Wesley’s sermon compromise

It is not uncommon for Methodists who read John Wesley’s sermon “The Almost Christian” for the first time to pull back a little in shock. He sets a high bar for authentic Christianity and many 21st century United Methodists not only do not clear that bar, they do not even desire to attempt the leap.

Given these facts, I was amused by the following in Richard Heitzenrater’s history of the Methodist movement Wesley and the People Called Methodist:

In the summer of 1741, John actually began the exercises required for the degree, writing requisite geneses (on predestination, on the means of grace, and on justification), and a Latin sermon to preach before the University …. The text for the latter — “How hath the city become an harlot” — was obviously not chosen to placate the officials at Oxford, considering that he developed the theme upon the hypocrisy and apostasy of Oxford. He was apparently dissuaded from using the sermon, and a month later preached before the University on “The Almost Christian.”

Contrary to some analysis, Wesley even late in his ministry still endorsed “The Almost Christian” as an excellent sermon for unawakened sinners to hear. I find it amusing, however, that the sermon that so many contemporary Methodists feel compelled to soften or even explain away as a product of youthful zeal was in fact a compromise sermon after he’d been talked out of the message he wanted to preach.

As he comes to the end of “The Almost Christian” you can see how his desire to preach about hypocrisy and apostasy among his peers is transformed — although not without some edge — into an appeal to them to seek the Lord while he is near. It is an example, I think, of what Wesley means when he wrote that in every sermon we should invite, convince, offer Christ, and build up the people. If I were to analyze this sermon, I would say it is mostly an invitation to consider what it means to be a real Christian, but then it moves in the final paragraphs to convince and offer Christ with a closing exhortation to his Oxford peers.

But who are the living witnesses of these things? 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 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 my might? Do I seriously use all the ordinances of God at all opportunities? And is all this done with a sincere design and desire 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; that you have not come up to the standard of heathen honesty; at least, not to the form of Christian godliness? –much less hath God seen sincerity in you, a real design of pleasing him in all things. You never so much as intended to devote all your words and works, your business, studies, diversions, to his glory. You never even designed or desired, that whatsoever you did should be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” and as such should be “a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ.”

But, supposing you had, do good designs and good desires make a Christian? By no means, unless they are brought to good effect. “Hell is paved,” saith one, “with good intentions.” 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? 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? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God?

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who now standeth in the midst of us, knoweth, that if any man die without this faith and this love, good it were for him that he had never been born. Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

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!

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2 thoughts on “Wesley’s sermon compromise

  1. I have preached a bob-tail version of this sermon many times in my career. The person who was the most affected by it was a high school senior. He talked about it for days and days and days.

    • I don’t know why I like the words “bob-tail” sermon so much, but I love that. And thank you for the story. Keep preaching.

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