The Unanswerable Question
January 8th, 1967 @ 10:50 AM
THE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-8-67 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Unanswerable Question, and before I begin, could I lay upon your heart a burden of prayer, a remembrance in your intercessions? For the next several weeks between Sundays, I shall be preaching through the state evangelistic conferences. Tomorrow I go to Florida, where the state conference will be held in Orlando; then the Texas conference, then the Georgia conference, then Mississippi, then a convocation in Memphis, Tennessee, and then an area revival meeting for all of the Valley of Texas which will be held in the city of Harlingen for all of the Rio Grande Valley. Between Sundays these several coming weeks, the pastor will be burdened with tremendous responsibilities. I shall be preaching to thousands and thousands of preachers in these days. And, of course, in that tremendous area meeting in the Valley, how we ask humbly, beseech earnestly God’s unusual presence.
Now in one of these conferences we can gloriously share. The Texas conference begins Monday week, Monday of next week; not tomorrow, Monday of next week. If Sunday is the fifteenth, then that Monday is the sixteenth, the sixteenth of January, Monday week. The night sessions will be held in the Memorial Auditorium, seating eleven thousand people. The day sessions of the conference will be here in this great sanctuary in our First Baptist Church.
Now, the department of evangelism, and their leader, Dr. Freeman, is eager for you to be present that Monday night when I preach. Monday night, the first night of that conference, I will be preaching at the Memorial Auditorium. He said, “We are going to have more people there than can get into it, but we want your people there, your church.” He said, “Do you suppose that there could be a thousand of your people present that night?” So I asked the staff, “Would you like to divide it up among yourselves? So many you would take, and so many you would be responsible for,” and they said, “Why, pastor, that would be a waste of time. All you need to do is to announce it. You will be preaching there that night, and there will be far more than any thousand of us present.”
Well, that was certainly complimentary and gracious, but I still would like to check you off. We will look for you. That night is a night of invitational dedication. They have asked me to preach toward a verdict. And I shall count on you, your presence, your prayers, and in that dedication if God should lead a marvelous response from all of us who love God.
The sermon today, The Unanswerable Question, you read in our Scripture passage, the first chapter of Hebrews. Beginning now at the second chapter:
Therefore, therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.
For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward;
How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?
I have spoken from that text in days past, addressing it to the lost, to the unsaved, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3]. Nor is it a wrenching of the Scriptures, nor is it untrue to the spirit of the question thus to address it to the lost. Like that tremendous rhetorical question that closes the vision of the sixth seal in the sixth chapter of the Revelation in verse 17, “For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” [Revelation 6:17]. And to address this question like that to the lost is altogether appropriate, but actually it is not if you were speaking exegetically. If you were delivering the message as meant by the author, actually it is not addressed to the lost at all. It is addressed to the church. It is addressed to us who are saved.
Somewhere in the Mediterranean world, possibly in Palestine, possibly in Judea, there was a small, little Hebrew congregation, and they were on the verge of apostasizing, of going back to their Judaistic traditionalism and turning aside from the gospel of the grace of Christ. And whoever it was that wrote this letter, he was an eloquent Alexandrian Hellenistic Jew. And the only one that I know that fills all of those qualifications is Apollos. But whoever he was he wrote the most eloquent and beautiful and appealing of all of the passages in sacred literature. And his address is to that little church, that they not forsake, neglect, repudiate, turn aside from, not care for this so great salvation. “How shall we escape,” he says to that church, “if we ameleō, ameleō.” When you see a Greek word with an “a” in front of it, almost always that “a” will be an alpha privitive, it will be a negative, it will be a “not.” Like the Greek word for God is theos, so atheos is a man that doesn’t believe in God, “not.” Or like the Greek word for “know,” a “Gnostic”; now if you put an “a” in front of it, “agnostic, agnostic,” he doesn’t know. Well, this is the same kind of a Greek built word, ameleō, not caring, indifferent. And for the most part, when it is used in the Bible it will be translated “neglect” or “disregard.” So this eloquent Alexandrian Hellenistic Jew, writing to the little church, makes an appeal that they not neglect, disregard, not care for the gospel of the Son of God which he calls “so great salvation” [Hebrews 2:3].
“How shall we escape,” he says, “how shall we escape?” [Hebrews 2:3]. What will God do with us if we disregard and neglect this tremendous, tremendous gift that God has set before us and the door for its proclamation that He has opened in our behalf? How shall God do with us, if we neglect it; we who are Christians? Now I have two things to say about the text. The first regards the neglecting, the “ameleō-ing,” the disregarding.
A Holiness minister and I were visiting together. We were talking together. And I said to him words of appreciation, “I admire any man who strives to live above sin.” But we were talking about his achievement of it. He had come to that place of sanctification, purification in his life, where he had no sin. He did not sin. He lived above it. And I said to him, “Now even though theologically, scripturally, I think such an achievement is impossible, as Paul wrote in the seventh chapter of the Book of Romans, ‘There are things that I do that I do not want to do, there are things that I do not want to do that I do do. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ [Romans 7:19, 24] There is a drag of the old human depraved nature that all of us feel, all of us.”
But I said, “Not thinking of it scripturally or theologically, empirically, pragmatically, experientially, your judgment of your life is impossible. For one thing,” I said, “you may not murder, or be violent, or lie or all of those sins that flesh are heir to, but you cannot do all that you ought to do. You just don’t, no one of us does. There are sins of omission. There are sins of falling short, of not doing, of negligence, of neglect, of disregard as well as these sins that we volitionally commit.”
And of those sins of neglect and omission, you have so poignantly presented in the Bible. For example, the man with one talent; Jesus said to him, “Thou wicked servant” [Matthew 25:15, 18, 24-26]. He sinned. How did he sin? By doing nothing at all. He buried his talent, what God gave him, he did not use. And yet, the Lord said, “Thou wicked servant,” just doing nothing, omitting to do [Matthew 25:26]. Or take again, in the great judgment of the Gentiles when all of the nations of the earth, the Gentiles of the earth, the ethnos of the earth, are gathered before the Lord. And as He sits on the throne of His glory [Matthew 25:31-32], He will say to these on His left hand, “Depart from Me: for I was sick and you did not visit Me; I was hungry and you did not feed Me [Matthew 25:42-43]. And they shall say, Why, Lord we never saw You sick, or hungry, or a stranger, or in prison and fail to minister to You [Matthew 25:44]. And the Lord will say, Inasmuch as you did it not to the one of the least of these My brethren, you did it not to Me” [Matthew 25:45].
Their condemnation does not lie that they are violent or vicious, or full of vice and wickedness; but they did not do anything. Same way with the Laodicean church in the third chapter of the Revelation [Revelation 3:14-22]; the Lord did not say that you are vile, and filthy, and wicked, and belong on the dung heap of humanity. Your hands are stained with blood; nothing. He said, “You are not cold, you are not hot, you are not black, you are not white, you are lukewarm and you make Me so sick I could spew thee out of My mouth” [Revelation 3:15-16], the sin of not doing, neglect, omission, disregard. That is that word ameleō used here in this text when he makes his appeal: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3]
Now, to apply that appeal, as he would apply the appeal, following the spirit and the meaning of this author exactly, I cannot enter into the judgment of God that shall lie beyond this life and beyond history. How shall we escape when we stand at the judgment bar of Christ [2 Corinthians 5:10], and these things we should have done, and the great message of salvation that God hath committed to our care, and the tremendous worldwide commission that lies back of it, and we have done so little, so feebly, unfruitfully little? I shall not enter into that. I cannot. How it will be at the judgment bar of Christ for us, I cannot say.
But I certainly can say down here and the repercussions of the neglect and disregard of this great message of Christ in this world, in this time, in history, and in our day—oh! The pages of the story of mankind are vibrant and sometimes incarnadine, encrimsoned with that story! I shall speak of it first nationally, how shall we escape, if we neglect this great salvation? [Hebrews 2:3]. I shall speak of it first nationally, as a people, as a communion.
The first Christian emissaries and apostles and ambassadors faced the Mediterranean world with a marvelous, evangelistic, soul-saving zeal. Some of them turned south and around the sea and established those great worldwide world-famous churches in Alexandria, and in Carthage, and in Hippo, and all through northern Africa. Then others of them as Paul, and Barnabas, and Silas, and Timothy turned north and followed the sea to the north and to the west and established churches in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Thessalonica, in Athens, in Corinth, in Rome, and finally pressed into Gaul and the British Isles. And some of them even went down into India as though India would be brought to Christ.
But while they were facing that civilized world, the great back side of that desert, forbidding with its hot winds and its endless sand dunes, that great desert was un-evangelized. Nor did the purposes of the Christian church ever enter into the evangelization of that vast Arabian peninsula and what we know as Pakistan, all of that vast area. And what happened in 600 AD out of that vacuity, and out of those burning sands there arose the bitterest antagonist that the Christian gospel has ever known: Mohammed! And with the sword he decimated, destroyed the churches of Africa, of Palestine, of Syria, of the Levant, of Asia Minor, of Constantinople itself. Had it not been for the tremendous victory of Charles Martel at Tours, he would have conquered the entire civilized world with the sword.
Or in our day, every schoolboy knows that the church of Russia was a pawn in the hands of the nobility to oppress and to spy as a Gestapo upon the people. And every schoolboy knows that Joseph Stalin, for example, was sent to the seminary to be educated for a priest in the church of Russia. Did the Russian church evangelize among the people? Did it bear upon its heart the burden of the souls of that vast serfdom and peasantry? It reveled in its affluence and its preeminence among the nobility, in its riches, in its jewels, in its embroidering. All you have to do is to go through that unbelievable display of riches of the church in the armory in the Kremlin to look upon it.
And what happened? You can’t help but be stung, and that to your soul’s depths, as you walk into, say, the Kazan Cathedral, the great popular cathedral in Leningrad. It is now a museum dedicated to atheism. And as you walk into that cathedral one of the things that you will see, one of the first things you see is an enormous bronze. And that bronze is of a gigantic, heavy cross. When you look at who is bearing that cross, underneath the cross is a peasant working woman with her children around her, bowed down and ground to the dust by the weight of the church.
Such a reversal, for the cross to me is a sign of our salvation [John 3:14-15], so great salvation of the blood atonement that washes our sins away [Romans 5:11; Revelation 1:5], of the resurrected Christ [Matthew 28:1-7]—He is not on the cross; it is a sign of our living Lord—but to them it is an insignia of oppression, of the grasping of the riches won from the serfs.
Nor have I but moments to speak of the two thousand years of missionary dereliction on the part of the churches of God in the earth as they faced the Orient. We barely ever touched it. The millions, and the millions, and the millions of China, and of India, and of Malaysia, and all of that teeming vastness—for two thousand years we played at being Christians, at being missionaries. So, today, today, instead of seeing and facing a world of Bibles and churches, we face a world of bullets, and of bombs, and of generations apparently that are being taught to hate us. And the bloodletting in China that is going on this minute—the horrors of torture and revolution are beyond our imagination.
“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3]. Had even America devoted a tithe of our vast armament to the evangelization of the world, there would be nothing of what you see in present day headlines, our men marching off to an indescribable, unspeakable war. But we must face it. How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?
I’ve spoken of it nationally, as a people. May I speak of it as a city, urbanly? When I was a youth, the most famous of all the international crime gangsters in the world were the Polacks in the ghettos of Chicago. And Chicago was internationally famous because of its gangs, and of its gang killings, and of all of the rapacity and violence that came from that syndicate of criminals. And in those days they appointed a group of sociologists to study the Polack in Chicago. And after long and diligent preparation and scientific investigation they published their report, and I remember what it said. This is what it said:
We went back to Poland and we looked at the people where these immigrated from, and the families of these people. In their native land, they were sturdy and godly citizens. They were Christians, and they belonged to the church, and they were moral, and they were fine, and they worked, and they observed the law. They were fine citizens. But they immigrated to America, drawn by the higher wages paid in the industrialization complexes of cities like Detroit and Chicago, and when they came to Chicago, they were strange-looking people with a strange visage and a strange costume and a strange speech. And the people passed them by. And they were ground to death in that industrialization and the wages that they received, and their children grew up on the streets. And because of that disregard and that not caring, there came out of that ghetto into which those foreigners were crowded—there came that massive wave of crime, and, of course, the pattern of it has reached into almost every great city in America, and we pay tribute of billions of dollars a year to our lack.
Let’s take our own city of Dallas. When I came to Dallas, West Dallas across the Trinity River there, West Dallas was a polyglot of people that nobody wanted to think about, nobody wanted to look at, nobody wanted to visit, nobody cared about, nobody. I went over there and looked at those places, and they were a forgotten and despised, depressed humanity; others in the penitentiary or in the gutter, and the people, oh, oh, oh, I’ve not seen in the world, in my going around the world, I have not seen greater poverty than some of the things that I saw in West Dallas.
Out of that polyglot came Clyde Barrow, who killed seventeen men, most of them officers of the law, and Bonnie Parker, his mate, and Raymond Hamilton, who was electrocuted. The other two were shot down in an ambush, and I don’t know how many others. And, as you know, I had it in my soul, our church, to do something. And as I made appeal over this radio, there was a godly woman, Mrs. Hattie Rankin Moore, who listened to me on the radio—she was ill; belonged to another communion, another church—and when she was well, she came to see me and said, “I’ve been listening to you on the radio, and I have brought you fifty thousand dollars to build that chapel over there in West Dallas, and I offer you myself also to help with it and to work with it.” That has grown into seven of these missions in the church.
Now, I have a philosophy about helping people, and I can state it very simply; didn’t intend to, but shall. Very simply, it is this: you can give things to people forever and forever and forever, and they are still as poor, and they are still as helpless, and they are still as degraded and depraved as when you started pouring out things to them. That does not answer. What people need, what they need is a rebirth, a new life, a new hope, a new heart, a new soul; they need to be new! When the man is new, you don’t have to worry about him supporting his family and his children, and taking care of his home, and cleaning up, and loving instead of beating his family. You don’t need to worry about any of those things. But the man needs to be changed, the man, and that’s the gospel. That’s the mission of the church: to change people. That’s our assignment. “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3].
Now let me apply it in the home and in the family. As you know, I grew up in a rural background. My people were rural people, and when I began ministering as a pastor, for ten years I was pastor out in the country and in little villages. The preaching that I heard all the days of my life until young manhood, all of it was country preaching—I never heard a city preacher until I was almost grown—and the illustrations those men used and the points that they made, oh, were so barbed they stuck like arrows in my soul! Well, this is one of them, and this is very typical, as you would listen to a country preacher drive home one of God’s truths. Well, the country preacher said, “I went to see a husband, a breeder. He had cattle, and he had the hogs, and he had stock. And he was very proud of his blooded lines. He kept records of them, and he had them all registered, and he carefully took care of them, his fine hogs and pigs, and his fine, blooded cattle. He was a stockman.” So the preacher said, “I was visiting in his home, and we were talking about those fine herds and those fine stocks. And there came a young woman walking through, and there was a young man that met her, and they went out together.” So the preacher says, “I asked the stockman, ‘Who is that?’
“’Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s my daughter.’”
“Oh, that’s your daughter. Well, who is the young man that has come for her?” And he replies, “Why, I do not know.” And the preacher says, “Well, where are they going?” And the father says, “I do not know.”
“And what are they going to do?”
And the father says, “Well, I do not know.”
And he went through a whole lot of things like that as he talked to the father about his daughter. He did not know anything about her. He did not know what’s she’s doing, where she’s going, who she’s going with, who her friends were, anything about her.
Well, when he got through with that, then he started preaching. And he was talking about that stockman and how careful he was with all of those herds, those bulls, and cows, and calves, and those sows, and boars, and pigs and all, and when he got through, why, you knew what he meant. He got it across. And I still remember it, still remember it. And I tell you there never was a finer truth or a more pertinent one ever presented than that country preacher preached when I listened to him that day. And all of us are derelict and all of us are guilty.
If you have a child in your home, if you have a child in your home, your first responsibility under God is to that child, period, exclamation point, according to the Word of God! Yet how many of us, all of us, are engrossed, engrossed, engrossed? The child should be carefully trained. When we have Sunday school, there is time out of your life for that child to be brought to Sunday school; when there’s Training Union, and when there’s choir, and when there’s missionary organization, and when there is Bible reading, and when there is a Sunday school lesson to be read, all of it. Out of all the sermons I’d ever preach, there wouldn’t be one that’d be more pertinent to anybody else than this one is pertinent to me; “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” and that’s in our home with our children [Hebrews 2:3].
I hasten to one other. I’ve spoken of it nationally, and urbanly, and in our homes with our children. I speak of it now personally. “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3]. Until last night I had fully intended delineating to you one of the families in this church, but last night, as I reviewed it, I thought, “No, I ought not to do that.” So I’m going back to my pastorate before I came. A splendid, civic-minded man, and one beloved by all of the people in the county and in the county seat, he was the tax assessor and collector. Had a dear, darling wife who belonged to our church, had a precious little family, and those children were growing up in the church. But he, as so many fine, good men are, he, he was engrossed in other things.
And when I’d see him and talk to him, “Yes, sir, preacher, I’m coming down that aisle, give my heart to Jesus. You’re going to baptize me, and I’m going to help you serve God,” but he just never did come. Just wasn’t convenient; some other day or time. Then an inevitable—as it always and someday will in every life, the inevitable came. Stricken down with a heart attack, going to the hospital to see him, doctors say he has just hours to live; so I sit down by his side there at the hospital bed, and he wants to talk to me, and he says, “Now, pastor, my wife will take my body to the church. I’ll be buried from the church, and I want you to tell those people something for me. I don’t want you to have a funeral service—like, you know, you have the obituary, and you say words of gratitude for the deceased, and have a benediction—I don’t want you to do that this time. For when you stand up there before that service, you’re going to see all of my friends over this county that I’ve known for generations. They’ll all be there listening. I want you to tell them for me that I made the greatest mistake of my life, the greatest mistake of my life, and you plead for me, ‘My man, if you ever intend to do anything for God, do it now. Do it now.’ You tell them for me, ‘I would to God I could come down the aisle at that church and confess my faith publicly; I would to God I could be baptized; I would to God I could serve the Lord with that dear people; but I can’t. My time is over, my opportunity is passed.’ Will you preach that sermon for me?”
Well, he died in a matter of hours after that, and I did my best. I made the appeal in his name and for his sake. “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3].
Man, listen. If you intend to do anything ever for Jesus, do it now. Do it now. If you intend to sing a song, teach a lesson, give your heart to God, be baptized, belong to the family of the Lord, testify to somebody, speak to somebody, rear the child, lead in the way—if you ever intend to do anything for God, do it now. Do it now. “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” [Hebrews 2:3].
Now, while we sing this song of appeal, you, somebody you, give your heart to Jesus today. Put your life in the fellowship of God’s church today. You and your family, you and your wife and your children, or a couple you, or one somebody you, as God shall open the way, shall press the appeal, make it now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. Do it now. Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.