The Almost Christian!
William Bacon Stevens
"Then Agrippa said to Paul: You almost persuade me to become a Christian!"
There was in the character of Paul, a moral sublimity far excelling the loftiest of mere earthly heroes. In both phases of his life, as a persecuting Pharisee, and as a Christian apostle — he was a noted man, remarkable for great qualities and peculiar developments eminently fitting him to become on the one hand a bitter persecutor, and on the other a noble preacher of the Cross of Christ. A bolder advocate of the truth, a more triumphant defender of the faith — there never has been in the whole history of Christianity. It mattered not where he was, or before whom he spoke — his one theme was Jesus Christ, and Him crucified; and in every station he magnified his office. On several occasions, however, his zeal and eloquence were peculiarly displayed, one of which is referred to in the text.
Having been apprehended in Jerusalem under false charges, Paul was first taken before the Sanhedrin, or Council of the Jews; and thence he was sent by Claudius Lysias to Caesarea, until Felix, the governor of Judea, could hear his case; and by this cruel and servile man, he was kept in confinement two years. When Porcius Festus succeeded to the governorship, he proposed to send Paul back to Jerusalem; but Paul conscious that he had done no wrong, and aware of the implacable hatred of the chief priest and scribes, preferred to throw himself for justice, on a heathen tribunal — rather than trust the prejudiced decisions of the Hebrew council. And hence when Festus put to him the question, will you go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things? Paul replied, "I stand at Caesar's judgment-seat," and adds, "I appeal unto Caesar!" For it was the privilege of all Roman citizens by law, to choose whether they would be tried before a provincial or the imperial court. This exercise of Paul's right as a Roman citizen stopped all proceedings against him in Caesarea and baffled the malice of the Jews. While Festus waited for an opportunity to send Paul to Rome, he was visited by the young king Agrippa and his sister Bernice. To these royal visitors, Festus related the case of Paul, and Agrippa expressed a desire to see and hear the strange prisoner. The desire was granted, and the next day was set for the hearing.
When it came, Agrippa and Bernice and Festus with royal parade entered the audience-room. As soon as the governor had explained to the king the facts of Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and his appeal to Rome, Agrippa said to him, "You are permitted to speak for yourself." Then Paul, stretching forth his hand to arrest attention, answered for himself. What a trying moment was this for the apostle! Before him sat Agrippa, the son of that Herod who had slain James and arrested and imprisoned Peter. On the one side, his princely sister Bernice, brazen with incestuous crime; and on the other, Festus, whom the emperor Nero had appointed Procurator of Judea. In attendance upon these were the Chilliarchs — the great officers of state, the nobility of the province, filling up the audience-room with the insignia of royalty and rank, of military and municipal power. In their midst stood Paul, small of stature, clad in simplest toga, and attended by the sentinel to whom he was chained as a prisoner.
Was not Paul dazzled by this display of royalty and power — those flashing helmets — those gleaming swords — those polished spears? Was he not daunted by the looks of the king and his wicked sister — by the stern gaze of the stern Festus — by the frown of the courtiers — by the dark scowl of the soldiers? Did not his tongue falter, and his knees tremble, as he stood before so prestigious an assemblage?
Behold the scene! The king — the prisoner; the crown on the head of the one — the chain on the wrist of the other. Royalty, power, wealth, in their concentrated form, seated before him; and he, a solitary disciple of the despised and crucified Nazarene, bound, guarded, standing alone in the midst of this display of pomp and power, stretching forth his hand to speak for himself and for Jesus!
Would he be dazzled? The eyes that had been made blind for three days, by the vision of Damascus, when Jesus revealed himself to him in a glory above the brightness of the sun at mid-day — were not to be dazzled by any mortal splendor.
Would he tremble? The man who counted all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ — had not a muscle in him to quiver at any human presence.
Would he falter? The tongue which had been commissioned by Jesus to witness for Him before kings and rulers — had been so taught by the Holy Spirit that it knew no faltering accent before the great ones of the earth.
But hark! the apostle begins to speak for himself — all sounds are hushed in that vast audience. His opening allusions to Agrippa arrest attention by their courtesy and truth. He proceeds, gathering strength and energy with each sentence — his burning thoughts, his nervous words, his impassioned utterance, his glowing eye, his whole form swelling and rocking with intense earnestness — as he relates the scene of his wondrous conversion outside the gates of Damascus — together with the subduing effect of his speech upon the hushed and soul-thrilled audience — alarms the Pagan governor, and he cries out with a loud voice, "You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!"
Thus checked in the torrent of his eloquence, the prisoner meekly answered, "I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner." And then, by a bold stroke of oratory, he turns to Agrippa and says, "King Agrippa — do you believe you the prophets?" Perceiving, perhaps, the embarrassment of the king at this unexpected question, he delicately answers it himself by saying, "I know that you do!"
The earnestness of his words, and the pungency of his appeal to Agrippa's personal knowledge of many of the facts of Christ's life and teaching; roused into action the torpid conscience of the young monarch, and hardly aware, perhaps, of the full force of his own words, uttered, it may be, half in jest, half in earnest, or wrung from him by the power of Paul's speech; he says, in the words of my text, "You almost persuade me to become a Christian!"
Such a tribute to his eloquence was met by the apostle with kindest courtesy; and, lifting up his chained hand, he replied to the half-convicted monarch, "Short time or long — I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am!" And then, as if suddenly remembering that he was a prisoner in chains, he touchingly adds, "Except for these chains!"
As he thus finished this master-piece of holy eloquence, we can imagine how the long pent-up feelings of the audience relieved themselves in almost murmurs of applause at the oratory; while yet they condemned the cause for which he so boldly plead. The result was that they mutually agreed that Paul had done "nothing worthy of death or of imprisonment." Thus, as Chrysostom says, "the Jews who thus persecuted Paul and sought to slay him, were condemned by Lysias — were condemned by Felix — were condemned by Festus — were condemned by Agrippa, and ultimately God condemned them and destroyed their temple and their city for their hostility to the Gospel which Paul was commissioned to preach!"
Truly this whole scene stands before us as a grand Scriptural masterpiece, painted by Luke with that simple majesty of words; which is at once art's highest seal and glory — only he does what other painters cannot do — he makes us hear words, as well as see persons — he unfolds to us the inner thoughts, as well as outward aspects, of the actors in this assembly.
Such were the circumstances under which the words of the text were uttered. They express, however, not merely the feelings of King Agrippa but of a large class of men, who may be termed the almost Christians — men who occupy this semi-religious, yet most fragile and dangerous state.
This class, however, has several divisions, a few of which I propose to notice. There are:
1. Those who are intellectually convinced of the truth of religion, and are consequently theoretical believers.The larger part of those who are intelligently acquainted with the Bible, assent to its truth.
It is so fortified with proofs of its divinity, within and without;
it is so wonderful in its manifold prophecies;
it is so elevating in its teachings;
it so meets the moral necessities of our race;
it so unfolds the past and reveals the future;
it so explains God's dealings with man and man's relations to God;
it so provides for human peace and joy here and for eternal bliss hereafter
— that there are only a few willfully deluded men who reject or disbelieve the Bible.
In the early days of Christianity, to believe the Scripture and to show it forth in a holy life — were mostly simultaneous acts. But in these days, since the religion of Jesus Christ has obtained a strong foothold; and especially since that religion has proved itself the foremost element of power in whatever is elevating in civilization, refining in society, stable in freedom, or noble in mind — fashioning by its plastic power the most potent governments, the best literature, the purest art, the highest social polity of the world — now, alas! belief of the truths of Scripture, and practice of its precepts — are too often disjoined! And an intellectual or theoretical assent to Christianity, is often coupled with the most practical disregard of its duties!
It is indeed strange, when viewed in the abstract, that truths so momentous in themselves, and so vital to the interests of the soul, if believed at all — should not be followed by a practice conformable to that belief; because such conduct is contrary to all known principles of human conduct in worldly matters. Let a man be convinced of the truth of anything, or the propriety of any course of conduct which promises him temporal advantage — and how quickly does he carry his mind's belief into active practice! Yet there are multitudes of people who believe the Bible to be God's Word — who do not receive it into their lives as a matter of living faith.
Like Agrippa, they believe the prophets — and yet will not do what the prophets require! If religion were a matter of the intellect only — then such men would be saved. But salvation reaches us, not so much through the faculties of the mind — as through the affections of the heart. For the mind, by its clear power of reason, may be forced to accept as true — that which the heart dislikes, and refuses to acknowledge, or obey.
We are saved, not by believing Christianity as a system — but by believing in, and accepting Christ as our Savior. It is not by embracing the truth as it is in Jesus, by the processes of the intellect; but by embracing Jesus Himself as our personal Redeemer, that we secure salvation. To whatever height, then, speculative belief in Christ or Christianity may go — if it reaches not the point of a personal faith, in a personal and divine Savior, it is only making a man an almost Christian.
Simon Magus believed and was baptized, and yet the apostle distinctly says of him, that he had neither part nor lot in this: "for your heart is not right in the sight of God." This differentiates the Christian religion from all other religions and all other philosophies: they are all based on dogmas and beliefs — but the Christian religion is based on relationship with a Person.
2.This leads me to mention as another class of almost Christians, "the intellectually and morally convinced — but hesitating ones." These are far in advance of the last class, for these are not only convinced in mind — but recognize the moral obligation resting upon them to believe — and yet hesitate to commit themselves by a decided act of faith into the arms of Jesus.
The large majority of those who habitually attend the stated means of grace, come under this head. They believe the Bible, and they believe that it is their duty to embrace the Savior whom that Bible reveals. Ask any of them if it is not so — and they will reply, yes. Yet they go no further! They keep striking the margin of true religion, often touch its boundary line — yet fail to take the needed step that would plant their feet upon the Rock of Ages; and so they remain hesitating and uncertain in the valley of decision.
Many of this class are patterns of worldly morality and goodness. Their attendance in the sanctuary, and reverence for divine things, and liberality towards the institutions of the gospel — cause them to be admired and beloved. Yet it is all external — it does not spring from an inner heart-faith in Jesus. It is the result of early moral training, or the influence of association, or an attempt to work out, in their own strength, their salvation.
A scribe, pleased with the words of Jesus, entered into conversation with Him, and asked "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Our Lord fully replied to this question, and the scribe said unto Him, "Well, Master, You have said the truth — for there is one God, and there is none other but He; and to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more than all burnt-offerings and sacrifices." Mark adds, that when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, He said unto him "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Here was a case of one intellectually and morally convinced of the truth — yet hesitating and irresolute as carrying out his convictions to their logical result. What was lacking in his case, was that he who had such a good understanding of the breadth and spirituality of God's law, should come out actively on Christ's side; that he should not remain on the border land of indecision — no longer halt between two opinions — but translating knowledge into practice, and belief into confession — embrace Christ, and take his place as a professed disciple. Hence, though not far from the kingdom of God — he was yet outside of that kingdom, nor could he ever pass the separating line, until he deliberately and fully enrolled himself on the side of Jesus; for Jesus has Himself declared, "He who is not with me — is against me."
So long, then, as you fail to take those active steps which will place you beside Christ and His Church as an open and recognized follower — you are only an almost Christian.
Early religious training has a most blessed influence in shaping and beautifying the life, giving to it a high-toned morality; but morality is no substitute for faith — morality is no Savior. The world, indeed, may admire your exemplary life, and to the eyes of men who look at you from a worldly standpoint, and see you in the twilight of an earthly atmosphere — you may be regarded as good and noble. Yet to Him who sees not as man sees, who measures you by the measuring rod of eternal right, who beholds you in the revealing glare of His divine glory — you may be a grievous sinner! For man looks at the outward appearance — but God looks at and judges the heart — and we can have no lot or part with Him in Heaven unless our hearts are right in His sight. And this they can only become through the sprinkling of them with the blood of Jesus.
God has declared, "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins," and as when the blood of the paschal lamb was first slain in Egypt, it was not enough that the victim was killed and his blood shed — but drops of that blood were to be sprinkled on the doors of their dwellings; thus bringing the blood to every family and every house, and thus only securing exemption from the visit of the destroying angel who passed that night through all the land of Egypt, slaying all the first-born in every house unprotected by blood. Just so, it is not enough that Christ has shed His blood on the cross — that blood must by faith be sprinkled on the door of each heart! There must be a personal application of that blood by faith — to cleanse our guilt and secure our pardon! And only as faith does thus put upon the soul the blood drops of Calvary — have we a right or title to the kingdom of God.
3.Another class of almost Christians, comprises those who fail to give up some one thing, or fail to secure some one thing — the giving up of which, or the obtaining of which, is necessary to insure salvation. My meaning will be best understood by two illustrative instances taken from the Bible.
As our Lord was passing along, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him, and asked him, "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered, "If you will enter into life, keep the commandments."
"All these things," said the young man, "I have kept from my youth up," and pressed upon our Lord the further question, "What lack I yet?"
Here was one who seemed to recognize to a certain extent, the goodness and authority of Jesus; who evinced a laudable concern to secure eternal life; who in carrying out that desire had done many right and dutiful things by an outward conformity to God's law.
"What lack I yet?"
"Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' He said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow Me.'
At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth." Mark 10:21-22
He who searched the heart, knew what the one thing lacking was — and hence put His probing finger on the defect, and made the young man see himself in a truer light than he had ever seen himself before.
What was the result? "At this the man's face fell."
What did he do? "He went away sad."
Why? "Because he had great wealth."
The one thing which he lacked, was a willingness to give up his besetting sin! That besetting sin was covetousness.
He preferred to keep his possessions — rather than give them to the poor;
he preferred the treasure on earth — to the treasure in Heaven;
he preferred ease — to taking up a cross;
he preferred the following of his own will — to following Jesus.
This most instructive case shows us how near, how very near, a person may be to the kingdom of Heaven — and yet fall short of it! They may lack but one thing:
the giving up of a besetting sin;
the willingness to make a personal sacrifice for Christ;
the refusal to take up some cross;
the drawing back from a full following of Jesus.
Some one single sin, some one single difficulty — may thus obstruct the soul's entrance into Heaven, and prevent one from becoming an altogether Christian.
One sin deliberately persisted in — will certainly keep your soul out of Heaven!
One known duty deliberately disregarded — will surely secure your condemnation!
And a refusal to take up a cross and bear it after Jesus — must result in being only an almost Christian, and so fail of eternal life!
The other illustrative case, showing the other side of the same truth — namely, that the absence of one thing may keep you out of heaven — is found in the parable of the ten virgins. Here the lack of "oil in their lamps" kept five of the ten virgins from entering into the marriage feast. In the case of the young man, he lacked the willingness to give up the one thing that he had, his wealth — and the holding on to this, proved his ruin. In the case of the foolish virgins, they failed to obtain the one thing which they had not, namely, oil — and the lack of that one thing, not only excluded them from the festal hall — but drew upon them the rebuke of the lord of the feast, "I know you not!"
Yet, mark how nearly alike those five virgins who did not enter — were to the five, who did enter. They were . . .
alike in their outward attire,
alike in carrying lamps,
alike in going forth to meet the bridegroom,
alike in that they all slumbered and slept while the bridegroom tarried,
alike arose and trimmed their lamps at the midnight cry "Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!"
And only at this critical hour, comes out the fatal point of difference — that while the wise virgins had oil in their lamps — the foolish virgins had none; and to them, because they lacked this, "the door was shut!" This oil in the lamp, and without which it will not burn — represents the renewing and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. We are thus taught, that we may have all the outside marks of a Christian; that we may for a long time be regarded as such not only by ourselves but by others; yet for lack of this oil of grace in the soul — this unction of the Holy Spirit — only reach the door of Heaven to find it shut! And only knock with the passionate entreaty "Lord, Lord, open unto us!" to hear from within the withering reply, "Truly, truly, I say unto you: I know you not!"
The condition of the almost Christian — of the one who is not far from the kingdom of God, of him who lacks but one thing — is peculiarly fragile and dangerous. How often have we noticed that a man may live all his life near some grand object in nature, such as Niagara Falls, and yet never visit them; because, being so near to them, he thinks that he can at any time he chooses go to them — and hence his very nearness causes him to delay and procrastinate and never make the oft-purposed visit. While thousands and tens of thousands will traverse seas and continents to visit or gaze at those majestic falls, whose voice is as the sound of many waters.
So it is in spiritual things. Because men know so much of the truth, understand its claims, and have so much of religious reverence and sensibility — they imagine that they can easily take the step which will make them altogether Christians; easily bridge over the narrow space between the not far from the kingdom — and the kingdom itself; and at their pleasure supply the "one thing lacking"; and so they rest content, procrastinate, and die at last almost Christians! While thousands and tens of thousands who were "afar off" — who were "aliens and strangers to the covenant of promise," who lacked not one — but many things — press into the kingdom, become altogether Christians, and are saved!
You cannot be told with too much emphasis, that no matter how much of an almost Christian you are — if you are only almost, then you are not a true Christian, and hence must be altogether lost! It matters not how near you may be to the kingdom of God — you may be so near indeed that you might touch its walls if you stretch forth your hand, or pass its gate if you took but one step — yet if you are only near it, you are not in it. And remaining outside of it — you must certainly perish.
It matters not that you lack but one thing — and that perhaps a very little thing; for if you continue to lack and die lacking it — you can not be saved. It is the aim of your soul's adversary, to make you rest contented in this closeness to the kingdom, in this almost Christian state. He will rather aid you in getting into this position, in the hope that once there, he can keep you there, flattering your soul with false hopes, deceiving conscience with false positions, and cajoling you into that self-satisfied condition, which is the sure precursor of eternal death!
I can hardly picture to myself a person in more imminent danger than an almost Christian. A man on the verge of a religious profession — yet held back by the lack of some one thing — the lack of moral courage to do, what reason and conscience and the Bible urge him to do; come out boldly in the name of Jesus, and avouch him to be your personal and only Savior, and make Him yours by a personal and a living faith. Do this and you will make practical — what before was theoretical. Knowledge will be transformed into duty; and the one condition which the almost Christian lacks to make him an altogether Christian — will be supplied. That factor is faith, that personal belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, which unites us to Him as the branch is united to the vine, so that we have a oneness of life with Christ on earth, and a oneness of glory with Him in Heaven.
Be persuaded, then, to continue no longer in this dangerous, this insecure, this almost Christian state. Come out on the Lord's side. Take your place as Christ's disciple! For so long as you remain hesitating and undecided . . .
you are putting in jeopardy your salvation;
you are disobedient to God's commands;
you are setting at naught Christ's blood;
you are doing despite to the Holy Spirit; and
you are weaving the winding sheet of your immortal soul!