“Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28).
In this chapter you have the Apostle Paul’s apology and defensive plea, which he makes for himself against those blind Jews which so maliciously prosecuted him before Agrippa, Festus, Bernice, and the council. In which plea he chiefly insists upon three things:
- The manner of his life before conversion.
- The manner of his conversion.
- The manner of his life after conversion.
How he lived before conversion, he tells you, Acts 26:4-13. How God wrought on him to conversion, he tells you, Acts 26:13-18. How he lived after conversion, he tells you, Acts 26:19-23. Before conversion he was very pharisaical. The manner of his conversion was very wonderful. The fruit of his conversion was very remarkable.
Before conversion he persecuted the gospel which others preached: after conversion, he preached the gospel which himself had persecuted.
While he was a persecutor of the gospel, the Jews loved him; but now that, by the grace of God, he was become a preacher of the gospel, now the Jews hate him, and sought to kill him.
He was once against Christ, and then many were for him; but now that he was for Christ, all were against him; his being an enemy to Jesus, made others his friends; but when he came to own Jesus, then they became his enemies. And this was the great charge they had against him, that of a great opposer he was become a great professor. Because God had changed him, therefore this enraged them: as if they would be the worse, because God had made him better. God had wrought on him by grace, and they seem to envy him the grace of God. He preached no treason, nor sowed no sedition; only he preached repentance, and faith in Christ, and the resurrection, and for this he was “called in question.”
This is the brief summary of Paul’s defence and plea for himself, which you find in the sequel of the chapter had a different effect upon his judges.
Festus seems to censure him, Acts 26:24. Agrippa seems to be convinced by him, Acts 26:28. The whole bench seem to acquit him, Acts 26:30-31. Festus thinks Paul was beside himself. Agrippa is almost persuaded to be such a one as himself.
Festus thinks him mad, because he did not understand the doctrine of Christ and the resurrection: “much learning hath made thee mad.” Agrippa is so affected with his plea, that he is almost wrought into his principle: Paul pleads so effectually for his religion, that Agrippa seems to be upon the turning point to his profession. “Then Agrippa said to Paul, almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
“Almost.” The words make some debate among the learned. I shall not trouble you with the various hints upon them by Valla, Simplisius, 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.
Observation. There is that in religion, which carries its own evidence along with it even to the consciences of ungodly men.
“Thou persuadest me.” The word is from the Hebrew, and it signifies both suadere and persuadere; either to use arguments to prevail, or to prevail by the arguments used. Now it is to be taken in the latter sense here, to show the influence of Paul’s argument upon Agrippa, which had almost proselyted him to the profession of Christianity. “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
“A Christian.” I hope I need not tell you what a Christian is, though I am persuaded many that are called Christians, do not know what a Christian is, or if they do, yet they do not know what it is to be a Christian. 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.
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 Mohammedan, that prefers Mohammed, above Christ. But now in Scripture, the word is of 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 a Christian.”
The word is used but in these three places, as I find, in all the New Testament, and in each of them it is used in the sense afore-mentioned. The Italians make the name to be a name of reproach among them, and usually abuse the word Christian to signify a fool. But if, as the apostle saith, “the preaching of Christ is to the world foolishness,” then it is no wonder that the disciples of Christ are to the world fools. Yet it is true, in a sound sense, that so they are; for the whole of godliness is a mystery. A man must die, that would live; he must be empty, that would be full; he must be lost, that would be found; he must have nothing, that would have all things; he must be blind, that would have illumination; he must be condemned, that would have redemption; so he must be a fool, that would be a Christian. “If any man among you seems to be wise, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” He is the true Christian that is the world’s fool, but wise to salvation.
Thus you have the sense and meaning of the words briefly explained. The text needs no division, and yet it is a pity the almost should not be divided from the Christian. Though it is of little avail to divide them as they are linked in the text, unless I could divide them as they are united in your hearts; this would be a blessed division, if the almost might be taken from the Christian: that so you may not be only propemodum but admodum; not only almost, but altogether Christians. This is God’s work to effect it, but is our duty to persuade to it; and O that God would help me to manage this subject so, that you may say, in the conclusion, “Thou persuadest me, not almost, but altogether to be a Christian!”
The observation that I shall propound to handle is this:
Doctrine, There are very many in the world that are almost, and yet but almost Christians; many that are near heaven, and yet are never the nearer; many that 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, he shall “scarcely be saved;” and it is said of the seemingly righteous, he shall be almost saved: “Thou art 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 a sinner.
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 doth not speak these things to wound believers, but to awaken 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 that were innocent suspected themselves most, and therefore cry out, “Master, is it I?” So weak Christians, when they hear 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 nothing concern them.
There is indeed great use of such doctrine as this is to all believers:
- 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.
- It helps to raise our admiration of the distinguishing love of God, in bringing us into the way everlasting, 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.
- It incites to that excellent duty of heart searching, that so we approve ourselves to God in sincerity.
- 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 “quench the flax that is smoking,” but to put out that false fire that is of the 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 sinner’s confidence, not to weaken the hand of the believer’s faith and dependence; 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 hath 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 doth duty with the least sincerity, shall never miscarry; “for he saveth the upright in heart.”
The least measure of true grace is as saving as the greatest; 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: they that 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, that never casts up his accounts nor looks over his book; and I as verily think that man a hypocrite, that never searches nor deals with his own heart. He that 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 that are almost, and yet but almost Christians.
I shall demonstrate the truth of the proposition, and then proceed to a more distinct prosecution.
1. 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 young man in the gospel is an eminent proof of this truth; there you read of one that 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 thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments:” and when Christ tells him which, he answers, “Lord, all these I have kept from my youth up; what lack I yet?”
Now do but see how far this man went.
- He obeyed – he did not only hear the commands of God, but he kept them; now the Scripture saith, “Blessed is he that hears the word of God, and keeps it.”
- 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.”
- 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 that passes away;” no, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.”
- He professeth 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 lack I yet?”
Now would you not think this a good man? Alas! how few go this far? And yet as far as he went, he went not far enough; “he was almost, and yet but almost a Christian;” for he was an unsound hypocrite; he forsakes Christ at last, and cleaves to his lust. This then is a full proof of the truth of the doctrine.
Second, A second proof of it is that of the parable of the virgins in Matthew: see what a progress they make, how far they go in a profession of Christ.
- They are called “virgins.” Now this is a name given in the Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New, to the saints of Christ: “The virgins love thee:” so in the Revelation, the “one hundred forty and four thousand” that stood with the Lamb on mount Zion, are called “virgins.” They are called virgins, because they are not defiled with the “corruptions that are in the world through lust.” Now these here seem to be of that sort, for they are called virgins.
- They take their lamps – that is, they make a profession of Christ.
- They had some kind of 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.
- 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.
- They went forth – they went and outwent, they left many behind them; this speaks out their separation from the world.
- They went with the “wise virgins” – they joined themselves to those who had joined themselves to the Lord, and were companions of them that were companions of Christ.
- They go “forth to meet the bridegroom” – this speaks out their owning and seeking after Christ.
- When they heard the cry of the bridegroom coming, “they arose and trimmed their lamps;” they profess Christ more highly, hoping now to go in with the bridegroom.
- They sought for true grace. Now do not we say, the desires of grace are grace? and so they are, if true and timely; if sound and seasonable. Why lo here a desire of grace in these virgins, “Give us of your oil.”
It was a desire of true grace, but it was not a true desire of grace; it was not true, because not timely; 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 that 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 know you not.”
You see how far these virgins go in a profession of Jesus Christ, and how long they continue in it, even till 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 that are professors of the gospel of Christ, stand and tremble: if they that have gone beyond us fall short of heaven, what shall become of us that fall short of them? If they that are virgins, that profess Christ, that have some faith in their profession, such as it is, that have some fruit in their faith, that outstrip others that seek Christ, that improve their profession, and suit themselves to their profession – nay, that seek grace; if such as these be but almost Christians, Lord, what are we?
Third, If these two witnesses be not sufficient to prove the truth, and confirm the credit of the proposition, take a third; and that shall be from the Old Testament, Isaiah 58:2. See what God saith of that people; he gives them a very high character for a choice people, one would think: “They seek me daily; they delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God; they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.”
See how far these went; if God had not said they were rotten and unsound, we should have taken them for the “he-goats before the flock,” and ranked them among the worthies. Pray observe,
- 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 them that seek him, that seek thy face; O Jacob;” or, O God of Jacob. Lo, here a generation of them that seek God; and are not these the saints of God? – Nay, farther,
- 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 visited thee; they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them.” Many when God visits them, then they visit him, but not till then; when God poureth 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, till they are at their wits’ end; they never come to God for help, so long as they can help themselves. But now 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, saith God, “they seek me daily.” Sure this is, one would think, a note of sincerity. Job saith of the hypocrite, “Will he always call upon God?” Surely not; but now this people call upon God always, “they seek him daily:” certainly these are no hypocrites.
- Saith God, “they delight to know my ways.” Sure this frees them from the suspicion of hypocrisy; for, they say not unto God, “Depart from us; we desire not the knowledge of thy ways.”
- They are “as a nation that did righteousness.” Not only as a nation that spake righteousness, or knew righteousness, or professed righteousness; but as a nation that did righteousness, that practised nothing but what was just and right. They appeared, to the judgment of the world, as good as the best.
- They forsook not the ordinances of their God. They seem true to their principles, constant to their profession, better than many among us, that cast off duties, and forsake the ordinances of God: but these hold out in their profession; “they forsook not the ordinances of God.”
- “They ask of me,” saith 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 counselled by God: “They ask of me the ordinances of justice.”
- They take delight in approaching to God. Sure this cannot be the guise of a hypocrite. “Will he delight himself in the almighty?” saith Job: – no, he will not. Though God is the chief delight of man, (having everything in him to render him lovely, as was said of Titus Vespasian,) yet the hypocrites will not delight in God. Till 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 that delight in approaching to God.
- They were a people that were much in fasting: “Wherefore have we fasted,” say they, “and thou seest not?” Now this is a duty that doth not suppose and require truth of grace only in the heart, but strength of grace.
“No man,” saith 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 that 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 avouched and confirmed; “that a man may be, yea, very many are, almost, and yet no more than but almost Christians.”
Now for the more distinct prosecution of the point,
- I shall show you, step by step, how far he may go, to what attainments he may reach, how specious and singular a progress he may make in religion, and yet be but almost a Christian when all is done.
- I will show whence it is, that many men go so far as that they are almost Christians.
- Why they are but almost Christians when they have gone thus far.
- What the reason is, why men that go thus far as to be almost Christians, yet go no farther than to be almost Christians.
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