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ALMOST A CHRISTIAN.
ONE of the most interesting incidents related by the evangelists, in the records that they have given us of the life of our Redeemer, is the interview which took place between Him and a young Jewish ruler.* Wealthy, intelligent, and virtuous, this sincere inquirer broke through the prejudices by which the higher classes of his countrymen were influenced, and prostrated himself before the Prophet of Nazareth, asking, with earnest seriousness, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may
inherit eternal life?” So honourable was that testimony which he could truthfully give concerning his own character, that Jesus, beholding him, loved him, and invited him to do as Matthew and the rest of the disciples had already done—to dispose of his possessions, and become a disciple. The result of this appeal made it evident that, notwithstanding his desire for eternal life, and his courage in coming to Jesus, he loved his possessions too much to make so great a sacrifice. His dejected countenance, his slow and sorrowful departure, unite in establishing the truthfulness of the Redeemer's judgment concerning him, “One thing thou lackest !”
We may with propriety regard this young ruler as representing, in the pages of the New Testament, all those who approach very near to the kingdom of heaven without actually entering it-who, like Agrippa, are “almost," but not quite, “persuaded to be Christians. They are amiable and benevolent; they are upright and virtuous. To a certain extent they are inquirers after God and salvation, but nevertheless refuse to become the earnest and whole-hearted disciples of Christ.
May we ask you, then, gentle reader, to accompany us in an endeavour to trace some of these points of difference which distinguish such characters from those who are disciples indeed ? The difficulty of this inquiry is only equalled by its importance. It has happened in some past periods in the history of the church of Christ that persecution has proved a very efficient test of character ; " the fire has tried every man's work.” The materials of which christian societies were formed have been manifested. The “gold and silver” have only been refined, while “ the wood, hay, and stubble," have been consumed by the flames. But in these days of civil and religious liberty, on which our lot has fallen, so many and so great are our educational advantages, so manifold are the heavenward influences to which we are subjected, that it sometimes becomes exceedingly difficult to determine whether we are Christians indeed.
* See Matt. xix. 16-26; Mark x. 17-22; Luke xviii. 18—24.
It is one of the arrangements of God, in his all-wise Providence, that each new stage in the history of the individual and of the race should bring with it both advantages and disadvantages peculiar to itself. This law of the divine procedure is illustrated also in the church of Christ. The
many religious privileges that we enjoy in this country are associated with dangers that were unknown to our forefathers; and the careful parental training that many receive at the present time, together with the restraints that are imposed by the religious tone that pervades all good society, may delude them into a persuasion that their religion is genuine, and their salvation sure, when the all-seeing eye above discovers a fatal deficiency.
We shall be greatly assisted in determining who are only “almost Christians,” if we first endeavour to form a clear and scriptural conception of the nature of real piety, of that godliness of soul which is essential to an entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
We learn from the Bible that our Lord acknowledges those as his disciples, and only those, who trust in him as their great Redeemer, who sit with humility at his feet as their great Teacher, and obey him as their Master and King. They are spoken of as "saints,” or “holy ones;" as the “sons of God;" as being made “partakers of the Divine nature;" as having been “regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God,” Ephes. i. 1-7. They possess an internal spiritual life, or active spiritual principle, which is within them as an energetic, diffusive power,
and tends to purify, ennoble, and sanctify all that they plan or perform. This essential principle of all true godliness manifests itself, under the present dispensation, by obedience to the Saviour's commands; by love for his truth; by devotedness to his cause; and by a constant aspiration after more of that spiritual vigour and excellence which were so conspicuous in his character. Tried by this scriptural standard, many
pass current ordinarily as Christians will be found wanting. alas ! there is such evident love of pleasure, such evident worldly-mindedness, so little pleasure in attending the sanctuary, so little interest in divine truth, and so cold and heartless an
In too many,
approach to the throne of grace, that there can be no hesitation whatever in saying that they are not the true followers of the Redeemer. They may have been baptized; they may have been educated in connexion with the forms of Christianity; they may be constant in their attendance at the house of prayer ; yea, they may even practise a form of worship in the family and in private ; but where the heart is so little engaged in connexion with these various outward services, it is clear that they are as yet strangers to that vital godliness which is essential to our acceptance and salvation.
Gentle reader, may we ask you if you trace, in the portraiture we have just drawn, the lineaments of your own character ? If you recognize the likeness, you can scarcely need that we should repeat the solemn conclusion which is forced on your attention, that you are not yet really “a member of the church of Christ, or an heir of the kingdom of heaven."
In like manner it is equally evident in the case of some that their religious principle is genuine. There is such fervour in devotional exercises, both public and private; such readiness for every good work; such uniform consistency of character ; and such humility, meekness, and charity ; such deep conviction of sin, and love to the Divine Redeemer, that, notwithstanding some minor defects, we entertain no doubts concerning them whatever.
But between these two classes of professors there are many intermediate stages. There are many who dwell, as it were, on the borders of the heavenly territory. They have several of the characteristics of the true believer, or seem to have ; and yet are just outside the boundary line. In the case of such there will be found to be some leading elements of character which closely correspond with the graces of the Spirit of God, and yet will be seen, on more careful consideration, to be essentially different. It is only by a careful examination of these that we shall be enabled to determine with some degree of certainty whether we are truly the followers of Christ, or whether hitherto we have been only “almost Christians !”
To this investigation we now direct our serious attention. And, oh! may the Spirit of God grant unto us such a power of discerning our own spirits, with their secret springs of action, that, whether the conclusion we arrive at be favourable to ourselves or not, it may be a correct judgment of the present position of our souls in the sight of God.
These leading elements of character, upon which our decision concerning ourselves will turn, include the following :-The companions whose company we prefer, and the books that interest us ; the works of charity that we engage in; the conscientiousness that may mark our conduct in all ordinary matters; and the regard we have for Christianity, for its ordinances, and its ministers.
Let us review first our companions, whose company we prefer, and the books that interest us most. These two may fitly be taken together, for books are often our best companions and our most faithful friends. Among our associates we can think of some who are not decidedly pious. The true Christian often feels that this is a deficiency in them which it would rejoice his heart to see supplied. The almost Christian is seldom, if ever, visited by any such longings for their spiritual good. Some others of our associates are decidedly pious, and we are quite happy in their society. Before we argue favourably concerning ourselves, from this fact, let us ask ourselves one or two questions, such as these : Has our regard for them any connexion with their piety? or does it arise from other and independent grounds, such as similarity of taste, or an agreement of natural disposition ? Is it because we see Christ in them that we love them ? Does' their piety make them more agreeable to us, and bring about a greater union of soul ? Does the piety that is in them, when it sometimes finds expression, seem to strike within us a chord that harmonises with it? Are the devout sentiments, which they sometimes give utterance to, echoed by our own inmost nature ? If we can answer such questions as these in the affirmative, then, and not otherwise, are we justified in appropriating to ourselves the apostolic language; “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren," John i. 3, 14.
In like manner, as it regards our more silent but often more influential companions—the books that we read—what testimony do they bear concerning our spiritual position? Of the thoughts and feelings that thus come to us from the solemn past, or from strong and noble souls widely separated from us by land or by sea, which receive from our inmost nature the most cordial welcome ? Who speak most effectively, most freely, and agreeably “to the man within ?” Is it the wise and good, the devout and godly? or are these passed silently over, and does lighter and less nourishing food satisfy the cravings of our mental appetite ? Apart from the fact that good writing is always agreeable, does a religious tone in any volume, otherwise acceptable, only add to our satisfaction ? and does a holy thought, when dressed in a suitable garb, often make our souls swell with emotion, and sometimes well nigh fill our eyes with tears ? Thus it surely will be with us, if we are Christians indeed.
THE ENGLISH MONTHLY TRACT SOCIETY, 27, RED LION SQUARE, LONDON.
Then there is the word of God. This is the true touchstone, by means of which the pure gold of sincere piety may be disa covered. What sort of a response does its holy words receive from within our souls ? Have the promises any sweetness, the Psalms any depth of experimental meaning, the doctrinal portions any spiritual grandeur ? If only negative replies can be given to questions such as these, we have great reason to fear that hitherto we have been only “almost Christians.”
Another criterion of true piety is practical charity, or almsgiving. So important is this, that our Lord specially refers to it, and the apostle James includes it in the account that he gives of pure and undefiled religion. But before we take encouragement from our charitable gifts, let us inquire very carefully into the motives by which we are actuated. In the first place, "are they done at all to be seen by men ? Is there a secret thought of thus meriting the applause of men, and the reward that God only can bestow ? If we can reply satisfactorily to these questions, another presents itself immediately, and waits for an answer: May not all these acts of kindness and mercy spring from that natural principle of benevolence, which is divinely implanted to a greater or less degree in all men, but exists in some, and is manifested by them to an unusual degree ? Some who feel most keenly the distresses of others, who are bountiful in their gifts, and as retiring as they are bountiful, would find, on a careful scrutiny of the motives that prompt them to this course, that the love of Christ and the glory of God have no connexion with them whatever. Virtue in them bears some of its fairest fruits, but let them not be mistaken for the tokens of evangelical piety. If we are constrained to admit that love to God, to Christ, and to “ the household of faith,” has little or nothing to do with our almsgiving and benevolent activity, we have great reason to fear that we are as yet only “almost Christians.”
Another criterion of true piety is general conscientiousness in all the common affairs of life. We sometimes meet with “ high principle,” as it is called ; that is, a great love to right and truth, without love to God. Our consciences may be well trained; their tenderness may be preserved ; and their authority within almost universal in conversation, and in all business transactions, without the existence of love to God, to his commands, and to his truth. There may be a very large amount of right feeling, right thinking, and right acting, without a single spark of real religion. A man may be moral, and his morality may be of a high order, though not the highest, and yet not regenerate. This high-toned morality must not be for