This article originally appeared in our December 9, 1966, issue.
For eighteen years I preached through the Bible. I began at the first verse in Genesis and continued through the last verse in the Revelation. Where I left off in the morning, I picked up in the evening, and thus every Sunday, morning and evening, I followed the message of the Holy Scriptures. God blessed the procedure more than I could ever have hoped.
The response of the people was amazing to me. When I began the series, some of the most discerning church members said I would empty the house of the Lord. Nobody, they said, would continue to come to the services and listen to messages that waded through all those so-called dreary and empty chapters of the Bible. But God had placed it on my heart to begin preaching through the Bible.
The result is a finished story. So many people began coming to God's house that after a while they could not be packed in, although the auditorium is one of the most spacious in America. We finally had to begin holding two morning services. Now, at both hours the auditorium is filled. Our people began bringing their Bibles, reading their Bibles, studying their Bibles. They began witnessing to others as never before. More and more souls were saved. The spirit of revival and refreshment became the daily order in the house of the Lord. It was the greatest experience of my life.
Often I have seen preachers pace up and down the floors of their studies, trying to figure out what they would preach about the next Sunday. I have also found myself pacing up and down, perplexed over the sermon for the following Sunday. But our problems were different. Theirs was what to preach about, where to find a text, what to say. Mine was how to say all I wanted to about the blessed and Holy Scriptures. I found myself like a diver who brings up pearls from the bottom of the sea. For every gem that I brought to the surface and exposed to the congregation, there were ten thousand more lying on the floor of the ocean. It was a new and a marvelous day for me.
After completing the eighteen years of preaching through the Bible, I turned to some of the themes and subjects that greatly interested me along the way. I prepared a series of messages on the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and another series on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. My preaching through the Bible those many years brought these subjects to the forefront of my mind. I now plan to turn back to some of the books of the Bible and for more extensive study. These messages on some of the key books will, I pray, be doubly meaningful to the congregation and me because of the years of background study we have shared together.
In preparation for these sermons, I always remember that I must have a message to deliver. I am not to preach just because it is 11:00 or 7:30. The Word must burn like a fire in my bones. This is something that God will do for a preacher. As I study the Holy Word, the message I want to deliver is born in my soul. It is a part of the miracle of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. The Word is living and immediately relates itself to our present day and our present problems.
After selecting the Scripture message I am to present (it may be from a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a whole book), I immediately begin gathering from every possible source all the information, discussion, and exposition I can find on the passage. I go through volumes of secular history and literature and every other known avenue of information and illustration. I work alone in my library every morning and write out all this material by hand. By the time I have gathered this extensive material to enrich my sermon, I have so thought about it and digested it that it has become a part of my own soul.
I do not hesitate to take anything from any place at any time that will help make the message clear and powerful. I believe in the old saying, "All originality and no plagiarism makes a dull preacher." A colorful word, a turn of expression, a thought or an illustration or a sentenceanything that I can find to enrich the sermon, I seize. To me everything is grist for the preacher's mill.
After I have gathered all this material together, I begin forming an outline of the message, so that I can use the material in introduction, in development, and in consummation. When a man teaches, he seeks to instruct the mind; but when a man preaches, he seeks to move the will. Every time I preach, the message is driving toward some kind of a goal. There is something that God wants these people to do, to believe, to respond to, to work at, to achieve; and every message ought to carry an appeal (and a dynamic one) for the accomplishing of that purpose.
To preach just to be preaching, to preach to be showy, or ostentatious, or brilliant, is a travesty on the name of religion. Preaching is for a holy and heavenly purpose: to win the lost, to edify the saints, and to move a whole community and city and nation God-ward. Every time the preacher stands up to preach, he ought to have before him some definite thing he prays the congregation will do. It may be that he wants the people to tithe, or to read the Bible, or to quit their meanness, or to rear their children right, or to love God, or to witness to the lost, or to know what the Lord says about the end of the world and to prepare for that judgment. But whatever the sermon or the message, it ought to be directed toward the achievement of that holy purpose.
Now let me say a word about the method of the delivery of a sermon. Every man must make a choice that fits his own personality, but to me the only way to preach is without notes. By the time I have prepared the sermon, I do not need any notes. I know the message up and down, back and forth, in the middle and at both ends. I could start any place and preach in any direction, toward the front or toward the back. To get up in the pulpit and not know my message would be unthinkable. If it meant that little to me, how could I expect it to mean any more to others?
Notes are a nuisance and stand in the way. It would be unusual if I used notes in talking to you personally. When I talk to you personally, I do it face to face and heart to heart. When I preach to you, it will be no less personal. It will be eye to eye, mind to mind, soul to soul, with the fervent prayer that God will bless the message I seek to deliver. Do you suppose Peter preached his Pentecostal sermon from notes? Do you suppose Paul used notes for his incomparable message to the Ephesian elders at Miletus? I think they spoke out of the burning of their souls. May God grant that we do no less and no other today.
This article originally appeared in our December 9, 1966, issue. W.A. Criswell was senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas for 47 years. He died January 10, 2002. He was 92.
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Also appearing on our site today:
SBC Leader W.A. Criswell Dies at 92 | Dallas pastor considered the father of modern conservatism in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Criswell Foundation Web site has extensive information on the life and work of Dr. W.A. Criswell including a short bio and video documentaries. The site also offers a searchable database of Criswell's sermons (available in text, video and audio formats). They are searchable by Book/Chapter/Verse, Topic, Word, and Category.
Standing on the Promises: The Autobiography of W. A. Criswell is available at Amazon.com.
Obituaries for Criswell include:
W.A. Criswell, longtime Baptist leader, dies The Dallas Morning News
W.A. Criswell, 92; Leader of Literal-Bible Movement The Los Angeles Times
Pastor W.A. Criswell Dies at 92; President of Southern Baptists Associated Press
W.A. Criswell, legendary Baptist leader, dies at 92 The Washington Times
W.A. Criswell, influential Baptist pastor in Dallas, dies The Houston Chronicle
The Dallas Morning News has published a series of articles on Criswell since his death. They include:
A church remembers 'our friend and pastor' (Jan. 14, 2002)
In his own words (writing excerpts) (Jan. 12, 2002)
Pastor left mark on many lives (Jan. 11, 2002)
Criswell College mourns founder (Jan. 11, 2002)
Criswell timeline (Jan. 11, 2002)
Remembering Dr. Criswell (Jan. 11, 2002)
DMN editorial (Jan. 11, 2002)
1944: Dr. W.A. Criswell's arrival (Jan. 10, 2002)
1994 interview with Criswell (Jan 10, 2002)
Remembered with love, respect (Jan. 10, 2002)
Related stories from Baptist Press include:
President Bush lauds Criswell as important spiritual leader (Jan. 11, 2002)
Chapman: W.A. Criswell was 'giant in the land' (Jan 10, 2002)
Trust the Bible & preach it, W.A. Criswell helped us grasp (Jan 10, 2002)
Baptist leaders remember life, legacy of Criswell (Jan 10, 2002)
'Old-time religion' good enough for W.A. Criswell (March 3, 1997)