December 2021 Credo
John Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience” of 1738 is a constant reminder of just how important it is for those who call themselves Christians to have a vital faith in Jesus Christ. On the flip side, it also alerts us to the fact that there are people in our churches today who have all the outward appearances of being genuine disciples but who in fact do not have a genuine relationship with Christ.
Three years after his life-changing experience at Aldersgate, on 25 July 1741, Wesley himself addresses this subject in a university sermon he preached at St Mary’s, Oxford, entitled “The Almost Christian”, where he famously describes the “almost Christian” as someone who merely has “the outside of a real Christian”.
On the surface, it is difficult to discern an “almost Christian” from a true believer (or, to use Wesley’s expression, a person who is “altogether a Christian”).
The “almost Christian” may attend Sunday worship services regularly. He may be a member of a small group, and may even lead Bible study. He may tithe faithfully and give generously to the church building fund. He may be active in the ministries of the church and, because of his talents and competencies, may even prove to be effective in some ways.
The “almost Christian” may know his Bible well. He may be quite knowledgeable of the teachings of the evangelical church, having read famous Christian writers such as J. I. Packer, John Stott, John Piper and Tim Keller.
In addition, the “almost Christian” can appear to live a godly life. As Wesley puts it, “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.”
The “almost Christian” may display Christianly behaviour, especially in his relationship with others. Wesley writes: “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 avenges not himself, neither returns evil for evil.”
But there is one vital thing that distinguishes the “almost Christian” from the “altogether Christian”. There is one important difference between the truncated and incomplete “faith” of the “almost Christian” and genuine faith.
Wesley explains this difference well in his 1741 sermon:
The right and true Christian 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 is reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey His commandments.
In other words, the “almost Christian” merely has external religion. In contrast, the “altogether Christian” has a real, deep, and transformative relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Reformers, following the medieval theologians before them, taught that biblical faith has three essential aspects: notitia, which refers to the truths of revelation, the content of the Christian faith; assensus, which has to do with the conviction that the claims of faith are indeed true; and fiducia, which is personal trust in God.
The “faith” of the “almost Christian” is incomplete because it is nothing more than just an intellectual assent to the truths of the Bible and the creeds of the Church.
Real faith is not just about knowing and believing the truths of Scripture—important though this is—for as James reminds us, even the demons do that (James 2:19). Real faith is fundamentally about trusting in Jesus Christ.
Wesley ends his great sermon of 1741 with some penetrating questions:
The great question of all, then, 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 with God? Is He your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? […] And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art the child of God?
Blessed is he who can answer these questions with a confident and resounding “Yes!”