What Made Paul Washer’s “Shocking Message” So Very Shocking?

Today I am kicking off a new series of videos I’m calling The Great Sermon Series. The premise of the series is finding and examining modern-day sermons that the Lord has chosen to use in unusually significant ways. What we will find, I think, is that the Lord uses sermons to save, stir, and edify his people–and that sometimes he does this through unexpected messages and messengers. The series begins in 2002 in Montgomery, Alabama, with Paul Washer’s “Shocking Message.”

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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.

(Written by Tim Challies & Joey Schwartz; produced by Thaddeus Maharaj.)

Transcript

Tim: Let me set the scene. It’s 2002 and we’re in Montgomery, Alabama. 5000 young people have gathered for a conference on evangelism. There have been jokes and laughter, dancing and singing, games and props. The kids, they’re having a good time. They’re enjoying an exciting event. The worship band has just finished getting the crowd all fired up and now its time for the speaker to take the stage. He knows just what to do, right. First, he’ll warm them up with a few jokes, then he’ll share some stories about when he was a missionary. And then, he’ll call on them to dedicate their lives to living out the great commission. Isn’t that the script for an event like this one? Not exactly. Not this time.

Paul: Enough of this. Let’s get down. What does the Word of God say? How does your life stand in front of that blazing fire which is the Holiness of God? On that final day, beloved, precious little girl. Beloved, precious young man, on that final day, will your confession hold true? Are you saved?

Tim: Paul Washer’s sermon at the 2002 youth evangelism conference sent a shock wave around the world. And it became one of the most watched sermons of all time. So what made this shocking youth sermon so very shocking? Let’s give it a closer look.

As you watch Washer’s sermon, the first thing you just have to notice is that he seems a bit unsettled, a bit intense. Since the sermon went viral, all sorts of people have criticized him for being brash, for being harsh, maybe even being angry. But there is some context to his mood, to his passion, to his zeal. He isn’t preaching the sermon in a void. Right from the beginning, he wants this crowd to realize he is about to let loose.

Paul: There’s so much going on here this afternoon. So much that you don’t understand. But I’ll tell you where I’m coming from. I’ll preach as a dying man, to dying men and women, and youth. And I’ll preach as though I will never preach again, and I will tell you things that you will misunderstand, and I will tell you things that make you so angry with me.

Tim: So clearly, this is not going to be just another sermon. Later on, he said there were actually three events that were in the background as he began to speak here. The first event in the background is that the day, before another speaker had delivered a message that made all the kids roar with laughter. But then the speaker gave an altar call, and a whole group of them, they flocked down the aisles to respond to it and they were still laughing as they went to dedicate or to rededicate their lives to Christ. Washer was concerned because he did not see signs of true repentance. These kids, they weren’t showing any obvious sorrow over sin, they weren’t showing any real seriousness about this commitment they were making. Not only that, but the speaker had mostly just been cracking jokes, so what were they even responding to?

The second event was a talk by a young man who had grown up Muslim. He told about being persecuted, about his salvation and about the hope that he had found in Jesus Christ. Washer sensed the power of God in this man’s words, but when he finished, he’d hear crickets. There was no movement, there were no tears, there was no altar call, nothing. And he was shocked. If these kids there were so rowdy, if they were so ready to respond to other speakers, how could they give so little response to this man’s powerful testimony?

Finally, when the worship band took the stage students had rushed up to the front to dance and scream and have fun. Washer’s wife was at the front, and this one young man just kept bumping into her, almost knocking her back into her seat. Now, this was the final straw, now the stage was set. Let’s be clear though, the sermon he was about to deliver, it wasn’t a vendetta. What he observed was thousands of students who professed faith in Christ, but who looked just like the world. He saw young people who were convinced they were Christians, but who showed so little evidence of salvation. They were taking comfort that they had prayed a prayer or they had responded to an altar call. But had they truly been saved? Did they truly know Christ? Were they truly his disciples?

Paul: I stand here today. I’m not troubled in my heart about your self-esteem. I’m not troubled in my heart about whether or not you feel good about yourself, whether or not life is turning out like you want it to turn out, or whether or not your checkbook is balanced. There’s only one thing that gave me a sleepless night. There’s only one thing that troubled me all throughout the morning. And that is this; within a hundred years, a great majority of people in this building will possibly be in hell. And many who even profess Jesus Christ as Lord will spend an eternity in hell.

Tim: See, Washer’s passion didn’t come from anger or vengeance, but from love. He wanted to challenge them, he wanted to challenge their worldliness, he wanted to challenge their dead faith. He wanted to bring them face to face with the holiness of God and the reality of sin. You know something interesting happens when we watch this sermon. As soon as Washer begins to preach, the sin within us starts to protest, but we keep watching. We keep watching because we know we desperately need this. The sermon has an almost magnetic pole. It’s like we can’t look away. So why is this sermon so compelling? What made it go viral? Of all the sermon’s God could have used in profound ways, why did he choose to use this one? I think there are three elements that really set this sermon apart.

The first is Washer’s authority. Watch here how he begins the sermon.

Paul: Because if I correctly interpret this passage of scripture that I’m going to give you, it is as though God was speaking through a man. And your problem will not be with me, it will be with God and His Word. So the only question that really has to be decided here this afternoon is, is this man before us a false prophet? Or is he telling us the truth? And if he is telling us the truth, then nothing else matters except conforming our lives to that truth.

Tim: He knows that he’s about to confront their sin so he takes hold of the authority of scripture. If the people listening are tempted to object to something he says, he needs them to know that he’s only telling them what God says. Their beef is really with God, not with Paul Washer. Powerful preaching claims the authority of God by grounding itself in the Word of God. Washer leaves absolutely no doubt his message is God’s message.

The second element that sets the sermon apart is Washer’s urgency. In an interview he recorded a few years later he said, the major turning point of the sermon comes right here. He’s making the dead serious point that true faith in Christ is always accompanied by repentance.

Paul: What you need to know is that salvation is by faith and faith alone in Jesus Christ. And faith alone in Jesus Christ is preceded and followed by repentance. A turning away from sin, a hatred for the things that God hates and a love for the things that God loves. A growing in holiness and a desire, not to be like Britney Spears, not to be like the world, and not to be like the great majority of American Christians, but to be like Jesus Christ.

Tim: Do you hear the audience begin to cheer and applaud? Just watch what happens.

Paul: I don’t know why you’re clapping, I’m talking about you. I didn’t come here to get amens, I didn’t come here to be applauded, I’m talking about you.

Tim: Even if those other preachers had come to entertain or to play games, he makes it clear he’s not there as an entertainer of man, but a messenger of God. Even if those other preachers will affirm these young folk, he’s there to challenge them. And at the heart of preaching, is being a herald, being a person who delivers a message on behalf of a king. And that’s exactly what he does. He has a deep urgency to deliver an important message from his king.

Finally, the third element that sets this sermon apart is simplicity. His text is Matthew 7, verses 13 to 27. A passage that comes at the very end of the sermon on the mount and Jesus is telling his disciples to enter by the narrow gate and the hard way, which leads to life. He tells them that many who call Jesus, Lord, will not enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. He tells them to prepare for judgment by building their lives on His words and obeying them. There’re lots of ways Washer could have outlined his sermon, as three points or four points, but that’s not the approach he takes. Even though he preaches for almost an hour, he really makes just one big point.

Paul: Verse 21, “Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of Heaven. But he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven will enter.”

Tim: You getting that? His big point that he returns to again and again is that true believers repent of their sin and live a transformed life. If you’re not living in obedience to God, it’s because you’re not born again. He never diverts from that core message. He never takes a break. He never lets the audience catch their breath with a funny story or a silly illustration. He just keeps pushing and pushing without letting up. And all the while, he just keeps pleading for his listeners to turn to Christ and be saved. This isn’t a mistake. He knows that using illustrations might undermine his message by giving the impression that he’s there to entertain. Instead, he lays a simple, straightforward, biblical message on his audience. He allows the Word to do the work. I think it’s this combination of authority, urgency, and simplicity that makes this sermon what it is.

Now when I hear this message today, I want to get saved all over again. But on the day it was preached, it didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Some kids responded. But not as many as responded to the comedian from the night before. There was no revival, no solemn assembly, no dust and ashes. The event ended, he went home, and that was that. It wasn’t until four years later that someone uploaded it to YouTube with a title “Shocking Message”. And that is when something unexpected happened, it went viral. Within days, Washer’s ministry began to receive hundreds and then thousands of emails and letters from all around the world. People were saying they’d been saved by watching this sermon. Suddenly all kinds of people were talking about it. But it didn’t end there. Churches like mine began to get inquiries from young people who’d been saved or had been awoken during that sermon and they were now looking for a church that would preach that very same Gospel. It really did reverberate around the world. Reflecting on it later, Washer said …

Paul: We are living in a time where billions of people are dying without Christ. We are living at a time when millions of so-called evangelicals do not even understand the Gospel. Shouldn’t somebody be disturbed? Shouldn’t someone be broken? And shouldn’t someone stand up and say, this is wrong?

Tim: Yes, someone needed to say something. Someone needed to stand up. Someone needed to sound the alarm. And Washer somehow shocked us all when he did it. He made a bold stand just as men and women of God have done throughout the ages, and he made it on the unstoppable Word of God. Because he did, we are all the better for it.

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.