January 17th, 1954 @ 7:30 PM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-17-54 7:30 p.m.
Now I have got a sermon to preach tonight; a sermon tonight. It is in the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. I announced, and you will see in your program tonight we were to go to the nineteenth chapter, but there is just one other thing in this eighteenth chapter that I want to talk about. Then next Sunday morning, we will start in the nineteenth chapter with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now this is it. In the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, and the last part of it—talking about Apollos after he had preached in Ephesus, after Aquila and Priscilla had showed him the way of the Lord more perfectly [Acts 18:26]—now look at it, “He was disposed to pass into Achaia,” over into Greece, across the Aegean Sea, “so the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him” [Acts 18:27].
And I am going to preach tonight about something that I do not guess anybody ever preaches about in itself, but it is there in the Book. And as we go through the Book, we are just preaching about all the things that are here in the Bible. I am going to preach about Lettering Out, a church letter, church letter. “And when Apollos was disposed to go into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples over there to receive him” [Acts 18:27]. They gave him a church letter, and he went over there to the city of Corinth and joined the First Baptist Church of Corinth by letter; they wrote a letter. So I am going to talk tonight for a little while, and you keep your Bible in your hand; we are going to refer to it again in a minute, going to talk tonight a while about church letters, lettering out, church letters.
This is a distinct thing. Oh, it made an impression on me! Holding a revival meeting, pouring into that appeal everything that I had, preached my utmost and my best, and then while the pastor was down there, I stayed in the pulpit making an appeal. And I had my singer by my side, and we made appeal, and we sang, and we made appeal, and we sang. And right back there, about middle ways of the congregation, there was a woman in whom manifestly many, many others were interested. And so I pressed the appeal, and we sang. And the family gathered around her, and they prayed, and they pled, and they begged, and they made appeal. And then the friends came and made appeal to her. And finally the pastor left the front and went back there, and made appeal to her. I don’t know how many were gathered round praying and making appeal. And finally she came through. She came down that aisle by the side of the pastor. And I was so happy, I was so glad, I was full of gratitude and rejoicing; a great victory had been won. So when the pastor introduced her, I thought, “This is one of the spiritual conquests of a generation.” And when the pastor introduced her, she was joining the church by letter. I just can remember that; it made an impression on me, and I sat there in that pulpit, and I thought, “My soul, my soul! You mean to tell me that people already saved, already converted, already baptized, already in the fold of Jesus, and seated there in the house of God, her husband in the church, her family in the church, and after appeal, and persuasion, and intercession, and prayer, and importunity, and long singing she finally decided to put her letter in the church?” It didn’t make sense to me.
Well, what about this thing of church letters? Is it scriptural? Yes, it’s scriptural. There are three places here in the New Testament where it speaks about giving people a church letter in order that they might go to another place. There is one of them, in this eighteenth chapter [Acts 18:27]. Now look over here in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Romans. You have a letter concerning Phoebe:
I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, which is a deaconess, a servant of the church at Cenchrea—that’s right down the seacoast from Corinth—that you receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a helper of many, and of myself also.
So there’s another instance of a church letter, writing to the church at Rome concerning Phoebe. Now here is one other; in the little letter called Philemon, Paul writes:
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus . . . to our beloved Apphia, and Philemon, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house—now to the tenth verse—I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to you unprofitable . . . and Onesimus, but now Onesimus;
He’s playing on his words; his name means “profitable,” Onesimus.
that ye receive him, whom I have sent again, that ye take him into your own heart.
[Philemon 1-2, 10-12]
Now those are three places there where a letter is written to a church concerning somebody who is going to live in the town.
Now, it is scriptural that we have a church letter. That’s from the Bible. It is secretarial, methodically wise to have a church letter. We have a roll here, and they have a roll over there in the other city. And when our people remove from this city over there, in order to keep our rolls straight, the people here ought to be lettered to the church over there. So our rolls are our membership, and their roll is their membership. Now that’s common sense. And it’s Bible, it’s the Holy Word of God, and the Lord delights in it.
But—but, this thing of tying your religion onto a piece of paper and leaving it back home in a cemetery or in a town or in a church somewhere, why, that’s the most unspeakable inane thing that one could ever think of! And absolutely, it is the most common. When I went to a city on the other side of the river, I met a family there from our church. Their children had been converted, and their children had been baptized into that church; but the father and mother kept their membership here. And they had been over there for years, long enough for their children to grow up and long enough for the children to join the church. And I said to them, “Why, oh why haven’t you placed your membership in this church?” And their reply to me was this: “Some of these days we hope to move back to Dallas.” Oh! That’s an impossible thing! That’s an inexcusable thing. That’s an affront to intelligence. When I held the revival meeting in the First Church in Jacksonville, Florida, there were more than twenty-five thousand people by census who were Baptists, whose letters were in other places, scattered all over the country. When I held the revival meeting in the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, there were more than thirty thousand people by census who belonged to Southern Baptist churches, who were not members in the membership of the churches in Oklahoma City. And that was more than there were on the inside, in the churches. The people who had letters outside of the church were more than people who belonged to the actual churches in Oklahoma City.
And about a month ago or less, I was in California, and I talked to those pastors out there in California, and those pastors said to me, “The greatest handicap that we have in building up the work of God in the state of California is this: that our people—our people from Texas, and Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and Georgia, and Mississippi, and Alabama—our people come out here by the thousands, and now almost by the millions they come out to California, but they leave their religion back home. They leave their church letters back home, they don’t take them out here with them, and we, we suffer for it. We need them. Oh, that they’d come out here and take their religion with them!”
It’s an inexcusable thing. It’s an impossible thing. Wherever you are, there is your religion. Whatever that religion is, that’s it, wherever you are. It’s impossible to leave it in a membership roll, or in a letter, or in a piece of paper; you can’t do it. Where you are are your prayers; where you are is your altar; where you are is your intercession, your faith, and your work for God. There’s no such a thing as religion buried in a letter.
You’ll turn over here to the third chapter of 2 Corinthians. Paul writes about that. He says this:
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink and pen, but by the Spirit of the living God; and in tables not of stone, but on the tables, the fleshly tables of the heart.
And such trust have we through God: toward you, not that we are sufficient in ourselves, to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit maketh alive.
[2 Corinthians 3:2-6]
This thing of writing in pen and ink, of paper, of membership rolls is a dead thing, says Paul. The Spirit that quickeneth us in your soul, it’s in your heart, it’s in your life; and where you are, there it is.
Now may I turn to ourselves for a moment? Is it only in Jacksonville, Florida, is it only in Oklahoma City, is it only in Los Angeles, California that we find thousands and thousands of people whose letters are in some other place, in some other city, in some other church? Oh no, no! The city of Dallas, our city, there are thousands, there are thousands of our Baptist people who live in this city, whose church letters are some other place. I shake hands with many of them back there after the services are over. I talk to them. I plead with them. I call them. I visit them. And you do too.
Now may I make an appeal? First, for your sake, for your sake, come down this aisle and put your life in the church; for your sake, for your sake. There’s no such thing as an anti-social, anti-church, anti-preacher, anti-pastor, anti-sheepfold Christianity. There isn’t any such thing. Christianity is first of all social, communal, fellowshipping; it has a communion in it. There’s no such thing as Christianity being by itself and individual. I need you, and we need each other, we do. This is the banquet table of the Lord; come and eat. This is the fountain of life; come and drink. And no man can live unto himself, and no man, says God’s Word, can he die unto himself [Romans 14:7]. We’re all to be together in the fold of the Lord Jesus.
There was a pastor who went to a man, a well-to-do man, had a beautiful home, and was seated there before a big, roaring fire. The pastor went to see the man. He wasn’t in the church, and he didn’t come to church. But he said he was a Christian, and said he was saved, said he was a child of God; but he wasn’t in the church, and he didn’t come to church. And the pastor sat down by his side, and they were watching the big fire. And the pastor took the poker and reached into the roaring fire and pulled out one live coal that was flaming and burning in the fireplace. He pulled it out on the hearthstone and left it there by itself. And both of the men watched it. And the fire died, and the light died, and it became a cold, darkened ember. And the man turned and looked at the pastor, and said, “Pastor, you don’t need to say a thing. I’ll be there next Sunday morning.”
You can’t burn, you can’t flame, you can’t live and glow for Christ outside of the church; you cannot do it. “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it” [Ephesians 5:25]. The only thing in the Book it says that Jesus loved was His church, His church, His body, His people; and you ought to be in it. You ought to be in it. It’s the way to live and to grow, to glow, and to go: in His church, in His church. You, for your sake, come and be with us.
For our sakes, for our sakes, come and be with us. When I get through preaching, when somebody steps out down there and comes down the aisle, say, oh what an encouragement! And everybody’s encouraged. The man by whom you sit, the lady across the aisle, all these people in this horseshoe balcony, the choir, all of us up here, everybody; when you step out in that aisle and come down here to the front, and stand by my side, we’re all encouraged. You encourage us. It’s the climax of every service when you come, when you come. We need you. We couldn’t run this thing without you. You make up the house and the body of Christ. Come, come, what an encouragement it is to all who look and see and listen and hear. Right behind you, many times will be a lost man who will come by your example. When you step out into that aisle and down here to the front, a lot of people who look who are battling in their hearts, who are making a decision, and when you come, oh, it is so blessedly meaningful and encouraging to them and to us. Everybody rejoices. Everybody rejoices when you come, when you come.
Went to see a dear family and they said, “No, we’re not coming into the church. We move around. We’re here just a while, then we go there, and then we go there.” I said, “But my dear, oh, think of what an opportunity you have had to build up the kingdom of Christ, and to encourage every minister in every city, and every church in every city where you’ve been. Even though you don’t stay very long, just a while,” while her husband contracting, building buildings; then after he gets that building done, then he’s on to another city—I said, “But oh, if you’d come, why, in our church coming down that aisle, everybody knows you’re on Christ’s side, and you’re for us, and you’re with us!” And I said, “When you go to another city, do the same thing. And the preacher is encouraged, and the church is encouraged, and it’ll mean a lot to your own heart. Come and be with us while you’re here, and then when you go to another city, go and be with them while you’re there. You have an opportunity to witness and to testify for the Lord, and it means a lot to know that you’re for us and with us.”
When I was preaching in Ijuin and in Kyushū, in the southern part of Japan, there came a professor from Kagoshima, that’s the capital city of the Kagoshima prefecture, the state of Kagoshima, there came a professor over there at Ijuin, and he came into the city and said, “Where is that American Christian lecturer?” That’s the way they advertised it, “He’s going to give a Christian lecture, lecture.” He said, “Where is that American Christian lecturer? I want to see him.” And so they brought him to me. He was a very distinguished-looking Japanese; he was dressed in the old style, with the little sharp goatee and a little mustache, and he was dressed in the robes of the ancient Japanese gentleman. And so they took me to a little room, and I sat down there by his side. And do you know what he wanted to talk to me about? It was this: he did not realize that we in America were aware of the inroads of communism. And being there in Japan and intimately in touch with communist Red China, he knew of the infiltration of communism in American government and in American life. And he said to me, “I just wanted to talk to you about it and warn you of their pernicious and dubious, devious ways.” And he said, “I want you to know that some of us over here in Japan are for you there in America. And that’s the reason that I have come, to warn you against the communist inroads.” Well, bless his heart and bless his soul—and bless his memory! We’ve got one friend over there in Japan that I know of, among a host of others of course: that psychology professor in Kagoshima. I appreciated his coming. Not that there’s anything I could do about it; and I explained that I was such an insignificant citizen of America that I couldn’t do very much about it. But I said, “Fella, your interest and your love mean more than what I could tell you. And the fact that you’re for us and on our side is an encouragement to my poor heart.”
Well, it’s good to know they’re with you against the communists. But how much better is it to know that they’re with you in Christ and in the church and in the household of faith. Oh! it means everything when you come, building up the church of the living God.
My appeal, this opportunity we have now is a present opportunity, then it is gone forever. For the moment we have it, then it’s gone, then it’s gone. I have now—that’s all. I can belong to this church now, that’s all; may not be able to tomorrow, may not even be here tomorrow. These men, some of our finest stalwarts, just cut down here lately, some of us, we’ve just, just not quite the same as we’ve rethought our work and our life. Oh! Such a little while it seems, then we’re cut down, “As the brittle thread is broken, or the silver cord is loosed, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain and the wheel is broken at the cistern” [Ecclesiastes 12:6]. I have tonight. I have now, that’s all, that’s all. The rest is in the hands of God.
And for Christ’s sake, come. And for Christ’s sake, come; for His sake, come. Come, come.
A fellow was trying to lead his friend to the Lord Jesus, and he said to him, “Christ died for you” [Romans 5:6-8; 1 Corinthians 15:3]. And the fellow tartly replied, “Listen, I’ve heard that all my life, Christ died for me.” And the man humbly observed, “But did you ever thank Him for it?” Well, sometimes God just takes a barb like that and it stays in the soul. “Did you ever thank Him for it?” And that night, that fellow was down on his knees by himself, talking to the Lord Jesus, “Lord, no I never did, I never did. All that the Lord has done for me and for the world, no, I never have. But Lord, I thank Thee now. I love Thee now. And I give Thee my heart and my life now.” For Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake [Romans 10:9-13], put your life in His church with His people.
A letter is a piece of paper, it’s a piece of paper; it’s not you, it’s a piece of paper. You come. You come. If we can’t find any letter, you come. We’re interested in you. If you’ve lost a letter, you come; we’re interested in you. If the letter is somewhere in some church, you come; we’ll send for it. If your name’s on a church roll somewhere, we’ll tell the church you now belong to us. But come. You come, you come, you come. “Here, pastor, here’s my hand; my life and my heart belong to God. Here I am, and here I come.” Will you do it? Will you make it now? While we stand and while we sing.
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. During a revival, after much pleading, a woman transferred her letterII. Scriptural basis for joining a church by letter
A. Three places in New Testament speak of giving a church letter
1. This letter from Ephesus to Corinth for Apollos(Acts 18:27)
2. Paul to the church at Rome commending Phoebe(Romans 16:1-2)
3. Paul to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus(Philemon 1-2, 10-12)
B. It is methodically wise to have a church letterIII. Tying religion to a piece of paperand leaving it “back home”
A. Unspeakable and inane, yet most common
1. Children converted, belong to church; parents leave letter in hometown
2. Census showed thousands leaving membership in other cities
B. My faith and witness comes with me where I am (2 Corinthians 3:2-6)IV. Where you are, coming down this aisle
A. For your sake(Romans 14:7, Ephesians 5:25)
1. The one ember alone grows cold
B. For the sake of the pastor and the people (Matthew 10:32-33, Romans 10:9-10)
1. Professor in Kagoshima
C. For the sake of a golden moment, a present opportunity(Ecclesiastes 12:6)
D. For the sake of Christ