A COMMITMENT UNTO DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-10-79 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message entitled Answering God’s Call, or A Commitment Unto Death. In the twenty-sixth chapter of the Book of Acts, in our preaching through this book, we are in the concluding part and delivering the concluding sermons out of this twenty-sixth chapter.
Paul, for the second time is describing his conversion; the third time, it is delineated in this book. And when the Lord appears to him, He asked Paul to stand, “For I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness” [Acts 26:16]. Then he is speaking to Herod Agrippa II: he says: “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But showed first unto them of Damascus,” where he was converted, and then at Jerusalem, where he next went to see Simon Peter [Galatians 1:18], and then throughout all the region of Judea, and finally to the nations of the empire, preaching repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 26:19-20, 20:21]. And our subject is taken from the avowal of the apostle to King Agrippa: “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” [Acts 26:19], answering the call of God: a commitment unto death.
When we follow through the testimony of our Lord, the call of God is first, and preeminently so, a call to accept Christ as Savior and Lord of our lives. The Christian faith begins in that. It has no beginning apart from that. First, I am to accept the Lord as my Savior.
Appearing to the apostle Paul, it was a difficult thing for him to change his way of life. He had with vengeance persecuted those that called upon the name of the Lord. He had gone to strange cities [Acts 26:11], he says, arresting them, putting them in prison, and when they were put to death, he casts his vote against them [Acts 26:10]. But the Lord says to him, speaking to him in the Hebrew tongue: “Saul, Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 26:14]. It is hard for thee, sklaros. We have a English word sclerosis; sklaros, hard. Sclerosis refers to a hardening, as arterial sclerosis would be the hardening of the arteries; sklaros, hard. And it came to mean difficult and painful. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” [Acts 26:14], kentron, an ox goad.
What had developed in the persecuting life of Saul of Tarsus had become almost unendurable for him to bear. Watching Stephen die [Acts 7:58-60], God’s first martyr, and having heard Stephen witness to the living Lord [Acts 7:2-53], it had repercussion, profound in the heart of this persecuting Saul. So the Lord says to him: “It is sklaros, hard for thee to kick against the kentron, the ox goads” [Acts 26:14].
The providences of life, I think, are always that. The man that refuses God, refuses the overtures of the grace of the Lord, who treads under foot the covenant that sanctified him, and does despite to the Spirit of grace [Hebrews 10:29], that man has a hard way. When God says yes and a man says no; when God says come and the man refuses to respond, he has a difficult choice in his life. There are so many providences by which God speaks to us. And when a man will turn and face the Lord, and as the apostle Paul did, bowing at His feet crying: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6]. When a man will do that, he has found life, and peace, and joy, and victory, and triumphant, now and forever.
I so well remember a young fellow that we were praying for, seeking to win to Jesus, and he was so obdurate and hard. But there came a providence in his life, one of great sorrow. And he came to me saying, “No longer do I say no to God. I have come for you to show me the way. I want to know how to be saved.”
It is easy to guide any man into the kingdom of our Lord who will open his heart God-ward and heavenward and Christ-ward. This is the experience of the apostle Paul, accepting the Lord as his Savior, bowing at His feet: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6].
The answer was immediate, plainly stated. First he is to be baptized. When he received his sight, forthwith, he arose and was baptized [Acts 9:18]. As he describes it when Ananias came to him, at the command and direction of the Lord, Annias said to him: “And now, why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” [Acts 22:16]. This is God’s first command to us. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, immediately we are to be baptized [Acts 22:16]; buried with the Lord, dead to the world, raised with the Lord and alive to God [Romans 6:3-4].
Then we are to be counted among the assembly of the saints. We’re to belong to the church. We’re to be numbered with the people of Christ. And Saul was with the disciples at Damascus [Acts 9:19], immediately. If there is an addition to us, it ought to be a substraction from them. When we accept the Lord as our Savior, we are baptized, and immediately and forthwith, as with Saul, we assemble ourselves, are numbered with and belong to the people of God. When we delay doing that, when we demur for some reason, it always has tragic overtones and sorrowful repercussions.
Well, well do I remember in revival meeting in one of the large churches in Atlanta, Georgia, there was given opportunity for request for prayer on the part of the church. And a mother stood up, an older woman, and with many tears asked the church to pray for her two boys. It made an impression upon my heart, and after the service I asked the pastor about that woman and her tearful request for prayer for her two sons. And the pastor said, “It’s a sad thing. It’s a sad thing. She was in a little place in Georgia, out in a country village. And her husband died and left her with two little boys. She came to Atlanta to find work and to rear those two little boys.”
As inevitably happens, inexorably so, the days multiplied into the years. And the years finally multiplied into a lifetime. So those little boys grew up; the mother taking them to church, they heard the gospel and inevitably, always when children hear the gospel, they’re saved. God made them that way; sensitive to the word of the Lord. Children are like that. You have to rear a child away from God for the child not to love God. They’re just made to respond to the appeal of Christ.
So those two little boys growing up in the church found the Lord and wanted to be baptized. So they said to their mother, “Now, Mother, let’s join the church. You come and join the church. And we’ll join the church and be baptized, and we’ll all be in the church together.” The mother replied, “Your father is buried by the church house in this little village in Georgia. I grew up in that church and my membership is there. And I just can’t take my membership out of the church. I want to leave it there.”
But the little boys said, “Mother, we want to be baptized. And we want to belong to the church here. And we want you to come with us. And Mother, we’re going to wait for you. And you come and then we’ll all go together. And we’ll be baptized, and you put your membership in the church.” So they waited. And the mother felt that she couldn’t take her membership out of the country church where she grew up, and by the side of which her husband was buried. So the years multiplied inexorably into a lifetime.
And those two boys, the pastor said to me, are now two of the most prominent and successful businessmen in the city of Atlanta. And as the years passed, the mother found a change of mind in her heart and life, and she joined the church. Then she turned to those two sons, now so successful and enmeshed in the business life and social life of Atlanta. And the boys said, “Mother, thank you, no, thank you”; married outside of church; their social interests and life outside the church. And the mother comes to church alone and stands with many tears asking for the church to pray for the two boys.
How easily, how simply, and how according to the word and will of God would it have been for the mother to say, “Children, we live in this city and we go to this church, and this is where our life, and our light, and our testimony, our witness is to be. We’ll go together.” Those two boys would have known no other thing than to worship God, belonging to the household of faith. First, answering God’s call, I am to accept Jesus as my Savior [Acts 16:30-31]. Then immediately on that confession of faith, I am to be baptized and I am to be numbered, enrolled with the people of the Lord [Acts 16:33-34].
God speaking to the apostle said to him: “Rise, stand on thy feet; I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness” [Acts 26:16]. In varying degrees, all of us are called into that kind of a service for Christ. Sometimes, the call will be as it was to the apostle, to be a missionary, a representative from the courts of heaven to the whole Roman Empire. Sometimes, as with me, it is a call to be the pastor of a church. I’ve never had any other persuasion, any other interest in my life, except to be an undershepherd of one of God’s flocks. But all of us are called into that ministry of witnessing and testimony for our Lord. And that is the highest calling that we can ever have in our lives.
As you know, I read Spurgeon a great deal. Every year we have this young man come to us from Spurgeon’s College. Each year a young preacher comes, David Warren, one of those young preachers from Spurgeon’s college. I read Spurgeon so much. I came across a letter that Spurgeon had written to his son who also followed him in the ministry. I quote from that letter, writing to his boy he says:
I shouldn’t like you, if meant by God to be a missionary, to die a millionaire. I should not like it were you fitted to be a missionary that you should dribble down to be a king. What are kings and nobles and diadems compared with the dignity of winning souls to Christ?
That’s great. I feel exactly like that. To trade places with a king and to give up my pulpit, I feel would be stepping down. Our highest and noblest calling and pursuit and commitment is not that we be millionaires, or professionally successful, or that we be famous or elected; our greatest calling, and highest commitment, is that we be true emissaries of the blessed Lord God from heaven.
John R. Mott, one of the tremendously gifted missionary statesmen and missionaries from America was invited by President Calvin Coolidge to be our American ambassador to Japan. And John R. Mott replied, “I have accepted the call of being an ambassador from the courts of heaven, and giving my life to that ambassadorship, my ears are closed and deaf to any other call.” That’s great. And that’s the way all of us ought to be in our lives. Our first calling is to serve Christ. Then as God shall give us ableness to support ourselves, or to be successful in any endeavor to which we give ourselves, may the Lord thus prosper, and continue, and remember us in our work. But our first commitment, always is to do the will of Christ; answering God with our lives.
Then last: the Lord said to the apostle an unusual thing. He said to him: “I will show you how great things you must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:16]. What an unusual definition for the Christian witness. “God said unto him: He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the nations, and kings, and the children of Israel:For I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:15, 16].
Time and again have I found in the letters of the apostle Paul references to that word of the Lord: that he should suffer for His name’s sake. I read just one out of many. In the eleventh chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul speaks of that ministry:
In labors abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons frequent, in deaths oft.
Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one—
five times, beat, thirty-nine times with stripes—
Thrice was I beaten with rods—
once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
In journeyings often, in perils of waters, perils of robbers, perils of mine countrymen, perils by the heathen, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all of the churches.
Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I am not hurt?
[2 Corinthians 11:23-29]
The whole ministry of the apostle Paul was bound up in a great, tremendous commitment.
- When they let him down over the walls of Damascus in a basket, when he first began to preach [Acts 9:25], he was still true to that calling.
- In Jerusalem, where he was sent out lest his life be prematurely taken from him; he was still true to the Lord [Acts 9:26-30].
- As he faced the wilds of Pisidia and Mark turned back [Acts 13:13], he still was true to the Lord.
- Beat, placed in jail in Philippi [Acts 16:23-24], he was still true to the Lord.
- Exposed to wild beasts in Ephesus [1 Corinthians 15:32], he was still true to the Lord.
- Ridiculed, scoffed at, laughed at, in the university city of Athens [Acts 17:32], he still was true to the Lord.
- Finally, languishing for two years in prison in Caesarea, awaiting his trial in Rome [Acts 24:27], still true to the Lord.
- Then facing execution on the Ostian Way down the Tiber River, still true to the Lord.
“I will show Him how great things He must suffer for My name’s sake” [Acts 9:16]. My dear people, that is what has gone out of the modern Christian religion. That is why our faith is anemic, and sterile, and barren. It has no blood in it. It has no tears in it. It has no sacrifice in it. We are at ease in Zion [Amos 6:1]. Our testimony is limp, and halting, and cheap, and shallow, and powerless, and barren. We give if there is anything left over. We attend if it is convenient. We never witness or testify. The great mass of so-called Christian people never win anybody to Jesus. Our service is slow, and halting, and crippled. We lack all that those first Christians had who laid down their lives for the faith.
I am not the only one that thinks that, that looks at that. When I visit Europe, hardly anybody goes to church. When I visit the British Isles, hardly anyone even bothers to attend church. America is becoming increasingly like that. Four-fifths of all of the pews of the churches in New England could be taken out and they would never be missed. And that kind of thing is beginning to assail and overwhelm us here in the southland.
I say, I am not the only one observing that. Last night, I read a long, and scholarly, and learned article by a professor in a secular university. He’s no Christian. He’s not even interested in the Christian faith. The article concerned the decline and the demise of Western Christianity, and Western culture, and Western civilization, because Western civilization and culture was framed by the Christian faith.
It was Pilgrims who came to America, who laid the foundations for the greatness of our America. It was missionaries who won people to Christ, who laid the foundation for the glory of the British Empire. It was Christianity that framed, that colored the great progress and height of Western civilization. And this author, learnedly, discussing the waning influence of the Christian faith. Less and less and less is it found a vital component in the personal life of the people, in the home life, and family life of the people, and in the national life of the people. That’s what he was saying.
And of course, the obverse, he also is saying. As the Christian faith wanes and as Christianity loses its hold upon the people and as the people increasingly look with indifference upon the claims of Christ, other things come in. Secularism comes in. Worldliness comes in. Materialism comes in. Promiscuity comes in. The home breaks down. The life is plunged into despair, and there are other isms and faiths that are marching into the vacuum, to take the place of what once was a great Christian commitment.
I want to give you an example. There is an young American. He’s a college kid. There’s a young American. He’s been converted to communism in Old Mexico. And in a letter, he is explaining to his fiancée why he is breaking off their engagement. May I read his letter?
We communists have a high casualty rate. We are the ones who get shot and hung and lynched and jailed and fined and fired from our jobs. We live in virtual poverty. We turn back to the party every penny we make above what is absolutely necessary to keep us alive. We’ve been described as fanatics. We are fanatics—“fools for Christ’s sake” [1 Corinthians 4:10]—fanatics for communism sake.
Our lives are dominated by one great overshadowing factor, namely, the struggle for world communism. We communists have a philosophy of life which no amount of money can buy. We have a cause to fight for; a definite purpose in life. We subordinate our petty personal selves into a great movement of humanity. And if our personal lives seem hard or our egos appear to suffer through subordination to the party, then we are adequately compensated by the thought that each of us in his small way is contributing to something new and true and better for mankind.
There is one thing in which I am in dead earnest and that is the communist cause. It is my life, my business, my religion, my hobby, my sweetheart, my wife, my bread and my meat. I work at it in the daytime. I dream of it at night. Its hold on me grows, not lessens. I cannot carry on a friendship or even a conversation without relating it to this force which both drives and guides my life. I evaluate people, books, ideas, and actions according to how they affect the communist cause. I’ve already been in jail because of my ideas and if necessary, I’m ready to go before a firing squad.
That marches! That’s revolution! That’s turning the world around! And in my lifetime, just mine, I have seen one-half of the world’s population fall under the domination of that kind of a consecration. And in my same lifetime, I have seen the anemic worthlessness of empty profession in the name of Christ destroy our witness in the world.
And if there is not a change in us, if there is not a rededication in us, if there is not a reconsecration in us, we’re going to live to see the day when we’ve lost America and lost Western civilization, and lost the freedoms and liberties that came to us in the name of Christ. And in their stead, there will be a marching communist, or there will be a Mecca-bowing Muslim, or there will be a guru from Hindu religion sitting in our place, standing in our stead. My dear people, this is a war and a confrontation and a battle unto death, and it will be either we or they. That’s the cry of some of these Christians who are beginning in a new way to consecrate their lives to the Lord.
I was sort of helped and enheartened by that article that I read last night from this learned scholar saying, but there are signs, there are signs of a new commitment and a new rising and a new spirit among some of the Protestant people who live in America.
What, though I stand with the winners
Or perish with those that fall?
Only the cowards are sinners,
Fighting the fight is all.
Strong as my foe—who advances!
And God knows that’s right.
Snapped is my blade, O Lord!
And that’s right, we’re about to go under.
See their proud banners advancing!
But spare me the stub of a sword!
Keep me from turning back,
The handles of my plow with tears are wet.
The shears with rust are spoiled and
And yet, and yet, my God, my God,
Keep me from turning back.
[adapted from “Battle Cry,” John G. Neihardt]
We live in desperate times. These are days of decision. They are destiny determining. This is the time for God’s people to rise.
And that is our appeal to your heart, answering God’s call, a commitment as long as life shall last; first, foremost, primary, fundamental, “I accept Jesus as my Savior and Lord.” It begins in that commitment. “I believe Him to be all that He said that He was, able to do all that He promised to do. I accept Him as my Savior and Lord [Luke 2:11]. I will be baptized in obedience to His great command [Matthew 28:19], following His own holy and righteous example [Matthew 3:13-17], and I will be numbered with the people of God.”
“I will accept from the Lord my assignment in life,” maybe to be a housewife; to rear children; maybe to be a witness in the business world, in the professional world; maybe to serve God as a menial servant with a menial task. “Whatever my assignment is from heaven, I shall ask God to bless my witness in it. And please the Lord, if it were to cost me my life, I am willing to lay down my life in the faith for the blessed Jesus” [Revelation 2:10]. That is God’s call to us today. As in every day, so in our day to accept the Lord, to be baptized [Acts 2:38], to belong to the household of faith [Hebrews 10:24-25], to receive from His hands our assignment, and to be true to it as long we live.
In a moment we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal; no one leaving, all of us praying in this time of invitation. And a family you, a couple you, a one somebody you from the balcony round, down one of these stairways, from side to side down one of these aisles, “I have heard. I have known God’s call for me. And here I stand, pastor, this morning. This morning I am taking the Lord as my Savior” [Romans 10:8-13]. Or, “I am coming to be baptized.” Or, “I am coming to put my life in the church” [Hebrews 10:24-25]. Or, “I am answering God’s special call for me.” As the Spirit presses the appeal; as the Lord opens the door, answer with your life. May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and as we sing.