October 29th, 1978 @ 7:30 PM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-29-78 7:30 p.m.
We praise God with you, happy choir and joyful instrumentalists. When you smile, we smile; when you are exuberant, we are on top of the world; and when you look sad and are not present, we are discouraged. So the Lord make you good leaders, as we follow in the love of Jesus, singing and glorifying God with you.
Once again, welcome, the uncounted thousands who all over this vast southwest, and especially in this extended Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, are listening to the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled: Lettering In. Usually the phrase says, “lettering out,” but we are going to turn it, Lettering In. And it comes from something written in the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. And we turn to that passage now; and we are going to read it together. All of us, Acts chapter 18, we shall begin at verse 24 and read to the end of the chapter. And the text will be found in verse 27; Acts chapter 18, beginning at verse 24. All of us out loud together:
And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus.
This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.
And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.
And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace:
For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was Christ.
And you notice in the passage the writing of a letter [Acts 18:27]. From Ephesus, where Apollos, this brilliant, eloquent Alexandrian was taught fully in the way of the Lord [Acts 18:26], the brethren there wrote a letter to the church at Corinth that he was a fellow Christian, a fellow disciple, and they were to receive him as such: who, when he came, encouraged them much who had been saved by the grace of Jesus [Acts 18:27].
So we have in the Scriptures, don’t we, a letter from one church to another church? From these brothers and sisters to those brothers and sisters saying, “We commend to you this child of God.” What we call a church letter or joining the church by letter. The development of that in our modern Christian communion is sometimes astonishing and amazing to me!
I remember so poignantly holding a revival meeting in one of the large cities of the heartland of America. And on a Sunday morning, there was, after the invitation extended, there was deepening interest with a woman, standing there while the congregation and choir were singing the invitation hymn. And as the moments passed, the pastor went back and spoke to her, and then the family gathered round; and then friends gathered round. And the choir sang the invitation and they sang and they sang. And the pastor pled with the woman, and the family gathered round and the friends were plainly pleading with the woman. And finally she responded and came down to the front. Standing there in the pulpit, I thought, oh, what a glorious and incomparable victory—some great spiritual triumph hath the Lord brought to pass.
So we were all seated and the harvest God had given us that hour was introduced to the congregation. And when the pastor came to that woman, I thought he was going to record some wonderful and marvelous spiritual epoch. What he did was, he introduced the woman, she had transferred her letter from one church in that city to that church. And that was it! I can so well remember my heart sinking in the chair with me as I sat in the pulpit and watched it. So that is a marvelous and spiritual triumph. She moved her letter from over yonder to over here, after long praying, and pleading.
Now according to the Scriptures, there is a biblical basis for the joining of a church by letter. Apollos did that. When he moved from the city of Ephesus to the city of Corinth, they wrote a letter, and they commended him to the brethren of Achaia; Corinth its capital city [Acts 18:27].
You have another instance of a letter when Paul wrote to the church at Rome. She had in her hand this theological treatise that we call the epistle to the Romans, and he writes a letter, saying in chapter 16, “I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant,” a deaconess, “of the church which is at Cenchrea” [Acts 16:1]. That’s the port city on the bottom side of Corinth. “That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succorer of many, and of myself also” [Romans 16:2]. This is a letter that Paul writes to the church at Rome and places it in the hands of Pheobe, the servant of the church.
You have another instance of a letter that Paul wrote to Colossae. And it is addressed to Philemon. Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, is writing from the Mamartine dungeon in Rome:
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer,
And to our beloved Apphia—the wife of Philemon—and to Archippus—the son of Philemon and Apphia—our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house . . .
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus—a runaway slave—whom I have begotten in my bonds:
Which in time past was to thee unprofitable—Onesimus means profitable. So he plays upon the word of his name, in times past, aonesimus, unprofitable—but now—Onesimus—profitable to thee and to me:
Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is of my very heart.
[Philemon 1, 2, 10-12]
So in the Scriptures, you have abounding testimony to the practice of writing a letter when one moves from this city to that city, as Onesimus was sent by Paul from Rome far away in the Lycus Valley, in mid-Asia Minor, to the city of Colosse.
But this modern practice of leaving our religion, our church membership, back somewhere far away is a new and a modern and a monstrous development. I pled with a family, “Oh, dear family, your children,” they were juniors, “your children have been saved; and they are going to be baptized; and they are going to belong to the family of God. Now you come also, and move your letter, move your membership with us.”
And they replied to me, “No, you know, we may go back home where we came from.”
“Well,” I said, “However that may be, your children are going to be baptized. They have been saved. They are going to belong to us. You come and belong to us also.”
“No!” they replied to me, “No. No. We are going to leave our letters back home at the home church because we may return there.”
“Well,” I said, “How long has it been since you have been back home? And how long has it been that you lived here, thinking you might return home?”
And they said, “Sixteen years.” Sixteen years, they have been planning to go back home and they leave their religion, and they leave their letter, and they leave their church membership back home. “We are going back home someday,” and it already had been sixteen years.
This is not an isolated incident. This is a normal pattern in so much of our Christian life. I held a revival meeting in one of the great cities on the eastern seaboard. They took a census of the city. And at that time—and the Lord only knows how many now—at that time, there were twenty-five thousand, and beyond, Baptists in that city whose membership was in some other town, in some other place.
I held a meeting in one of the great cities in mid-America. And in the census of that city that they took, there were more than thirty thousand Baptists who had left their membership, and their faith, and their religion, and their testimony back home somewhere. I have been in California many times. And the Lord in heaven only knows how many hundreds of thousands of Baptists there are in California who have left their membership, and their faith, and their religion, and their witness, and their testimony back home—back East.
Again I say, there is a scriptural reason for a church letter. It is right that a church write to another church commending this family, this fellow Christian, to the new congregation, to the new city, to the new home. There is also a methodological reason for it. Back home, they have a church roll too. And the clerk keeps the names of all of these who have been baptized and who love the Lord and who are present in that congregation. Then when they come to another city, and they have another home, and they belong to another congregation, it is methodologically good that the church clerk send a letter to that church and say, “This is a family that we are dismissing from our congregation and church roll, that they may add it to the church of the family of God there.”
All of that is good but oh, dear, how could it ever be thought that religion is a matter of paper, of writing a letter that I transfer my religion, my faith and my witness; I transfer that by letter? That comes with me wherever I am. There however I am, is my witness, and my testimony, and my religion before the Lord.
Look at this passage that Paul writes in the Second Corinthian letter in the third chapter. He says:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.
[2 Corinthians 3:1-3]
When I come, I bring my religion with me, whatever kind it is, and it is never mediated or communicated or carried by a piece of paper. That is unthinkable, that is unimaginable that we’ve ever come into the persuasion that I transfer my faith and my witness with a piece of paper. And if I don’t transfer the piece of paper, then I have no faith, and I have no witness, and I have no testimony. No; a thousand times no! Wherever I am, wherever I live, there is my witness and my testimony for God. And I need, I need in the new home and in the new city, I need that that witness be conjoined and combined with that of the people of God. If I move from Ephesus to Corinth, may I greatly encourage the brethren who are in Corinth. Or, if I am sent from Rome to Colosse, there may I be a blessing to the people who receive me and know me in the name and in the faith of the Lord.
Now I have four reasons why it is I think that immediately when we come into another city and can find our way to the brethren who love God in that metropolis, in that area, why it is I ought to immediately identify myself with the people of God. Number one: I need to do it for my own soul’s sake. I need to do it! I need to do it! When I go to church, there is the bread of life to feed my soul. There is the water of life, the exposition of God’s Holy Word, from which I drink. And there is the sweet fellowship of the praises of Jesus as we sing together, as we pray together, as we listen to the expounding of the Word of God together. And it blesses my soul and my life, to identify myself with the people of the Lord. When I don’t, I starve my soul, my heart atrophies; and I grow cold and indifferent.
There was a pastor who did an unusual thing. He visited a man who was not in the church, but had moved to the city. It was a cold, winter day. And when he visited with the man, he sat down by his side before a big burning fire. And as they sat there, the pastor took the long poker, and he pulled out of those burning coals one of the burning embers. And he dragged it out on the hearth. And the one ember alone, separated from the blazing fire, dragged out on the hearth, soon died, soon was cold; soon ceased to flame and to burn. And without the pastor saying a word, the man turned toward him and said, “Preacher, I see. I’ll be there next Sunday.”
We’re that way—alone! Somehow we grow cold and indifferent. All of us conjoined make a fire; we make a blaze, a burning, in the presence of the Lord. We need encouragement. The world is so much against us. And temptation and coldness and indifference simply slay us. We need the encouragement of one another. We need the encouragement of the church. Many times we fall into such deep problems and such spiritual confrontations. We need what the church has to offer our trembling hearts. That’s why the church was organized; why it was built; why Christ gave it to us that we might encourage each other in the faith, in the pilgrim way. I need to put my life in that church. I need it for my soul’s sake.
Number two: I need to put my life in that church for the sake of the people of God, for the pastor, for those who march and worship and glorify God by his side. For they need encouragement, and when I join myself to them, the pastor is encouraged; the deacons are encouraged; the Sunday school leadership is encouraged; the Training Union leadership is encouraged; the choir—the whole vast multi-faceted ministries of the Lord, all are encouraged when I respond with my life.
You know, did you ever think why it is that the Lord asked us publicly to confess our faith in Him? [Matthew 10:32; Romans 10:9-10]. Why couldn’t a man do it privately? When you think of that, all the way through, God has done that. That dark Passover night, the Israelites were to take the blood of the lamb and with a hyssop, sprinkle it in the form of a cross on the front door of the house; at the top of the door, the lintel and the door posts on either side [Exodus 12:7, 22-23]. Publicly seen, why couldn’t they have sprinkled that blood on the closet or on the kitchen door at the back? Because God says His people are to be publicly identified, publicly committed. The blood is to be on the front door of the house [Exodus 12:7, 22-23].
And when you read it in the New Testament, listen to the words of Jesus: Matthew 10:32-33: “Truly I say to you, Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess before My Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I deny before My Father which is in heaven.” Or Romans 10:9-10, “With the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” That is the universal appeal and demand and mandate of God. I am publicly to identify myself with the Lord and His people.
Now why? Now why? Well, I think it’s those two things. One: I need it. When I publicly testify for the Lord, stand up for Jesus, I am strengthened in the faith. And again, when I publicly commit my life to Christ, I encourage the pastor, and I encourage the church, and I encourage the people of the Lord.
Did you know there’s one time in my life, I’d give anything in the earth if I could unravel the skein of the years and go back to that day and to that time. It was like this. I was standing in Hyde Park and there had come to that area in London where on Sunday thousands mill around and listen to all of those speakers, there had come to that place in Hyde Park in London, there had come a humble pastor. He had a man on this side of him, evidently a deacon, and a man on this side of him, evidently a deacon. And he was standing there in the midst of that throng on Hyde Park. And he was saying the dearest, sweetest things about Jesus that you ever heard. Humbly, beautifully, preciously, he was saying to the people how much Jesus had meant to him and what the Lord could mean to them.
Well, in the crowd were sons of Belial: bestial, uncouth, unnatural, inhuman beings. And they spoke violently against that pastor. I was amazed and astonished; and one of them especially, I remember. He walked up into the face of the pastor and pointed his finger at him, and then pointing to the crowd, he said, “Jesus Christ, if I could get my hands on You, I’d crucify You again today, as you were crucified two thousand years ago. And we would kill You today. We’d murder You today as they did two thousand years ago; if we could just get our hands on You.”
Do you know what? I stood there, through all of that, and never said a word! That’s why I would to God, I could go back through the years and stand in that place. You know what I’d do? I’d make my way up to that pastor. I would stand by his side. And when that blasphemy was uttered, I’d lift up my hand and say, “Men and woman, I want you to know I am from America. I am a visitor; maybe I have no right to speak. But I want you to know, that as a visitor and as an American, I am a Christian. And I have found refuge and peace and hope and promise in Jesus as my Savior.” I would to God I had done it. That’s why the Lord says openly, publicly, identify yourself, confess the faith before the people of God, and the whole world [Romans 10:9-10].
Number three: why respond to that invitation and put your life in the church? Number three: because the golden moments of opportunity so quickly flee away. We have them just now, and they’re gone forever.
In a meeting that I held in one of the great cities, it was Atlanta, one of the great cities of the South; when the warm fires of the meeting began to burn, there was a woman who came forward in the service. I don’t think I have ever seen a woman cry, sob, more piteously, heartbrokenly than that dear woman. After the service was over, I said to the pastor, “What was the burden of heart of that dear and blessed woman who cried so piteously?”
And the pastor said, “Well, it will be hard for you to understand the burden of her heart unless you had fallen into the same tragic mistake that had overwhelmed her.” She belonged to a little country church in Georgia. And if you have ever been in those little rural churches, you can understand how the family cemetery is there; mother and father buried there; you were born-again there; you were baptized there—a little country church in Georgia. But she and her husband moved to the city of Atlanta. And there were two boys born to them in Atlanta. And as the days passed, why, those two boys became of the age of accountability. And those two boys responded to the invitation of the pastor to give their hearts to the Lord Jesus. And those two little boys went to the mother and said, “Mother, we want to be baptized, and we’ll belong to the church, and we want you to come with us.”
And the mother replied, “Children, I could not leave the church in the country where my mother and father are buried, where I was baptized. I could not do that.”
“Oh, mother,” those little boys said, “We’re going to be Christians now, and we want to be baptized, and we want you to come with us.”
“Oh,” said the mother, “no, I could not leave the church at home.”
So the days passed, and the days have a habit of growing into months. And the months have a habit of growing into years. And in the providence of God, those two little boys grew up; and he named them to me two be two of the leading businessmen in the city of Atlanta. And as the days passed, down the aisle that mother came, placing her life in that church and asking prayer for her two sons. And the pastor said to me that the mother went to those two boys and pled with them. And the boys smiled and said, “Mother, we understand. But we found another life.”
And the pastor said to me, “I went to each one one those big businessmen and I pled with them about Jesus. And they smiled and said, ‘Pastor, we understand. But we have our own lives now. And we have found our own way. And God bless you in your way. And we’re going ours.’ And he said, that’s why that mother cries.”
O, there is a time
We know not when,
A place we know not where
That marks the destiny of men
To glory or despair.
[from “The Hidden Line, The Destiny of Men,” Joseph Addison Alexander]
The time is now! And those golden moments may not come back in a forever [2 Corinthians 6:2].
Last: why should we place our life in the church with the people of God? The last one: for Jesus’ sake! For Jesus’ sake! For His sake! I owe it to Him. I am here. God bless me as I seek to witness and testify to His loving grace here.
A fellow went to a man who was so indifferent and said to him, “Do you know that Jesus died for you?”
And the man tartly replied, “Listen, I’ve been told that stuff all of my life. Yes, I know He died for me.”
And the man said to him, “Do you thank Him? Do you thank Him?”
It was an arrow to his soul. And the next service, he was down the aisle at the church; took the pastor by the hand and said to him that unusual word, “Pastor, I have come forward to thank Jesus for dying for me.”
That’s it! Lord, Lord, if I had a forever, I could not count the blessings You have poured out upon me! If I had an eternity I could not adequately, fully say the depth of my gratitude for dying for me! And Lord, I want to be counted among those who say, “Thank you, Jesus.” I want to be numbered with those who praise Thy name. And count me in Lord. I am lettering in; count me in. I am walking in.
“Count me in, preacher. I am believing in, and here I am, here I come!” Oh, bless you, bless you, as you answer with your life!
“Pastor, I’ve never accepted the Lord; I do tonight” [Romans 10:8-13]. “Pastor, I’ve never been baptized; I am going to be baptized tonight” [Matthew 28:19]. “Pastor, I live in this great metropolitan area, and this is going to be my home. My witness and testimony to Jesus will meld with the glorious witness of this dear church. I am coming. I’m going to bring my family. We are all coming tonight.” Or just one somebody you; on the first note of that first stanza, make it now. When you stand up, stand up walking down that stairway, coming down that aisle. Do it. Angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. The brethren wrote a letter to the church, commending Apollos to them
B. Development of this in our modern communion astonishing
1. After much pleading, a woman transferred her letterII. Scriptural basis for joining a church by letter
A. This letter from Ephesus to Corinth for Apollos(Acts 18:27)
B. Paul to the church at Rome commending Phoebe(Romans 16:1-2)
C. Paul to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus(Philemon 1-2, 10-12)III. The modern practice of leaving church membership back home somewhere
A. Children converted, belong to church; parents leave letter in hometown
B. Census showed thousands leaving membership in other citiesIV. Methodological reason for a church letter
A. Church roll and records
B. But unthinkable that religion is a matter of paper
1. My faith and witness comes with me where I am(2 Corinthians 3:1-3)V. We ought immediately to identify with the people of God where we are
A. For our own soul’s sake
1. The one ember alone grows cold
B. For the sake of the pastor and the people (Matthew 10:32-33, Romans 10:9-10)
1. Standing silent in Hyde Park
C. For the sake of a golden moment, a present opportunity
1. Mother who would not join when her boys wanted to
D. For the sake of Christ