My Traumatic Perplexities


My Traumatic Perplexities

October 3rd, 1982 @ 8:15 AM

Psalm 102;6-7

I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Psalm 102:6, 7

10-3-82    8:15 a.m.


Well, the sermon is going to be in a different world, in a different category.  All the fifty-four years that I have been a pastor, there has been one steadfast thing I have always observed:  never mention or preach or present or speak of my doubts or my hesitancies; always when you stand in God’s pulpit, preach your convictions and your affirmations.  I have never deviated from that in all this more than half a century.  But there are some things that have been on my mind, and they stay on my heart, and I have turned them over in my head for months.  And I just thought for one time in my life, I would speak of my traumatic perplexities.

As a background text, in the one hundred second Psalm, verses 6 and 7, “I am like a pelican of the wilderness:  I am like an owl of the desert.  I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop” [Psalm 102:6-7].  I have three, among others, of those traumatic perplexities: one is theological, one is denominational, and one is ecclesiastical.

First, the theological perplexity:  I am frankly perplexed at me and at our people before the awesome doctrine of hell and damnation.  Could such a thing be, that men are lost in burning hell who reject Christ?  That is the most awesome of all of the possibilities that life could ever face.  Could such a thing be true?  And if it is true, why does it not find a repercussion in me?  If a man were in a burning house, would I not try to awaken him?  If a man were drowning and I had a lifeline, would I not try to throw him the lifeline?  If I saw a man walking toward a precipice, would I not try to stop him? would I not try to call to him?  Yet I live as though there were no such judgment facing anybody:  I don’t speak, I don’t warn, my heart is unburdened.

Well, is the doctrine true?  Do we face an inevitable judgment of everlasting fire and damnation if we reject Christ as our Savior?  So I think of it.  What was there in human life that brought our Lord down to earth?  Did we need another moral teacher?   My friend, the world has had thousands of moral teachers from the beginning of the human race.  Do we need another Socrates, or another Plato, or another Zeno, or another Confucius, or another Mahavira the Buddha?  And is Christ just another moralist?  Is that why He came down here to this earth?  Or did He come to give us an heroic example?  Every nation has had its ancient heroes:  our Anglo-Saxons, the Beowulfs; the Teutonic people, their Siegfrieds; the Greek people, their Hercules and their Agamemnons.  Did He come to give us another heroic example?  What was there facing the human race that brought our Lord down from heaven to die in an ignominious, indescribable crucifixion? [Matthew 27:32-50]  Why did He come?

I can never forget that it was He who held little babies in His arms and blessed them [Mark 10:13-16].  It was He who spoke most and most solemnly about hell and damnation.  In the New Testament, thirteen times is the word gehenna used, the word for “hell” gehenna; and twelve of those thirteen times it is used by our Lord.  It is our Lord who said, “These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but these into life eternal” [Matthew 25:46].  That word aionios, translated the same, it is the same describing hell as it is describing heaven.  If there’s not any hell, there’s not any heaven.  And if hell is not everlasting, neither is heaven.  It is our Lord who said, “The rich man died and was buried; And in hell, he lifted up his eyes, being in torment … praying, I have five brethren; testify unto them, lest they come into this place also” [Luke 16:22-28].  And I haven’t time to speak of the presentation of this awesome doctrine by the apostles.  The great twentieth chapter of the judgment of the nations of the lost in Revelation [Revelation 20:11-14], closes, “And whosoever was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” [Revelation 20:15].  That troubles me.  These who have not accepted Christ, the Scriptures say, face an eternal damnation in hell—but I don’t act like it.

Mrs. Pritchett, who arranges our platform each service, called one of the leading members of the church and said, “Our pastor is conducting a revival meeting every Sunday night, and we’d like for you to come and to lead a prayer Sunday night.”  And he replied to her, “It is not in my program to attend church on Sunday night.”  My first traumatic perplexity is this doctrine of hell and perdition, and how I and my people answer it.  Is there any burden?  Is there any concern?  Do we testify?  Do we speak?  Do we pray?  Do we intercede?  Is it any care to us whether people are lost or damned?  That’s my first perplexity.  It is theological.  Can I believe the Bible, and if I do, what an awesome judgment awaits those who reject the overtures of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

My second perplexity is denominational.  I am perplexed at the loss of our great institutions.  I don’t think there’s anyone who is sensitive to development at all but that is aware that all of the great Christian universities of the North have been lost to the faith, all of them.  Harvard—Harvard was founded to train the ministry, and then that there be lay leadership in the church.  Same for Yale, same for Columbia, the same for all of those old great universities:  they were founded to propagate the faith.  They are completely secular.  They’ve been lost to the faith, all of them.  And as I look at what has happened to the great Christian institutions of the North, I see the same thing up there with regard to our Baptist institutions.  I was in Ontario when McMaster University, the great Baptist school in Hamilton, Ontario, was given to the secular world.  The liberal people had so given up the faith, that they turned the institution over to secular leadership.  It’s been hundreds of years since Brown University, our first great Baptist university, ceased to be a Christian school.

Long time ago, in this last century, in the beginning of this century, the members of the Sunday school of the American Baptist churches, the Northern Baptist Convention, took up collections, nickels and dimes, in their little Sunday school classes, to build a school for the evangelization of the Midwest.  And they took the Morgan Park Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, and built the school around that seminary for the evangelization of the Midwest.  They called it Chicago University.  And because of that devout and holy commitment of winning the lost in the heartland of America to Christ, Rockefeller endowed it with millions of dollars.  And the liberals came, who deny the Word of God; the liberals took it over, and thumbed their noses at the Baptists.  And they made an infidel school out of it.  I had a dear friend who went to Chicago University to earn a Ph.D. degree in pedagogy, in education; he’s a teacher.  And while he was up there in Chicago University getting his doctor’s degree, he made the friendship of a young theologue in the Chicago Divinity School.  And when the theologue was graduated with his degree in theology from Chicago Divinity School, he said to my friend, “You know, I’m in a great, great perplexity.  I don’t know what to do.  I have been called to a Presbyterian church in the Midwest, but it’s one of those old fashioned Presbyterian churches that believe in the Bible, and I don’t believe in the Bible, and I don’t know what to do.”  And my friend, getting his degree in pedagogy at the Chicago University, said to that young theologue, he said, “My friend, I can tell you exactly what you ought to do.”  And the young fellow brightened up and said, “What?”  And my friend said to him, “I think you ought to quit the ministry.”  And yet those schools, denying the Word of God, are lost to our Baptist communion.  But the tragedy of it is, what I see in the North, I see down here now in the South.

Our senior university in Virginia has ceased to be a Baptist school.  Our senior university in North Carolina has disassociated itself from the Baptist communion and the Baptist faith.  Little by little we are beginning to lose our great institutions here in the South in the same way that we see them lost in the North, in the denial of the Word of God.  So seeing that, I look in our denominational papers for words against these liberals who are taking over and taking out our great schools.  Instead these are the headlines that I read:  this great denominational leader, the first sentence, “Over-emphasis on biblical authority is a heresy among Southern Baptists, which is creating confusion and causing the denomination to stray from its purpose.”  And in the city where that man lives and where his board is located, we have lost the great senior Baptist university.  Why doesn’t he say something about that?  Instead he hammers away against people who are Bible-believers, inerrantists.

Take another one:  the SBC, the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “Stampeded to Swamp of Creedalism—Southern Baptists are in danger of being stampeded from their goals of missions and evangelism into a swamp of creedalism.  There are those within the convention who are trying to substitute a creed.”  Why doesn’t he say something about the loss of this great university to the secularist, to the infidels?  Not a word; you’ll never read a word about it.

“Biblical Authority Question Causes Blurring of Purpose,” and I am perplexed; I don’t know what to think.  The liberals, the infidels take our schools, they take them away from us and not a leader will ever say a word about it.  But let a man stand up for the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, and immediately the whole denominational world cuts him down; I don’t understand it.

I was over there in Spain last August.  And in a chapel in Toledo, south of Madrid about an hour’s journey, I was in a chapel that had been painted by El Greco, who was born over four hundred years ago, one of the great Christian painters of all time, El Greco.  And there in the chapel was a man with his easel and his paint brushes.  He was copying those great paintings.  So through the interpreter who was with us, I talked to him, and I said, “I’d like to have one of those paintings, a copy that you are making.”  So in visiting with him he invited us to his house, to his home.  And we went to his home that evening.  And his whole home was filled with those great copies of the marvelous artists of the world that he’d made; they were beautiful copies.  And as I went from room to room looking at them, I saw a painting—I couldn’t—I said to him, “Is that a copy of a great artist?”  And he said, “No, that’s an original from me.  This is a painting from me.”  Well, I’d never seen such a painting, and I asked him if I could buy it, and I bought it.  And I have it here in my hand.  He calls it La Biblia Crucificada, La Biblia Crucificada, “The Crucifixion of the Bible.”  And the painting is a Bible, and a hammer is in front of it.  And the Bible is face down, open face down, and there are large nails at each corner, nailing it down.  And to the left and to the side, he has painted a candle that is burned down, and the light has gone out; the crucifixion of the Bible.  So I asked him, “Why do you paint that, the crucifixion of the Bible?”  He says, “That’s my impression of what is happening in the Christian world today.”  Breaks your heart, beside.  I don’t understand.  I don’t understand.

My third perplexity is ecclesiastical; it pertains to the church.  Are we really a servant church, a Savior church, a caring church?  Are we really?  Is it a burden to us and a care to us, people, however they are, wherever they are, whatever they are:  poor, benighted, outcast, helpless, hopeless.  Really, do we care?  I’m not saying by words; I’m saying by reality, really, do we care?  Do we?

Do you remember that tragic story of one of our American boys fighting in Vietnam, wounded?  And as the days and the years passed in that conflict, his father and mother in Iowa received a telephone call from their boy.  He was in San Francisco; he’d come home.  So he called his father and mother, “Dad and Mom, I’m home, in San Francisco, and I’ll be home really in Iowa with you real soon.”

“Oh, what happy news, what glad news!  Our boy is coming home!”

So the boy says to his father and mother on the telephone from San Francisco, he says, “Dad and Mom, I have a friend who’s been with me all through the war.  He’s my buddy, he’s my pal; we’ve been together all through the war.  And Dad and Mom, if you don’t mind, I’d like to bring him with me when I come home.  Would it be all right with you?”

And dad and mom on the telephone say, “Why, certainly, son.  Certainly, son, bring the boy with you.  We’ll be glad to have him.”

So the boy says, “Well, Dad and Mom, you must understand, this friend of mine, this soldier friend of mine who’s been with me throughout the war, Dad and Mom, he’s been hurt.  He’s been wounded.  He’s got one eye gone, he’s got one arm gone, and he’s got one leg gone.”

 And the father replies, “Well now, son, now wait a minute, son, that makes things different.  We would not like to have the responsibility and the burden of a soldier like that.  So son, I’ll tell you what we’ll do, we’ll work with you and we’ll get that boy in a veterans’ hospital somewhere, and we’ll write our congressman that he’s well taken care of.  But son, we don’t think you ought to bring him here to our home.”

A day or two later, dad and mom received a call from a morgue in San Francisco.  And the man who headed the morgue said to the people in Iowa who answered the phone, “There is a soldier boy who has taken his life.  And among his effects we found this name,” and they named it, “and this address in Iowa,” and they named it, “and his parents,” named them, “and we thought maybe it was your boy.”

“Yes, that’s his name, and we’re his parents.”  They immediately went to San Francisco, and to the morgue.  And when mom and dad looked on the face of the boy, they said, “Yes, this is our boy!”  Then they looked more closely, and he had one eye gone, and one arm gone, and one leg gone.  Really, do we care?  Really?

I look at these churches all over—glorified country clubs, gathering their skirts around them, “Wouldn’t defile my garments with the flotsam and the jetsam of humanity.”

It was people like that who made America.  The Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet, and it is placed on the Statue of Liberty.  Have you read it?

… Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

[“The New Colossus”]

That was America.  And heaven is peopled with folks like that:  the poor, the refuse.  Do you remember what our Lord said?

When you make a dinner or a supper, call not your friends, or brethren, or kinsmen, or rich neighbors; lest they bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee.

But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:

And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee:  but thou shalt be recompense at the resurrection of the just.

[Luke 14:12-14]

Do we have a church like that, that really cares about humanity, the lost, the poor, the outcast, anybody anywhere, up and out, down-and-outs?  Do we really?

Vachel Lindsay, the American poet, Vachel Lindsay wrote one of his most famous poems entitled “General William Booth Enters Heaven” do you remember that poem?  He organized, he founded the Salvation Army.  And here’s Vachel Lindsay’s idea when General William Booth went to heaven:

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The saints smiled gravely and they said, “He’s come.”

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,

Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,

Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—

Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—

Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,

Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Every slum had sent its half-a-score

The round world over.  (Booth had prayed for more.)

Every banner that the wide world flies

Bloomed with glory and transcendent dyes.

Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang,

Tranced, fanatical, they shrieked and sang:—

“Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”

Hallelujah!  It was queer to see

Bull-necked convicts with that land make free.

Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare,

On, on upward thro’ the golden air!

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Booth died blind, and still by faith he trod,

Eyes still dazzled by the ways of God.

Booth led boldly, and he looked the chief,

Eagle countenance in sharp relief,

Beard a-flying, air of high command

Unabated in that holy land.

Jesus came from out the courthouse door,

Stretched His hands above the passing poor.

The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled

And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!

Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!

Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,

Rulers of empires and of forests green!

The hosts were sandalled, and their wings were fire!

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

And their noise played havoc with the angel-choir

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

O, shout Salvation!  It was good to see

Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.

The banjos rattled and the tambourines

Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer

He saw the Master thro’ the flag-filled air.

Christ came gently with a robe and a crown

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.

He saw King Jesus.  They were face to face,

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

[“General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” Vachel Lindsay, 1922]

To me, that is what a church ought to be!  Wherever there is anybody in need, this is our helping hand, a heart to care, the spirit of prayer.  We’re not here to condemn.  He did not come into the world to condemn the world; He came into the world to save us [John 3:17].  And whatever we can do to help, and to lift up, and to inspire, and to encourage, that’s why God called us and saved us and set us here.

I can’t help but notice in this budget, this giving program we have adopted, I can’t help but notice there is about two million dollars for the outreach ministries of the church.  There are fifteen chapels in this church.  The only one we ever see is at the 10:50 service when those flotsam and jetsam come down and kneel right there.  That’s the only time we see it.  My brother, there are fifteen of those chapels.  And every dime we give here to the church is a reaching hand, helping those dear, lost people in fifteen submarginal areas of this city.  To me, that’s what the church is all about.

We’re going to sing a song.  And while we sing our hymn of appeal, on the first note of this first stanza, come.  A family, a couple, just one somebody you, while we make appeal, just, “Pastor, I’ve decided in my heart.  This is going to be a new day for me, and I’m coming.”  In the balcony, down a stairway; on the lower floor, down one of these aisles; make the decision now in your heart.  And when we stand to sing, stand up walking down that aisle, walking down that stairway.  And a thousand times welcome, while we stand and while we sing.