His condemnation on judgment day will punctuate the unhappiest story ever told. Never will a smile so drain of its color; never will hope shatter from such heights; never will victory retreat so ruthlessly; never will hell devour a victim so dejected and amazed as when the Almost Christian is led away to the lake of fire.
The Almost Christian. He was almost saved. He almost escaped the wrath of God. He almost found joy forevermore in the God who was almost his God. Almost.
On that Day, he might expect angels to receive him with song, his works to prove themselves gold, his Master to declare, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). He may have closed his eyes serenely in death, thinking himself a saint. This is the most miserable creature in hell, one who was always approaching, but never crossed over, the asymptote of everlasting life.
We want to look away. This bird twitches before us on the pavement, wings broken, reaching its pitiful talons in vain toward the heavenly branch it shall never reach. It flew so high once — yet fell.
“You have here one of the saddest considerations imaginable presented to you,” Matthew Mead (1630–1699) writes, “and that is how far it is possible a man may go in a profession of religion and yet, after all, fall short of salvation; how far he may run and yet not so run as to obtain” (The Almost Christian Discovered, xiv).
To such considerations we turn. We don’t incline to, but we must. We walk a dangerous road if we never inquire into our account, never check our foundations, never ask, “Lord, is it I?” Many, Jesus teaches, will enter the final Day thinking themselves saved without so being (Matthew 7:21–23; Luke 13:24). I do not wish for you or me to be among them.
Collage of Almost Christians
To show how near the forgery comes, to warn us from building our houses upon sand, to burst false hopes or biased examinations, let us look carefully at a few pictures of the Almost Christian to see what, on their own, are no sure signs of salvation.
1. Obeying God: Rich Young Ruler
He said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” (Mark 10:20)
Observe this young rich ruler, this seeker of eternal life. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks (Mark 10:17). In response, Jesus first corrects his view of goodness, and then reiterates the commandments the young Jewish man knew by heart: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). Notice his reply: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
If we take him at his word, this man not only obeyed God, but as Mead observes, he obeyed universally and constantly. First, he obeyed: “Teacher, all these I have kept.” Second, he obeyed universally: “Teacher, all these I have kept.” And third, he obeyed constantly: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
Let’s assume he did. If so, then his was no partway obedience, no pick-and-choose submission, no seasonal or spasmodic soldiery. He received God’s word and set his will to obey it. “Now would you not think this a good man?” Mead asks. “Alas, how few go thus far! And yet, as far as he went, he went not far enough. He was almost, and yet but almost a Christian” (10).
While obedience to Christ is essential evidence of saving faith (James 2:17), external conformity alone is no sure sign. This man, invited to follow Eternal Life himself, turned from Christ and his promises of heavenly treasure out of love for this present world and his stuff (Mark 10:21–22).
2. Blessing Others: Judas
“The eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things,” stated Brutus to Cassius (Julius Caesar, 1.2.58–59). And so, with regard to our salvation, we may think we cannot see our assurance properly but by our reflection in the eyes and lives of others. Have I benefitted others’ souls? Have I blessed my wife and children concerning heavenly things? Have any profited from my life or ministry?
Yet rickety is this bridge of spiritual service if we think to rest our weight on it. Consider Judas. One of the twelve, a disciple, a preacher — and also a devil, an almost Christian. The logic seems naked enough.
Now a man may edify another by his gifts and yet be unedified himself. He may be profitable to another and yet unprofitable to himself. The raven was an unclean bird. God made use of her to feed Elijah. Though she was not good meat, yet it was good meat she brought. A lame man may, with his crutch, point you to the right way and yet not be able to walk in it himself. (19)
I shudder to think of the missionaries, pastors, spiritual mentors who live as drowning men, helping others grip the heavenly shore they themselves will never reach.
3. Desiring Salvation: Five Foolish Virgins
The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” (Matthew 25:8)
Jewish weddings could last all day. After an initial ceremony filled with dancing and mirth at the bride’s home, the wedding party would return to the groom’s home for the wedding proper and feast to follow. This usually occurred at night (ESV Expository Commentary, 374–75). The virgins of the parable wait to light the procession for the wedding party and the bridegroom. Five are wise, bringing a good amount of oil; five others are foolish, not ensuring they have enough. As the bridegroom delays, they all sleep, but then awake at midnight to the cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him” (Matthew 25:6).
Panicked, the foolish virgins beg the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” (Matthew 25:8). Mead observes,
They sought for true grace. Now, do not we say that the desires of grace are grace? And so they are, if true and timely, if sound and seasonable. Why, here is 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. (11)
When refused, the virgins rush to purchase more, arriving at the groom’s house only to be greeted by a locked door.
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 they perished. (12)
Desiring salvation, while a good sign, is no surety of possessing salvation. Many want to be saved — believe themselves saved — wait with true Christians for Christ, trim their lamps, ready (in some measure) for the bridegroom, and yet shall perish on the wrong side of heaven’s door.
4. Joy in Everyday Religion: Israel
They seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God . . . they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2)
Some of us may rest our assurance upon our feelings during religious exercises. Why would I read the Bible and pray and go to church — and generally enjoy it all so much — if I were not really a Christian? God’s word to the people of Israel proves this sign fallible.
This Old Testament people sought him, even daily, through their rituals, and even delighted in so doing. They drew near with a pep in their step and a song on their lips. When the ill report came of their spiritual activity, they asked the Lord, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3). In the end, the fair scent of their spiritual habits could not mask the stench of their deep unbelief, injustice, and hypocrisy.
Am I His?
’Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought;
Do I love the Lord, or no?
Am I his, or am I not?
—John Newton, “’Tis a Point I Long to Know”
Sounding the trumpet, as I have only begun to do here, is difficult. Many of us resonate with John Newton’s verse above, and I have not left us with many sure signs of salvation in this article. We have but looked at four positive signs — obedience, profiting others spiritually, desiring salvation, and drawing near to God with joy — and noticed them not to be decisive signs of salvation by themselves.
With Mead, my design
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 sorrows. (8)
None of us should go forth to death with unexamined hopes. To do so is both unsafe and unscriptural. “Examine yourselves,” Paul enjoins the Corinthians, “to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
“It is the greatest business of this life to not settle for being an Almost and I Think So Christian.”
And how can we not, with so many eyes of Almost Christians staring back at us from the holy book? We read of Cain’s offering rejected, Esau’s birthright refused, and Israel’s passing through the Red Sea, surviving behind the red door, yet dying in unbelief. We read of disciples forsaking Christ by the thousands after a single meal, brothers forsaking Paul for the pleasures of the world. We hear of some that were enlightened, participated in the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word and the powers of the age to come, and yet voyaged below in the end (Hebrews 6:4–6).
We read of an elder brother left outside the party, of soils that grow a plant for a time, guests inside the banquet hall without wedding garments, houses built upon sand. We read of Demas and Balaam; King Agrippa and Festus. We read of the earliest churches claiming the name of life when dead, assuming themselves rich and without spiritual need when they were poor, blind, and pitiable. And we hear an army of Almost Christians on the final Day when “many,” assured of their heavenly claim, are left to stammer, “Lord, Lord, did we not . . .” (Matthew 7:22–23). Many go to judgment feasting on vague hopes and strong delusions. Many go so far and no further.
A Complete Christ
A final word to those who read this and get stirred into a frenzy of activity while losing focus on Christ. On the one hand, necessary exhortations exist for us: Throw off every weight and sin; cast yourselves daily upon his mercy; take heed to how you live, what you love, and how you walk. Examine yourselves to make sure you are his; make every effort to make your calling and election sure; work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Yet at the same time, we must not run so as to forget Christ or his and the Father’s towering love for us displayed in the gospel.
How can you cultivate Christ in yourself? “This is how you must cultivate Christ in yourself,” Martin Luther replies:
Faith must spring up and flow from the blood and wounds and death of Christ. If you see in these that God is so kindly disposed toward you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart in turn must grow sweet and disposed toward God. . . . We never read that the Holy Spirit was given anybody because he had performed some works, but always when men have heard the gospel of Christ and the mercy of God. (Why the Reformation Still Matters, 77)
It is the greatest business of this life to not settle for being an Almost or an I Think So Christian, but to be an Actual Christian, born again of the Spirit. But hear the actual Christian declare, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). To bask in his love grows us tall in Christian maturity and assurance. True faith knows Christ not as an almost Savior who almost atoned for almost all our sins; a Shepherd who almost leads us home and gives us his Spirit to almost complete the work he started in us. True Christians, through true faith, soak in the true love of the true God shown perfectly in the true and finished work of the true and glorious Christ.