The Unanswerable Question
August 22nd, 1971 @ 10:50 AM
THE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
8-22-71 10:30 a.m.
The title of the sermon today is The Unanswerable Question, and it is from a text in the second chapter of Hebrews, and I read the context:
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; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him;
God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
And the text: "How shall we escape?" The unanswerable question: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
Not in recent times, but many times in days past, I have preached from that text to the lost: "How shall we escape, if we neglect, pass it by, so great salvation?" Like the last verse in the sixth chapter of the Revelation: "For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" addressed to the lost. Actually, if you speak from the text exegetically, expositorially, if you let it address itself to the meaning that the author gave it, then you preach to the church, to the saved; for he’s not talking about the lost. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" He is speaking to a church, to a company of God’s people who are at a standstill; in fact, they are proposing to apostasize, and proposing to leave God’s gift to decay in their hands. He asks the question, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
The word translated here "neglect" is a poignant word: ameleo. In the building of a Greek word, an a, an "a," it is called an "alpha privative." It is a negation. Like the word theos, "God," atheos is "not God, don’t believe in God." Or the Greek word gno, g-n-o, gno: put an "a" in front of it, agno, "agnostic," doesn’t know. Well, that’s the way this word is built: melo, "to care, that it be a concern"; ameleo, "don’t care, don’t concern," translated here in the King James Version "neglect." Usually when we categorize sin, we define it in terms of doing something. Actually, our greatest derelictions may be found in not doing something, just passing it by, don’t care.
Upon a day, I went to the hospital to visit a young mother and to pray and to thank God with her for the little baby the Lord had placed in her arms. As I spoke to her and prayed with her, across the room was another young mother. And while I was there speaking and praying to this girl that belonged to our church, this young mother began to cry, and then to sob. When I left the room, I went to the nurses’ desk, and there was a sweet Christian nurse in our church; and I said, "I just want you to tell me, is there some reason why this young mother here cries so?" And she said, "Yes, there is a reason. Her husband hasn’t been to see her, nor has he come to see the little baby that God has given into their arms. And she cries." I said, "Do you think I ought to go back and talk to her?" She said, "I think it’d be sweet if you would; but I don’t know what you could say." And I didn’t know either. For the young husband hadn’t beat her up, he hadn’t cut her throat; I suppose he had done nothing that by law a prosecuting attorney could stand before a jury and point him out and say, "Thus and so he did." But what he didn’t do was as cruel as death.
The Lord had so much to say about that sin of omission, of neglect, of just not caring, just not doing, just pass it by.
A Holiness minister was arguing with me upon a day. He had come to that place in his life where he lived above sin: he was holy. Well, I rejoiced with him, "That’s wonderful you can ever come to that estate where you live in perfection in this carnal body. It’s an achievement." But I said, "Even though you avow to be sinless, you don’t do this and this and this and this, yet I know that I know that there are many things you don’t do that you should do; and these omissions are in God’s sight, many times, darker and more vile than the commission."
For example, our Lord said of the Pharisees: "These things you ought to have done." They’d count peas, and every tenth pea they’d put it aside; fast three times a week; oh how many things they did! And the Lord would say, "These things you ought to have done; but these things ye ought not to have done, or you ought not to have left undone" [Luke 11:42]. The greater sin is not that you didn’t tithe, or that you didn’t fast, or that you didn’t pray; but the greater sin is that you omitted the weightier things of the devout and Christian life. That’s what the Lord said to the man who had one talent: he took his talent and he buried it in the earth; he didn’t do anything with it. The man who had five gained five; the man who had two gained two. But the one who had one talent just buried it in the earth; he did nothing with it. And his lord condemned him! He needed condemnation: he just neglected, he let it die in his hands [Matthew 25:14-30]. This is what the Lord said to the church at Laodicea: not that they were vile or vicious, not even that they had fallen doctrinally – they seem to be very correct and orthodox – but they weren’t cold, they weren’t hot, they were indifferent. And the Lord said, "I could spew thee out of My mouth!" [Revelation 3:16].
"How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" [Hebrews 2:3]. Talking to a church about what God has placed in our hands and what do we do with it.
Now, I shall not speak of the great assize, when we stand in the presence of the Lord God Almighty in the judgment day. I cannot enter into that. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" – when God judges us. But I can speak as I watch and read and see both in history and in my own life and observation. First, I shall speak of it nationally: "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation"; let it rot, decay, in our hands, do nothing about it?
In the first Christian centuries, the apostles and then the missionaries turned their faces to the civilized world; and they won the Roman Empire to God. They literally laid it as a trophy at the feet of Christ. They built tremendous centers of witness in Jerusalem, in Alexandria, in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Corinth, in Rome; and finally in Gaul, in France, and in Great Britain. They turned their faces to the civilized world. But back of them was a vast sheet of burning, blistering sand: the Arabian desert. And for six hundred years, the witnesses of Christ forsook, forgot, neglected those nomads who lived in that burning desert. And out of that burning, blazing Arabian stretch of blistering sand arose the fiercest antagonist that the Christian faith has ever known: the sword of Mohammed!
In Russia, the church, the established church, was an oppression to the people: didn’t evangelize, didn’t teach and win and train, was used as an instrument of espionage in the hands of the czars. And the day came, as you know, when the church, the church as they knew it, was cut down. And in the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – which is now a demonstration, like St. Isaac’s, of atheism, communism – in that cathedral I saw one of the most terrible presentations I’ve ever looked upon with my eyes. It was a big thing, a big thing; it was a woman, a Russian peasant woman, and by her side her little boy. She was stooped beneath the burden of a great, heavy, iron cross! She was crushed by the weight of that awesome iron cross! When I heretofore had thought of the cross, I think of it in terms of redemption, of atonement, of sacrifice, of devotion to God; but those atheists, seeing the church as they knew it, which sought no other thing than to oppress the people, when the atheist presented it and depicted it, that’s what he did. He took the cross, the instrument of God’s love, and made it a burden – the church in Russia, the established church in Russia – "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" Not an instrument of uplift, and of inspiration, and of salvation, and evangelism, but an oppressive instrument.
I think of Japan. I preached in a three-month crusade in Japan in 1950. Started up there at the top, went clear down to Kyushu at the bottom, holding one-day or three-day revival meetings in all of those cities. There was no auditorium in 1950 that you could rent that would begin to hold the people. Wherever I preached, there would be about as many on the outside as there was inside in those big spacious auditoriums. I don’t think I ever held a service where there were not at least one hundred fifty people saved; from one hundred fifty up to the hundreds. General Douglas MacArthur was the leader of the nation; he had opened it to the gospel, and he said to our Southern Baptist Convention – our associational churches – he said, "Send us now one thousand missionaries!"
In 1970, last year, I went with the choir to Japan; and they prepared, our choir had, and I prepared my own heart. There were time and time and times when there weren’t enough people listening to us to fill these pews that are directly in front of me; and maybe one or two or three were saved. Having been there in 1950, and seeing the open-heartedness of those people to the gospel, white American was a sight for a Japanese to behold; and then 1970 – where were those thousand missionaries that General Douglas MacArthur asked for? I don’t know what we were doing. I can’t even remember. But it slipped through our fingers. We didn’t send them, I know that. And there was no evangelization of the nation, I know that. And there was no preaching of the gospel, I know that. And this very minute we are in the process of closing down and closing up our seminary in Kokura. We’re just going out of business. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
Having spoken of it nationally, may I speak of it urbanly, city-wide? There used to be a time when Chicago was known as the gangster capital of the earth, a city of blood and machine gun and violence. The reason it’s not known as that anymore is because all of our cities are like that: full of violence and fear. Well anyway, internationally there was a Polish community in Chicago, out of which came such criminals until the city of Chicago paid more because of crime than they spent on the city government. There was a sociologist in the University of Chicago who studied that criminal situation among the Polish. He went to Poland; he visited in the homes and in the towns and in the countryside where those people came from. Back home they were godly. They were farmers, they were little small town merchantmen, they were sturdy, solid citizens, they were church people. They were lured to America by industrialization wages over here. And when they came to America, the people looked upon their funny customs and their strange language, and they passed them by! And out of the neglect of the Polish in Chicago, the ghetto in which they lived, streamed that criminal assault on society that astonished the world "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
Why, when I came here to Dallas, right over yonder, right across that Trinity River, there was a place in Dallas; Bonnie Parker lived there, Clyde Barrow lived there, Raymond Hamilton lived there, and I don’t know how many others out of that festering cesspool of the forgotten and the neglected in West Dallas. Upon a day, there came to my study here at the church Mrs. Hattie Rankin Moore. She said, "I’ve been ill. I’ve been listening to you on the radio." She said, "I heard you say you’d like to establish a mission in West Dallas." She said, "I have worked over there"; she was the daughter of the pastor of the First Methodist Church here in this city. Rankin – you have a Rankin Street out there, you have a Rankin Center over yonder – an illustrious, gifted family. And Hattie Rankin Moore had married a well-to-do man. She said, "I’ve been listening to you preach." And she said, "I have come here this morning to give you fifty thousand dollars for a mission over there in West Dallas." She said, "I stayed with Raymond Hamilton’s mother, when he was electrocuted. I stayed with her that night." And she said, "Those people need Christ, and they need us." So I took the fifty thousand dollars, and that’s where our Truett Chapel, we named it Truett in honor of the great pastor of the church; and we’re in business over there – we have three ministries over there, and it’s been going on now for twenty some-odd years.
"How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" That’s our call and our assignment, our mandate from heaven. May I speak of it not only nationally, urbanly, may I speak of it domestically, in our homes? Out in West Texas there was a rancher; and he prided himself, as some of those men do, on their bloodied cattle: these bulls, and these cows, and these heifers, and their registration, and their breeding, proud of it. Well, this guest was out there looking over the spread. And the rancher was so proud in presenting him all the things that go into the building up of a wonderful bovine bloodline. And that evening, while they were there in the house, down the stairway came a beautiful girl, dressed up so beautifully. And the guest said, "Who’s that?" And the rancher said, "Well, that’s my daughter." And there at the door he saw waiting for her a sallow-faced, dissipated, wretched, sorry-looking young man. He’d come for the girl; they were going out. So the rancher, the man said to the rancher, "Who’s that? That boy?" pointed to the young man. And the rancher said, "Why, I don’t know. I don’t know."
"Well, why is he here?" Well, the rancher said, "I suppose he’s come for my girl, to take her out on a date." And the guest said to the rancher, "Well, do you know where they’re going?" He said, "No, I have no idea where they’re going." Bloodied bulls, bloodied cows, bloody heifers, bloody thoroughbreds, and give his life to it day and night – have no idea where his daughter was going, have no idea who the sallow-faced, dissipated young man with whom she’s going out. "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
I don’t have anything against bloodied cows, I’m just saying to have a daughter and a son in your house is ten thousand times more to be regarded and thought for and prayed over than all the bulls and all the cows and all the thoroughbreds who ever lived.
May I apply it church-wise, ecclesiastically? "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" To my surprise – I did not realize this – to my surprise, out there in West Texas, in this last decade, every county has lost population except one, and that’s Lubbock County. In the city where we were preaching, one-fourth to one-fifth of the population has moved away. It’s universal out there; it is all-prevailing. So I asked one of the pastors, "Where do these people go? When they leave West Texas, where do they move to?" He said, "First they move to Dallas. Most of them go to Dallas. And second," he said, "the others go to Houston." And then I began thinking: so they move to Dallas, and out there they are deacons, and they’re Sunday school superintendents, and they’re leaders, and they’re devout, and they love God; and when they come to Dallas, I wonder what becomes of them? Wonder where they are? Did anybody greet them? Did anybody shake hands with them? Did anybody knock at the door? Did anybody say, "See you got a little baby here, we’ve got the finest nursery in the world at our church for that little baby. See you got a teenager there; man, there’s no bunch of swinging this side of the angels who are on the clouds jumping from one to the other, there’s no swinging bunch in the earth like down there at the First Baptist Church. Bring that teenager down here, or we go by and get him." Did anybody bother to care? To ask? To invite? Lord, did we? Are we? "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" Everybody that moves into this town ought to have a personal visit from us, inviting them to the Lord and inviting them to the church.
May I apply it hastily, may I apply it soul-wise, individual-wise? "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" One of the devout and wonderful women of our church, been here oh, for the generation, I went to her home to see her husband; he was very ill. And the husband said to me, "My wife’s been down there at your church for a generation. Oh, so many years." But he said, "I’ve steadfastly refused. I wouldn’t go. No giving my heart to Jesus for me, no going down that aisle for me, no being baptized for me; I’ve let it go. But," he said, "I have had a change of heart. Do you know," he said to me, "the first thing I do when I get up out of this bed? I’m going to church, and I’m going down that aisle, and you’re going to baptize me, and the rest of my days I’m going to give to God." That’s what he said to me. I said, "Wonderful. Bless you. Oh, how fine!"
His wife accompanied me to the door. And when she got out of hearing of her husband, she said to me, "Pastor, he’ll never get up. His family has already come; they’re already here for the memorial service." And it happened just as she said: in a little while, he died. And I buried him. And when I did, oh! that burned in my mind: "Pastor, when I get up, first thing I’m going to do, I’m going to go down that aisle, going to give you my hand, you’re going to baptize me; and the rest of my life I’m going to give it to God." Why didn’t he do that forty years ago? "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?"
If I’m going to love Jesus, Lord, help me to do it now. If I’m ever going to serve God, Lord, help me to begin now. If I’m ever going down that aisle, Lord, give me strength to do it this morning. If I’m ever going to be baptized, Lord, I’m going to be baptized tonight.
Why not? Why not? You, and you, and all of us, why not now? "Someday I know I’ll look to God. Someday, Lord, how I’ll need You! Lord, as I count on You and depend on You to see me through that ultimate and final and trying hour, Lord, You can count on me, now, and here I am, and here I come." Will you? "This moment, right now, and here I am."
In a moment we’re going to sing our song of appeal, and as we sing it, a family you, "Here we are, pastor, we’ve come to Dallas; we brought our clothes, we brought our furniture, we brought our stools and rags and shoes; we’re also bringing our faith and our commitment to God and our letter. And we’re coming down that aisle right now." Do it. "This is my wife, and these are our children; the whole bunch of us, the whole family of us, we’re all coming." Make the decision now. And in a moment when we sing, gather up the little flock and right down that aisle and to the pastor here, "Here I come, pastor, today." Just a couple you, just the two of you, I see some of you out there.
One of these finest men, when I made an invitation took his wife by the hand, and said, "Let’s go." And I asked him about it, and he said, "Well, pastor, isn’t that what you said to do? Didn’t you say, ‘Take your wife by the hand, and say to her, "Let’s go.’" He said, "That’s what I did." And they’re here this morning, and glad in the faith and in the Lord, and with us in this dear church.
A couple of you, come; just one of you; as the Spirit of God shall speak to your heart, shall make appeal, if you’re on that topmost row of the farthest balcony, there’s time and to spare, down one of these stairways, the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, "Here I come, pastor, I’m making the decision now; and here I am." Oh, the best step you’ll ever make in your life is that step! And the finest decision you’ll ever make is that decision. Why, the angels are here to attend you in the way, and God to see you through! Make the decision now, and in a moment when we sing, as you stand up, stand up coming. Heaven bless you in the way as you come, as we stand and as we sing.