Christians today may not know much about W. A. Criswell. If you are one of them, allow me to introduce you.
Born on December 19, 1909, it did not take long for God to begin working in Criswell’s life. He professed faith in Christ at age 10, committed to ministry at age 12, was licensed to preach at age 17, and began serving in ministry before the age of 20. After pastoring in small towns in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, he was called to pastor the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, in 1944.
If iTunes existed during his half-decade pastorate at First Baptist, he might have been the most podcasted pastor in the world. His audio tapes were circulated around the world, people came from all over to hear him preach, his sermons appeared on television and radio broadcasts, and he wrote over 50 books. The church grew from just under 8,000 members to more than 26,000 during his pastorate, making his congregation the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the world at the time. He met with presidents and world leaders; he was a major cog in the denomination-shifting Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and served as the convention’s president twice; he was an early pioneer of sophisticated, age-appropriate Sunday School programs, and under his watch, the church founded several inner-city initiatives, including ministries for the homeless and a crisis pregnancy center; he founded Criswell College, a training ground for some of the SBC’s most influential leaders; he was awarded eight honorary doctorates; he was Billy Graham’s pastor; John MacArthur credits him for modeling his expository-style preaching; and Rick Warren calls him a father in the faith and the greatest American pastor of the 20th century.
These accomplishments are indeed impressive, but if you spend any time with those who knew Criswell personally, it becomes clear that the accolades and innovation associated with him do little justice to his character as a man of God. He was a humble pastor; he was more likely found praying with members on the steps of the church, singing to dying members in the hospital, or praying with other pastors than tooting his own horn. He was a committed evangelist; if a person were to meet him on the street, they would never know that he was a world-famous pastor, but they would surely know who his Savior was. He was a practical theologian; for him, theology meant nothing if it did not make known the God of the Bible who brought redemption to the lost. When he died on January 10, 2002, his passing was met with an outpouring of love from all over the world, most of which was driven by gratitude for Criswell the man and pastor, not the famous megachurch personality.
So now that you have met him, the question remains: Why should we care about W. A. Criswell today?
The Centrality of Christ
As the image above suggests, Criswell saw a “scarlet thread” through all of the Bible. The blood of Jesus Christ was the lens through which Criswell saw all of redemptive history. There was no part of Scripture that, in the end, did not point toward the atonement for sins found in the sacrifice of Jesus. He faithfully preached that if Scripture was to teach us anything, it was the salvation available through the blood of Jesus. In his 1956 sermon “Faith and Freedom,” he said:
“When a man trusts Jesus—when he commits his soul and his life to the Lord Jesus, when he looks in faith to the Lord Jesus—this is the way it works: he has a new love, a new dedication, a new affection. He’s given himself to a new way, a new person, a new somebody. He’s got a new ideal. He’s got a new vision. He’s a new man. He’s looking to Jesus. And without that, you’re never saved, and you’re not a new man, and you’re not converted, and you’ll never see the face of God.”
This lesson from Criswell is one we all must learn and continually apply. Salvation is found in Christ alone. He is both the pinnacle and the epicenter of redemptive history. As Christians, we are always to be aware of what God was doing, is doing, and will do through Christ, “the source and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) through whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
Scripture is wrought with hope as we see God’s love and faithfulness in extending grace to sinners, culminating in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. This hope is a life-giving waterfall that pours over parched, dead souls. We can look nowhere else for freedom from the shackles of sin. More than that, as ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), the centrality of Christ in all things is a message that we are called to carry to the ends of the earth and from generation to generation.
The Primacy of Scripture
To Criswell, the Word of God was to be the basis for two things: preaching and evangelism. He was known for his famous phrase “I’ll see you Sunday with a Bible in my hand.” First, the man was a fully-committed, unashamed preacher of the Word of God. His preaching style was notoriously eccentric, loud, powerful, and compassionate, and it was always grounded in God’s Word. He never preached a Bible-less sermon. He was totally committed to preaching expositionally (that is, verse-by-verse, line-by-line through the Bible), and he would never be found in the pulpit without that ‘Bible in his hand.’ From preaching through books of the Bible line-by-line to fighting for the inerrancy of Scripture in the SBC, Criswell was a bold defender of the Bible.
Second, Scripture was not merely a preaching tool for Criswell; he was a committed evangelist. A popular quip of his was “Above all else, the saving of the lost.” This mantra was tied intricately to his love for Scripture. In his 1975 sermon “The Winner of Souls,” he claimed that
“The greatest tragedy that can overwhelm and overtake a man’s life: let his soul die and that he be buried beneath a multitude of sins. You see, life in the Bible refers not to existence, but to our communion with God. Life in the Bible is our being joined to God. And death in the Bible is not non-existence, non-being; but death in the Bible refers to our separation from God, existence away from God.”
The Bible taught about salvation, about life, and Criswell proclaimed “the message of the Book is, the best time to give your life to God is now!”
Whether we are preachers or Bible study leaders or business executives or plumbers, we are all encouraged by Criswell to lay our lives upon the claims of Scripture. In a world where objective truth is maligned and ridiculed, we find authoritative truth from the very breath of God in his Word (2 Tim. 3:16). Rest in that. Place your trust in that. Proclaim that to the lost. If you look to God’s Word, you will find all the urgency you will ever need to bow the knee to Christ and to call others to the same. As Criswell remarked, the greatest tragedy of all is to live a life devoid of God’s grace.
W. A. Criswell is a man we can all look to as a model of godly character. He loved Christ deeply; he preached the Bible passionately; he sought after the lost fearlessly. Though a Southern Baptist through and through, his life and ministry can be appreciated by Christians of any stripe.
Why should we care about Criswell today? Because he points us to Christ and Scripture: two timeless treasures.