How far may a man go in the way to heaven, and yet be but almost a Christian?

Taken and adapted from, “The Almost Christian Discovered”
Written by, Matthew Mead


I. A man may have much knowledge, much light; he may know much of God and his will, much of Christ and his ways, and yet be but almost a Christian.

For though there can be no grace without knowledge, yet there may be much knowledge where there is no grace; illumination often goes before, when conversion never follows after. The subject of knowledge is the understanding; the subject of holiness is the will. Now a man may have his understanding enlightened, and yet his will not at all sanctified. He may have an understanding to know God, and yet want a will to obey God. The apostle tells us of some, that, “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God.”

To make a man altogether a, Christian, there must be light in the head, and beat in the heart; knowledge in the understanding, and zeal in the affections. Some have zeal and no knowledge; that is, blind devotion; some have knowledge and no zeal; that is, fruitless speculation: but where knowledge is joined with zeal, that makes a true Christian.

Objection. But is it not said, “This is life eternal—to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent?”

Answer. It is not every knowledge of God and Christ, that interests the soul in life eternal. For why then do the devils perish; they have more knowledge of God than all the men in the world; for though, by their fall, they lost their holiness, yet they lost not their knowledge. They are called daifiovsg, from their knowledge, and yet they are diaSoloi, from their malice, devils still.

Knowledge may fill the head, but it will never better the heart, if there be not somewhat else. The Pharisees had much knowledge: “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make thy boast of God, and know his will,” etc, and yet they were a generation of hypocrites. Alas! how many have gone loaded with knowledge to hell!

Though it is true, that it is life eternal to know God and Jesus Christ; yet it is as true, that many do know God and Jesus Christ, that shall never see life eternal. There is, you must know, a twofold knowledge; the one is common, but not saving; the other is not common, but saving: common knowledge is that which floats in the head, but does not influence the heart. This knowledge, reprobates may have; “Balaam saw Christ from the top of the rocks, and from the hills.”

And then there is a saving knowledge of God and Christ, which includes the assent of the mind, and the consent of the will; this is a knowledge that implies faith; “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many.” And this is that knowledge which leads to life eternal: now whatever that measure of knowledge is, which a man may have of God, and of Jesus Christ, yet if it be not this saving knowledge—-knowledge joined with affection and application—he is but almost a Christian.

He only knows God aright, who knows how to obey him, and obeys according to his knowledge of him: “A good understanding have all they that do his commandments.” All knowledge without this makes a man but like Nebuchadnezzar’s image, with “a head of gold, and feet of clay.”

II. A man may have great and eminent gifts, yea, spiritual gifts, and yet be but almost a Christian.

The gift of prayer is a spiritual gift. Now this a man may have, and yet be but almost a Christian: for the gift of prayer is one thing; the grace of prayer is another. The gift of preaching and prophesying is a spiritual gift; now this a man may have, and yet be but almost a Christian. Judas was a great preacher; so were they that came to Christ, and said, “Lord, Lord, we have prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils,” &c.

You must know that it is not gifts, but grace, which makes a Christian: For,

1. Gifts are from a common work of the Spirit. How a man may partake of all the common gifts of the Spirit, and yet be a reprobate; for therefore they are called common, because they are indifferently dispensed by the Spirit to good and bad; to them that are believers, and to them that are not.

They that have grace have gifts; and they that have no grace, may have the same gifts; for the Spirit works in both; nay, in this sense he that hath no grace, may be under a greater work of the Spirit (quod hoc) as to this thing, than he that hath most grace; a graceless professor may have greater gifts than the most holy believer: he may out-pray, and out-preach, and out-do them; but they in sincerity and integrity out-go him.

2. Gifts are for the use and good of others, they are given in ordinem alium, as the schoolmen speak, for the profiting and edifying of others: so says the apostle, “they are given to profit withal.” Now a man may edify another by his gifts, and yet be uiledified himself; he may be profitable to another, and yet unprofitable to himself.

The raven was an unclean bird: God makes 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 to the right way, and yet not be able to walk in it himself. A crooked tailor may make a suit to fit a straight body, though it fit not him that made it, because of his crookedness. The church (Christ’s garden inclosed) may be watered through a wooden gutter; the sun may give light through a dusky window; and the field may be well sowed with a dirty hand.

The efficacy of the word doth not depend upon the authority of him that speaks it, but upon the authority of God that blesses it. So that another may be converted by my preaching, and yet I may be cast away notwithstanding. Balaam makes a clear and rare prophecy of Christ, and yet he hath no benefit by Christ: “There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;”—but yet Balaam shall have no benefit by it: “I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh.”

God may use a man’s gifts to bring another to Christ, when he himself, whose gifts God uses, may be a stranger unto Christ; one man may confirm another in the faith, and yet himself may be a stranger to the faith. Pendleton strengthens and confirms Sanders, in Queen Mary’s days, to stand in the truth he had preached, and to seal it with his blood, and yet afterwards plays the apostate himself.

Scultetus tells us of one Johannes Speiserus, a famous preacher of Augsburg in Germany, in the year 1523, who preached the gospel so powerfully that many common harlots were converted, and became good Christians; and yet himself afterwards turned papist and came to a miserable end. Thus the candle may burn bright to light others in their work, and yet afterwards go out in a stink.

3. It is beyond the power of the greatest gifts to change the heart; a man may preach like an apostle, pray like an angel, and yet may have the heart of a devil. It is grace only that can change the heart; the greatest gifts cannot change it, but the least grace can; gifts may make a man a scholar, but grace makes a man a believer. Now if gifts cannot change the heart, then a man may have the greatest gifts, and yet be but almost a Christian.

4. Many have gone laden with gifts to hell; no doubt Judas had great gifts, for he was a preacher of the gospel; and our Lord Jesus Christ would not set him to work, and not fit him for the work; yet “Judas is gone to his own place:” the Scribes and Pharisees were men of great gifts, and yet, “where is the wise? where is the scribe?”

“The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.” Them that perish, who are they? Who! the wise and the learned, both among Jews and Greeks; these are called “them that perish.” A great bishop said, when he saw a poor shepherd weeping over a toad: “The poor illiterate world attain to heaven, while we with all our learning fall into hell.”

There are three things must be done for us, if ever we would avoid perishing.

We must be thoroughly convinced of sin.

We must be really united to Christ.

We must be instated in the covenant of grace.

Now, the greatest gifts cannot stead us in any of these. They cannot work thorough convictions. They cannot effect our union. They cannot bring us into covenant-relation. And consequently, they cannot preserve us from eternally perishing; and if so, then a man may have the greatest gifts, and yet be but almost a Christian.

5. Gifts may decay and perish: they do not lie beyond the reach of corruption; indeed grace shall never perish, but gifts will: grace is incorruptible, though gifts are not; grace is “a spring, whose waters fail not,” but the streams of gifts may be dried up. If grace Be corruptible in its own nature, as being but a creature, yet it is incorruptible in regard of its conserver, as being the new creature; he that did create it in us, will conserve it in us; he that did begin it will also finish it.

Gifts have their root in nature, but grace hath its roots in Christ; and therefore though gifts may die and wither, yet grace shall abide forever. Now if gifts are perishing, then, though he that hath the least grace is a Christian, he that hath the greatest gifts may be but almost a Christian.

Objection. But doth not the apostle bid us “covet earnestly the best gifts?” Why must we covet them, and cover them earnestly, if they avail not to salvation?

Answer. Gifts are good, though they are not the best good; they are excellent, but there is somewhat more excellent, so it follows in the same verse, “Yet I show unto you a more excellent way,” and that is the way of grace. One dram of grace is more worth than a talent of gifts: gifts may make us rich towards men, but it is grace that makes us “rich towards God.” Our gifts profit others, but grace profits ourselves; that whereby I profit another is good, but that by which I am profited myself is better.

Now because gifts are good, therefore we ought to covet them; but because they are not the best good, therefore we ought not to rest in them: we must covet gifts for the good of others, that they may be edified; and we must covet grace for the good of our own souls, that they may be saved; for whosoever be bettered by our gifts, yet we shall miscarry without grace.

III. A man may have a high profession of religion, be much in external duties of godliness, and yet be but almost a Christian.

Mark what our Lord tells them, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven;” that is, not every one that makes a profession of Christ, shall therefore be owned for a true disciple of Christ. “All are not Israel that are of Israel;” nor are all Christians that make a profession of religion. What a godly profession had Judas! he followed Christ, left all for Christ, he preached the gospel of Christ, he cast out devils in the name of Christ, he eat and drank at the table of Christ; and yet Judas was but a hypocrite. Most professors are like lilies, fair in show, but foul in scent; or like pepper, hot in the mouth, but cold in the stomach. The finest lace may be upon the coarsest cloth.

It is a great deceit to measure the substance of our religion by the bulk of our profession, and to judge of the strength of our graces by the length of our duties. The Scriptures speak of some who having “a form of godliness, yet deny the power thereof.” Deny the power; that is, they do not live in the practice of those graces to which they pretend in their duties; he that pretends to godliness by a specious profession, and yet doth not practice godliness by a holy conversation, “he hath a form, but denies the power.” Grotius compares such to the ostrich, which hath great wings, but yet flies not. Many have the wings of a fair profession, but yet use them not to mount upward in spiritual affections, and a heavenly conversation.

But to clear the truth of this, that a man may make a high profession of religion, and yet be but almost a Christian, take a fourfold evidence

1. If a man may profess religion, and yet never have his heart changed, nor his state bettered, then he may be a great professor, and yet be but almost a Christian. But a man may profess religion, and yet never have his heart changed, nor his state renewed. He may be a constant hearer of the word, and yet be a sinner still; he may come often to the Lord’s table, and yet go away a sinner as he came: we must not think that duties can confer grace.

Many a soul hath been converted by Christ in an ordinance, but never was any soul converted by an ordinance without Christ. And doth Christ convert all that sit under the ordinances? Surely not; for to some, “the word is a savor of death unto death.” And if so, then it is plain, that a man may profess religion, and yet be but almost a Christian.

2. A man may profess religion, and live in a form of godliness in hypocrisy. “Hear ye this, 0 house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah; which swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of God of Israel, but not in truth, nor in righteousness.” What do you think of these?” They make mention of the name of the Lord, there is their profession but not in truth; nor in righteousness,” there is their dissimulation: and indeed there could be no hypocrisy in a religious sense, were it not for a profession of religion; for he that is wicked and carnal, and vile inwardly, and appears to be so outwardly, he is no hypocrite, but is what he appears, and appears what he is. But he that is one thing really, and another thing seemingly, is carnal and unholy, and yet seems to be good and holy, he is a hypocrite.

Thus the Casuists define hypocrisy to be a counterfeiting of holiness; and this fits exactly with the Greek word, which is, to counterfeit.

And to this purpose, the Hebrews have two words for hypocrites; panim, which signifies faces; and ckanepim, which signifies counterfeits; from chanaph, to dissemble: so that he is a hypocrite that dissembles religion, and wears the face of holiness, and yet is without the grace of holiness. He appears to be in semblance, what he is not in substance; he wears a form of godliness without, only as a cover of a profane heart within. He hath a profession that he may not be thought wicked; but it is but a profession, and therefore he is wicked. He is the religious hypocrite; religious, because he pretends to it; and yet a hypocrite, because he doth but pretend to it. He is like many men in a consumption, that have fresh looks, and yet rotten lungs; or like an apple that hath a fair skin, but a rotten core. Many appear righteous, who are, only righteous in appearance. And if so, then a man may profess religion, and yet be hut almost a Christian.

3. Custom and fashion may make a man a professor; as you have many that wear this or that garb, not because it keeps them warmer, or hath any excellency in it more than another, but merely for fashion. Many must have powdered hair, spotted faces, feathers in their caps, &c, for no other end, but because they would be fools in fashion. So, many profess Christianity—not because the means of grace warm the heart, or that they see any excellencies in the ways of God above the world, but—merely to follow the fashion! I wish I might not say, it hath been true of our days, because religion hath been uppermost, therefore many have professed; it hath been the gaining trade, and then most will be of that trade.

Religion in credit makes many professors, but few proselytes; but when religion suffers, then its confessors are no more than its converts; for custom makes the former, but conscience the latter. He that is a professor of religion merely for custom sake, when it prospers, will never be a martyr for Christ’s sake, when religion suffers. He that owns the truth, to live upon that, will disown it, when it comes to live upon him.

They say, that when a house is decaying or falling, all the rats and mice will forsake it; while the house is firm, and they may shelter in the roof, they will stay, but no longer; lest, in the decay, the fall should be upon them, and they that lived at top should die at bottom. My brethren, may I not say, we have many that are the vermin, the rats and mice of religion, that would live under the roof of it, while they might have shelter in it; but when it suffers, forsake it, lest it should fall, and the fall should be upon them? I am persuaded this is not the least reason why God hath brought the wheel upon the profession of religion; namely to rid it of the vermin. He shakes the foundations of the house, that these rats and mice may quit the roof; not to overturn it, but to rid them of it; as the husbandman fans the wheat, that he may get rid of the chaff. The halcyon days of the gospel provoke hypocrisy, but the sufferings for religion prove sincerity.

Now, then, if custom and fashion make many men professors, then a man may profess religion, and yet be but almost a Christian.

4. If many may perish under a profession of godliness, then a man may profess religion and yet be but almost a Christian.

Now, the Scripture is clear, that a man may perish under the highest profession of religion. Christ cursed the fig-tree, that had leaves and no fruit. It is said, that “the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness.” Who were these, but they that were then the only people of God in the world by profession, that had made a “covenant with him by sacrifice”— and yet these were cast out.

In St. Matthew, you read of some that came and made boast of their profession to Christ, hoping that might save them. “Lord,” say they, “have we not prophesied in thy name, cast out devils in thy name, done many wonderful works in thy name?” Now what saith our Lord Christ to this?” Then I will profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me.”

Mark, here are they that prophesy in his name, and yet perish in his wrath; in his name cast out devils, and then are cast out themselves; in his name do many wonderful works, and yet perish for wicked workers. The profession of religion will no more keep a man from perishing, than calling a ship the Safe-guard, or the Good-speed, will keep her from drowning. As many go to heaven with the fear of hell in their hearts, so many go to hell with the name of Christ in their mouths. Now then, if many may perish under a profession of godliness, then may a man be a high professor of religion, and yet be but almost a Christian.

Objection. But is it not said by the Lord Christ himself, “He that confesses me before men, him will I confess before my Father in heaven?” Now, for Christ to say, he will confess us before the Father, is equivalent to a promise of eternal life: for if Jesus Christ confess us, God the Father will never disown us.

True, they that confess Christ, shall be confessed by him; and it is as true, that this confession is equivalent to a promise of salvation. But now you must know, that professing Christ, is not confessing him: for to profess Christ is one thing —to confess Christ is another. Confession is a living testimony for Christ, in a time when religion suffers; profession may be only a lifeless formality, in a time when religion prospers. To confess Christ, is to choose his ways, and own them. To profess Christ, is to plead for his ways, and yet live beside them. Profession may be from a feigned love to the ways of Christ; but confession is from a rooted love to the person of Christ. To profess Christ, is to own him when none deny him; to confess Christ, is to plead for him, and suffer for him, when others oppose him. Hypocrites may be professors; but the martyrs are the true confessors.

Profession is a swimming down the stream. Confession is a swimming against the stream. Now many may swim with the stream, like the dead fish, that cannot swim against the stream, with the living fish. Many may profess Christ, that cannot confess Christ; and so, notwithstanding their profession, yet are but almost Christians.