when Christ tells him this, he answers, “Lord, all these I have kept from my youth up; what do I still lack?”
Now do but see how far this man went.
1. He obeyed—he did not only hear the commands of God—but he kept them; now the Scripture says, “Blessed is he who hears the Word of God—and keeps it.”
2. He obeyed universally—not this or that command—but both this and that; he did not halve it with God, or pick and choose which were easiest to be done—and leave the rest. No—but he obeys all, “All these things have I kept.”
3. He obeyed constantly—not in a fit of zeal only—but in a continual series of duty; his goodness was not, as Ephraim’s, “like the morning dew which passes away.” No, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.”
4. He professes his desire to know and do more—to perfect that which was lacking of his obedience: and therefore he goes to Christ to instruct him in his duty; “Master, what do I yet lack?”
Now would you not think this a good man? Alas! how few go this far! And yet as far as he went—he did not go far enough! He was almost—and yet but almost a Christian! He was an unsound hypocrite; he forsakes Christ at last—and cleaves to his lusts! This then is a full proof of the truth of the doctrine.
A second proof of this doctrine, is that of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. See what a progress they make, how far they go in a profession of Christ.
1. They are called “virgins.” This is a name given in the Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New—to the saints of Christ, “The virgins love you!” So in the revelation, the “one hundred forty and four thousand” who stood with the Lamb on Mount Zion, are called “virgins.” They are called virgins, because they are not defiled with the “corruptions which are in the world through lust.” Now these here seem to be of that sort, for they are called virgins.
2. They take their “lamps”—that is, they make a profession of Christ.
3. They had “some oil” in their lamps. They had some convictions and some faith, though not the faith of God’s elect, to keep their profession alive, to keep the lamp burning.
4. They “went”—their profession was not an idle profession; they did perform duties, frequented ordinances—and did many things commanded. They made a progress—they went.
5. They “went forth”—they left many behind them; this speaks of their separation from the world.
6. They went with the “wise virgins”—they joined themselves to those who had joined themselves to the Lord—and were companions of those who were companions of Christ.
7. They “went forth to meet the bridegroom”—this speaks out their owning and seeking after Christ.
8. When they heard the cry of the bridegroom coming, “they arose and trimmed their lamps;” they here profess Christ more highly, hoping now to go in with the bridegroom.
9. They sought for true grace. Now do not we say, the desires for grace are grace? and so they are, if true and timely; if sound and seasonable. See here a desire for grace in these virgins, “Give us some of your oil!” It was a desire for true grace—but it was not a true desire for grace. It was not true, because not timely; it was unsound, as being unseasonable; it was too late. Their folly was in not taking oil when they took their lamps; their time of seeking grace was when they came to Christ; it was too late to seek it when Christ came to them. They should have sought for grace when they took up their profession: it was too late to seek it at the coming of the bridegroom! And therefore “they were shut out!” And though they cry for entrance, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” yet the Lord Christ tells them, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you!”
You see how far these virgins go in a profession of Jesus Christ—and how long they continue in it, even until the bridegroom came; they go to the very door of heaven—and there, like the Sodomites, perish with their hands upon the very threshold of glory! They were almost Christians—and yet but almost; almost saved—and yet perish!
You who are professors of the gospel of Christ, stand and tremble! If those who have gone beyond us fall short of heaven, what shall become of us who fall short of them? If those who are virgins, who profess Christ, who have some faith in their profession, such as it is, who have some fruit in their faith, who outstrip others who seek Christ, who improve their profession, and suit themselves to their profession; nay, who seek grace; if such as these be but almost Christians, Lord, what are we!
Third, If these two witnesses are not sufficient to prove the truth, and confirm the credit of the proposition, take a third, which shall be from the Old Testament. Isaiah 58:2, “They seek Me day after day and delight to know My ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask Me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.” See what God says of that people; he gives them a very high character for a choice people, one would think! See how far these went! If God had not said they were rotten and unsound, we would have ranked them among the worthies. Observe,
1. They seek God. Now this is the proper character of a true saint—to seek God. True saints are called, “seekers of God.” “This is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face.” There a generation of those who seek God; and are not these the saints of God? Nay, farther,
2. They seek him daily. Here is diligence backed with continuance, day by day; that is, every day, from day to day. They did not seek him by fits and starts, nor in a time of trouble and affliction only, as many do. “Lord, in trouble have they sought you; they poured out a prayer when your chastening was upon them.” Many, when God visits them—then they visit him—but not until then! When God pours out his afflictions—then they pour out their supplications. This is seamen’s devotion! When the storms have brought them to “their wits’ end—then they cry to the Lord in their trouble.” Many never cry to God, until they are at their wits’ end; they never come to God for help, so long as they can help themselves.
But these here, whom God speaks of, are more zealous in their devotion; the others make a virtue of necessity—but these seem to make conscience of duty; for, says God, “they seek me day after day.” Sure this is, one would think, a note of sincerity! Job says of the hypocrite, “Will he always call upon God?” Surely not! But this people call upon God always, “they seek him day after day;” certainly these are no hypocrites!
3. Says God, “They delight to know my ways.” Sure this frees them from the suspicion of hypocrisy! They do not say not unto God, “Depart from us; we desire not the knowledge of your ways.”
4. They are “as a nation that does what is right.” Not only as a nation that spoke righteousness, or knew righteousness, or professed righteousness; but as a nation that does righteousness, that practiced nothing but what was just and right. They appeared, to the judgment of the world, as good as the best.
5. They forsook not the ordinances of their God. They seem true to their principles, constant to their profession. They seem better than many among us, who cast off duties—and forsake the ordinances of God. But these hold out in their profession; “they forsook not the ordinances of God.”
6. “They ask of me,” says God, “the ordinances of justice.” They will not make their own will the rule of right and wrong—but the law and will of God: and therefore, in all their dealings with men, they desire to be guided and counseled by God, “They ask of me the ordinances of justice.”
7. They take delight in approaching to God. Sure this cannot be the guise of a hypocrite. “Will he delight himself in the Almighty?” says Job. No—he will not! Though God should be the chief delight of man, (having everything in him to render him lovely,) yet the hypocrites will not delight in God. Until the affections are made spiritual, there is no affection to things that are spiritual. God is a spiritual good—and therefore hypocrites cannot delight in God. But these are a people who delight in approaching to God!
8. They were a people who were much in fasting, “Why have we fasted?” Now this is a duty which does not suppose and require truth of grace only in the heart—but strength of grace. “No man,” says our Lord Christ, “puts new wine into old bottles, lest the bottles break and the wine run out.” New wine is strong—and old bottles weak; and the strong wine breaks the weak vessel: this is a reason Christ gives, why his disciples, who were newly converted—and but weak as yet, were not exercised with this austere discipline. But this people here mentioned, were a people who fasted often, afflicted their souls much, wore themselves out by frequent practices of humiliation. Sure therefore this was “new wine in new bottles;” this must needs be a people strong in grace; there seems to be grace not only in truth—but also in growth.
And yet, for all this, they were no better than a generation of hypocrites; they made a goodly progress—and went far—but yet they went not far enough; they were cast off by God after all. I hope by this time the truth of the point is sufficiently confirmed; “that a man may be, yes, very many are, almost—and yet no more than but almost Christians.”
As you can see my brethren, the Church has always had genuine believers alongside apostates. There have been periods where the apostate leaders seemed to have the upper hand while at other times they didn’t as God gave His Church grace to overcome. We are in one of those dark times right now. Let us not be discouraged. Examine yourselves my brethren and be encouraged in the Lord as you come boldly to the throne of Grace in confession and repentance.
More on this Christian treasure in later posts…
Soli Deo Gloria!