Over the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, there have been many gifted preachers. Those men have been used by God to provide timely and prophetic sermons that have guided, shaped, and corrected the course of individuals, churches, and the SBC. In this series, we will look at some of those sermons. Even though most of these men will be dead, the message that they preached lives on because of the truth of the ever-living Word of God.
Lasting just over a decade, the Conservative Resurgence took control of the SBC and her entities from those that were deemed as liberals. It was not an easy fight though, and it dominated the SBC Annual Meeting and Pastors Conference each year. Those meetings were the easiest way for those behind the CR to get their message across. The year 1985 was a particularly contentious one in the fight, as 45,000 plus messengers gathered in Dallas. The convention was in the backyard of legendary pastor WA Criswell and First Baptist Dallas, so it was natural for him to speak at the Pastors Conference that year. Criswell himself had already mailed out 36,000 letters urging ministers to reelect “God’s Prophet” (Charles Stanley) as President of the Convention that year in Dallas.
He spoke that night with all the pathos and logic he was famous for, and his sermon helped sway the outcome of the next day’s meeting that ended in the election of Charles Stanley as Convention President. Although the CR lasted over a decade, there were a few seminal moments that shaped its direction and his sermon that night was one of those moments. WA Criswell’s, “Whether We Live or Die,” was a key moment in the life of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention in that it illustrated the present from the past, gave an imperative for the present, and a promise for the future.
I don’t doubt that there are more than a few who will read this were in Dallas that year. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to that was there said it was a sermon they will never forget. Even decades after the fact the video is still powerful and moving.
By this time in his life Criswell had been preaching for 58 years in total and had preached many times at the Pastors Conference of the SBC. Nevertheless, Criswell stated that he had never been more meticulous in the preparation of a sermon than this one. Criswell was known for his clear preaching, and his sermon “Whether We Live or Die” was simple and easy to follow. The message covered the pattern of death for a congregation and used the example of CH Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy as an example. Next, he explained the pattern of death for an institution, using the advent of critical theory and higher criticism in the life of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago to illustrate his points. His third point covered the pattern of death for a preacher and used the story of CH Toy as an example. Lastly, Criswell showed a way to avoid death and decline by staying true to God’s word and taking the gospel of Christ to the nations.
Criswell doesn’t just give bad examples though. The closing paragraphs of his sermon remind his hearers that there is hope for those who are willing to stand firm on the Word of God. There are forces that seek to have us stray from God’s Word. It will be a battle to stay committed to the truth of God and Jesus Christ, and a battle to take that truth to the nations. The battle belongs to the one who is willing to take it, to put their hand to the sword and stand for the truth of God’s word. Criswell promises his hearers that the fight will be hard, but it will be worth it. Someday we will see the mission Christ gave at the Mount of Olives fulfilled. The promise is not from a wise and persuasive preacher, but from Christ himself.
Criswell’s sermon archives demonstrate the breadth and width of his skill as a preacher. But this is one of his greatest, and it came at an important time in the SBC. Take the time to watch or read it below.
Whether we live or die lies in the imponderables of Almighty God. Will God not judge atheistic, communistic Russia? Will He not also judge secularistic, heathenistic, humanistic, materialistic America? What is the difference at the judgment bar of Christ between a God-denying Russian communist atheist and a God-denying American liberal humanist? Can God judge Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Nineveh, and Babylon, and not judge Moscow, and Peking, and San Francisco, and Dallas?
Our mission frontiers run down every street and village, through every house, home, and classroom. The whole globe today is small, compact, and shrunken. We see, hear, watch, read, follow what happens moment by moment around the world. The interdependence and the interlinking of all mankind is an actual modern fact. We all ride this planet together. Our nation is one in a dependent family of nations. Romans 14:7 avows, “For none of us lives to himself, and not one of us dieth to himself.”
As Baptist churches, and as a Baptist people, we need each other. One segment of our community cannot do our work, our task, alone. Our strength lies in a common determination and a common dedication. One church can build a Sunday school, but a Sunday school movement must be launched by an association of churches through a Sunday school board. One church can send a missionary, but a vast missionary movement must be engineered by a denomination of churches through a foreign mission board. One church can have a revival, but a revival movement must be prayed for, and prayed down, and lifted up by a community of churches through an evangelistic director.
In reflecting on Criswell’s sermon 35 years later, there are still many lessons for us today. Some of the names could be changed to reflect current trends and the sermon be preached again today. Criswell couldn’t imagine how linked our world is today. He called it small, compact, and shrunken, but he would be amazed to see how much smaller it has become. This means that every church’s chance to impact the nations is even greater.
Criswell also used the death of institutions in the past to warn the SBC about their own future.
An institution can be like a great tree which in times past withstood the rain, and the wind, and the storm, and the lightning, but finally fell because the heart had rotted out. Insects, termites destroyed the great monarch of the woods. This is the unspeakably tragic thing that happens to many of our Christian institutions, and eventually threatens them all. They are delivered to secularism and infidelity, not because of a bitter frontal attack from without, but because of a slow, gradual permeation of the rot and curse of unbelief from within.
His warning about the danger of internal rot still holds true today. Internal rot often comes from the place you least expect it. This means that no matter what side you find yourself on current SBC events, we all need to check our own hearts. Criswell’s warning means that we all must continually work to bring to stoke the fire of the gospel in our hearts. The illustrations Criswell uses are proof that everyone is capable of straying from the gospel, no matter how close we find ourselves to God today.
As it relates to institutions and churches, Criswell states that we need each other. The SBC in 1985 was focused on who was out, and who was in, much in the same way it is today. Some of the same labels and insults are used as they were then. But Criswell’s point remains the same. “Our strength lies in a common determination and a common dedication.” The strength of the SBC is not that we all believe exactly the same way, but in that we all share the common goal of taking the gospel to the nations. The future of our denomination is in the hands of God as he said. But our future as a denomination also lies in our willingness to overcome and differences and put the gospel above all else.