ALMOST, BUT LOST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-22-63 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled Almost, But Lost. It is a text familiar, known to us who have been attending the services of Christ since we were children, but the tragedy of its truth no less poignant today than the first time we heard it said.
Let us read the story in the Book of Acts, the Book of Acts. And on the radio, sharing this service with us, turn in your Bible to the Book of Acts, chapter 26, chapter 26, and we begin reading at verse 19 and read to the end of the chapter; Acts chapter 26, beginning at verse 19 and reading to the end. The verses that precede is an accounting of the conversion of Paul, as he stands before King Agrippa and his sister Bernice and Festus the Roman procurator, all of them assembled with the fashionable and glittering court in the capital city of Caesarea by the side of the Mediterranean Sea.
And as Paul pleads for his life, and gives a defense of the faith, recounting his conversion, he says, and now let us begin reading at verse 19:
Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
But showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
For [these] causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me.
Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:
That Christ should suffer, and that He should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.
And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.
But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.
For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.
King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.
And when he had thus spoken, the king rose up, and the governor, and Bernice, and they that sat with them:
And when they were gone aside, they talked between themselves, saying, This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.
Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.
Now the re-reading of the text: “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?” the Word of God, the Old Testament Scriptures, the only Bible they had, “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?” He was a Jew. He was a Maccabean Jew. He belonged to the noble line of the Hasmoneans. “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest” [Acts 26:27]. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” [Acts 26:28]. And Paul said, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am,” and then I can see the preacher in a dramatic gesture hold up his hands, bound by iron chains, “except these bonds” [Acts 26:29].
And so powerful, so pungent, so full of the convicting power of the Spirit of God was the testimony and the appeal of the preacher, that when he was done speaking, the king rose up, and the procurator, and Bernice the sister of Agrippa, and they turned aside and communed among themselves. And I would think that Agrippa said, “Never in my life, in all of my kingdom, have I ever heard a testimony like this testimony.”
Now, the scholars say, and almost without exception they say, this word of Agrippa, when Agrippa says, “en oligō, en oligō me peitheis christianon genesthai,” almost without exception the scholars say what Agrippa meant was, en oligō: “in a little.” And it means that exactly: en oligō, "in a little, briefly, to summarize"; me, and the Greek word for me is the same as it is in English, m-e, me, "en oligō me…" You see how emphatic, because most of these personal pronouns are never expressed in the language. They’re always included in the form of the Greek verb. But that me is very prominent. "En oligō," briefly, to summarize, "me," the king, a Jew, me, "peitheis," you would persuade, "christianon," a Christian, "genesthai," to become.
So most of them say that that word of Agrippa was one of astonishment; not that he was almost persuaded, but he was expressing astonishment. So the scholars say that Paul, standing there, would invite and seek to make a Christian of this king of the Jews—to belong to that despised and persecuted sect of the Nazarene to which Paul, belonging, was a prisoner of the Roman government.
Well, I don’t find any fault with what the scholars say, but I do say this. I do say this, according to the Word, the inspired Word that is written here: Paul took what Agrippa said to mean exactly as it is translated here in the Authorized Version. “Almost,” the Authorized Version translates that, “Almost," en oligō, just a little lacking, "almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
I know that Paul assumed, at least, the meaning of that word from Agrippa, because when he replied dramatically, Paul said, “I would to God, that not only thou, but all that hear me in this glittering court this day, were both en oligō kai en [megalō]. I would to God, that all that hear me this day, were both almost, en oligō, and altogether, en [megalō], all the way, such as I am, except,” then holding up his hands, “except these chains and these bonds” [Acts 26:29].
Now, whatever the scholar may say about it, we shall follow Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of what Agrippa said. “Almost,” replied the king, listening to the testimony of God’s preacher, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” [Acts 26:28]. Now, just to mention it, just to say it, just to repeat the text is to bring somehow a sadness, a disappointment, a heartache, a hurt to our lives. “Almost, almost, almost, but not quite; almost, but not saved; almost, but not decided; almost, but not committed; almost, but not present; almost.” I say it is a sadness, it is a heartbreak just to repeat the text.
As you know, I came to be pastor of the church in the days of the Second World War. I came in the fall of 1944. There was a woman who belonged to this congregation. She is now with the blessed Jesus in heaven. There was a woman, a widow, who belonged to this congregation, who had one son. And that young man, her only child, was in the war. He fought through the war and was spared. He was in the army of occupation, and was spared.
And upon a day, the mother who belonged to our dear church sent word to me that the boy was done with his assignments, that the war was over, and the occupation was completed, and at the end of these years and years he was coming home, he was coming home—and for me to be prepared to meet her boy for the first time, and to help welcome him back to Dallas and back to our dear church. I want you to know, I want you to know that I was sent word, I was sent word. I went to see her. I carried with me a businessman in this church to visit her. I want you to know, in an airplane crash, after the boy had arrived in America, in an airplane crash on his way to Dallas, the boy was killed. The boy was killed, and I took this businessman with me to make the call at the home. He was one of these businessmen that you’d call a “hard businessman,” very wealthy; doesn’t belong to our church anymore, very wealthy, and very, very given to business. That man, as I sat there and talked to that dear mother and listened to her sobs and her tears, he himself broke down and cried like a little child. It was one of the saddest pastoral calls I ever made in my life. Almost, almost; going through the days of the war, and the days after the war, and coming back home, almost here, and the plane crashed and the boy’s life was taken away.
How infinitely sadder when you apply that story of “almost” to a man who’s near to the kingdom of heaven? As the Lord said to a very intelligent scribe, “Almost,” or His exact words, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God; thou art near the kingdom of God” [Mark 12:34]. But we never read that he finally made the great, final, ultimate decision for Christ. Near it, near the gate, near the door, near the Savior, but never ultimately and finally come.
It is the same sadness you read in the life of the rich young ruler. The young fellow, so fine, so upright, so unafraid to espouse the cause of the despised Lord; kneel before Jesus in broad daylight where everybody could see him, every eye passing by could look upon him [Mark 10:17]. Oh, I admire that! I have committed myself by the grace of God within seven years to see if I can’t get our people not to be ashamed of the Lord Jesus. I’m going to try. I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to pray. I’m going to plead. I’m going to beg. I’m going to ask God. Why, if we had a member of this church come into this service tonight and kneel before the Lord at this prayer rail when he came in the auditorium, before he was seated, he’d be so ashamed of himself. “Why, here I am before the eyes of people, kneeling down before God.” Oh, what a despicable littleness in our spiritual stature and in our spiritual lives!
You couldn’t help but admire that young ruler. Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, but that young fellow, where everybody could see, where everybody could look upon him, that young fellow, in broad open daylight, came and knelt before the despised Nazarene: “Lord, what that I might obtain eternal life?” [Mark 10:17]. No wonder Jesus, looking upon him kneeling there—no wonder Jesus, looking upon him, the Bible says, “And Jesus looking upon him loved him” [Mark 10:21]. No wonder; no wonder. You couldn’t help but admire and respect a devout young man like that, kneeling before the Lord Jesus; something we won’t do, something we don’t even have in our minds to do, something we are ashamed to do, God forgive us.
Kneeling before the Lord. And the Lord, looking down into his soul said, “If you would have eternal life, and treasures in heaven, get the world out of your heart. Your heart is in the world. The love of your soul is in the world. You are engrossed with ambition, and pride, and wealth, and success, and achievement. Give it up! Give it up. Give it up.” And in the tenth chapter of the Book of Mark, Mark, describing that story, uses a Greek word that’s only used one other place in the New Testament. In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Matthew, the third verse, our Lord, speaking of the signs of the times, says, “When the sky is red and stugnazó, you say it is going to be bad weather,” and the word is translated in the Authorized Version “lowring." "When the sky is red and lowring, when the clouds are boiling and the storm is brewing, and the sky is put asunder by the thunder and the lightning, stugnazó” [Matthew 16:3]. The only other time that word is used in the Greek New Testament is to describe the face of that young man: “Stugnazo; when the Lord invited him to give up the world, and the love and the fashion of the world, and come follow Him” [Mark 10:21].
The Greek word stugnazó, it was written in his face, the battle that he fought in his heart. And the young fellow rose to his feet, and the Book says, “And he sorrowfully turned away” [Mark 10:22]. Almost, almost, but not quite. Oh, young fellow! For the millenniums since, have you regretted the choice of that day? Almost, but not quite. Almost, but lost.
As we come to these services, why are people almost saved and never saved? Here are several reasons. One is they’re waiting on someone else. I sympathize with a great deal of that waiting. “I’m waiting on my husband,” or “I’m waiting on my wife,” or “I’m waiting on the child, a young man who’s away in college, and we so want him with us,” or “I’m waiting on”—and other reasons and other things. I’m in sympathy with that, and it’s explicable and it’s understandable, and God understands. The only thing I just warn, I counsel, I point out, I exhort, I make appeal, I adjure: be sure, be sure, be very sure that when you wait on the call of God, that it’s in His will and in His purpose and in His permissive plan. These things of our spirit and of our life and our dedication are so all-inclusively all-important, all-significant. If you tarry, if you wait, O Lord, let God, let God, let it be a directive from heaven. So many times a waiting is a waiting, and multiplies into the length of a tarrying, and we never come, never come. Almost, but lost.
Why do we tarry? Almost persuaded, why do we tarry? Sometimes it is because we are looking for a more convenient season. “Now, preacher, I plan to do that, I will do it. I promise you I will do it. But it isn’t convenient now; it isn’t a good time now. I shall think about it this week. I shall come maybe next Sunday, or next month, or next year,” and then it’s the next lifetime and there’s not any other lifetime. “When I have a more convenient season I will” [Acts 24:25], and almost we come, then put it off, put it off, some other time, some other day, some other hour, but not now, not now, not now. Almost, and then lost.
Why is it we’re almost persuaded and then do not come? Many times it’s for the lack of that little push, that will to reply, that will to respond, that will to step out in the aisle and down to the front and to the Lord. Oh, what a tragedy, what a tragedy! Timidity, timidity, timidity, or, a lack of boldness, a holy unction, a lack! O Lord, O Lord.
The last young woman who came at the eleven o’clock hour this morning, I could easily see she had battled in her heart about coming. And when I asked her of it, she said, “I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I guess it’s just timidity, or I’m afraid. I’m afraid.” It does take an amount of will, of determination, of volition, of choice, to step out of your seat, down that stairway and here to the front; out of that pew, down that aisle and here to the front. It takes something of courage, but oh, oh, what a little thing to do for Him who did so much for us!
Our blessed Lord carrying the cross down the Via Dolorosa [John 19:16-17], His path marked by the blood that dropped from His brow and His body; why would one lack that devotion, that determination, that volition, that choice, even to walk down the steps or down an aisle, following the blessed wounds and the blood drops of our precious Lord? O God, give us courage, and ableness, and boldness, and conviction to respond, to respond; almost, but lost.
Why is it sometimes we tarry? Many times it’s because; “First, first, I want to patch up my life, I want to get things straight; I want to make them right. I’ve been in this, and I’m down down in that, and I’m all messed up with the other, and I want to get myself worthy so that when I come I can present somebody to Jesus that is acceptable in His sight.”
Oh, man! Nothing could be farther; nothing could be more removed from the invitation of the gospel message. Man, you wait till you’re worthy and you’ll never come, for the closer you get nigh to Jesus, the more unworthy will you feel! The saintliest among us are those who feel the most unworthy, and unsightly, and unlovely, and unacceptable. That old, old, old song they sang:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy;
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all
I will arise and go to Jesus;
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
[“Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Joseph Hart]
Almost, but waiting to bring a worthier life, a patched up life. Oh, don’t! Just as you are let God help you. Let Him fight by your side. Let Him be strength, and reformation, and grace, and forgiveness, and a new hope, and a new life to you. Come just as you are, just as you are.
Almost, but lost; why are sometimes—we are lost when we’re almost persuaded? Because of personal pride. Oh, what a vanity, what a vanity is this man God has made, and how it keeps him away from the Lord! I preached when I was a youth, I preached several revival meetings in my little church. And there at the front sat an old man. Every time I stood up to preach there sat that old man. And he died outside of Jesus. And every time I’d speak to him after a service about coming to the Lord, he’d answer me the same way. He would say, “You know, preacher, I almost came tonight, I almost came tonight.” “Well, why didn’t you come?” And he said, “I’m just not worthy. I’m just not ready. I have got to get ready. I have got to overcome these sins. I’ve got to patch up my life. I’ve got to remake my life.” And he’d been doing that for the years and the years and the years. And he was an old man in these days when I preached to him, sitting down there toward the front. You don’t ever get ready. It is God that makes us ready. You don’t ever patch up your life. It is God that gives us a new life.
Come, come, just as you are. Forget human pride. “Lord, look at me, what I’ve done. Lord, look at me, I’m ready. Lord, look at me, I’m worthy.” Don’t come like that. Like the Pharisee who stood with his eyes raised to heaven and proudly said, “Lord, I thank Thee I’m not like those reprobates over there, and I thank Thee I’m not like those sinners there, and I thank Thee I’m not like those outcasts over there. Lord, look at me, what I’ve done and what I do, and I’m so acceptable” [Luke 18:9-12]. Don’t come like that.
Come like the poor publican who wouldn’t so much as lift up his face to God but bowed his head, and beat on his breast, and said, “Lord, be merciful to me the sinner” [Luke 18:13]. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? You have it translated, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” He never said “a sinner.” He said, “Lord, be merciful to me the sinner.” The only one in the world, he meant. “However those people are and these, and these, and these, I’m the biggest, greatest, deepest, foulest, darkest, blackest, lostest sinner of all. Lord, be merciful to me.” And the Lord says, “That man went down to his home justified” [Luke 18:14].
What does “justified” mean? Justified doesn’t mean he wasn’t a sinner still; justified means that God treated him as though he had never sinned! And that’s what grace does for us [Romans 4:25]. Grace covers over our sins. Grace hides our sins. Grace blots out our sins. Grace presents us in the presence of God as though we had never sinned.
Grace, grace, matchless grace;
Grace that is greater than all my sin;
Grace, grace, marvelous grace;
Grace that will cleanse without, within.
[“Grace Greater Than Our Sin,” Julia H. Johnston]
Infinite, matchless, marvelous grace.
What keeps us back? Personal pride! Personal pride! “You think I’m going to bow before the Lord, think I’m going to call on His name? Not I, not I. I’ll stand on my own. I’m adequate, I’m self-sufficient.” And when the day came, and when the day comes for death, ooh, ooh, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. When the day comes for us to die, who is proud, and self-sufficient, and adequate in that awful and dark hour? Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
And when the day of judgment comes, and we stand before a righteous God, and we stand in unforgiven sins, who is adequate and sufficient for that awful hour? “Ah, Lord. Ah, Lord. O God, feeble, sinful, unworthy, I bow in Thy presence. Lord, remember me, remember me.”
When I went to Copenhagen one time, I had a hard and difficult time finding it, couldn’t speak Danish, and had a difficult time. But I was bound and determined and set to look upon one of the most beautiful and effective of all of the pieces of the statuary in this world. I wanted to see Thorvaldsen’s The Pleading Christ. Since that day I have noticed imitations, reproductions, replicas, of that beautiful piece in cemetery after cemetery, several of them here in Dallas. It is our Lord Jesus with His hands outstretched like that, standing and in the act of saying, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28], Thorvaldsen’s The Pleading Christ. I finally found the church, a Lutheran church. I walked in and there at the front of the church that matchless piece of statuary, created by one of the great sculptors of all time. And as I looked at it, I thought of a story.
From afar there came an art critic to see it. He had heard of the famous piece, so he walked in the church and to the front, and he looked at it from this side, and was plainly disappointed; and from this side, and was more displeased; and from this side, still disappointed. While he was looking at it with such a critical and an unappreciative eye, as a piece of art, a member of the church happening to be in the beautiful building, watching the critic as he looked at it, and seeing the evident displeasure written on his face, this member of the church walked up to the artist, and said to him, “But sir, but sir, you must kneel down, you must look up into His face.” The critic thought for a moment. He decided he’d try it. He knelt down. He looked up into His face, and was rewarded with the whole sensitivity and meaning poured into that stone by that marvelous sculptor Thorvaldsen.
I did that. I only had one objection to it. I don’t believe in images. I don’t believe in graven sculptures. I don’t believe in human likenesses of our divine and holy Lord. But I do believe in bowing down, in looking up into His face. I do believe in humbling our souls before the Lord Jesus. “Lord, the pride of my life, take it away. All of the self of life, Lord, wash it out. Lord, all of these things of me and me, blot them out, and make them of Thee, Lord, and of Thee, and of Thee.”
“Come, let us bow down; let us kneel before the great God and our Savior.” Wasn’t that the song we sang? Wasn’t that the psalm we read when I returned from my vacation? “Come, come, let us bow down; Come, let us kneel before the great God, our Savior” [Psalm 95:6]. "Lord, Lord, bless, and forgive, and help, and save. And here I am, and here I come." Would you so tonight? Would you so tonight? While we sing our invitation hymn, in the balcony round, you, or a family you; on this lower floor, you, one somebody you; while we sing our song, while we make this appeal, while our people prayerfully wait upon the Spirit of Jesus, make it tonight. “Pastor, here I come. I give my heart in trust to Jesus, that He forgive me my sins, that He save my soul, that He keep me forever. Here I am. Here I come.” Or a family you; one somebody: “Preacher, here is my wife, and these are our children. We’re coming.” As God shall say the word, a youth, a child, a young man, a young woman, a couple, or a family, make it tonight; make it now, while we stand and while we sing.