Dr. W. A. Criswell
8-25-74 8:15 a.m.
On the radio, we share with you gladly, triumphantly this service in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Real Religion.
In our preaching through the Epistle of James, who is pastor of the church in Jerusalem [Acts 15:13-21; Galatians 2:12], we have come to the last verse of the first chapter. He gives a definition there of real religion. He uses the word “pure,” and this is the text:
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this,
To visit—to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction,
and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
Is not that somewhat as you would expect from James? He does not write as the theologian, or a metaphysician, or a philosopher, or a speculator. He is a pastor and his whole life has been given to a shepherdly ministry among his people. So when he writes, he writes pragmatically, experientially. He is down to earth, where the people live. His definition, therefore, is one of intensest practicality: “Pure religion, real religion, before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” [John 1:27].
Identify close to the people. Have you ever noticed that the signs and the symbols of these modern revolutionary movements that have changed the face of the world and have subverted the course of human history, have you noticed that their signs and their symbols are always plain and simple and identified close to the people? I remember a party in the history of America that had as its sign and as its slogan, quote, “A full dinner pail,” a working man’s bucket with something in it to eat. All of us who remember the Second World War remember the rise of fascism, whose sign was a black shirt, and the rise of Nazism, whose sign was a brown shirt; a shirt, an ordinary working man’s shirt.
Do you know the sign and the symbol of the communist empires? It is a hammer and a sickle, an ordinary working man’s hammer and an ordinary farm laborer’s sickle. They are identified with the people, down close to the people. And as such, they have literally subverted the course of human history. We face it today, desperately, poignantly.
But when you come to religion, for the ordinary man we step out of the world of practicality into a world removed, without pertinency. For some, religion is like a holy charade. There are movements, and genuflections, and litanies, and rituals that you go through, having nothing to do with life’s practicalities. They think of it as being something up there, mysterious, unapproachable, having nothing to do particularly with any of the mundane problems that we wrestle with down here. Or to so many, the matter of religion is a matter of theological disputation; hairsplitting, endless forensic discussions and arguments. We have inherited some of that from medieval scholasticism. One of the subjects of the learned doctors in that day was how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. And to so many, religion is like that. It is a seminary course. It is a theological discussion. It’s some kind of a dissertation about things that the ordinary man is not interested in.
Now we would not disavow the mysterious in religion. The signature of God is always mystery. If it is the world that He created, it’s a mystery. If it is the Book that He has inspired [2 Timothy 3:16], across every page is written “mystery.” We would not discount the awesome mystery of the work and presence of God, nor would we scorn theology. It is the queen of the sciences, and these studies and presentations of theological truth reflect the being and character of Almighty God.
But what we’re doing this morning is looking at James, who is a pastor, and as such, he is not in discussion, much less in theological argument concerning matters of the revelation of God, the being of God. But when James writes, he writes something that is good for us to remember and good for the pastor to know. With all of its mystery profound, and with all of its theological discussions found in those tomes and books, there is also in religion a pragmatic side that ought ever to be uppermost in a true pastor’s mind: down here, “Pure religion before God and the Father is this, To visit.”
A certain pastor of great austerity
Climbed up in his high church steeple
To be nearer God, that he might hand
Down God’s word to the people.
In his day, God said, “Come down and die.”
And he cried out from his steeple,
“Where art Thou, Lord?”
And the Lord replied,
“I am down here among My people.”
[“The Preacher’s Mistake,” William Doane]
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction” [James 1:27]. First, real religion loves people, is identified with the people. I do not care how marvelous the pastor may preach, or how learned he may be, or with what finesse he organizes and administers the church, if his heart is not warm and if his soul is not moved by his people, he doesn’t know, according to James, what is real religion—loves people, the lost, the unsought, the uncared for, the forgotten, the miserable, the discouraged, the despairing; loves people, poor people. If you follow the ministry of our Lord, His name is “Jesus, moved with compassion” [Mark 1:41]. That is ever His enduring name.
And there’s a blind man, a poor blind man. I don’t think in my life I have ever seen such poverty exhibited as I have seen among blind people in the Orient, in the Middle East. A blind man, and the Lord opened his eyes [Mark 8:22-26]; here is a man for thirty-eight years at the Pool of Bethesda, waiting for the moving of the water that he might step in and be healed. Think of a man thirty-eight years in grievous affliction, and the Lord healed him [John 5:1-9].
Think of the widow of Nain, following the casket, the coffin of her only child, weeping in despair. And the Lord raised the boy from the dead and presented him back in her loving arms [Luke 7:11-15]. That is Jesus. Loving the rich, standing at the foot of a tree and saying to the rich publican, Zaccheus, “Come down, come down, Zaccheus, for today I must spend the hours in your house” [Luke 19:1-5]. Or do you remember the rich young ruler? [Mark 10:17-23]. And the Lord Jesus looking upon him loved him [Mark 10:21]. And the Lord loved him. That’s real religion; loving people.
I see it in the sweet, beautiful ministries of this dear church. I never sat through a service in my life in which I shed so many tears. I cried literally for two full hours. It was a service at Christmas time, and our mission people had been brought together here at the church. And the program was, from each one of those missions, men stood up who had found the Lord. And as each man stood up and told the story of the grace of God that had reached down to him, he would describe his life in the gutter, as a drunkard, or as a thief, or as a liar, and his terrible attitude and spirit toward his children, toward his wife. And then he would describe how the pastor, our mission pastor, had sought him out, and found him, and won him to the Lord, and lifted him up! And then he described the new life in Christ, the new heart, the new home. Ah, it was like sitting in heaven, listening to the saints describe their earthly pilgrimage and how Jesus had seen them through.
And no less do I listen to men of great affluence who have been changed by the Spirit and the witnessing of our dear people. There came to me a rich man in this city. His wife had died. The mother of his children had died, and he was crushed and broken. And in those days of sorrow and agony, one of our members had led him to the Lord. And the man came to me and said, “I have been saved. In the sorrow of this tragedy, I have found Christ dear to my heart, and I have come, I want you to baptize me, and I want you to baptize my children.” I did. That is real religion; identified close to the people, loves people.
This is real religion, number two: it knocks at the door. “Pure religion before God and the Father is this, To visit” [James 1:27]. I began the message with a reference to the signs and the symbols, those aegises under which march these tremendous social revolutionary movements of the modern world. We also have a sign, an aegis, a symbol. First, of course, would be the cross. “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Galatians 6:14]. But there are other signs and other symbols of the Christian faith that are also impressive and descriptive. Let me tell you one. In the days and the years gone by, over twenty now, we were building Embree Hall, and I was given the money for six beautiful windows to be placed in Embree Hall. We brought down to the city of Dallas the finest art-glass worker, stained-glass worker, that we could find in the world. It was a company in St Louis, and this dear old sainted gentleman had spent his life with that company. He came down, and we sat together and outlined those six beautiful windows, three of them on this side depicting the great revelation of God in the Old Testament, and three of them on this side presenting the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. So he worked out the three on this side; beautiful. And he worked out the two on this side, but when it came to the last one, the sixth one here, I said, “Mr. Jacobs, if you would, could I work out that window?”
“Oh,” he said, “I’d love to see what you would do.” So I worked it out and gave it to him, and he said, “That’s beautiful. That’s fine.” And he placed it in that beautiful glass.
Go over there and look at it. It is this. In the center is a medallion. It has a church and a steeple pointing up to God. I love for a church to have a steeple on it, pointing up to heaven. And on this side, there are folded hands. And on this side, there is a hand knocking at the door. And underneath the medallion on this side, folded hands, is the word “Prayer.” And on this side, with the hand knocking at the door, is the word “Visitation.” And to me that is a definition, a symbol of real religion, to pray and to visit; to knock at the door [James 1:27].
Was it not so in the life of our Lord? He came visiting from city to city, from village to village, from house to house. And when He defined in defense His ministry, He said this in Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That is Jesus. And the abiding picture we have of our Savior for all eternity is in the Apocalypse. It is in the Revelation, the unveiling of our blessed Lord. It is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with Me”; the last living image of our Lord; knocking at the door; knocking at your heart’s door; Jesus visiting you—coming to see you, sit down and break bread with you, talk with you.
“If any lack wisdom,” said James, “let him ask” [James 1:5]. You could not have so infallible an oracle of God as the Lord Himself; talk to Him, visit with Him, invite Him in, have Him sit down by your side. That is the eternal picture of our Savior.
And is not that the great message and ministry and example of our apostles? You know, once in a while I’ll hear somebody refer to a man as being the greatest preacher since the apostle Paul. Why, I know exactly what they think. They suppose that Paul was some mighty, majestic personality with a majestic mien and a stentorian voice, and standing in oratorical Demosthenian power, swaying the multitudes. I know exactly what they mean.
You know, if we’d read the Bible, it’d be an interesting thing to us, what we’d find. Paul says what people said about him. He quotes them. They say, quote, “His bodily presence is mean and his speech contemptible” [2 Corinthians 10:10]. That’s what the people said about it when they saw him and heard him. His bodily presence is mean; he looks like a piece of flotsam. And his speech is contemptible, “Nothing of the great stentorian peroration and oratory and rhetoric,” that’s what they said about him.
Well, how did he do such incomparable work? Again, it’s interesting to read the Bible. How did he do his work? He also says that. The greatest work I suppose the world has ever seen in the name of God is the ministry of Paul in Ephesus [Acts 20:17-38]. The whole province of Asia was turned to the Lord [Acts 19:10]. The seven churches of Asia were founded in those days [Revelation 2:1-3:22]. Colosse was founded in those days [Colossians 1:1-8]. All of the witnessing at Hierapolis was founded in those days [Colossians 4:13]. Out of that Ephesian ministry, the whole Asian province was turned to God. How did he do it? Well, he says here he called for the Ephesian elders [Acts 20:17], and said to them: “Remember that by the space of three years, I cease not to warn everyone night and day with tears [Acts 20:31], teaching publicly and from house to house, testifying to the Jew and to the Greek repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:20-21].
Three years, he says, and that’s the entire extent of his ministry at Ephesus; three years, day and night, with many tears, from house to house, testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. That was the ministry of the apostle Paul. That’s how he did it. I haven’t time; wish I did. I have tried that. I have tried that in my churches. It has never failed; knocking at the door.
I’d take a young man with me in a pastorate to which I had just been called, tell the young fellow, “You introduce me to the family, and then I will ask a question, ‘Are you Christians?’ If they say, ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘May I come into the home, read to you God’s Book, and pray with the family?’ If they say, ‘No, we’re not Christian here,’ I say, ‘May I come in and tell you about the Lord who is able to save us and keep us forever?’”
When I’d go to church to preach, you couldn’t get in. This particular church I’m thinking of now had died. They had no pastor, they had no Sunday school, they had no anything—it had died. The door was nailed, and the glass broken out of the windows, and the weeds higher than your head. When I got through going down those roads, praying in those homes, stand up in the pulpit of that little church to preach, it was packed and people looking in the windows and in the door. It never fails. The preacher may not be eloquent, and he may not be mightily versed in the schools, but the people will love him to death and listen gladly to every word that he says; real religion before God and the Father, to visit [James 1:27].
And Paul says, with a purpose, with a purpose: “Testifying to the Jews, and to the Greeks”; that is, just to the people as he came to them; testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:21]. So I would say real religion is loving people. Real religion is knocking at the door. And real religion is pressing the cause of Christ, making appeal for the cause of Jesus, presenting our Lord. That is, the purpose is not just to talk about the weather, or we’re talking about the football games and the baseball games and the political scene. We may incidentally mention that, but there’s a purpose in our hearts; it’s presenting Jesus. The reason lies in getting people to God, for no man shall ever see the face of God except he come through the blessed Jesus. He is our great Mediator and Intercessor: “No man cometh unto the Father, but by Me” [John 14:6]. And if I am to know God and see God’s face, if my sins are to be forgiven, I must come to God through Jesus Christ. I must. There’s no other way [Acts 4:12].
In the morning, I walk down the street where I live and walk back. I try to walk a mile or a mile-and-a-half every morning. Yesterday morning, walking down the street, way down there at the end, as I had seen many, many times, there’s a little black man down there with one eye. He wears a patch over the eye that’s gone. And he mows the yard. So when I turned to come back up the street, he started walking by my side, talking to me, followed by his dog. And he said, “You know, I listen to you preach every Sunday. I belong to the Church of God over here.” And he said, “I go to Sunday school, and then I come home, and I listen to you preach every Sunday.”
Well, I said, “That’s wonderful. Do you have a family? Are you married? Do you have any children?”
“No,” he said. “I live by myself, just me and that dog; just we two.” I imagine he said, “Just us two.”
Well, as we walked clear up to the street, he followed me all the way home. He began talking to me, and he began talking like a poor man talks. You know, to a man who is very poor, rich people are very much in another category, in another area, in another clime, in another life. So here’s the way he did it.
He said, “You know, if I go to see the chief of police, I sit out there in the waiting room, and I sits there, and I sits there, and I sits there, and there’s a receptionist. And that receptionist won’t let me in. And I sit there, and I sit there, and that receptionist won’t let me in.”
And he says, “You know, while I sits there in that waiting room, in will walk a rich man, and he pays no attention to that receptionist at all. He just walks right in to the chief of police office. And if the chief of police isn’t there, he just sits down in that office until he comes. He pays no attention to that receptionist at all, he just walks in.”
He said, “You know, if I go see the sheriff, I sit out there in that waiting room, and I sit there, and I sit there, and there’s that receptionist. That receptionist won’t let me in.”
And he said, “There come in a rich man, and he pay no attention to that receptionist. He just walk right on in to the sheriff’s office and sit down.”
And he says, “If I go to see the mayor, there’s a waiting room out there. And I sit, and I sit there, and I sit there but in will walk a rich man,” he says, “and he pays no attention to that receptionist. That rich man will walk right on in to the mayor’s office and he sits down in the mayor’s office.”
He said to me, “You know, up there in heaven, when we all are gathered before God,” he said, “you know, up there, we all gonna be the same. We all gonna be the same. The poor man and the rich man, we all gonna be the same.”
And he says to me, “There ain’t nobody gonna get by that receptionist to see God.” And he said to me, “You know who that receptionist is?”
I said, “No, who?”
He said, “That receptionist is Jesus Christ. And there ain’t nobody,” he said to me, “that’s gonna get to God who doesn’t go through that receptionist, Jesus Christ. He may be a rich man; he’s gotta go through that receptionist, Jesus. Poor man, he gotta go through that receptionist, Jesus. There ain’t nobody,” he says, “that’s gonna get to God who doesn’t go through that receptionist, Jesus.”
You know, that’s been in my mind and heart ever since yesterday morning. That was one of the finest sermons and illustrations I’ve ever heard. There’s nobody—rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, candlestick maker, baker—there’s nobody that’s going to get to God who doesn’t go through that receptionist, the Lord Jesus.
That’s why we press the cause of Christ upon your heart. Do you want to go to heaven when you die? It’s only through Jesus [John 10:27-30]. You want to be saved? Only Jesus can save us [Acts 4:12]. You want to see God’s face someday and live? Only Jesus can forgive our sins [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5] that we might stand in His presence, faultless, without blame [Jude 24; Ephesians 5:2]. We must go through Jesus. Jesus must take us in. Jesus must escort us before the throne. Jesus must open the door for us. It is Jesus [John 14:3].
And that’s the appeal we’ve made to your heart this blessed, precious, beautiful Lord’s day morning. To let Jesus see you through, forgive your sins, write your name in the Book of Life [Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27], present you someday in the presence of the great Glory, to live in heaven forever [Jude 1:24]. In a moment we stand to sing our song of appeal, and while we sing it, would you make that decision now for our Savior, now? “I have decided for Christ, and I’m coming, now. Look for me, pastor. I’m walking down that aisle. I’m walking down that stairway. Get your hands out to receive me, pastor. I’m coming. I’ve decided for God, for the Lord, and I’m coming.” To put your life in the church, a family, a couple, or just you, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart [John 16:7-14], make it now, come now, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.