Praise for the Lord #31
Words & music: Philip P. Bliss, 1871
Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876) was one of the founders of the 19th-century gospel style, and deserves a post of his own to put him in perspective. Despite his untimely death at 38 in a train accident, he wrote a huge number of successful songs.(Cyberhymnal) His 1874 publication Gospel Songs may have publicized that term to describe the new type of popular hymn being written for the urban revival movement. Though Ira Sankey was the songleader who (along with evangelist Dwight Moody) set the standards of the genre, it was Bliss whose energy and ability made Sankey's Gospel Hymns series a success. Suffice to say that he was the man who gave us the music for "It is well with my soul"(PFTL#345) and wrote both words and music to the fine communion hymn, "Hallelujah! What a Savior"(PFTL#203).
"Almost persuaded" was a widely popular hymn in its day, and is still sung by many congregations of the Churches of Christ, though I think it has faded somewhat in the last few decades. But in the late 19th century when it was still fresh, it was a powerful evangelistic tool. Ira Sankey wrote that "I should think Mr. Bliss' "Almost Persuaded" has won more souls to the Savior than any other hymn written by him."(Memoirs, 169)
“Almost persuaded” now to believe;
“Almost persuaded” Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say,
“Go, Spirit, go Thy way,
Some more convenient day
On Thee I’ll call.”
The song was reportedly inspired by a sermon of the same title, preached by a minister named Brundage,(Memoirs, 139) no doubt inspired in turn by the response of King Agrippa to Paul's message before him and the governor Festus, as rendered in the King James Version:
"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 shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles. ... King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest." Then Agrippa said unto Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."(Acts 26:22-23,27-28)
What Agrippa meant, of course, has been debated. Was he serious, or was he being sarcastic? English translators have taken different directions on this verse, depending on how his intent is perceived. But Paul's intent is crystal-clear: "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."(Acts 26:29)
"Almost" is good enough in some things. If you "almost" won the Boston Marathon, that is still worth a lot; but a bridge that "almost" reaches the other side of a gorge is no good at all. Sadly, many people hover for years at "almost" in their decision whether to obey the gospel. Bliss's text personifies the gospel call as the Spirit inviting the sinner ("for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit", Mark 13:11), and when the hearer rejects Him with "Go Thy way," we are haunted by the
thought of those whose "heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed."(Acts 28:27, Isaiah 6:10)
Bliss also references another possible response to the gospel invitation, illustrated by a different audience to Paul's preaching. The previous governor, Felix, was obviously disturbed by the message:
And as [Paul] reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, "Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee."(Acts 24:25)
To our knowledge, of course, that "convenient season" never came around. Was Felix convicted of his sins? Apparently. Was Felix closer to true obedience than Agrippa? Probably. Did it make one bit of difference, once that opportunity passed? No.
“Almost persuaded,” come, come today;
“Almost persuaded,” turn not away;
Jesus invites you here,
Angels are lingering near
Prayers rise from hearts so dear;
O wanderer, come!
There is frequent and sobering evidence in Scripture that we are either getting closer to God or further away. In the parable of the sower (or really, of the soil types) in Luke chapter 8, the seed that fell on the path was snatched away by birds; the seed that fell on the rocky ground withered; the seed that fell on the thorny ground was choked out; the seed that fell on the good soil grew; but in no case did the seed enter a period of dormancy in which nothing happened at all. We are forever turning toward, or away from, our Lord. In 2 Timothy 3:13 Paul warned that the wicked "will go on from bad to worse", and the passage already mention from Isaiah 6:10 indicates that repeated hearing of God's word will actually drive some people away. A useful illustration is that the same sunshine that melts butter hardens clay; the gospel that touches one heart can cause another to move even further from the reach of God's grace, depending on the desires of that individual. How long until the conscience becomes "seared"?(1 Timothy 4:2) Only God and that individual know.
It is good to remember that it is the Lord's invitation we extend; over and over again Jesus said "Come, follow Me." The Christian life, from the first step to the last, is a process of responding to that call. We need also to remember that the angels are listening, for there is "joy in heaven over one sinner who repents."(Luke 15:7) Pray for those who need to respond to that invitation!
“Almost persuaded,” harvest is past!
“Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last!
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail—
“Almost,” but lost!
Here Bliss references the chilling statement in Jeremiah 8:20, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." God is "patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."(2 Peter 3:9) But Amos chapter 4 illustrates the fact that God does not offer unlimited time for repentance. Warning after warning went unheeded, "yet you did not return to Me." Finally all the Lord could say was, "Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!"
This final verse is hard to hear, but the truth it speaks needs to be said. Perhaps it is best to close by quoting the final line of Brundage's sermon, which reportedly inspired Bliss's hymn: "He who is 'almost persuaded' is 'almost saved', but to be almost saved is to be entirely lost."(Memoirs, 139)
About the music: Bliss could write much more interesting music than this, as we will see (God willing) in later installments. This is a simple, utilitarian vehicle for the text, allowing the words to take preeminence.
Cyberhymnal. Philip Paul Bliss. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/b/l/i/bliss_pp.htm
Whittle, D.W., ed. Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss. A.S. Barnes, 1877. Google books, http://books.google.com/books?id=1tFeaoTGv0cC