PAUL ADMONISHES OUR CHURCH TODAY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-8-57 7:30 p.m.
Practically all – I could almost say every sermon that is preached is an exposition. It’s either a text, as of this morning, a verse, or it is a paragraph. It’s a thought. It’s a passage. Once in a while, I’ll take a passage, and it will not be an exposition. It’s a subject sermon. Now, this is one of those rare, rare occasions. I’m going to tell you some things that I think under God, and it comes from my last several weeks of being away. I usually do that when I come back for I see so much and I’m sensitive to what I look at.
It is good for a fellow to go away sometime for one thing to look at yourself from afar. There you are. There’s your church. Here is its program. And it’s good for you to stand back and away and look at it. Like I have flown over the Amazon River system and that vast and impenetrable jungle. I have a far different idea of it than if I were in it and looking out under the shade of those vast, vast trees. I say I have a better idea of the great, vast sweep of the Amazon by having flown over it. Same way with the Alps. Say to look at Mont Blanc, or the Jungfrau, or the Matterhorn gives you an idea, of course; but to fly over them – and I have at least three times – gives you a far different picture, an appreciation, of that vast pile of snow-covered, beautiful mountains.
Another thing it does: you don’t know yourself except by comparison. For example, suppose everything were gray. Everything’s gray – nothing that isn’t gray. You’d never know color at all. You’d never be sensitive that there is color. Everything is gray. You know something is white because there is also black, and it is the comparison that makes you sensitive. This is yellow; this is blue. This is white, and this is black.
So I say to look at yourself in comparison makes you sensitive to things that otherwise you might never notice. So tonight we’re going to look at ourselves and we’re going to do it under a text, and it is here where I’m preaching in the first chapter of the Book of Colossians.
Next Sunday morning, we begin in the second chapter of the Book of Colossians. But the verse to which I refer is the twenty-fifth [verse] of the first chapter in Colossians: "Whereof I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the Word of God" [Colossians 1:25]. Now, to say it again: "Whereof I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the Word of God" [Colossians 1:25]. Now, it’s that thing of fulfilling the Word of God which is our calling and our destiny as a people that I speak of tonight, and we shall do it, I say, by comparison.
In these last few months, and in these last few weeks, I have been in the North and East of our country in some of its great and growing cities. And I do not cast aspersion upon the work of our brethren there when I say that I go away now as I have always gone away when visiting in that part of our country. I go away with a sad, sad heart. I have never been uplifted or encouraged by any visit I have ever made among our brethren of the North and the East.
Yesterday, for example, yesterday afternoon, the pastor of the largest Baptist church in New York City talked to me at least twenty or thirty minutes by long distance on the telephone. Aren’t you glad I’m not paying the bill? I couldn’t afford that. He talked to me at least twenty or thirty minutes on the telephone, and the subject of his conversation is this: "I can stand it no longer. Please, please, is there not a place for me among you brethren in Texas or the South?"
So upon one of these days of recent weeks, I went to see a Baptist church, one of our Baptist churches, in one of the tremendously growing and great cities of the North and East. And when I went inside of the auditorium, it was built like this but much smaller. I would say it was the size of Gaston Avenue’s old church. It had a balcony all the way ’round and built like this, but to my surprise, when I walked into the auditorium to look at it, the pulpit was in the center of the auditorium as though you would take the pulpit and put it right in the center out there; and the choir was right back of the pulpit far this side of the proscenium.
Well, it was an unusual arrangement to me, so I got up in the pulpit to see what somebody had done. And I stood there in the pulpit in the center of the auditorium, and I thought, "Well, this surely is an unusual arrangement. A pastor to preach in that situation would have to have a swivel neck. He’d have to go around and around and around."
Well, the pastor of the church and the executive leader of the denomination came in; and I was standing there, and I said to them, "This is a very unusual arrangement. Why do you have this pulpit in the center of the auditorium?"
And the reply is a sad one. The pastor replied, "The pulpit is in the center of the auditorium because of the size of the congregation."
And the executive leader, who belongs to the denomination in that church, said, "As the congregation has died, they have taken out the pews one at a time, one at a time, one at a time, and pulled the pulpit to the front and the choir with it until now it’s in the center and the choir behind it. And all of this is a vacuity."
I’m not speaking of our churches that have died and have sold their property. I’m speaking of city Baptist churches that are struggling to live. So I said to the pastor and the executive leader, I said, "Well, this is unusual to me. This is not a downtown church."
All over this nation – South, North, East, and West – our downtown churches are dying. They are in Dallas. Since I have been here, there have been at least five downtown churches that have died and sold their property and gone out. I said, "I could understand it, but I don’t understand why you have a dying congregation when around you and in front of you and back of you and forward, everywhere, are thousands and thousands and thousands of people and you’re growing as a great city" – and it’s one of the great cities of the American economy. I said, "I don’t understand it." So he gave me two replies to two questions that I asked – why they were dying.
All right, let’s take the first one. I said to them, "Why don’t you build you an educational building? Buy that property there," and I pointed to it, "and get you a program and a staff and an educational director. And why don’t you build here a great church? Why don’t you?" All right, their reply: "Because we have not money to do it."
All right, we have then a financial problem in a church that is seeking to minister to a great city community. How do you meet that problem? Well, it is very interesting to me, as it is to you, to see how the churches – now, I’m going beyond our denomination – how the churches of the North and the East especially meet their financial problem. It is an interesting thing.
This is the way they meet it. I could not tell you the millions and the millions and the millions of dollars that they raise for the support of their program and the expansion of their work by bingo and bazaars and raffles and carnivals and endless whatnot like that. In these last few weeks, time and time and time again, I passed church after church after church and there were the big, red, blazing signs: carnival, such and such date; bingo, such and such date; bazaar, such and such date – endlessly all over. One of the great cities of the North and East has found itself incapable of passing any anti-gambling laws in the city because of the church!
And out here in Denver, Colorado, the church, financing a greatly accelerated program, among other things, did this. They, as a custom, would pay three thousand, five thousand dollars for an automobile, sell fifty thousand dollars worth of lottery tickets, and then have a drawing, and whoever got that lucky ticket got the automobile. And they made on it forty-seven or forty-five thousand dollars every time they did it. Well, in Denver, Colorado, a city which is not dominated by the church, some of the legislators and councilmen arose and so the pastor wrote this in his parish paper, and I copied it out. I quote from him:
The parish’s annual fundraising bazaar has been cancelled because of the ill-advised campaign of unjust and bigoted persons. Your pastor has cancelled the bazaar, not because of any legal or moral disturbance of conscience, but because the situation is an intolerable nuisance. Like bothersome gnats, the bigots are swarming around my head. It is nauseating to hear and read about the pious, hypocritical platitudes of these bigots who mouth nonsense about moderate gambling being morally wrong.
So when you go to those churches in the North and in the East, there and there and there and endlessly there, you find those tremendous financial programs supported by what he calls "moderate gambling": bingo, raffling, all kinds of carnivals and bazaars.
All right, it’s a slick trick. It’s a surefire thing. "Why don’t you do it?" I’ll tell you why: because I am "a minister according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the Word of God" [Colossians 1:25], and God gave us a way to take care of the needs of our church. Wonder what it is? You already know. "On the first day of the week" – God’s day, the Lord’s day – "let each one of you lay by him, as God hath prospered him" [1 Corinthians 16:2] – each one of us, a proportion of what God hath given us, and on the Lord’s day, bring it to the Lord’s house.
It’ll work. It’ll work better than any bazaar and any lottery that any ingenious prelate ever contrived or thought of! And I pray God that our glorious congregation shall be an example, living and vibrant, of that glorious truth. God shall bless us and give us all that we need because our people are faithful to the Word of the Lord. Every Lord’s day, setting aside for Him a proportion, make it as big as you can. Start with a tenth, make it a fifth – make it a half. And some of these days, if you live long enough and have enough for you and beyond, then give all the rest of it to God: "Fulfilling the Word of the Lord" [Colossians 1:25].
Now, I asked one other question, among many others, but this one. They have a financial problem, and I’ve spoken of a way that other churches have met it. All right, I asked another thing. "Unable to do this because we haven’t the money."
Then I asked, "You say that you are a dying congregation, and yet go out that door and that door, or look out those windows, and as far as your eye can see, this vast city with thousands and thousands of people – and they are around you on every side. Why is it you cannot win these people? Why?"
Now, this answer is going to surprise you. They said to me – I did not say it – they said to me, "We have found ourselves unable to cope with this population and with these people because they are taken into the church when they are children and they grow up in the church. And when you ask them, and when you see them, and when you try to win them, they are already in the church. They were christened as little infants, and when you ask them, they belong to the church; and we have found ourselves unable to cope with it."
Well, that sure is a workable thing, I tell you, these children taken into the church. It surely is. Don’t you blind your eyes to that as one of the terrific instruments by which churches get and nominally keep populations in the orbit and circumference of their communion.
I went to a service in Indiana two Sundays ago. I do not know why it should have happened, but there, when I sat down in the service, there was a ring from there to there and they held in their arms little infants. And the beautifully-robed pastor dipped his fingers into a beautiful chalice carried by his assistant, and from child to child, baby to baby, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen." And I sat, and I looked at it. And as I did – I’d take the night to describe to you the flood of things that poured through my soul.
I thought of Felix Manz [18-1527], the son of the canon of the cathedral in ZÃ¼rich, Switzerland’s greatest city. His illustrious father gave the boy a liberal education. And as he began to pour over the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures, he began to preach a regenerate church membership and in the fields and in the streets and in the forests called men to a personal faith in Jesus and baptized them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
And the council of ZÃ¼rich called him, arrested him, imprisoned him, and said, "He likes water, lots of water. Let’s give him lots of water." They bound him, and where the Limmat River courses through the city pouring out of the ZÃ¼richlake, they drowned him. He liked water!
And I thought of Balthasar HÃ¼bmaier [1480-1528]. March 10, 1928, a little band of Baptist people gathered in the square of Vienna, Austria, had a little service where four hundred years before they had burned Balthasar HÃ¼bmaier at the stake. Then the little band of Baptist people went to the Danube River and threw a wreath in the waters of the blue Danube where they had drowned his faithful wife who refused to recant.
This Balthasar HÃ¼bmaier – isn’t it strange these men are scholars. He poured over the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and he began to preach a regenerate church membership and call men to a personal faith in Jesus and baptize them in the will and resurrection of the Lord. And they seized him and burned him at the stake. In Moravia, Balthasar HÃ¼bmaier baptized in less than a year as many as six and twelve thousand people. Last year we led the earth, I suppose, with four hundred some odd. I say these things poured through my heart.
And last week, going through some of those old, musty books that I study, back there I came across an old woodcut picture of the burning of the Baptists at Smithfield in England. I’d never seen a thing like that before. I’d often wondered what it looked like. I found the picture, I say, in an old musty book – a wood cut print.
And I looked at it, and it was this. There on top of those houses – like out at the Cotton Bowl, you’ll see them over there on that shed – every house, every roof was covered with people, all of them on those rooftops. They were sticking their heads out of every window, and the square in Smithfield was jammed with people. And in the center was a large circle area that was open. And on the inside of that center was a tall, tall pulpit, way higher than a man could reach, and up there in that pulpit was the presiding clergy. And down there in the center of the arena were the men and the women who were tied to the stake and the wood was being placed against them; one over here with a burning fagot in his hand. And the title: "The Burning of the Baptists at Smithfield."
I say, as I looked at those services, these things and a thousand like them poured through my heart. "Why don’t you do it?" It makes possible the identity of the church and the population. Born a citizen of the country, baptized, christened into the church. The two are one. Everybody’s in the church. It makes possible the identity of the church and the state. Born a citizen of the state, christened into the church: it’s a surefire way to get them.
"Why don’t you do it?"
"Whereof I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the Word of God" [Colossians 1:25]. It is because of the revelation and the truth of God in Christ Jesus that Balthasar HÃ¼bmaier and Felix Manz and a thousand other martyrs like them, pouring over those Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, began to preach to the people the truth of God. And it is simple:
As they went on their way, they came unto a certain water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What doth hinder me to be baptized?"
Philip answered and said, "If thou believest, thou mayest." He answered and said, "I believe that Jesus is God’s Son and my Savior."
And upon that confession of faith, the chariot was stopped. They went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him in the creek and he immersed him [Acts 8:38]. "And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing" [Acts 8:39].
That’s the Word of God. Upon a public confession of your faith – not unconscious, but when God has quickened your heart and touched your soul and you’ve let Jesus come in – then on that open and public committal of your life to Christ, "I want to be baptized. See, here is water."
Now, I’ve come to my sermon, and that’s what it always is. Just about the time I get started, then I ought to quit. Now, briefly, and very briefly, some earnest, earnest, sober things to our hearts.
Our faithfulness to the Word of God lays upon us two tremendous burdens. Here’s the first one. The first burden is this. It is our commitment to the word and message of the Lord that a child must first be quickened. He must be touched. God must speak to the child; then, upon a committal of his life to Jesus, he can be received and be baptized.
"Well, pastor, doesn’t that mean that you push the child and keep the child away and keep the child out and he grows up lost?" That’s true, and that’s why it is incumbent upon us of all people in this world to be true to God in the religious care and upbringing of our children and every child that God will commit to us to teach the child. And if we will, we have the promise that God will quicken the heart of the child and make him sensitive to the appeal of the Word.
A week or two ago in the Baptist Standard, in this "I Believe" column, Dr. Theiser wrote a note about children, and I meant to go through the whole column tonight. I’ll refer to just one or two things. Old Polycarp [69-155 CE] who was martyred, pastor of Smyrna, when he was eighty and six years of age, refusing to deny the Lord: "Eighty-six years have I served Him," said Polycarp, "and I’ll not deny Him now" – Polycarp was saved and baptized when he was a boy nine years of age. Charles Haddon Spurgeon [1834-1892], miserable and unhappy as a youth in a service in a snowstorm held by a layman, the layman looked at him, pointed his finger at him, and said, "Young fellow, you look so miserable. Young fellow, look to Jesus." And Spurgeon said, "And I looked and lived."
God will do it if we are faithful to present the Word. He will give us our children without loss of a one. That’s why, Mr. Souther and the staff, under God, how faithful and prayerful must you be and how responsive must our people be to take care of God’s children! "Simon Peter, lovest thou Me? Feed My lambs; shepherd My little ones. Simon, lovest thou Me? Feed My sheep; but first, lovest thou Me? Feed My lambs. Take care of My little ones" [from John 21:15-17].
And there ought to be so many people here in this church willing and eager and volunteering to work with our children until the staff would say, "We have no other place for you. We must wait for the time for you to serve" – so many of us eager. That’s one thing. We must under God accept the responsibility for the religious education of our children. The public school cannot do it by law. We must do it. We must do it.
The other thing, the other incumbent responsibility, is this. It means, under God and in the power of the Lord, we must betoday and tomorrow and tonight and every day and every night – we must be evangelistic. That is our very life. We do not take people into the church when they’re unconscious in Christ. We call them to faith in Jesus:"In renunciation of the world, in repentance, come to the Lord." Our very life is in our evangelism, and that should be the spirit that actuates all of the programming life of our people.
Finally, finally, whatever we do, finally its root meaning lies we’re seeking God’s lost people. And when we do, and when we do – when there is a faithful teaching ministry in the home and in the church and when there is the spirit of prayerful and burdened evangelism – you won’t be putting the pulpit in the center of the auditorium. You won’t be saying, "We cannot reach these people nor do we have wherewithal to make a program to reach these people." But you will be saying, "Pastor, we need another building. Pastor, we need five more nurseries. Pastor, we need another young people’s department. Pastor, we need a place for more young adults and young married people" and for all of God’s people who crowd to a church where their hearts are warmed, where the Spirit of God moves among the people, where they feel it was good to be there – "I felt the Lord speak to my soul."
I do not mean any of this to belittle or to hurt or to ridicule. I don’t feel that way about it when I look at it. When I look upon it, it brings me to my knees in prayer. "O Lord, be merciful to Thy people, and may the Lord be merciful to us."
Now, while we sing our appeal, somebody you, tonight, to give your heart in faith to the Savior, would you come and stand by me? A family you, to put your life with us in the church: this is God’s work. If it is mine or a man’s, may it fail and fall. If it is God’s, may the Lord place the seal of His approval upon the ministry, and that seal is you. To come: "I take the Lord for my own," or, "We put our lives in the fellowship of the church." In that great balcony group, down these stairwells and to me; in this great throng on the lower floor, into these aisles, and here to the front: "Pastor, I give you my hand. I have given my heart to God." While we sing, will you come while we stand and while we sing?