These Forty Years
October 7th, 1984 @ 10:50 AM
THESE FORTY YEARS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-7-84 10:50 a.m.
And once again welcome to our many gracious visitors, and to you who are watching this hour on radio and on television in uncounted multitudes. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled These Forty Years. As a background text, in Acts 14:27, this is the conclusion of the first missionary journey. “And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.”
Just as a matter of deepening interest, how many of you were here in the church when I came forty years ago? Would you stand up, if you were here in the church forty years ago? That’s beautiful, yeah. Well, it agrees with you; you don’t look that old, I tell you.
In one of the most unusual providences of life—Dr. Truett having died the seventh day of July in 1944—I had a vivid dream, as vivid as though it had happened in real life. The church was filled with people, and I came into the sanctuary with a man walking in front of me and one behind me, and we sat at the turn of the balcony to my right. It is amazing to me in memory, because I had never been in the sanctuary but one time before. That was in 1927 when I was a freshman at Baylor University, and the Baptist Student Union had a convocation here in this church. And I sat over there to the left. But in this dream, in say July or the first of August, I saw this sanctuary in every detail as clearly as I am beholding it now. The people were weeping and there was a great display of flowers at the front of the church.
And I turned to the man to my left and I said to him, “Why are the people weeping?”
And he replied to me, “The great pastor Dr. Truett has died.”
And while I sat there looking at the great bank of flowers and listening to the people weep, the man on my right put his hand on my knee and said, “You must go down and preach to my people.”
I turned to see the man who was speaking to me, and it was the far-famed pastor, Dr. Truett.
And I replied in exclamation, “Oh, no! Not I. Not I.”
He put his hand back on my knee and repeated his avowal, “Yes,” he said, “you must go down to preach to my people.”
A few weeks after that, I was standing here in this pulpit, in this sacred place, bringing the message from God’s Holy Word. And there came into my heart, in these later times when I knew of it, a deep confirmation of a word that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 regarding a weakness in his own life. He called it a thorn in the flesh [2 Corinthians 12:7]. God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore,” said the apostle, “will I rejoice in my necessities and in my infirmities . . . for when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:9, 10].
What happened was, when I stood here in the pulpit to preach, that August of 1944, the Book trembled in my hand. I could not keep my hand from trembling. I was greatly embarrassed. I tried with all of my strength to hold my hand steady as I held the Bible and tried to expound its heavenly message. But try as I would, my hand trembled, and the Book trembled in my hand.
That week when the pulpit committee met, Mr. Paul Danna, a banker and a member of the committee, said to that one woman and the five other men beside him, he said, “This man is God’s man for our church.” And the rest of the committee exclaimed to him, “Why, Paul Danna, you have been much in favor of another man being called pastor of the church. What has happened to change your mind?”
And Mr. Danna replied, “I was seated close to the front. And as I sat there and watched the young man, the Book trembled in his hand. Now,” Mr. Danna said, “for all these years we’ve had preachers stand in that pulpit and they came as though it were an ordinary event. It was old hat to them. It was a customary assignment. But that young fellow trembled under the mighty hand of God. And he is God’s man for us.”
What an amazing turn in the providence of God! “My strength is made perfect in weakness. For when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:9-10].
On the first Sunday in October, in 1944, after the church had called me, the twenty-seventh of July, I stood here once again to preach, this time having been called as undershepherd of the church. My text was 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Make It a Matter of Prayer. And the text: “Pray without ceasing.” When I had finished the delivery of the message, I knelt here to the right of the pulpit desk and prayed.
For the most part, our Baptist people do not kneel when they pray. And I suppose, from what they said to me, that’s the first time they had ever seen a minister kneel by the side of the pulpit and pray. When I did, there was something of the Holy Spirit of God that I cannot explain. And the whole vast audience began to weep. It was a moving of the Spirit in the heart of everyone present. And when the service was done, I walked out with Bob Coleman, who was Dr. Truett’s assistant for over forty years. And Bob Coleman put his arm around me and said, “Young man, this is your anniversary, the first Sunday in October, because,” he said, “I’ve never been in a service like this. And I have never felt anything like this. And I have never seen anything like this. Today is your anniversary.” So from that day on now for forty years, on the first Sunday in October, we have observed the anniversary of the coming of the pastor.
Now in the years that have followed, the question has been asked, “How did it be, and how was it, when they compared you to the great and majestic Truett?” Well, I answer in all honesty, “I don’t think it occurred to anybody to do it.” Dr. Truett was in a heavenly world to himself. If I were in Hollywood seeking to cast a character—God—in a play, I would choose Dr. Truett. Nobody like him: nobody looked like him; nobody had the majesty of mien like Dr. Truett, and I just don’t think it occurred to anybody to compare me with him. I was in an altogether different kind of a world.
For example, I was preaching at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in the Walnut Street Baptist Church, the First Baptist Church of Louisville. And in the service was a sweet, little old gentleman, seated by the side of his precious little wife. And when I got through, that little, quiet gentleman turned to his dear little wife and said, “Sweetheart, did I understand you correctly? That young man is the successor of the great Dr. Truett?”
And she said, “Yes, yes indeed, he is.”
There was a long pause. And then he was heard, when he turned to his little wife, he said, “Sweetheart, I would think those dear people in Dallas think they have traded a beautiful sunset for an atomic bomb.”
Judge Ryburn, who was chairman of the pulpit committee, but chairman of the deacons for thirty-seven years—and seventeen of them after I came to be pastor—Judge Ryburn was married to a sweet, wonderful wife named Ann. And Ann Ryburn was hard of hearing; she had great difficulty hearing, so Ryburn always sat on the second seat right there.
Well, I asked him one day, I said, “Judge Ryburn, you always are seated on the second row there right close to the pulpit”—as it was then—“and you sit there with your head back.” I said, “Doesn’t that hurt your neck?”
He said, “No, pastor, only my ears.” I used to preach very vigorously, and all over the place. I don’t do it now anything as I used to.
So we began, and in those years—and in the years now—I have no avocation: I have no interest in anything except the church, just the church. I don’t do anything else; have no interest in anything else, except just to be pastor of the church. In the two years that I was president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I never missed a step in my pastoral work in the church. I have been invited to be the president of two great universities. I have been invited to I don’t know how many other things. I have never considered any of them.
One time a university asked me, “Won’t you pray about it?”
I said, “No.”
“Well,” they said, “Why? Why?”
I said, “If I were to pray a thousand years it wouldn’t change my heart from being a pastor.”
As far as back as I can remember, as a little child going to grammar school, I was studying to be the pastor of a church. I have no interest in anything else except being the pastor of this dear church, that’s all. That’s all.
Well, may I take just one instance out of the forty years and then one instance out of the innumerable missionary journeys that I used to make? For over thirty-five years, every summer I would go somewhere on a mission journey, preaching through a mission field. And I’m going to take one instance out of the forty years and one instance out of our missionary work.
First out of the church: when I came here there was no chapel, there was no place for our young people to be married. And consequently I married our own young people all over the city. There’s not a place in this town, as it was then, in which I did not perform a marriage ceremony. So I wanted to build a chapel building—which of course, as you know, materialized in what they call the Criswell Building there; there are four chapels in that building there. Well, in the midst of our building that building, this Central Christian Church just across the street here came up for sale. And I took it to our fellowship of deacons and said, “We must buy that church there.”
And they said, “No, pastor, we are involved in building this other building here and it is unthinkable for us to try to build, or to buy, or to secure any further property. We’re already with all that we can bear and all we can carry; we cannot do it.”
So I was standing with Billy Souther right there on Patterson Avenue. I was standing there looking with him at that Central Christian Church. And I said to Billy, I said, “Billy, this is the greatest tragedy that I could think for. There will be a company buy this property”—it’s a quarter of a block there—“there will be a company buy this property, and they’ll put a skyscraper on it, and we can never ever possess it. This is a tragedy.”
Well, Mr. Souther looked at me as I was lamenting and I remarked to him, described to him, the deacons’ meeting—that I had pled with the deacons and they say we are involved in this building across the street on the other side and we cannot think about going in debt further to buy this property. So Mr. Souther said to me, “Pastor, why don’t you ask God for it? Why don’t you ask God for it?” Well, that was the most amazing turn that I ever heard to a conversation. “Why don’t you ask God for it?”
I said to Billy, “Billy, I thought I was to ask the deacons for it.” That’s what I thought. Well, I turned that over in my mind, and I thought Billy Souther might have a fine suggestion. So I began to pray, “Lord, Lord, give us that property. Please, Lord, please.”
Well, in those days there was in the church a sainted older woman named Minnie Slaughter Veal. Her father was the very heart of this church, Colonel C. C. Slaughter. At one time he owned three million acres in Texas, the largest cattle baron who ever lived. His daughter, Minnie Slaughter Veal, grew up in this church; and when I came, in her age—she died when she was about ninety-five—she was here in the church.
Out of the blue of the sky, I received a telephone call from Minnie Slaughter Veal, and she said—and how in the earth she knew it, I don’t know—she said, “Pastor, I hear you are down on your knees praying. What you praying for?”
“Well,” I said, “Mrs. Veal, I’m praying for God to give us the Central Christian Church.”
She said, “What will it cost?”
I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you real soon.”
So I got Deacon Fred Shepard to talk to the people, and I called Mrs. Veal back.
And I said, “Mrs. Veal, it costs $255,000.”
Now can you imagine buying a quarter of a block in downtown Dallas now for $255,000?
I said, “It costs $255,000.”
She said, “Fine. I’ll give you $255,000 and you go buy it.”
So we bought that quarter of a block there for $255,000. Well, a few days passed, then out of the blue of the sky Mrs. Veal called me again, and she said, “By the way, pastor, what do you want it for? What do you want it for?”
Well, I said, “Mrs. Veal, I want to build a parking building on it and a recreational facility upstairs.”
Well, she said, “What will it cost?”
I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you real soon.”
So I found out that we could build the building for $1,500,000.
And she said to me, “I’ll give you the $1,500,000, just don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.”
So we built that building over there, and the people in the church didn’t know what was going up. It was one of the most amazing things that I ever saw.
Now one thing out of a multitude of things in my journeys around the world: I’ve been around the world three times. And as I said, every summer, why, I would go on a mission tour, a mission trip. In Time magazine, there was published a picture of my bursting into laughter and David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, looking at me. Now that’s a picture in Time magazine. Well, all over this earth I have been asked, “What is it that David Ben-Gurion is saying to you that makes you laugh like that?”
Well, it happened like this. I was speaking through a conference there in Jerusalem, in their city auditorium, and I was seated on the platform, who also was a speaker, by David Ben-Gurion. While both of us were seated up there together, there was a scientist—a biologist, a biochemist, he was a scientist of some kind—and he was up there speaking, and he was saying, “The day is coming when babies will be conceived in a test tube.”
Man, I never heard anything like that in my life! Now as its has come out, a “test-tube baby” is something you read about all of the time, but that’s the first time I had ever heard of it: that the day is coming when we’re going to conceive babies in a test tube!
Well, when that scientist said that, David Ben-Gurion turned to me and he exclaimed, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that? The day is coming when we are going to conceive babies in a test tube. Did you hear that?”
I said, “Yes, Mr. Ben-Gurion, yes, sir, I heard him say it.”
Well, Mr. Ben-Gurion turned, and paused, and then back to me, he said, “But I’m telling you, preacher, the old way’s better.” Oh, dear! Well, I submit it; you would have laughed to, wouldn’t you? Had you been there? Oh, dear!
Now we can’t be here too long. I have an exposition of the last part of the twenty-first chapter of John. The twenty-first chapter of the Fourth Gospel is an addendum. It is an appendix. John apparently wrote the first twenty chapters years and years before, and it reaches a glorious climax at the end of the twentieth chapter, “My Lord and my God” [John 20:28]. Then in after years, John writes this appendix. It is a tribute to his old friend, Simon Peter, who has been dead for a generation.
Now the reason I expound this part of the Word of God is an answer to a question, and I meet it everywhere, “Pastor, are you getting ready to retire?” Or, “When you are going to retire?” Just a week ago, I was in one of the elevators going up into one of these skyscrapers in downtown Dallas, and there was a couple there from some far-off place, and he had seen my picture in the newspaper and the write-up about my forty years here.
So he extended his hand and he asked me, “Isn’t your name Criswell?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And, “First Baptist Church?”
And I said, “Yes.”
Well, he said, “I want to congratulate you on your retirement after forty years.”
Well, that is natural. I do not look upon it as any other thing than being most, most becoming. There is nothing ill-becoming in thinking, “After forty years will he retire? Is the time come to retire?”
So I would—as you would know—I would think of it and pray about it all the days and all the days: what should I do as the undershepherd of this church? We are involved in a tremendous building program here. It does not appear now because of some of the big corporations in Dallas wanting to go into a joint venture with us. We have a sanctuary center that is to be built, and a part of the stipulation of a three million dollar gift toward that structure is that it be done in my pastoral ministry here. And as you know one of the most valuable pieces of property in the city of Dallas—there is a no more valuable piece in our great metroplex than the Veal Building and the playground just beyond; it is a block long and half a block wide. And I say several of the great corporations in Dallas are interested in going into a joint venture with us concerning the use of that property. Well, what should I do in the midst of these conferences in which I am playing now so vital and intimate a part? Well, I can settle that in my heart. I can close my eyes to it and walk away from it. I can refuse to see, I can refuse to look.
Then there is a second consideration in the life of our dear church and that concerns Dr. Melzoni, who has a Ph.D. degree in education from the State University of Ohio. There is Dr. Melzoni and the staff, with David and all of the members of our wonderful staff, and they have visions, and programs, and outreach ministries that are just incomparable. It is a wonderful thing just to listen to them, what they have in their hearts. And Dr. Melzoni says to me, “All of this is under your surveillance. It is under your pastoral leadership, and we are depending upon you staying here, to carry through these great visions that we have.” But I could close my ears to that and refuse to listen or to hear.
But there is one thing, a third thing against which I cannot harden my heart or steel my soul. And that is the Word and the will of God. And this is the exposition. In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, when Simon Peter three times avows to the Lord, “You know that I love You” [John 21:15, 16, 17]. Then in verse 18 the Lord says to him:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Simon, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.
This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God—
That is, Simon Peter would die with the outstretched hands: He would die by crucifixion—
And when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, Follow Me.
Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following—
And Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?
If I am to follow You unto crucifixion and unto death, what shall this man do?
And Jesus saith to him, If I will that he tarry till I come—
that he never die—
what is that to thee? Follow thou Me.
Some of these sentences here, in the language in which John wrote it, are so poignant. Peter is to die with his hands outstretched. He is to die by crucifixion. But John, what of him? Houtos de ti? That whole little houtos de ti is translated, “And what shall this man do? This man, what? What of him? What of him?” [John 21:21].
And the Lord replies: “If I will that he tarry until I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me”: repeated, “su akolouthei moi.” Su, you; akolouthei, you follow; moi, repeated, “You, you follow Me” [John 21:22].
Of those three inner-circle apostles of the Lord, Peter, James, and John—I cannot enter into the will of God. “What is that to thee? You follow Me” [John 21:22]. Peter, James, and John; James is always mentioned first before John, always, always. And the Lord poured into him all of the training and love and discipling that He poured into Peter and John, yet James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I as the Christian movement began. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Acts, James is beheaded by Herod Agrippa [Acts 12:1-2]. What a loss! How does God choose such a providence of that? “What is that to thee? You, you follow Me” [John 21:22].
And Simon Peter, Simon Peter was crucified, tradition says, head down; he said he wasn’t worthy to be crucified as his Lord was crucified [John 19:16-30], so he asked to be crucified head down. And he was crucified about 67 AD under Nero.
But the apostle John, “If I will till that he tarry until I come, what is that to thee?” [John 21:22]. In the providence and will of God, the apostle John wrote the Gospel, the Fourth Gospel, he wrote that Gospel around ninety years of age. The apostle John wrote the Revelation about ninety-five years of age. And the apostle John was pastor of the church in Ephesus at a hundred years of age. “What is that to thee? You follow Me” [John 21:22]. In the will of God, the providences of life that are to us inexplicable, and un-understandable, and unapproachable; I think of the hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of men with whom I went to school; four years through the university and six years through the seminary. When I was a freshman, I knew the seniors; when I became a senior I knew the oncoming freshman. Through those years, I knew hundreds and hundreds of men. I am the only one—I am the only one who is still unretired and still active—all the rest of them have either been translated to God or they have retired from their ministries. I am the only one in the earth that is still active in the place to which he has given his previous life and years.
I think of my first roommate in Baylor. His name was Troop Reid, the most devout young man. He was engaged to Pauline, who was the educational director of the Travis Avenue Church in Fort Worth. After his graduation, they married and just as they were beginning their ministry, Troop Reid died. And in the days that followed, Pauline died. I used to say in the years and the years ago, that I had to do the work not only for myself, but I had to do the work for Troop Reid, too. I had to do two men’s work.
My other roommate in Baylor was Christie Poole. We went through the seminary, and then he to Nigeria, West Africa where he founded our Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogbomosho. Christie Poole has been dead for these several years. And I could go on and on and on. I am the only one out of those hundreds and hundreds of men, still active. And what shall I do?
“If I will, what is that to thee?” [John 21:22]. Whether it would have been on a yesterday, or whether it is tomorrow, or whether it is next month, or whether it is this year, or the following year, or the years, “What is that to thee?” Su akolouthei moi, “You, you follow Me” [John 21:22]. We are to listen to the word of God, and He will say that word when the time comes, and we will all know it together.
In the meantime, and as of now, we have this tremendous building program that lies ahead. In the near future—I could pray within the next several months—there will be a solution, there will be a resolving, there will be a crystallization of that program so that our people can pray, and work, and give, and build. We’ll know what to do. We are depending now upon these great corporations who are talking to us, but that will resolve itself within a matter of months.
The second part is an astonishing development to me. I have always thought, never thought anything else—I have always thought of the ministries of the church being right here. We come down here for study, we come down here for prayer, we come down here for worship. We come down here for all of the things that involve the life of our church. I am beginning to see—and working with Dr. Melzoni I can increasingly see it develop—there is to be now, in the will and hand of God, there is to be developed in the church a tremendous ministry in the homes of the people, out there where they live—prayer meetings; Bible studies, evangelism, soulwinning, visitation, caring, loving, praying, out there in the homes of the people; evangel groups, care groups, where our people meet together in the home, where they have a leader, where they study intimately the Word of God, where they pray for the lost, where they bring them in and win them to the faith.
Now as though that were not a glorious program and prospect in itself, two days ago I learned there are three thousand homes in this great metroplex where the children are being taught by their parents. Dr. Nolan Estes, that was the most astonishing thing I’ve heard in memory. There are three thousand homes in this great metroplex where the children are being taught in the home; they do not go to a private school such as our academy; they do not go to a public school such as our Dallas Independent School District. They are taught in the home.
And I read yesterday, I read where that movement is growing more and more. Families are beginning to teach their children in the home. Practically all of them are Christian families. And they’re teaching the child not only the three R’s, but the fourth one, as the newspaper said yesterday: religion. All of that is developing here in the city. And Johnny Henderson, the head of our academy, told me the day before yesterday, he said, “We have been given one hundred thousand dollars to be an umbrella for that movement, and to guide these families and these parents in the teaching of their children.”
I could not think in my mind what God is doing in the very midst, in the very midst of our programming, our church, outside these four walls, into the homes of these people. Then I learned there are three thousand homes to which we have been given a hundred thousand dollars to guide the teaching, to be an umbrella in guiding the parents in the teaching of their children, reaching into the homes of the people. It staggers my imagination!
And it comes at a time when Dallas and this metroplex are focal points of a vast influx of people from the ends of the earth. The Laotians are here; the Vietnamese are here; the Cambodians are here; the Central Americans are here. From the north, the east, the west, the south, everywhere, they’re pouring into our city by the thousands and the thousands. Now what we propose to do is, with God’s help and in His wisdom, is to go out there where those people are in their homes, and gathering them together to teach them the Word of God; to pray for them, to pray with them, to care for them, and in His goodness and grace, to lead them to the Lord Jesus.
I am staggered under the mighty hand of God as I think of the incomparable open door He has set before us! I respond like that mystic English poet who said:
Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
We shall not cease from battle strife,
Nor shall the sword sleep in our hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In this fair and pleasant land.
[adapted from “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time,” William Blake]
When our choir comes in, oft times will they sing:
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.
[“On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” Samuel Stennett, 1787]
And that is the question I lay before your praying heart this morning hour. “Oh, who will come and go with me?” In the greatest outreach ministry our church has ever known; in the vast open door that God hath set before us; into the future, in His Word and will; and finally into Canaan’s promised land, “Oh, who will come and go with me?” If you are a member of the church, will you? Will you come with me? If you are a visitor today, will you pray for us? Will you come with me? If you will, stand to your feet. Stand to your feet.
Our Lord in heaven, could it be that God has meshed our souls with such an hour as this? Who would ever have thought that Dallas would be the city that now is and fast becoming? If Dr. Truett could rise from the dead, he wouldn’t know where he was; these great skyscrapers looking down upon this sanctuary. He would be astonished! And our Lord, we who are seeing it come to pass are no less amazed what God hath done. Pouring into our great city these thousands and thousands of families; and our Lord in Thy goodness and grace, in Thy blessing and wisdom, as we go out now to enter that home to pray, to read the Bible, to point them to heaven; Lord, in infinite grace, work with us. And may it be one of the phenomenal visitations and Pentecostal outpourings in the history of Christendom, what God does here with our devoted, consecrated people. Do it, Lord. Do it, and not only in that home but here in this hour.
A family you, in the balcony round or on this lower floor; a couple you, or just one somebody you, “Pastor, today we have decided for God and we are coming.” Down the stairway if you are in the balcony, down one of these aisles in the press of people on this lower floor, “The Lord has spoken to my heart and I am coming” [Romans 10:8-13]. Do it now. Make the decision now. And when we sing the song, be the first to make that step toward God, and may the angels of heaven attend you in the way while you come. Just this moment, no one leaving; all of us waiting, praying; then we will have opportunity to share the afternoon together. But now, but now, the decision before God: may the Spirit of the Lord lead you; answer with your life. And Lord Jesus, thank Thee for the sweet, precious harvest You give us this saving hour, for Jesus’ sake, amen. While we sing, and welcome.
I. The call
A. My dream
B. My trembling hands
(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
C. My first Sunday to
preach as undershepherd
1. Text 1
2. Knelt by the
pulpit desk to pray
II. The ministry
A. Compared to Dr.
1. “Traded a
beautiful sunset for an atomic bomb”
2. Judge Ryburn
B. Seven days a week,
no other interest but the church
C. One providence – buying
Central Christian Church property
1. W. H. Souther
– “Ask God for it”
D. Mission trip
in Timewith David Ben Gurion
III. The future – “When are you retiring?”
A. The building program
B. The staff
C. Cannot harden my
heart to the Word and will of God
1. John 21:18-22
2. All of my
classmates translated to heaven or retired
3. God will say
the word when it is time
4. The open doors