My Life and My Church
December 31st, 1978 @ 10:50 AM
MY LIFE AND MY CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-31-78 10:50 a.m.
As I was going to say, on the radio and on television, you are with us in heart and spirit in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled My Life and My Church. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter twenty. And this will be about the third or the fourth sermon that I have preached on the twenty-eighth verse. It is one of the most meaningful verses to me, in my pastoral ministry, of any in the entire Word of God. The verse is this: Paul speaking to the pastors of the church in Ephesus, he says:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God—to shepherd, to care for—the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.
My Life and My Church: it would be difficult to over emphasize the dearness and the preciousness of the bride of Christ to our Lord. The church is His body; the church is His bride; the church is the temple of the Lord. It is precious in His sight. He bought it and purchased it with His own blood.
When you come to the end of the life of our Lord in the days of His flesh, what remained of all of His ministry was a church. That’s why I had us to read together that wonderful passage in Matthew 16: “On this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18].
When the Lord ascended up into heaven [Acts 1:9-10], He left down here in the world His church. The great doctrines of salvation are summarized by the ordinances in the church. The ordinances are peculiarly the possession of the house and the people of God. They do not belong to the state, to the judiciary, to the legislature, to the school system. The ordinances were given to the church; they were ordained in the church. And as such they present fully, beautifully, completely the great doctrines of salvation.
The recurring church ordinance: the bread is His body, and the crushed fruit of the vine is the crimson of His life [1 Corinthians 11:23-25]. This is His atonement for our sins [Matthew 26:28].
The initial church ordinance, baptism, is the burial of our Lord and the resurrection of our Lord. Paul defined, described, delineated the gospel in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. As he begins, “My brethren, I declare,” I define for you, “the gospel.” What is it? “How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:3]. That’s the recurring church ordinance: His body, His blood, His suffering on the cross, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:3]. Then the second ordinance, “He was buried, and the third day He was raised again according to the Scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:4]. This is the gospel! And when a man preaches the gospel, that’s what he preaches. And the gospel is framed and forever dramatized in those two ordinances in the church.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the world at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-4], it empowered and quickened a church. In that second chapter of the Book of Acts that describes this ascension gift from heaven [Acts 2:1-4], those that believed were added to the church. “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” [Acts 2:47].
The Holy Spirit lives in, and moves in, and quickens, and empowers a church. The fruit of all of the missionary journeys described in the New Testament is to be found in the churches that were ringing the Mediterranean Sea. When Paul was done with his missionary journeys, he spoke of the churches of Judea, and the churches of Samaria, and the churches of Asia, and the churches of Galatia, and the churches of Macedonia, and the churches of Achaia. The fruit of the preaching of the gospel by an apostle, a missionary, an evangelist always is the church.
The last address of our Lord in the New Testament, in the Revelation, in the last book of the Bible is addressed to the seven churches of Asia [Revelation 2:1-3:22]. And He speaks to His churches today as He spoke to those churches in the Roman province of Asia. I could sum up the loving attitude of our Lord toward the church in Ephesians 5:25—“Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.” And I can sum up the spirit and the heart and the attitude of the apostles and the missionaries and the evangelists of the New Testament toward the church in this my text:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to the flock, over which God hath made you overseers,
to shepherd, to care for—
the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.
And this is my life in God’s house—with God’s people in the church. The American, you’ll find all over the world, every city you’ll ever visit, all the way around this earth. In every country and nation, there you’ll find the American. A man wrote a book entitled The Ugly American. And I can see why he would write such a book. So much of what you find in the American tourist, and in the American businessman, and in the American entertainer as he goes abroad is so antithetical to the spirit of Christ and to the spirit of God.
But wherever you go, you will also find the people of the Lord. And I love to identify my own soul, and heart, and life, and love, and interest with them. I may not understand their language; they may be of a different color from my skin; they may conduct their services in a different way: but, if they are God’s people and they are gathered in the name of Christ, I feel at home with them.
I believe in what they believe in. I believe in the gospel that they preach. I believe in the Book out of which they guide the lives of their families and their children. I believe in the Spirit of God who moves in our hearts [1 Corinthians 6:19-20], and lives in our midst. I believe in Jesus, who is our great Intercessor and Savior in heaven! [Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25]. And I believe in the glorious promise that someday He is coming again! [Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7].
And wherever in the world I am—and I’ve been around it three times; I’ve crossed the equator more than twelve times. I have been in so many cities and villages and countries of this earth—wherever I am, there I am at home when I find myself gathered with the people of God. It is a benediction just to see them, hear them sing, preaching the gospel when I can’t understand a syllable of what they say—but the spirit of it I feel in my heart.
And, of course, out of all the churches in the world, the one dearest and most precious to me is our wonderful First Baptist Church in Dallas. I love being a part of it. I love the fellowship and the communion of the Spirit of God with you. I love to sing with you, to pray with you, to kneel before God with you. I love to share in the services with you. I love to pray about the programs of the church—its many-faceted ministries. I love to dream with you and to look forward to the golden tomorrows God has promised us. I love everything about this dear church!
My predecessor, as you know, was Dr. George W. Truett—undershepherd of this congregation for forty and seven years. Dr. Truett was a close personal friend of John D. Rockefeller, Senior. The elder Rockefeller—the founder of the great Standard Oil Company and the Rockefeller empire and fortune—the elder Rockefeller was the superintendent of the Sunday school at the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. And upon a time when they were without a pastor, John D. Rockefeller asked the committee of the church to come down here to Dallas and to invite his friend, Dr. Truett, to be the pastor of the church in Ohio. The committee came, only to be disappointed in the response of the great pastor. “No! He was staying with his people, staying in Dallas.”
So as the days passed, John D. Rockefeller sent the committee down here to Dallas to visit with Dr. Truett. And John D. Rockefeller said, “You let him set his own salary. Any amount of money, we’ll be glad to pay. Let him set his own conditions. Anything that would please him, we will be happy to meet, but get him!”
So the committee came again down here to Dallas and to visit with the great pastor, George Truett. And they related to him what the committee in Cleveland and what John D. Rockefeller had promised: “Money is no consideration. Set your own salary, any salary that would please you. Write your own conditions as pastor of the church; anything you would like, we would be happy to meet.”
And Dr. Truett said, “No! No, I will not go!”
Finally the committee in desperation said, “Dr. Truett, could you be moved at all? Is there anything that we could offer that would move you?”
He said, “Yes! Yes!”
And the committee, thus being encouraged, said, “Oh, Dr. Truett, tell us—what is it that would give you cause to move? What would move you?”
And he replied, “Move my people and I will move with them.” He stayed in this church forty-seven years—undershepherd, caring for God’s flock. That’s part of the greatness and the nobility of the heritage of this congregation.
I set one time at a Southern Baptist Convention high up in the auditorium—in one of those balconies. And by my side was seated one of God’s great laymen, John L. Hill of the Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tennessee. And seated there, we were listening to George Truett as he was preaching from the platform. And as Truett was delivering his message in incomparable tones and gesture and manner, Dr. Hill turned to me, and he said, “Look at him! See him! Watch him!” He said to me, “That’s the only man I know in the world that cannot be moved.”
So many of the other pastors among them—Ellis Fuller, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia—leaving their pulpits to enter other ministries in the denomination and the faith; yet, that man, John L. Hill, says, “That man is wedded to his church. He loves his church. He’s staying with his people. You couldn’t move him.” That stayed and stays in my heart through all of these years and years since Dr. Hill made that observation to me—I also love this church.
I’d rather be a member of this church than to belong to anything else in the world. In fact, I suppose the only thing in the world I belong to is the First Baptist Church in Dallas. I love everything about it. I love this old beat up auditorium; it was built in 1890. How many years is that? Eighty-nine years ago—built in 1890. We still worship in it. It fits like an old shoe. I just love coming into this place. And someday, of course—it’s made out of wood; its brick veneer—someday it will have to be torn down; but I don’t want to be here when they do it. I want to be in heaven when they tear this sanctuary down. I love this place!
I love thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blessed Savior bought,
With His own precious blood.
I love Thy church, O God.
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand . . .
For her my tears shall fall.
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my toils and cares be given
Till toils and cares shall end . . .
[“I Love Thy Kingdom Lord”; Timothy Dwight, 1800]
I love to be numbered with the people in this church. Put my name down: I belong to this congregation. Again, My Life and My Church: we have an assignment from heaven, all of us. And all of us are to share in it. It isn’t just one of us, or two of us—it’s the thousands of us!
One of the great revelations of God in the Book of Corinthians is this: That God has given to each one of His people gifts [1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40]. If you take the Bible words: charis, (grace); charisma, (a grace gift); charismata, (plural—grace gifts); the word is so banded-about today until it’s kind of lost the meaning that it had when Paul used it.
But Paul said all of us have charismatic gifts—all of us do! They are sovereignly bestowed by the Spirit of God [1 Corinthians 12:7]. And we differ in those gifts [1 Corinthians 12:8-11, 27-31]: you have a gift; you have a gift; you have a gift; and each one of us has a gift—maybe several of those gifts. And they are all to be used for the building up of the body of Christ.
And Paul illustrated it. He said: the body is not all foot; it’s not all hand; it’s not all ear; it’s not all eye. But there’s a need for the foot, for the hand, for the eye, for the ear. And the foot can’t say to the hand: I don’t need you. And the hand can’t say to the eye: I don’t need you. And the ear can’t say to the eye: I don’t need you. But all of the members of the body, fitly joined together, are built up into the loving grace of our Lord [1 Corinthians 12:12-27].
That is the church! We differ so greatly in our gifts; but every gift is needed. And when all of us come together; and our gifts, and our talents, and our blessings from heaven are consecrated to Him, the church is strong; and it’s healthy; and it’s vigorous; and it’s viable and alive. And it has a marvelous ministry in the earth.
I must be faithful to my brethren in the church. They must count on me and let me count on them. There is a ministry that each one of us has; and I have a part in it. And if I don’t carry my part, somebody else has to carry his part; and it’s a heavier load for him. It’s like a yoke; and we’re yoked together. And when I pull and you pull, we share that burden; but if you pull and I don’t, then it is heavy for you.
I must be faithful to you and true to you. And I must bear my part so that God’s chariot can go forward in power, in speed, accomplishing the purpose for which God has sent us. And I must be true to the faith: this blessed gospel revelation of the mind of the Lord in Christ Jesus unto death; I must be true to it! I must not fail it!
I cannot remember how this is; but somehow in my reading, I can remember a story that went something like this: the Christians are being fed to the lions in the great Coliseum. And those thousands of people tiered up, watching those ferocious beasts devour God’s children—exalting and rejoicing in the blood that was shed.
Well, the Christians were called out one at a time to face those carnivorous beasts. And as this Christian was called, as he left to enter the arena—to face the death of those ravenous animals—as he left to enter the arena, another Christian, a friend in the congregation of Christ, came back. And they passed like this—one of them going into the arena to face death and the other one returning safe, secure—and as they passed, the Christian that was going into the arena to face a horrible death said to the Christian who was coming back, said to him: “Maranatha, maranatha (the Lord cometh). I’ll see you in the morning on the other side of the river.” And he passed by, entering the arena, to seal his faith with his blood. What he didn’t know was this: that the Christian who was coming back had recanted the faith and had denied the Lord. And his life was spared because he had surrendered his faith.
Of those two, God help me, God help us to be the Christian that, if we were confronted with a gladiatorial confrontation in a coliseum with ferocious beasts, we’d gladly lay down our lives. We would never recant or deny the faith. We’ll seal it with our blood—My Life and My Church.
All of the values that we hold dear are foundational in the church; the church supports them; brightly keeps them. Everything we hold precious in our hearts, in our lives, is kept in the church—sustained and supported by the church. Let me name some. Number one: the very world in which we live is surrendered from judgment and from the awful outpouring of the wrath of God, because in it is the church. Maybe a small minority, but the only thing that stands between the judgments of God upon this earth is the church. It’s exactly as those angels going down into Sodom said to Abraham: “We are going down to see if the iniquity of the city is as it has come up unto God. And if it is, if it is, judgment shall fall!” [Genesis 18:16, 20-21].
And as the two angels went on their way, the Bible says,
Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham said to God: O God, would You destroy the righteous with the wicked?
That be far from Thee . . . will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
And God said: I will not destroy the righteous with the wicked.
And then Abraham begins his prayer.
Peradventure, there be fifty righteous in the city—
would You destroy . . . the fifty righteous?
God said: No! If there are fifty in the city, I will spare it for the sake of fifty.
Then Abraham carries through his prayer.
Forty-five, forty . . . if there are thirty righteous . . . if there are twenty . . . if there are ten!
And God Almighty said to Abraham: If there are ten righteous in the city of Sodom, I will spare it for the sake of ten
Ten could not be found; and because they were not found, God’s judgment of wrath was poured out upon Sodom [Genesis 19:24-29].
It is the same thing in the world today. The only organization, the only group that stands between the wrath and judgment of God upon this earth is the church, the people of God! Let me show you in the fourth chapter of the Book of the Revelation—in the fourth chapter, there is a door opened into heaven; and John is raptured. He is taken out of this earth and is raptured up to heaven [Revelation 4:1-2]. And that is a type of all the people of God, who someday will be raptured through an open door into heaven [1 Thessalonians 4:13-17].
And when John is raptured into heaven [Revelation 4:1-2]—chapters 4 through 19 [Revelation 4:1-19:21], are called the days of the tribulation and the great tribulation—the wrath and judgment of God, the vials of God’s wrath are poured out upon this sinning and iniquitous world [Revelation 15:1-16:21]. The church disappears in the fourth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, and you don’t see it again until the nineteenth chapter, when you see Jesus returning with His bride, with His saints, with His church [Revelation 19:11-14].
That is, the judgment of God cannot fall in this world as long as we are in it! It is the presence of the people of God that withhold the awful wrath and judgment of Almighty God upon this world!
It’s like the angel said to Lot in Sodom: “Escape, flee! For I cannot do anything, until thou be come thither” [Genesis 19:22]. As long as righteous Lot is in Sodom, the fire could not fall and did not. It is thus with this earth; it is the presence of the church, the people of God in it, that shields this world from the awful visitation of the great tribulation [2 Thessalonians 2:6-7]. Not only that, but the very properties we own, the values of what we possess are sustained and fortified and secured by the church.
Let me be crass for a minute; let me be mundane and terrestrial for a minute; let me be very worldly, materialistic for just a minute. I want you to tell me how much do you think a home was worth in Sodom? How much? Tell me! What do you think about the prospects of a suburban development in Gomorrah? Tell me—what do you think the value was to Naboth and his vineyard in Jezreel when Jezebel was on the throne? [1 Kings 21].
Let’s bring it down to us today: tell me—you tell me—what do you think of any property that you might possess in an atheistic and a communist land? You tell me! The government owns everything; the state owns everything. And the people live off of the largess of those who are in power—in those Kremlin and communist and totalitarian governments.
The very value of what we possess is guaranteed to us, fortified for us, secured to us by the people of God. And when they are crushed, we have no liberties and we have no possessions. We are pawns of the government.
May I bring this a little closer home? There was a wealthy miner in Montana who decided, in his atheism and infidelity, that he was going to build him a town without God, and without a preacher, and without a church. He’s going to build it just as he designed. So he took a thousand acres, and on that thousand acres of land, he beautified a beautiful little city. He had paved streets in it; lights, parks, hospital, theater, dance hall, clubhouse, schools—everything. He took his fortune and built that beautiful little city. The only thing he said was: “There’s to be in it no preacher, and no church, and no worship services, and no God! And he put a revisionary clause in all the property values, saying that if anybody came in without his knowing it and went into any such program as that, it reverted back to him. So he built his city and it had a population of five thousand.
Well, as the days passed, he found out that he had plenty of women in it, but they weren’t decent. He had lots of harlots, and whores, and whoremongers, and prostitutes. All kinds of them, but there weren’t any good women in it. As time went on, he found out that the saloons were prospering, and the men who flocked to the town loved to gamble and to get drunk and to fight. He found out that no family with children wanted to move into the city and that there were no fine people who tried to make their homes in his city. So after five years of that experiment in Montana, the bottom fell out of his little city. And he put together a manifesto that beats anything you’ve ever read in your life. And he handed this thing to the newspapers, and he handed it around in handbills. It is a curious mixture of mental incongruity and irreverence, and I read it. This is the handbill and this is the advertisement he put in the newspapers, “To whom it may concern,” Quote:
God knows that there is no such person as God, and my motto has always been “to hell with religion!” But for some fool reason, which no man can fathom, I have found by experience that we cannot do business in this country on any other basis than that silly bit of sentiment which we stamp on our coins, “In God we trust.” Therefore, infernal foolishness though it all is, I have sent out for a parson, and we’re going to build a church.
I’m exactly like the people of that frontier town in Montana. I don’t want to live in a place where there is no church! I wouldn’t want to see children brought up away from the nurture and the love of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4]. The church is the very foundation of all of the values that we hold dear to our hearts, all of them.
You may not think it through. It’s the very foundation of your own life, and of your soul and of every prospect you have here and in the world to come. All of our values are material and secular outside of the spiritual values we are taught in God. And you know what happens to a man when he is turned aside from the spiritual values of life? Let me illustrate it. I know a doctor who said to a man, “If you don’t change your way, you’re going to be the richest man in the cemetery!”
The fellow was giving himself to greed and to grasping, working at it, building his fortune, succeeding, wonderful, but what is success to a dead man? And what are riches to one moldering in the grave? And you know, it came to pass exactly as that doctor said to that businessman. When they buried him, he was the richest man in the cemetery! Burned his life out, grasping.
O Lord, I admire a man who has ambition. I admire a man who works. I admire a man who gives himself for the success of his business. God bless him in it! He just needs to remember there is more to life than money. And there are other ministries that are no less precious than those of trying to parade our successes before the world. Man, we’ve got children, and young people, and families, and homes, and we’ve got great spiritual values to inculcate in our people, and we must do it! However busy I may be, otherwise, I must also remember the responsibility I have unto God. And that leads me to my last appeal.
My Life and My Church: God has placed upon us, and our nation has placed upon us a responsibility that sometimes we hardly realize. Look, by law you cannot teach religion and religious faith in the school, and I’m in favor of it. I would not want to send our children to school and they be taught some of the things that these cults believe in. It’s disastrous! I don’t want it. Therefore, if the Supreme Court interdicts the teaching of religion in the public school, then what shall we do? This is what we shall do! The responsibility for the spiritual guidance of those children then lies in our hands. That means our church! That means our Sunday school, and for some of us who would thus choose, it means our First Baptist Academy. We can send our children; this is a God-given liberty in America. You couldn’t find anything comparable to this in a totalitarian government. When education is the entire prerogative of the government, totalitarianism is just beyond the corner!
Our great superintendent, Dr. Estes, said that. The viable choice that we have as parents in America is a precious privilege. I can send my child to a Christian school, to the First Baptist Academy, and there they can have chapel services and sing about Jesus. There they can preach the gospel, hold revival meetings, give invitations. There they can guide and shape the minds of these children in the mind of God as it was in Christ Jesus. But above all, think of the opportunity we have and the responsibility with it, to guide our children in all of these spiritual activities in the church. We mustn’t fail! We mustn’t fail!
The reason that America is reaping now the harvest of the secular, materialistic, attitudes of this coming generation lies in the way they are being taught. Their values are that. What a funny, strange thing that we could teach our children they’re animals and then be amazed that they act like it. Why, it’s an obvious repercussion. It’s the fruit of our own hands. We desperately need that ministry of spiritual life and teaching to our children. And it’s the prerogative and responsibility of the church.
My Life and My Church. If we have any future as a family, as a people, it lies in teaching these children the Word of God. My time is spent. May I mention one other? Long time now have I been praying, “Lord, Lord, there’s something You lay upon my heart? Lord, how is it.” You know, I’ve already told some of our people, when God speaks to you, He will confirm His word by outward signs. Always! If God says something to you, He will confirm that word and will by an outward sign. There’ll be a happening, there’ll be a confirmation. There’s been something that’s been laid on my heart that I’ve been praying about before God for these days and weeks and now months. And that is this: I think it is the will of God for us that we bring the message of Christ to every family, and every home, and every city, and every soul in our great city. So, we are going to designate this coming year, beginning tomorrow, we are going to designate the year as a year of evangelism, a year of soulwinning. Now, as I pray this before God and lay it before heaven—when I was pastor of my little country church of eighteen members, I could do it all; see everybody, put my arms around the whole congregation and community, and visit every home, talk to everybody in it. And I did. And when I was pastor of my little country church of forty members, I did the same thing. I knew them all. I went in to every home; I talked to them about Jesus, won them to the Lord, baptized them.
I can’t do it in Dallas. It’s too large a city. So what God says is, “Pastor, look at your people. Look at them. Arrange it so that all of those thousands of people can share in it.” For, in the long years of my pastoral work, do you know what I have learned? It isn’t because of the incorrigibility, and the obstreperousness, and the unresponsiveness of people to the appeal of the pastor; never, these are born again, saved, godly people. The reason they don’t do more in soulwinning is, they don’t know how. They need a handle to hold onto. They need something that they can do. And so, as I’ve been praying, laying all this before God, the Lord has been confirming it. He is placing in my mind and in my soul ways and approaches whereby all of us can share in it. And He sent a man to me over there, and said to me, “I’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars a year.” He had no idea I had been praying about this. He said, “I’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars a year to implement a program of soulwinning in this church. That’s one of the confirmations, I say, one of the signs from heaven. Just out of the blue of the sky, he came to me and said that.
So what we are going to do this coming year, we’re going to sit down together; we’re going to pray it through. And we’re going to make plans that include every member of this church. Every one of us! We’re going out, and we are going to knock at the door, and we are going to say something good for Jesus. We won’t win everybody. Jesus didn’t. Paul didn’t. Spurgeon didn’t. But Spurgeon said, “God will always give me some.” And I believe that when we go out and we share in this witnessing to the faith, we’re not going to win everybody, but God will give us some. And every time we gather in this holy place, it will be like a little convocation of the saints in heaven. When we see these that we’ve witnessed to coming to the Lord, O God, I believe, in Your grace and goodness, this coming year will be the sweetest and dearest and most precious year we’ve ever lived through.
The signs are everywhere. I repeat, as I’ve said so many times, it seems to me when I walk around this place, I just walk in the midst of miracles. God is here! God is in it! “He loved the church, and gave Himself for it” [Ephesians 5:25].
Now in a moment we are going to stand and sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing that precious song, “I love Thy kingdom, Lord, the house of Thine abode, I love Thy church, O God,” and while we sing that hymn, you giving your heart to Jesus; a family you, sharing your life, and love, prayers, and faith in our midst; or just one somebody you, “Today, pastor, I accept Jesus as my Savior.” Or “Today, I am coming into the circumference and communion and fellowship of this dear church, and I’m on the way.” “Preacher, just as soon as you quit talking and let us stand up, I’ll be in that aisle and down to the front.” Make the decision now in your heart. And in a moment when we stand to sing, stand up, walking down that aisle, walking down that stairway, coming down this aisle, “Here I am, pastor, I’m on the way.” May God bless you; angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.