W. A. Criswell
1-31-88 10:50 a.m.
Once again we welcome the multitudes of you who share this hour on radio and on television. You are a part at this hour of our wonderful First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor delivering the message entitled Heartfelt Religion. It is a message that is divisive among some of our congregation. We have such different responses to the atoning grace of our Lord, and its expression in song and in message.
There is a Negro spiritual, “Stand by Me,” and one of the stanzas goes like this:
In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me.
When I do the best I can
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou who knowest all about me,
Stand by me.
[from “Stand by Me,” Charles A. Tindley]
We begin with a habit of applauding, of clapping in our church services. A week ago a group in our church, speaking to me, asked me, as they had often times before, as the presiding elder in the church, to see to it that our people desist and refrain from any kind of applause or clapping. I told them that I had tried that in these years past, over a long period of time, and not succeeding in it, that I finally turned it over to my then assistant pastor, Dr. Jimmy Draper. And he tried it over a long period of time. And I said that if I try it again, I’ll have to stand up here at all four services, every one of them, and ask our people not to applaud. The reason for that is very plain. There are visitors, many visitors that come to our services and they are not aware of those previous announcements. And of course, our people many times spontaneously respond. The spontaneity of our hearts in appreciation for something that is praiseworthy, just automatically overflows out of our souls.
You also have heard me say through these many years that I am a firm believer in confirming signs. If a thing is of God, God will confirm it with a providence; with a sign. There will be a development. There will be something that happens that will confirm what God wills for you. I believe that without exception. There’s no exception to it. When I pray God for direction, God will confirm an answer to my life with a sign.
So a week ago, when I was importuned on behalf, on the part of, these devout people, that I stop our congregation from applauding, and not knowing how to achieve it, having tried it for years; and the prospect of continuing it four services every time we gather here, first, I stand up and say you are not to applaud; the whole thing just makes my heart unhappy. So what happened was, last Sunday, which was a Sunday after the importunity and the appeal made to me to stop the response of our people, the Sunday following, which was last Sunday, when I got through preaching, as I always do, I stand down here at the front. There came a professor, a very distinguished-looking man, who introduced himself to me as a professor from a great university in the west. He came up to me and shook my hand, and he said, “I see that you are going to begin televising your services live on the first Sunday in February; that’s next Sunday.” I said, “That’s correct.”
“Well,” he said, “I want to say something to you about it.” He said, “The applause in the church when the special number was sung”—which, by the way, was very moving and meditative, it was not one of those rising numbers—he said, “The applause was very small. Now he said, “I want to tell you something.” He said, “When you have a television audience, they like to see the people respond, and they like for the people to applaud, and,” he said, “when they do, the people who watch that televised program respond themselves. They feel that the congregation is warm and responsive. Now he says, “I’m telling you as a stranger and from the outside, I’m telling you, you have your people respond uproariously, and the people that watch it on television will be much impressed by your response.”
Well, that night, that night, last Sunday night, Willa Dorsey came by. And if you were here when Willa Dorsey got through singing that first song, you would have thought all heaven was up there breaking loose. It was just rising like that. So I asked her to sing another song. And the same thing happened. And then she sang a third song over there and the same thing happened.
Well, the next night, Monday night, last Monday night, the next night, the President of the United States, President Reagan, addressed the combined Senate and House. He gave his annual state of the church—he delivered his annual state of the nation message. Well, surely there is not a more dignified assembly in the earth than the Senate of the United States and the House of Representatives governing the greatest nation in the world. Well, if you listened to it, time and again those dignified senators and representatives clapped uproariously, applauded hilariously, and once in a while stood up to do it.
Then the next night, Tuesday night, I sat there in front of that television for a while and watched a national music program awards. And these were so gifted, beautiful people. And when anybody sang or when everyone received a reward, it was just magnificently received and responded to by the people. And Friday night, this last Friday night, I attended the Dallas Symphony. And oh, they are so beautifully dressed and so formally presented. And yet, they just clapped and applauded when they got through singing or playing or presenting their program. It was just beautiful.
Well, not being a politician and not being a professional musician, why, I turned to the Word of God. What do I read in the Bible about such a response as that? So opening my Book, I turn to the Book of Kings, number two. I turn to chapter 11, and there I read the story in 2 Kings 11 of Athaliah, a wicked woman who destroyed, who slew all of the seed of the king, the whole family; she wiped them out [2 Kings 11:1]. And she ruled, a blood-thirsty queen. But Jehoiada, the high priest, a godly man, hid away a little baby of the king [2 Kings 11:2]. And he kept that baby in hiding for seven years, and when the child was seven years old [2 Kings 11:4]—now I’m reading verse 12—“Jehoiada the high priest,” this godly man, “brought forth the king’s son, Joash, and put a crown on him, and made him king, and anointed him; and they clapped their hands, and said, God save the king” [2 Kings 11:12].
What a magnificent story. That’s the blood royal, through whom the promised Messiah is to come. And when the lad was brought forth and crowned, the people were beside themselves. They were hilarious. They clapped and said, “God save the king” [2 Kings 11:12].
So I turn to Psalm 47. And it begins:
O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with a voice of triumph…
God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with a sound of the trumpet.
Sing praises unto God . . .
Sing praises unto God our King . . .
God reigneth over the nations: God sitteth upon the throne of His
holiness . . .
God is greatly to be exalted.
[Psalm 47:1, 5-6, 8-9]
Then I turn the page to Psalm 98:
O sing unto the Lord a new song; for He hath done marvelous things: His right hand, and His holy arm, hath gotten Him the victory . . .
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth . . .
Sing unto the Lord with the harp . . .
[Psalm 98:1, 4-5]
See that child over there? Isn’t that a blessedness? Not you particularly, the harp:
Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a
psalm . . .
Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.
[Psalm 98: 5, 7-9]
I turn the page again, and this time to Isaiah, the incomparable prophet of God. In chapter 55, verse 12, “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all of the trees of the field shall clap their hands” [Isaiah 55:12]. If I am to be like God’s people, and if our congregation is to be like these here in the Holy Scriptures, then we are to applaud, we are to clap our hands. We are to praise God. We are to be joyful and sing unto Him.
Well, that leads me into the kind of religion, the old-time religion, that had feeling in it. Before I came to this church, so we are talking about many years ago, I heard a story about Dr. Truett. He used to preach, they said to me on the second coming of Christ; something he never did in the latter part of his life because of an altercation here in our metroplex. But he used to preach, they told me, on the second coming of Christ. And this particular morning, he was preaching from the fourteenth chapter of John, “If I go away, I will come again” [John 14:3]. And in the midst of his sermon, there was a dear old mother who stood up, and she began to shout. She began to praise the Lord. And a physician in the congregation thought that she was beside herself; that she was demented, or in aberration or something. So he ran over to her and was beginning to escort her out of the sanctuary. And when Dr. Truett saw him pushing the woman, leading the woman out, as she was shouting and praising the Lord, he raised his hand and he said, “There, there doctor, leave her alone. Leave her alone. She’s just happy in the Lord.” And then he turned to the congregation and said, “My brothers and sisters, we need more of that in this church.” That was a story that was said to me.
Well, the old-time religion, the old-fashioned religion, I knew it as a boy. When the Methodists in our little town held a revival meeting, they would pour out on the streets and shout all over the town. They are so different today. A “shouting Methodist” was a phrase; it went together, the words belonged together, a “shouting Methodist.” We had revivals in those days. They were events. Everybody attended, even the town infidel who lived back of our house. You could hear him cuss all over creation as he milked his cow in the morning. He was right there in the services making fun of the preacher. Everybody attended the revivals. They were filled with moving and feeling. And when I began preaching as a youth, at seventeen years of age, I preached under brush arbors and open tabernacles out in the country. Everybody came. Everybody seemingly got religion and expressed it with shouting and praises to God.
And as a man, as a grown man, preaching among our brethren and in our churches, the same glorious phenomenon would happen once in a while. I was preaching in one of the cities in Oklahoma, in a beautiful, expansive First Baptist Church. And when I gave the invitation, down the aisle came a young man, a handsome young man. And in a few minutes later, another one, plainly brothers; they looked alike, sat down there. And then when the service of my appeal was done, the pastor stood up to receive them whom God had given us that Sunday morning. And when he stood up, there was a glorious-looking woman. She was, I found out, the teacher of one of the women’s Bible classes in the church. She came forward and put her hand on the head of one of those boys and said, “I prayed God today that He would give me one of my boys.” Then she put her other hand on the head of the other lad and said, “But God hath given me both of my boys.” Then from one side of that beautiful church to the other; she went up and down, back and forth, praising God and shouting and saying, “Rejoice with me. Praise God with me. God hath given me both of my boys.” One of them for the years of his life was a professor over there at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. You cannot help but be moved by that kind of an expressive religion.
Feeling: that is our response to the death of our Lord, and to the Christian faith, and to the life that adorns it; feeling. I cannot understand how people could look upon what this faith of Christ represents in the death of our Lord, and in our own conversion, and in the building of our lives in Him without feeling, emotion, being moved.
I held a funeral service for a darling little girl. And when I had done the best I could with words of condolence and consolation and comfort, why, I stood down there by the side of the casket, and the mother came, a young woman; so heartbroken, just weeping and lamenting over the death of that beautiful little girl. By her side stood her husband, literally like a carved stone image, like a wooden Indian, unmoved, unresponsive; just stand there. I wanted to say to him, “Couldn’t you just put your hand on the shoulder of your wife or your arm around her, or couldn’t you just look down in the face of that beautiful darling little girl. But to be there and stand there, your own child, unmoved, how could you be that way?”
I cannot understand how people can respond to the grace of our Lord and not be moved. O God, what You have done for us, and my Savior, dying for my sins [1 Corinthians 15:3]. How could I look and see and not be moved? That’s what happened in this eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. Philip the evangelist went down to Samaria and preached the gospel [Acts 8:5]. And the people with one accord gave attendance unto those things that Philip said [Acts 8:6]. And some of them, boeiō, boeiō, crying out with deliverance, crying out with joy in salvation. And verse 8 that we read, “And the whole city was filled with megalē chara. Megalē; mega is our word for large; mega, great, intense. Chara, chara is an inward grace and joy and happiness. Charis, grace, is from that word, and charisma is from that word; charisma, an inward grace, an inward joy [Acts 8:8]. When the people listened to Philip as he preached and responded, they were filled with an inward glory; charisma. That’s God and our response to it.
What Satan does for us, he says, “You know, my world, out here where they drink, and carouse, and blaspheme, and curse, and live filthy and dirty lives, my world is full of fun, and frolic, and laugher, and lilt. You come into my world.” Then Satan says, “But God’s world, Christ’s world, is dull, and dreary, and dead, and staid.” Oh! why listen to Satan when he says, “You miss all of the fun when you are not in my world.”
You go to Texas Stadium and look at the people as they respond. Or you go to the Arlington Park and see how the people respond. Or go to the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day and see how the people respond. But church? You are supposed to go to church jammed down in your skin and don’t you betray anything; just sit there like a wooden Indian.
I one time heard the craziest story I have ever heard in my life. A fellow went to one of those liturgical services and the preacher up there said something good about Jesus. And he said, “Amen!” And the preacher lost his place. When finally he recollected his thoughts, he said something else good about Jesus. And the man said, “Praise the Lord!” And the preacher stopped. And the usher went over there and tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Shut up. Shut up. Can’t you see you’re bothering our preacher?” And he said, “Well, I was just praising the Lord.” And the usher said, “Well, you can’t praise the Lord in this place; shut up.” And the fellow said, “But I got religion.” And the usher said, “Well, you didn’t get it here. Shut up!”
Satan invites us out there in the world where we have a good time; wonderful time. But when you go to church, you don’t expect to have an overflowing time. It is just the opposite. They have such deep, dark, brown hangovers out there. We—the more of God, and the more of the joy of the Spirit, the healthier we are, the happier we are, the more blessed we are. Heartfelt religion; it was the kind that I got. When I was saved, I could not see the preacher for crying. It was that way with me. I wept tears of joy, and gladness, and faith, and commitment when I was saved.
In the little church where I grew up, the little white crackerbox of a Baptist church house, on Wednesday night, they had testimony meetings, people get up and testify. That’s why I’ve asked in our services, we see if we can’t place it in our program, somebody to testify, like Robert Rohm did today. We had testimony meetings. So when I was saved, I was just ten years old, why, the following Wednesday night I got up to testify. I said a few words and broke down crying, began to cry. And I looked at my old mother seated there by my side for encouragement, and she was crying. There wasn’t anything for me to do but just to sit down. I couldn’t say anything for the tears.
And my country pastorates were like that. I stayed out in the country ten years. Best thing God ever did for me in my life. I stayed out in the country ten years, preaching the gospel, in school houses and brush arbors and tabernacles. And in the years of my pastoral work since, it has been attended by unusual responses in the overflowing heart.
I was preaching through our state evangelistic conference in Fort Worth, in the Will Rogers Auditorium over there. And while I was preaching, a man, a preacher, stood up in the balcony, far top balcony, and began to shout to the top of his voice. He shouted all the way down the balcony, down the stairway to the lower floor, all the way down the auditorium and up on the platform where I was standing. Just shouting, praising God to the top of his voice. When the thing was over, one of the men went to the song leader and said, “Why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you announce a hymn and to sing?” And the song leader replied, “Sir, I never felt like that in my life. Let him shout. Let him shout. Let him shout.” That’s the faith. That’s the faith.
It is an unusual thing in this Bible. There is a little phrase in that Greek, en theos; en theos, “in God,” en theos. And when the Greek language puts it together it comes out enthusmos, enthusmos. And when you spell it out in the English language, it comes out enthusiasm, enthusiasm [Acts 8:8]. Enthusiasm is nothing other than “God in us” God in us, enthusiasm, God in us. Why should Satan steal that word away from us? Why should he take away the joy and the gladness, the emotion and the feeling of our faith and religion and put it out there in the world and leave us like a valley of dry bones? Like a sterile, empty desert?
You know what? I think one of the reasons for the years of the popularity of a picture show is that people can go and sit there and cry without anyone saying you are emotionally unstable or intellectually weak. Just there; look at that sentimental melodrama pictured on the screen, and being moved by it. But here in the house of God, speaking of the realities of life, the weaknesses of our sins, and all of the sorrows that attend our pilgrim way; and then the blessed Lord Jesus, in His grace [Ephesians 2:8] and love [John 3:16] and mercy [Titus 3:5] forgiving us [Ephesians 2:8], dying for us [1 Corinthians 15:3], opening the doors of heaven [John 14:1-37]. Lord, why shouldn’t I rejoice and be glad?
May I close with what I think a church service ought to be like? It ought to be like a wedding. Maybe it’s because I live in that world so much that I would think that; ought to be like a wedding, Jesus and His bride. If you have any kind of a real wedding, there is feeling in it; the bride, the groom, the families. Crying at a wedding is also almost a figure of speech. You are moved at it. It just means—Lord, what does it mean in building that new home, in seeing your children married.
A church is like that. Christ has a bride, and the bride is His people [Ephesians 5:22-32]. And when somebody comes down that aisle, coming to the Lord, he’s a part of that beautiful bride of Christ. A wedding—so meaningful, so moving, and so eternally beautiful! Jesus and His people, Christ and His bride, our Lord and His church; and here we are, Lord, loving Thee, giving our hearts and hands to Thee, opening our souls to Thee, sharing all of the providences of life with Thee. Lord God, how meaningful is such a commitment! We must pray.
Savior in heaven, as only Thou art able, sanctify and hallow these services. May our people respond. May there be a gladness ineffable, indescribable in our souls. When we go home from these sacred moments may we say to one another, “It was just wonderful to be in the house of the Lord.” Lord, may our hearts overflow with joy and gladness in Thee. And help us to express it, Lord, in song, in sermon, in message, in appeal, in joy, in gladness, in happiness, in every way, Lord. This is the life. God bless us as we gather in this sanctuary, loving Thee and one another; in Thy precious and wonderful and saving name, amen.
In this moment when we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you give himself to the Lord Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]; or a family you, coming into the fellowship of our church [Hebrews 10:24-25], or answering a call of the Holy Spirit in your heart, on the first note of the first stanza come, and welcome. May God make you glad to rejoice in Him. If you are in the balcony there is time and to spare; down one of these stairways, in the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “Pastor, this is God’s day for me and here I stand.” Come and welcome, while we stand, while we stand and while we sing. “I am on the way, pastor, and here I am.” God bless you.