Preaching the Gospel Behind the Iron Curtain

2 Timothy

Preaching the Gospel Behind the Iron Curtain

May 24th, 1966

2 Timothy 1:7

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
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Southern Baptist Convention


Dr. W. A. Criswell

2 Timothy 1:7



This is the First Baptist Church in the capital city of one of the most strategically located nations in the earth; and they baptized one last year, one!  I looked in their baptistery, and it was filled with debris and cluttered up with all kinds of junk.  It looked like a collection from the wastebaskets of the different rooms in the church building.  But the thing that got me, and still does: we said to this pastor, “Now tomorrow we are catching a plane out of your city into the Soviet Union,” and I said to him, “I have gathered from the American Bible Society and from other societies literature to be carried into the Soviet Union.  We have Bibles and New Testaments and little gospels of John, and I’ve got some concordances and a few Bible dictionaries.  And we want to carry these into the Soviet Union, and we have come to you to ask how best we can get these to our brethren in Russia.”  And he threw up his hands in holy horror, and said, “You dare not attempt it, under no conditions.”  Then he said, “Come here,” and I followed him over to a wall; he pulled aside a curtain, and he had Russian Bibles clear to the ceiling of the room.  There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them there.  They were unopened, they were new, they had been sent to him by the Bible societies of the world in order that he might make it possible for those Scriptures to be carried into the Soviet Union.  And there they were, unused, and untouched, stacked to the ceiling.  Then he said, “And come here.”  Then he showed me a cabinet, and on the inside of that cabinet, he had volumes and volumes of Scriptures and of Bible helps that tourists had brought to his city; and without exception, he had said to every one of them, “Now you leave your Bible here.  Now you leave the literature here because if you attempt to carry it into the Soviet Union you may fall into grave trouble.”  And all of the other tourists had dumped in that church and at his feet the most precious possessions that those Russian Baptists could ever pray for.

So he said, “You leave your Bibles here.”  Well, we said, “Let’s think about it.”  We went to our hotel room; five of us, and all five of us got on our knees in a circle and prayed to God what we ought to do.  And when we stood to our feet, all five of us had the same definite impression:  “We’re going to try to get them in.”  And God blessed us; and that’s another story.  There was not a one of them taken away from us, there was not a one of them found, there was not a piece of literature in Russian, those little gospels of John, those Testaments, those big heavy Bibles that we put with our camera equipment, there was not any of it touched, there was not any of it found; we carried it all into the Soviet Union.  And to my amazement and astonishment—now this man lives within an hour of the Soviet Union—to my amazement, when I delivered my Bible to Sorokin in Leningrad—receiving it, falling to his knees, and with many tears, thanking God for the gift, standing up, kissing us on either cheek, hugging us with his big strong arms for the Word of God; then we asked him, “How is it that we can get Bibles in to you?  Can we mail them?  Can we send other societies and give them the money and they send them in?  How can we do it?” And to my astonishment, that pastor, that Baptist pastor, said, “The best way to bring the Word of God to the people of Russia is personally to bring a Bible into the Soviet Union.”  And that pastor in this city had just told us a few hours ago, “All of the Bibles of the tourists are left here at my feet.”  What are you going to do with a pastor who lacks the spirit of conquest, and march, and surge, and trial?  Just sit down, scared, and afraid, and terrified to do anything!

My brother, it is better for you to face deacons and members that are like tigers and lions than it is to be pastor of your church and minister like a craven coward.  Try it.  Try it.  And if we had a marvelous pastor in that church, there would to this day be thousands and thousands and thousands of Bibles, and concordances, and Bible dictionaries, and a thousand other marvelous things in the hands of those blessed Russian Baptist people.  But as it is, that pastor sits there and stands there afraid, trembling; and all of the good we might have done cast at his craven feet.  I just say he sure made an impression on me.

Well, we’re talking about evangelism in inaction, ineffectiveness, inaptitude.  Like old “Mutt and Jeff,” I saw when I was a little boy the cartoon strip, and Jeff says to Mutt, “What are you doing?”  He says, “I’m teaching golfing lessons,” and Jeff says to Mutt, “Golfing lessons?  Why, you can’t play golf yourself,” and Mutt says, “Well, that’s what I’m being paid for.  I’m showing this fellow how not to do it.”  That’s what we’re doing now.

Now I’m going to speak of the pastor who refuses to try and to learn.  His mind is closed, and he won’t see—and none so blind as those who won’t—and he won’t attempt, and he won’t try.  The other man represented one of defeat and pessimism and despair.  Now this one is a man who has every gift and is a leader of a great people, but he’s like this.  All right, through the kindness of a gracious friend, a minister here in the United States, who was born and reared in a beautiful estate and a beautiful home outside this capital city, he asked me to be his guest.  So I flew across a narrow sea, and landed in the capital city.  And this minister and his wife met me at the airport, and to my delight and pleasant surprise, I was driven in the car to their beautiful home.  Oh, it was so nice.  So while I was there a guest, I expressed the interest that I’d love to talk to the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the capital city, who also was the head and the leader, very much the leader, of the Baptist Union of his nation.  “Well,” said my host, “we shall send for him, and he’ll come here, and we’ll have dinner together.”  So, to my surprise, when the evening came, there was driven up to that beautiful home a man that was the most elegant looking fellow I ever saw.  Now when I look at a preacher, they all look to me like you, you know, just you.  You just look at one another, and that’s how we look.  Well, he didn’t look that way.  When he stepped out of that limousine, he had a cut-away-coat, he had rattlesnake britches, he had specs on his shoes, he had a beautiful wide tie just done so with a collar to match, erect, and dignified, and met me, oh just so, just so.  Man, I felt like the smallest little peg holding the church door in Podunk or Slick Skillet; oh, that man!  He also made an impression on me.

We came in, and we sat down and ate dinner together.  Then after the dinner, why, the gracious host took us into the drawing room, the library room, and he said, “Now, you’d have expressed a desire to talk to this Baptist minister, so this is going to be your evening.”  And I laid before that man my soul in appeal, if I ever pled with a man in my life.  That man is fundamental.  That man believes God’s Book and preaches it, and he has led his Union into a marvelous, glorious commitment to all of the truths of the faith of the Son of God.  I admire him.  He is a noble man.  But his work is small, and the Union is small, and the effectiveness of their witness in the nation is small.  So I tried to show him.  I talked to that man until after three o’clock in the morning.  I tried to show that man in every way that I knew how just how it is that our churches in our Southern Baptist Convention, and especially in Texas, and knowing my own better than any other, how we do this thing.  And I tried to show him, “You can do that.  You can put your arms around this great capital city, and you can lead the churches of this Union into a like endeavor and a like appeal.  You can do it.”  I got nowhere with him at all.  Time and again he would say to me, “But it is not done.  But it is not done.  But it is not done.”  But I’d say, “It is done.  It may not be done here, and it may not be done in your congregation, but it is being done, and God is blessing it.”  Finally I said to him, I said, “Sir, listen, if you will listen to my appeal, I will pay for a man to come over here and live in your capital city, and work by your side, and through the nation, and in this Baptist Union; I will pay for a man a year to come over and to show you how these things can be done and are being done.  And I will send to you literally mountains of literature.”

Now you say, “Preacher, can you do things like that?”  Sir, I made an appeal here one Wednesday night for a mission program, and passed the collection plates, and got over ten thousand dollars on a Wednesday night.  So I don’t want you to think, “Oh that preacher, my land, he speaks so big.”  I know whereof I’m a-talking, you see.

And I made my final appeal, my final appeal:  “I’ll be personally responsible for the salary of that man, for all of his expenses, send him over here, keep him, bring him back, and for mountains of literature.  If you will take him, and if you will listen, and if you will try, it will mean the salvation of thousands and thousands in your city and in your own community and in this Baptist Union.”  After three o’clock in the morning, he made his final refusal, “It is not being done.”  And to this day, and to this day, the Union becomes a little smaller, and his own congregation barely exists.  And what they could do, they do not do because “It hasn’t been done.”

In all of my journeying, I never had one single pastor ask me, “How do you do it in the First Baptist Church in Dallas?” Not one, not one, not one.  Positively, altogether, wholly, in the middle   and at both ends indifferent.  “Don’t want to know, don’t want to learn, don’t want to listen, don’t want to try.  I’d rather die and ossify just as I am.”

One of the professors at one of the seminaries said to me, an American who had gone over there to help, he said, “I made application to join this church over two years ago, and I haven’t got in yet.”

We must hasten.  These moments fly away.

May I speak now of the lack of organizational help in the ministries of those churches?  Organization is a glorious thing, oh, oh!  Whenever you ride that airplane, if you were walking it’d really be something; if you were swimming it’d really be something.  There you are in that airplane just going through the air, nobody attempting, nobody straining, nobody striving, there you are just moving along, sometimes almost six hundred and fifty miles an hour, thirty-nine thousand feet, cross a whole ocean and never even see the water; cross a whole continent and never see the land.  What an amazing thing.  What an astonishing thing.  That’s organization; ten thousand parts working together; maybe fifty thousand parts working together.

One of these deacons of mine down here at a meeting that Ann Hood, had said one of the craziest things I ever saw.  It worked into a program, and it fit exactly, and I can’t remember how the program was, but I remember what he said.  He said that they opened the hatch of one of those capsules, you know, on top of a rocket, and opened it up before they sent him off, and they asked the cosmonaut, the astronaut, the guy in there, “How you feel?”  He said, “Bad.  Bad.”  And they asked him, “What do you mean bad?”  And he said, “Well, how would you feel if you were seated on fifty thousand working parts all of which had been made by the lowest bidder?”  You remember that?

Now this church is in one of the great cities of the world, one of the greatest cities of the world.  And this church is one of the greatest churches in the world and had the greatest pastor and preacher that ever lived.  So, I attended the services; did several times on several occasions, and I listened to the pastor.  He is a magnificent preacher, and his sermon is faithfully delivered; a godly man, true to the Word, and his message in the Spirit of the Lord.  Nothing wrong with that man in his heart; nothing wrong with that sermon in its delivery; and nothing wrong with the doctrinal content.  It reflects the mind of Christ in that Holy Book.  And to my amazement, and to my amazement, when one of those services was done, the people and the preacher went outside, and on the street in front of the church, they took a PA system with them, and they conducted an open service, an open service, on the sidewalk, out there in front of the church.  Everything about that church I admired:  pastor, the devout people, the services, going out there on the sidewalk, everything about it.  Yet it is little; I’d call it tiny.  Yet its ministry is ineffective.  Now, you know why?  Because he does not have back of his ministry a great organizational force working, and helping, and winning, and teaching, and visiting, and guiding, and praying.  The services are contained in those public meetings, and the work that they do is the work that a minister alone can do in the four walls of his church or out in front on the porch.

There was a time; there was a time when that’s all that it took.  You didn’t have to have anything else.  When I was a boy—talking about Corky Ferris being a boy; brother, I was a boy just after Noah or Methuselah, I forget which is my uncle.  I was a boy a long time ago—when I was a boy, all that it took was for us to announce a revival meeting, and everybody was there.  The town infidel was there; he’d sit in the same place on the second row every year.  He lived right back of our house.  I could hear that guy every morning cuss as he beat his cow all over the lot.  He came to the revival meeting, and he sat there and made fun of the preacher while the preacher was a’preaching the gospel of the Son of God.  Everybody went.  They closed the town for the ten o’clock morning services.  Every store was closed.  Everybody went to the revival.  There wasn’t anything else to go to.  Nothing ever happened in that little town except the annual revival.  We never had any radios, never heard of them; never had any TVs, never heard of them; we never had any automobiles, we had just heard of them, and that screwball up in Detroit was cranking up on something; that’s what we heard, but never saw one.  Never saw an airplane; didn’t have any paved roads; we never had a theater, we never had a picture show, never had a vaudeville.  We never had anything; we just had the annual revival!  And when the annual revival came, everybody attended; we all went.  And we got religion, and we shouted, and we sang, and then nobody saved, nobody interested until the next year when we had revival; then everybody’d get religion again!  Oh brother, what a day!  What a day!

Well, that day is gone now, I tell you.  It is gone.  It is gone.  Our people have ten thousand other interests, ten thousand of them, ten thousand of them.  And they’re at the lake; they’ve got a new boat.  They’re on the highways; they’ve got new cars.  They’re entertaining one another; they have money to buy whatever groceries they please.  They have colored TV sets, and now one for every room.  One of these families in Dallas has a little one for her dog, and that’s the fact; one on the floor so he can enjoy his program while she’s enjoying hers.  It’s everywhere.  It’s everywhere.  The day has passed.  The day is passed when a minister can do a great work inside of the four walls of his church house.

If Spurgeon were living today, if Spurgeon were living today, he would preach to a comparatively small audience if he did as he did when he pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle.  Before Spurgeon died, he said to his best friend, “I am afraid that London has lost its listening ear,” for all through Spurgeon’s congregation, there were empty seats before he died, and Spurgeon died when he was about my age.  If Spurgeon were alive today and had a ministry as he had in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, he would preach to a comparatively small audience.  He had a tabernacle that would seat almost six thousand people.  And when it burned, he built another one that seated about two-thirds that many.  I wish it were possible, I would to God it were possible that all we had to do was to anoint the preacher, put your hands on the preacher, lay him aside, hallow and sanctify his life, and dedicate him to the gospel ministry, put him behind the pulpit desk, and turn him loose and let him go, and that would bring in the kingdom of God.  I wish it were so.  But to my sorrow, it desperately is not so.

Therefore, if anybody has a good idea about that Sunday school, I’m all ears, and a-listening.  If somebody has a good program in that evangelism in depth, I am all ears, I’m a-listening.  If somebody has a good idea about that Training Union—and we have stumbled upon one of the best ways of getting a hold of adults I’ve ever seen in my life—I’m all ears and a-listening.  And if somebody can stand up here in this pulpit, or down there at that auditorium, and bring something whereby we can get our people to help this preacher win souls to Jesus, I’m all soul-sensitive and a-listening.  But I can’t do it by myself.  And I tell that to God.

Lord, I’m a-trying.  I study hard, and I do my best, and I prepare these sermons, and I preach them with all of the fervor that my soul on fire from God can proclaim.  But Lord Jesus, I can’t do it by myself.  I need that staff down there that you saw on their knees.  I need those nine hundred some-odd trained and taught Sunday school officers and teachers.  And I need that little army of Training Union leaders.  And I need the men, and I need the women.  And when we put our efforts together, oh, it is remarkable how God moves among us.

Some of the brethren who were here yesterday morning came down to me, and said, “Criswell, are you in a revival meeting or was this unusual?  What,” they were from there to there, clear across the front.  I said, “No, no.”

“Well, do you often have that?”  I said, “Yes, yes.  Not always, but we have that often, and sometimes a lot more.”  There must have been about, between thirty and forty that God gave us yesterday.  “Where do they come from?”  Oh, my brother, I would to the Lord I could stand up here and say, “I did it.  Boy, look at me.  Man, what a preacher, what a preacher!”  Oh, I wish I could.  But if I did, every one of my staff members would look at me, and say, “Oh, what a liar!  What a liar!  What a liar!”  Isn’t that right?  Isn’t that right?

God hasn’t forsaken us.  The Lord hasn’t turned us down.  He still lives, and all the power of the universe is in His blessed hands.  It’s just we may have to learn a little different way.  Maybe I can’t do it like George Truett did it.  And maybe he could not have done it as B. H. Carroll did it.  And maybe Carroll couldn’t have done it like Wayland did it, or like Adonirum Judson did it.  And maybe they couldn’t do it like their forefathers did it.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.  Let’s just learn a different way.  That’s all.  That’s why we’re here.  Dr. Freeman and Dr. Pat, if you’ve got anything that’ll help me, oh, I’m a-listening.  I’m a-listening.

Now I want to say one thing, and then I’m going to quit, because it’s after four o’clock.  Shows you how the time passes.  I want to quit on a low note.  My brethren, to show how it can be done: isn’t it odd, and isn’t it strange, the only place that I was encouraged was in Russia?  Isn’t that an amazing thing?  Only place I was encouraged.  They have six services a week; six a week.  Every service lasts at least three hours.  There is no service but that they have at least six—that’s a minimum—six special numbers by the choir, and sometimes six solos beside—that’d be twelve—and sometimes a duet, a trio, or a quartet beside.  Sometimes there’ll be twelve to fifteen special numbers in the service, and a half a dozen preachers preach.  Time without number couldn’t understand, sit there by the hour, I lost track of where I left off and the pew began many times, many times.  But those dear people, how do they do it?  Every one of them is under the surveillance of the government.  No communist be a Christian, no Christian be a communist.  How do they do it?  No Sunday school; prohibited by law.  No school of any kind; prohibited by the government.  No seminary, no evangelism, no revival, no anything; prohibited by the government.  Well, why don’t they fold up and quit?

I said I was encouraged by our brethren in Russia.  Why, bless your heart, what they do is this:  they went back to the old apostolic way.  Every pastor of the church has apprentices, understudies.  The pastor of the First Church in Moscow has twenty; they are young ministers.  And under the tutelage of a Paul, young Timothy is learning the work of Jesus [Timothy 1-2].  And I asked the pastor, “If you can’t hold a meeting, and you can’t have a revival, and no Sunday school, and no evangelical appeal, no invitation, then how do you do?”  He says, “Our people, in the circle of their homes and around the dinner table, and in the evening among friends, they talk about Jesus, and they sing songs about the Lord.  And God gives us a harvest, and our churches stay alive; and we’re growing, and the Baptists in Russia are growing, very much so.”  And when I listened to him, I thought, “You see, God remembers.”  And we may have our difficulties, that’s right; and we may have our despairing moments, that’s right; but if our souls are committed to God and we’re willing to learn, there’ll be a way.  God will reveal it to us.

O set us afire, Lord,

Stir us, we pray!

While the world perishes

We go our way,

Purposeless, passionless,

Day after day.

Set us afire, Lord,

Stir us, we pray!

[Ralph Spaulding Cushman]