The Almost Christian Discovered
By Matthew Mead, 1661
A review by Stuart Brogden
This is a review of the 20th century reprint of Mead’s book, with a foreword by John MacArthur. The second sentence in his forward tells us that this book “reveals the force and fervor of Puritan spirituality as vividly as any work” he knew. Ask the early settlers of New England about the “force and fervor of Puritan spirituality” and you may want to ask what was Mac thinking.
Mead’s goal in writing this book, which Mac and I agree with, is that it is far too easy for people to think they are Christians when they know nothing of Christ and exhibit no fruit of His Spirit within. As I heard a fella remark recently, when Jesus saves a person, He changes a person. Mead says he intends no anxiety for the saint; his intention is to cause the “almost Christian” to examine himself. He asks the Christian if the state of the world is grievous to you (page 20) and tells the hypocrite to “read and tremble; for thou are the man here pointed at.” (page 21)
Our author introduces Agrippa (page 27) as an almost Christian, as well as the foolish virgins (page 35) and the rich young ruler (page 33) and he tells us (page 29), the “saint may almost perish but certainly be saved; the hypocrite may almost be saved yet perish.” And he goes on to tell us (page 40) “there can be no grace without knowledge, yet there may be much knowledge without grace.” This contrast between two categories of people is found throughout Scripture and it is good for people in both categories to understand them.
Throughout the book, Mead sets up contrasts to show these things more clearly. We are reminded again and again that attitudes and behavior can be evidences of saving faith, but they are not proofs thereof. This is the central theme of the book. The almost Christian may: be trembling at the Word (page 74), delighting in the Word (page 75), belonging to a church (page 77), confessing sin (page 59), have hope in heaven (page 78), and engage in behavior modification (page 82) and not be a Christian! Would you not agree? Any concerned pagan can do these things and not be in Christ.
And yet this same author, in this same book, says (page 43) that people who preach, pray, and serve people in the church have spiritual gifts and not be a Christian; that a man can have the Holy Spirit within (page 100) and not be a Christian. Mead develops this idea, conflating the spirit coming upon or speaking to a person (such as Balaam) with the Spirit indwelling a person. He claims Judas was indwelt by the Spirit because he cast out demons and says a man may have the Spirit “transiently, not absolutely.” The Spirit may be in a man yet not dwell in the man. “The common work of the Spirit” doesn’t save (page 126). Is it proper to say that the spirit that moves a man to do religious things but does not save is the Holy Spirit? I think such false actions are the work of the spirit of the age!
There is also a theme of perfectionism weaved through this book. In pointing out the dangers of what I would call false confessions, Mead (pages 62 & 63) seems to be saying that sinlessness is the mark a saint yet says (page 70) that Christians have regenerate and unregenerate parts in them. We are told (pages 131 & 132) that the one who loves God with his whole heart, soul, and strength is a Christian. Is it just me that has problems with truly being totally devoted to Christ? Mead would have me think so! He follows this thread, telling us (page 159) man must give all to God or not be saved. Pressuring people to confess these things makes them lie about their condition and makes them disciples of John Wesley rather than of Christ. Our ever present lack of perfection is meant to remind us of our ever present need of Christ – His mercy and grace that He freely gives the children of God. Isaiah was a godly man, but when he got a good glimpse of God, he was reminded how sinful he yet was. This is our condition – redeemed but not yet glorified.
Mead says (page 161) that none are excluded from the kingdom of God unless they exclude themselves. Does this mean people are in the Lamb’s Book unless they rub their own names out? He goes on to develop a works-based justification. This was noted early on as he said (page 43), “to know, to practice what we know – that is gospel-duty. This makes a man a complete Christian.” He tells us (page 207) that we must first show man his sin, then his Savior; calling this the “constant method of God.” I used to believe this, but a study of the effective call in Scripture shows some people are confronted with their sin (sometimes using the law to do so), but not all are. It’s simply incorrect to call it the “constant method of God.”
Our author gives us good counsel on what a Christian looks like, telling us (page 136) “the Christian disclaims self and Christ is most advanced.” Amen! Do we promote self or the Lord Jesus? And he leaves us (page 205-6) with another contrast that should settle down into our souls: “The saint’s peace is a peace with God, but not with sin; the sinner’s peace is a peace with sin, but not with God.” Let’s end with that – it’s so much better than some of the stuff this Puritan has written. It is needful for each of us to examine himself and see – with Whom or what do I have peace?
May the God of peace rule your life!