John Wesley preached a sermon early in his career on the Almost Christian, someone who had all the language and practices of Christianity but did not have faith. This person is one who, despite best efforts, is still worthy of condemnation because of the lack of faith. Later in his life, he preached another sermon, On Faith, where he said it is possible to have the faith of a servant, but not the faith of a child. Robert Tuttle, in an article entitled “God at Work in the World” in World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit (Seedbed, 2014), writes, “Here [in the later sermon] the faith of the servant is directly analogous to the faith of the ‘almost Christian’ referred to in his earlier sermon. Now, however, the faith of the servant, rather than serving only to compound one’s condemnation, means that one is not far from the kingdom of God” (114).
The idea here preached by Wesley, and rightly pointed out by Tuttle, is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the lives of people, wooing them into a deeper relationship with God. It is not God who limits salvation, but their our own cooperation (or lack thereof) with God’s grace that presents us with the possibilities or pitfalls of being in communion with God.
The problem, though, is what to do when people intentionally stay out of the Promised Land. What do we do with people who are content to be an almost Christian with the faith of a servant? This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. There is even biblical precedent for this situation. In Numbers 32 the story is recounted of how the tribes of Ruben, Gad, and half of Manasseh wanted to be given the land on the eastern bank of the Jordan River rather than be included in the inheritance of the Promised Land on the other side.
This situation is truly amazing. God delivered the twelve tribes out of Egypt, made a covenant with them at Sinai, provided for them through forty years of wandering, and chose a new leader to help them receive the goal of nearly five hundred years’ hopes and prayers—from the time of Abraham to their present—the Land across the Jordan River. And two-and-a-half tribes decide not to take God up on this half-a-millennium old promise.
Why? According to Numbers 32:4, the land on the eastern side of the Jordan, “is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock” (ESV). God’s provision and guidance up to that point in their lives met their current needs, so they were satisfied with where they currently were. They were no longer slaves in Egypt, nor were they wandering in the wilderness, but they saw no need to cross over into the Promised Land because they were content where they were. True, the men did help the rest of the Israelites gain their inheritance in the Promised Land, but after that deed was done they returned to the place they desired—a place neither in the wilderness nor in the Promised Land.
Very often there are people in our congregations and faith-fellowships that are like these tribes. They are no longer wandering, but neither have they received the fullness of salvation, the Promised Land of a living and growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Very visibly in the holiness tradition, there are people who have traded slavery to sin and wandering on their own for a set of external rules and regulations rather than an internal working of God’s grace that transforms us more and more fully as we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, ESV). We have people who are content in this state because, like the land east of the Jordan, it meets all their needs. Guidance. Direction. A clear sense of right and wrong. And yet something is missing. No, it is not slavery or wandering, but neither is it the Promised Land.
As Christians in the theological tradition of Wesley, and as leaders in particular, it is our responsibility to not only teach but demonstrate the amazing love of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to such an extent that our people yearn for the Promised Land in which we live. It is up to those who have crossed the Jordan and received the promise of God—a life full of the Holy Spirit—to live in such a way that others will not be content with their physical or emotional needs met, but long for spiritual transformation and a love that knows no limits. Let us be so converted to Christ that those on the Eastern Bank of the Jordan begin to realize what they are missing by not crossing over. And let us help them make that crossing in love.
People are not necessarily happy with being “east of the Jordan”. For some, it is all they know. I was one of them.
I spent 55 years being a good Methodist going through the motions because it was all I was taught. I had a strong sense of God; I sensed there was more but I could not quite get there. At times I thought I was incapable of achieving that elusive “more”; Christianity felt like rocket science. Then the bottom fell out of my life on several fronts–including church–and when the dust settled who should be there but a walking talking follower of Christ. He is a pastor who, by my understanding at the time, was the wrong everything except he is so blazingly comfortable with his faith; it is part and parcel of who he is; it lays on him easily like a comfortable mantle. All of a sudden mine felt bulky, cumbersome and hard to manage. All of a sudden I knew this was doable, even for me because he was so blazingly human in his pursuit of holiness.
Turns out, though, I needed more than an up close encounter with a walking talking Christian, I also needed an understanding of who God is and who I am in relation. I had to chase that down on my own. I finally found footing with the Heidelberg Catechism and a book about it, “Body and Soul” by M. Craig Barnes. My trek through both became one long question: “Why has nobody ever had this conversation with me before?”. It felt like this knowledge should have been implanted in me a long time ago. I was stunned at the amount of information the rank and file Christian of the 1600’s was given. Turns out I had only been gathering random pieces to a puzzle. Christianity went from being rocket science to being simply unfathomable. For me, true redemption began with knowledge. I later discovered seedbed and rounded out my knowledge with “This I Believe”, “Ten Words, Two Signs, and A Prayer” and “Thirty Questions”.
Bottom line is there is a scarcity of true walking talking Christians within the church to be the hook. But a more clearly articulated teaching of who God is and who I am in relation would be a great help. After all, Methodism is in existence because Wesley preached a gospel message, the people responded with “What does this mean for my life?” and Wesley came up with an answer, giving shape and substance to the Christian life.