Just a little over thirty years ago, the fate of the SBC hung in the balance. It seemed as though it was going to adapt to the times and embrace theological liberalism, just as countless denominations had done in the U.S.. But at the 1985 SBC Convention in Dallas, Texas, a 75-year-old minister stepped to the podium and decided to take a stand. His message is the next entry in the Great Sermon Series.
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern, and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
Note: In the video I say membership in the SBC is 50 million; that should, of course, be 15 million.
(Written by Tim Challies & Joey Schwartz; produced by Thaddeus Maharaj.)
Tim: What Protestant denomination is the largest in the United States and is known for its worldwide reputation for its conservative, inerrant view of the scriptures? You know the answer. With nearly 50 thousand churches and more than 50 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is this colossal co-operation. And through a time when liberal views of the scriptures were sweeping across America, the SBC managed to hold its roots in the Word of God. Of course, the SBC has certainly not been without its flaws and its blind spots over its 170-year history and yet there is so much to be commended in the convention’s commitment to the scriptures. But this was not always the case. Just a little over 30 years ago the fate of the SBC really hung in the balance and it seemed as though it was going to adapt to the times and embrace theological liberalism just as countless other denominations had already done. But at the 1985 SBC convention in Dallas, Texas a 75-year-old minister of the Gospel stepped to the podium and took a stand. He would later call this message the most important he had ever delivered.
Criswell: Not in all of my life have I ever prepared an address as minutely and meticulously as I have this one tonight.
Tim: WA Criswell’s message, Whether We Live or Die, put the nail in the coffin of liberalism within the SBC and cemented the direction of the convention for many years to come. What made it such a monumental moment? Let’s take a closer look.
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
To grasp the significance of Criswell’s address, you’ve got to go all the way back to 1961. This was the year that Ralph Elliott, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published The Message of Genesis. By taking a historical, critical approach to the scriptures, he argued that Genesis 1 through 11 was not history but mythology. The publishing of this book sparked what was then called The Genesis Controversy and it ended with Elliott being fired from Midwestern. Eight years later in 1969 the Sunday School Board, that’s a division of the SBC, published The Broadman Bible Commentary. G. Henton Davies had contributed to the first volume on Genesis and he questioned whether God had really told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Well, there was an uproar amongst Southern Baptists in response to the writings of Elliott and Davies.
The truth was that this critical approach to the scriptures was already rampant within the denomination’s seminaries. And because of this, SBC ministers coming out of the seminaries were carrying this view of the scriptures with them into the churches. Seeing the growth of liberalism in the SBC and it’s threat to a conservative denomination, several SBC leaders, including Criswell, met in 1978 to devise a strategy. They determined to put all of their energy into electing conservative SBC presidents in the years to come. These conservative presidents could then, in turn, nominate conservative leaders for the denomination’s seminaries and its institutions.
From 1979 to 1984 it seemed like their plan was working. By mobilizing thousands of messengers to attend their conventions and vote, they’d managed to push the election of conservative leaders like Adrian Rogers and Bailey Smith and Jimmy Draper, Jnr. But as the 1985 convention approached, opponents of this conservative resurgence, they were called moderates, they gathered all of the resources and all of the messengers they could to that convention. This clash of the 1985 convention lead to the largest turnout in convention history with over 45 thousand messengers gathered to vote and to determine the future of the SBC. This, this was what Criswell stepped into on the night before the convention. It was an all-out battle between the conservatives and the moderates.
Criswell: And the message tonight, entitled Whether We Live or Die, is delivered, prepared in view of the convocation of our assembled messengers beginning in the morning. The outline of the address of the study is this; the pattern of death for a denomination. Then, the pattern of death for an institution. Then, the pattern of death for a preacher, a professor. And then finally, the promise of renaissance and resurrection and revival.
Tim: There are three marks of Criswell’s message that made it particularly powerful and timely and enduring to our day. First, Criswell takes a bold stand for the truth. In light of the impending battle in Dallas the next day, the thousands who gathered to hear Criswell were wondering what his response would be. Would he call for compromise between the two sides? Or would he draw a line in the sand? The moderates didn’t necessarily want the conservatives to embrace their liberal views. They only wanted there to be openness and tolerance within the denomination. So as the conservatives gained power they had to decide whether they too would seek compromise with the moderates. Before the beginning of the sermon Criswell makes his stance clear and to do that, he quotes Charles Spurgeon.
Criswell: He wrote, a chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bible and those who are prepared for an advance upon the scripture. The house is being robbed. Its very walls are being digged down. But the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth to go downstairs to meet the burglars. Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide side by side. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word and yet reject it. We cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of evolution of spiritual life from human nature. One or the other must go. Compromise, there can be none.
Tim: Criswell takes a stand for the denomination, saying that if liberalism and higher criticism are welcomed within the SBC they will ruin the denomination. Now some could have accused him of being unloving. Some could have said he was being divisive. But Criswell knew that taking a stand for the truth often divides. And yet this sermon is not marked just by a bold stand for the truth but also a great sorrow over the conflict. And that’s the second key mark of this sermon. He is broken for his opponents. While Criswell unashamedly stands for truth, he doesn’t rebuke the moderate Baptists with a smile. Instead, you can sense a tone of deep sadness and regret throughout his sermon. He wishes that everyone within the denomination could be unified around the Bible. He recounts a story of Lottie Moon, that famous Baptist missionary. She was engaged to Crawford Toy who is a Southern Seminary professor who adopted higher criticism and was eventually dismissed from his position. She returned from China to marry Toy but when she discovered his liberal views, she was forced to leave him and to return to China alone.
Criswell: But Lottie Moon was shattered and grief-stricken by the new theology and liberal beliefs of the man she so deeply admired and so beautifully loved. She returned to China, heartbroken, never to return to a home in America, never to marry, and died there in the Orient, lonely in sole and pouring her very life into a ministry for her starving Chinese people. However much our hearts may yearn over those who are victims and carriers of modernistic fallacy, if we are to survive as a people of God, we must wage a war against the disease that more than any other, will ruin our missionary, evangelistic and sole winning commitment.
Tim: Just as Lottie moon left Crawford Toy, Criswell is saying that the conservatives too must leave behind the moderates. And yet, just as Moon did so with a broken heart, they must be broken hearted over this divisiveness within the SBC. In his message, Criswell displayed not just the rock-solid truth of Christ, but also the tender love of Christ. He shows them how to speak the truth and how to speak it in love.
Finally, the third mark of Criswell’s sermon is this; he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. While there were plenty of passionate supporters of the conservative cause, there were also many there who were indifferent. They had a take it or leave it attitude about the state of the SBC. To them, it really made no difference whether moderates were allowed to remain within the denomination and institutions or whether they were removed. So, to convince the apathetic about the urgency of the situation, Criswell zooms out of the SBC for a while and puts the situation in the larger context of the church. He tells them of a similar controversy that Charles Spurgeon had faced within the Baptist Union in England. The union was adopting a liberal view of the scriptures. Instead of agreeing to unite with its fellow Baptists, he decided he needed to take a bold stand because he was convinced that these liberal views within the union would eventually lead to its ruin. Many of his contemporaries believe that Spurgeon was overreacting. Yet as Criswell shows, history proved Spurgeon’s concerns.
Criswell: I was in India years ago when English Baptists were closing down their mission stations on the Ganges River, stations founded by William Carey. Some say the position taken by Spurgeon hurt the mission movement. My brother, if the higher critical approach to the scriptures dominates our institutions and our denomination, there will be no missionaries to hurt, they will cease to exist.
A comment on the sad condition of Baptist churches in England is found in the latest biography of Spurgeon, written by Dr. Arnold Dallimore, entitled, CH Spurgeon, a New Biography, published this last year. The comment concerning English Baptists is this, quote, where there is no acceptance of the Bible as inerrant, there is no true Christianity. The preaching is powerless and what Spurgeon declared to his generation a hundred years ago is the outcome.
Tim: Criswell puts the resurgence in the larger context of the great cloud of witnesses who have fought for the truth before them. By doing this, he shows all of the messengers they cannot be indifferent about liberalism remaining within their denomination. Unless they stand for the truth, there’ll be no SBC to stand for in the coming years. But if they do stand for the truth, they will see a far, far greater result.
Criswell: No battle was ever won by retreat or submission or surrender. When Alexander the Great lay dying, they asked him, whose is the kingdom, and he replied, it is for him who can take it, it will be we or somebody else. 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. God grant it, amen.
Tim: Criswell prayed it and God did indeed grant it. Charles Stanley was elected at the 1985 convention solidifying the victory for the conservatives. Over the coming years, conservative leaders were elected for all of the SBC institutions, including the 33-year-old Al Mohler as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Criswell’s 40-minute message was an impassioned plea for a return to the Word and this represented a 65-year ministry spent proclaiming the Word. He believed the Bible was a hill on which to die. And the history of the SBC ever since has proved him right. 30 years later, we’re facing the same battles today in the church. Will we tolerate liberalism and a low view of the scriptures? Or like Criswell, will we, even through tears, take a stand on the inerrant Word of God?
If you’re passionate about preaching like I am, I want to tell you about a seminary I’ve grown to trust and appreciate because I know they care deeply about preaching the Word of God. I’d encourage you to visit Southern Seminary which has been under the leadership of Al Mohler for decades now. Southern is absolutely committed to training pastors to know and defend and exposit the precious Word of God. If you visit their site, they’ll give you a free book that can serve as a resource to help you with the kind of bold preaching that we’ve been talking about here today. Simply visit sbts.edu/challies.