Saints in a Sinful World
January 9th, 1983 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W.A. Criswell
1-9-83 10:50 a.m.
And God bless the great throngs of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message entitled Saints in a Sinful World. In our preaching on the “Great Doctrines of the Bible,” we are in the section of practical theology of the Christian life down here where we live. And this is the second message in that doctrinal series entitled, as I said, Saints in a Sinful World. And our background text is the first verse in the first chapter of the Book of Ephesians:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are in Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace, peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
“To the saints which are in Ephesus.” Our Christian life is lived in an un-ideal world. The saints are in Ephesus [Ephesians 1:1]. As Paul would write, “The saints that are in Corinth.” [1 Corinthians 1:2]. As our Lord Jesus addressed “the saints in Pergamos, where Satan’s seat is” [Revelation 2:13], the saints live in an un-ideal and sinful world [2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 6:12]. The saints are not in heaven; they are not in some guarded, separated ivory tower where no chilling winds blow, where there is no opposition, and no trials, and no temptations. They are in Ephesus; they are in Corinth; they are in Pergamos; they are in this sinful world. And we might remember that those ancient Greek cities were vile and corrupt beyond any translation of their literature. And of all of the corrupt ancient Greek cities, Ephesus was the first and the most.
Some of you, I know, have visited the ruins of Ephesus. And on the main colonnaded street incised and carved in stone, you’ll find a picture of the madam. And you will find footsteps carved in the pavement and in the sidewalk stones of that colonnaded street leading up to the house of prostitution. And that house is one of the most effective and beautiful of all of the temples you will find in Ephesus. The saints lived in Ephesus. And as though that were not enough, had you walked down that same colonnaded street in the days of the apostle Paul, three men out of every five you met were chattel property in degraded slavery. Nor have we time to speak of the corruption of the Roman Empire. The saints are in Ephesus, not in heaven [Ephesians 1:1]. We live the Christian life in an un-ideal world.
Second: the Christian life is lived in an imperfect church. Do you notice the word is plural? “To the saints in Ephesus” [Ephesians 1:1]; the word is always plural, the one exception is still in reference, plural. “The saints,” hágios, always is plural. The Christian life is lived in the community and in the fellowship of the church of our Lord. And in the New Testament, they made much of that church. It was the ekklēsia, “the assembly,” the “called out” people of God. It was a koinōnía; it was a fellowship; it was a communion. And they gathered for prayer, for praise, for the breaking of bread, for adoration and worship, for the preaching of the gospel. It was a marvelous community, the saints in the church, but the church was imperfect and filled with all kinds of troubles. The saints are human, and the membership of the church is made up of frail, fragile, mistaken, sinful, weak, human beings. When we read the opening chapters of the beginning of the ekklēsia, the assembly of God, the church of our Lord, in the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts, there is a murmuring of the Hellenistic Jews against the Aramaic Jews because the Hellenistic Jews, the Greek-speaking Jews, found their widows neglected in the church ministrations. So that gave rise to the ordination of men that we call deacons. It arose out of an altercation, a trouble, a murmuring in the church [Acts 6:1-7].
In the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts out of which Pat Zondervan read his passage, when you come to the end of the chapter, there is described—the word that Dr. Luke uses is paroxysm; there was a paroxysm between Barnabas and the apostle Paul over John Mark [Acts 15:36-39]. Now, Barnabas was a good man. Luke wrote in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts concerning Barnabas, “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord” [Acts 11:24]. And I would not presume to describe the dedication of this great apostle and emissary to the Gentiles, the apostle Paul. But between those two good men, there arose—the Greek word is paroxysm—there arose a bitter confrontation, so much so that Luke says, “They parted asunder, and Barnabas took John Mark with him and left. And the apostle Paul took Silas with him and left” [Acts 15:36-40].
We belong to an imperfect communion. The Christian life is lived in an imperfect church. The great Wesleyan revival was led by George Whitefield, an incomparable preacher, and John Wesley, an incomparable organizer. But George Whitefield was a Calvinist, and John Wesley was an Arminian; and sometimes the breach between the two was terrific. And I read here a letter that George Whitefield wrote to John Wesley:
My honored friend and brother, for once hearken to a child who is willing to wash your feet. I beseech you by the mercies of God in Christ Jesus our Lord write no more about the misrepresentations wherein we differ. Will it not in the end destroy brotherly love and insensibly take from us that cordial union and sweetness of soul, which I pray God may always subsist between us? How glad would be the enemies of the Lord to see us divided. Honored sir, let us offer salvation freely to all men by the blood of Jesus, and whatever light God has committed to us, let us freely communicate to others.
We live in an imperfect communion. The best of men, whether it be a Barnabas, or a Saul of Tarsus, Paul, or whether it be the incomparable preacher, George Whitefield, or the great leader of the Wesleyan revival, John Wesley, we are still human and are characterized by weakness.
Not only do the saints live in an un-ideal world and not only do the saints make up an un-ideal and imperfect fellowship, but the saints also live in the common denominator with all mankind facing the inexorable and inevitable and common coming enemy—death. Because we are saints, unless Jesus delays His coming, because we are saints, we are not exempted from that confrontation with that terrible and final enemy. Our lives will be destroyed as the lives of all other humankind. Our members will be wasted and scattered like the golden palace of Nero. Our lives will be destroyed like the hanging gardens of Babylon. We will be lost and forgotten in some crowded cemetery. Our lives are like the breath on a cold, winter, frosty morning or like the leaves that fall in the autumn, dead from the trees, or like the grass cut down by the scythe and the sickle. Because we are saints, we are not free from that awful hour when he visits our houses and stops at our doors. And however we may be consecrated or dedicated or saintly, we face that inevitable foe just the same.
Isaiah was sent to good King Hezekiah with this word in the first verse of the thirty-eighth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live” [Isaiah 38:1]. All of the godliness and saintliness and consecration of a man’s life will not deliver him from the hands of that final enemy, death [1 Corinthians 15:26]. For many years, I was on the Baylor University Board of Trustees, and the chairman of the committee in Dallas directing Baylor University Medical Center was Harvey Penland, Dr. George W. Truett’s nephew. I was never with Harvey Penland but that finally he asked me about the long-suffering and death of the great preacher George Truett. To him it was unthinkable and unspeakable and unimaginable, that a mighty man of God and prince of the pulpit like George Truett would suffer with cancer of the bones and in agony die. Because we are saints, we are not delivered from all of the sorrows and woes of human life. We live in Ephesus. We live in this kind of a world.
Nor is it ever revealed to us, however close to God we may be, when that inevitable time may come. God has given us memories to recall the past, but He has not given us eyes to foresee the future. We just wait in the presence of God for the coming of that last and final enemy, death [1 Corinthians 15:26].
Saints in a sinful world; we live our lives in an un-ideal society. We live our lives in an un-ideal and imperfect church communion. And we live our lives before the inevitable and inexorable coming of that final enemy, death. But there is another chapter; there is another verse; there is another word.
The Christian life is lived in victory and in triumph in Christ Jesus: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the saints which are in Ephesus” [Ephesians 1:1]. But there are more, “And to the faithful in Christ Jesus,” and He makes the difference. Paul loves that phrase, en Christou, “in Christ” [Ephesians 1:1]. He uses it 164 times, “in Christ”; 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away; and all things, behold, are become new in Christ.” Paul will write in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things,” and the King James Version translates it, “through Christ which strengthens me.” The way Paul wrote that is, “I can do all things in Christ who strengtheneth me.” Or again in [Galatians 3:28], “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female; we are all one in Him.” Paul loved that phrase, “in Christ.” What does he mean by it?
If I go up to a man and say, “In what business are you in?” He would know what I meant, “You are in business, yes?” And then answer. Or if I say, “You are in one of the professions. Are you in law? Are you in medicine?” He will immediately know what I mean. If I went up to one of these young fellows in this Single’s division and say, “Are you in love?” Glowingly, he would tell me all about that creature that is beyond description, he’d know exactly what I meant. But if I go up to a man today and say, “Are you in Christ?” He will look mystified! He is baffled and sometimes embarrassed. But not so these Christians of the New Testament! They lived with that kind of a word. And they lived in that kind of a world, “in Christ.” It was “in Christ” that they found their great victory and triumph and security. In Christ we have our forgiveness of sin; in Him, our hope of heaven; in Him, our strength for the journey and our blessing along the way. “In Him”—in Christ, not in us; in us, weakness and mistake and sin and shortcoming.
It’s only in the grace of our Lord that we find an ultimate victory. Even Paul will write in the third chapter of Ephesians, “I, who am less than the least of all saints” [Ephesians 3:8]. In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, he will write, “For I am the least of the apostles…that am not meet to be called an apostle” [1 Corinthians 15:9]. But you look immediately, what he will say: “I, who am the least of all saints, this grace is given” [Ephesians 3:8]. Or in 1 Corinthians 15, “I am the least of the apostles, but by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace was abundantly bestowed upon me” [1 Corinthians 15:9-10]. Our strength and our victory is not in us. Even Paul avows, “’I am the least of all of the saints,” but immediately, “but the grace of God extended to me, aboundingly poured out upon me. Not I, but Christ” [Ephesians 3:8]. What a beautiful word did he write in Galatians 2:20, “For I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Not I, but Christ.
The secret of any abounding victorious Christian life is found not in us but in Him. Our election and our calling and our assignment are beyond our strength and our nobility. It lies in Christ. Every saint, every Christian you ever saw, is a monument to the grace of God. It is the Lord’s goodness in him that you see walking before us, speaking before us, living before us. It’s God and not we. I want to point that out to you in the very word that we speak of, “saint, saint.” It is impossible for us to use that word today even in an approach to the way it was used in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. But we are going to define it according to the Word of God whether we can use it that way or whether we understand it that way or not. This is what saint means. In the Old Testament the word is qadôš. In the New Testament, the word is hagios. And it refers to something or someone that is set apart and set aside for God; it refers to something God does.
For example, in the Old Testament, Leviticus closes with this word, “For the tithe is qadôš unto the Lord– qadôš, “holy,” set aside [Leviticus 27:30-33]. God has set it aside for Him. The tithe is qadôš, holy to the Lord. Now, I may steal it, and I may rob God of it, but that doesn’t change what God has done. God says, “The tithe is holy, qadôš, set aside for the Lord” [Leviticus 27:30]. The temple: God said, “My name will be there” [2 Chronicles 6:6, 7:16]. The temple is set aside, a qodašîm, “a holy place for Me” [Exodus 25:8]. And He referred to the sanctuary as the qodeš qodašîm, the hagia hagion, the sanctum sanctorum [Exodus 26:33]. This is set aside for God; it is something God does. God set aside that holy place for Him. And He says, “I dwell in the qodeš qodašîm” [Leviticus 16:2]. God did it. So with the word hagioi—the saints. The word refers to something God has set aside for Himself. “These hagioi, these I have set aside for Myself, they are saints [Ephesians 1:1]. They are set aside by God for Me.”
Now, to us the word “saint” is a human designation. It refers to a technical human achievement. God is subordinate. All God does in our modern definition of saint is just to receive the dedication of these human efforts. A saint to us is somebody who is striving to be good, or striving to serve, or striving to be consecrated, or striving to get nearer to the Lord. That’s a saint. But in the Bible, a saint is somebody that God’s grace has set aside and chosen and dedicated to Himself [1 Corinthians 1:2], and there’s all the difference in the world. You see, my salvation, and any dedication that I have, and any call that I might know, comes from God and not from me. It is God’s grace that reached down and touched me [Ephesians 2:8]. And it is God’s goodness that has overflowed my heart and my soul; and it is God’s wonderful remembrance that has touched my heart and touched my life. Therefore, my praise and my worship doesn’t go like this, “Look at me, how fine I am!” Or “Look at me, how saintly I am.” Or, “Look at me, how dedicated I am!” Or, “Look at me, how I have lifted myself up into the realm of those angels who see God face to face.” [It] never approaches anything like that. What it does is this, “Lord, Lord, sinner as I am, weak as I am, fallen as I am, oh, bless God for the grace that reached down and lifted me up and set me, a saint, a ‘called out one,’ a separated one, into His kingdom. And thank You, Lord, for remembering me. Thank You, God, for saving me. Thank You, Lord, for being good to me.”
Or as with me, “Thank You, Lord, for the grace that reached down when I was a small child and set me aside for the gospel ministry.” Far back as I can remember, I’ve been preparing to be a pastor. “Thank You, Lord, for the loving grace that set me aside for the gospel ministry. Thank You, Lord, for the goodness and the remembrance of heaven that gave me such a wonderful place to serve. Thank You, Lord, for deacons who pray for me and hold up my hand. Thank You, Lord, for these staff members who work as yokefellows and fellow pilgrims. And thank You, Lord, for these who glorify Thy name with us in these services. And thank You, Lord, for the families that meet together in prayer, that rear their children in the love and nurture of the Lord. O God, how could I ever thank Thee enough for all the wonderful good things You have done for me?”
That, that’s what it is to be a hagios. Nothing of us, fallen as we are, weak as we are, sinful as we are. But glory to God, who called us and set us apart and sent us out to be lights shining in a dark world; saints in a sinful world. O Lord, if I had ten thousand lives and they all were lived for Thee, it would be as nothing comparable to the riches of His grace bestowed upon me. And I just suppose that when we get to heaven, we’re going to share an eternity, a forever praising God, singing to the love and mercy and grace of our Lord. As I quote so many times, “Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood . . . to Him be glory and honor forever and ever” [Revelation 1:5-6]. “Worthy is the Lamb” [Revelation 5:12]. May we stand in prayer?
Our Lord, when we think of God’s goodnesses to us, the grace He so aboundingly and abundantly poured out upon us, Lord how can we but sing, and pray, and praise, and worship, and adore, and speak, and publish abroad God’s goodnesses to us. O Lord, O God. And our Lord to confess Thee, to name Thy name, what a privilege, and to join ourselves with the people of God, what a holy, holy open door God has set before us.
And in this moment that our people pray and as we sing our hymn of appeal, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, “Pastor, we have decided for God today and we are on the way. We are answering with our lives.” If you are in the balcony, there is time and to spare, down one of these stairways, in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, God has spoken to us, and we are coming.” “I am accepting the Lord openly, and publicly, and gladly, and gratefully as my Savior and I am on the way.” “I want to be baptized as God hath written in His Book [Matthew 28:19-20], and I am on the way.” “Pastor, this is my wife and these are our children. All of us are coming today. We are on the way.”
May the Holy Spirit guide you to that ultimate and wonderful decision of, “Yes, Lord, here I come.” And may the angels attend you as down that stairway or down that aisle you answer with your life.
And our Lord, thank Thee. O praise Thy blessed name for the sweet harvest You give us this beautiful and precious hour, in our Savior’s gracious saving name, amen. While we sing, a thousand times welcome, come.