In the old King James version, Agrippa exclaims to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!" That's the phrase that fired John Wesley's imagination in preaching one of his best-known sermons, "The Almost Christian." His main theme was to measure what it meant to be "almost a Christian" against what it meant to be "altogether a Christian."
The first important point to make was that the judgment of being almost or altogether a Christian was one that people made for themselves -- no one was ready to make that kind of distinction for another person. So, Wesley asked, how would people know the difference in their spiritual lives? Well, it wasn't necessarily by what they did or said. Both almost and altogether Christians could be found regularly attending worship, regularly reading Scripture, regularly praying and regularly helping other people.
And they would do these things because they believed them essential to living Christian lives, not just because they looked good to other people or because they brought about good things. They would both help people in need because it was a part of following Jesus and because those people were also God's children.
The difference comes, Wesley said, in why they do these things. The almost Christian is trying to be good enough to earn God's love and his forgiveness. He or she believes that just a little bit more work or just a little bit more effort will get them across the finish line. Wesley knew this belief quiet well -- he would have said that from his early adult years through the Aldersgate experience, he would have been much more an almost Christian than an altogether one. He would rise before dawn to pray and he put himself through a long and miserable sea-voyage in order to try to minister to American Indians in South Carolina. He kept a journal that assessed his spiritual state every 15 minutes during the day.
But, as he pointed out more than once, such efforts brought him no peace. He was constantly trying to earn God's favor but he never received any signs God approved of what he did, so he tried harder, which didn't work either. The peace his Moravian fellow-travelers had shown in the face of a dangerous storm eluded him. The Aldersgate experience, in which Wesley said he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and a direct experience God loved him and forgiven his sins, showed him the difference.
Altogether Christians do what they do not to get God to love them, but because God loves them. They live their lives dedicated to God out of thanksgiving.
You can see what kind of difference this would make. If I believe that I'm almost a Christian and if I just do a little bit more I'll cross the finish line, then I'm always wondering if I've done enough or if I've slipped back below it. If God requires me, like Jesus says, to make sure everything I do and say shows the most love for God and the most love for my neighbor possible, I can never be sure I've done that right. Who couldn't look back on something he or she did a week ago without wondering if there was a way to better display love of God and neighbor in that situation? There may be some great works done in such a way of living, but there is no peace.
But if we live our lives knowing that God loves us, that the sacrifice of his Son was made on our behalf to do what we couldn't do, then we can know our failures don't disqualify us. They are forgiven even as all our sins are forgiven. We regret the shortfall and we try to do better next time and ask forgiveness for the error, but we know it doesn't break the grace God has offered us. In that way of living we find the peace we never will when we try on our own.
The irony is that it's harder to be an almost Christian than an altogether one -- all our efforts can't earn what God freely offers.