W.A. Criswell: What Must I Do to be Saved?

This sermon from the heart and study of the late Pastor, Dr. W. A. Crisswell, First Baptist Church, Dallas,  is worthy of your time to read and prayerfully study.  Dr. Criswell brings with passion, the wonderful answer to the question, What must I do to be saved?  A video recording of this message may be viewed from http://tinyurl.com/m93wo5  See the distinguished Criswell in his white suit as he addresses his beloved church family.  When you click on the above link you will find not only this outstanding message, but access to over 1900 of Dr. Criswell’s sermons preached from his famous pulpit in Dallas.  What a treasure trove of biblical teaching by one of the greatest pastors who ever lived.


Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 16:30-31

02-05-78 7:30 p.m.


This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, bringing the message entitled: Life’s Greatest Question, or What Must I Do To Be Saved, or How Can I Know That I Am Saved?  In our preaching through the Book of Acts, in the sixteenth chapter, in the thirtieth verse, there is asked the greatest question known to the human heart: “What must I do to be saved?”  And the answer to that question is God’s disclosed mercy and infinite grace: “Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

First: the conception, the concept of being lost.  That is denied by the whole secular world.  “We’re not lost!  And the idea that we might be lost—could be lost—is a figment of somebody’s scary imagination.”

For example, do you remember when in Dallas and in other great cities of America, there was a campaign, a New Life campaign?  And a bumper sticker carried its emphatic and glorious message.  It read, “I have found it!”  And we saw that bumper sticker on many cars here in our city.  And I’ve seen them in many of the other cities of our nation: “I have found it!”

And then there were bumper stickers on the cars that read like this: “I never lost it!”  “I’m not lost.  The idea, the concept of my being lost is a figment of somebody’s imagination. We’re saved.  We’re not lost, and the idea of our being lost does not characterize us.  It is not a truth of life.”  Wonderful!  Fine. 

That’s what those who came to hear John the Baptist from the higher echelons of Jerusalem said to the great Baptist preacher.  Announcing the kingdom of God and the coming of the messianic Savior, John the Baptist cast outside of the covenant of the Lord all humanity—all of it—and called for repentance and faith.  And those who came to hear him preach from Jerusalem said to him, “We have Abraham to our father.  We’re not lost.  We are the children of Abraham and by virtue of our birth we are the chosen and acceptable of God.”

And John the Baptist replied, “God is able of these very stones to raise children up unto Abraham. You generation of vipers, you barrel of snakes, you serpents, repent and do works worthy of repentance.  For the axe is laid at the root of the tree, and every tree found unworthy shall be cast down, cut down and cast into everlasting fire” [Matthew 3:9-10].

The whole substance of the preaching of John the Baptist, which introduced the Christian message, the Christian era, the Christian dispensation—the whole concept of it was that we are lost without God.  But the secular world denies that: “We’re not lost, and we don’t need a Savior, and we don’t need saving.”

Fine, wonderful!  I congratulate the secular world.  You’ve overcome sin; marvelous triumph!  And you’ve overcome death; what an achievement!  And you have exalted yourself to the very heaven of heavens.  Wonderful!

But the harshest, darkest fact I know in human life and in human history is this: that all humanity and all mankind is lost without God, all of it—all of it.  Sin has entered all of our faculties.  We are a fallen race, and a dying people.  And however you choose to say it—philosophically, or academically, or sociologically, or psychologically, or theologically, the most sorrowful and tragic fact of human life is that we are a lost humanity, and are facing death and judgment.

I see that evidence of our fallen nature in every area of human life—all of it: our picture shows, our theaters that could be such a marvelous instrument for exaltation, and instruction, and encouragement, and inspiration, even the very movie industry itself is sordid and filthy, and the pictures are increasingly down and degrading.

Television, that could be such a marvelous, instructive instrument in the hands of a worthy nation, is now filled with vice, and rapine, and filthy words, and violence—so much so that it is beginning to be wondered at.  What kind of a generation shall lie in these days that are before us?

Our literature, that could be so beautiful, and sweet, and exalting—our literature is increasingly filthy, and dirty, and compromised; its very pictures are lewd and salacious.

And what shall I say of modern government and national life?  The whole world is as though it lived in a grip of terror, not knowing what any tomorrow may bring, or where the bomb may explode, or the red death may strike.  How a man can look at human history and human life and say we have conquered sin, and we have conquered death, and we face the judgment in victory and triumph, I cannot understand.  The beginning of the Christian faith is there.  We are a lost and dying people.

Number two: nor can I save myself.  I am helpless before the awful striking of death, inevitable, inexorable, and the judgment that is to come.  I have the sentence of death written in my members.  The color of my hair proclaims it.  The lines that are in my face confirm it.  And the years of my pilgrimage in this earth are affirmations of an inevitable and inexorable day.

The first verse of the second chapter of the Book of Ephesians says that we are dead in trespasses and in sins.  And how can a dead corpse and a dead cadaver deliver itself and save itself?  How can I save and deliver my soul when I am dead?

I shall make appeal to my mother.  She can save me.  My mother loved me with an overwhelming devotion and watched over me with every tender and precious care.  That will I do.  I will make appeal to my mother and my mother can save me.  But my mother is dead.  My mother lies in a grave.  She is dead.

Then my father: one of the finest, one of the best men; humble, but righteous and godly, just, honest; my father can save me.  I will make appeal to my father.  He can save me.  My father is dead.  And he lies by the side of my mother in a grave in the earth.  Both my mother and my father are dead.  They cannot save me.

Then that tremendous, big, strong man: my pastor when I was a child, who baptized me, he can save me.  Great, strong man of God; he can save me.  My pastor is dead.

Then surely that godly man who stayed in our home in the days of the revival and talked to me each night after the service, he can save me.  But that pastor and preacher and evangelist is dead.

And the whole congregation that I knew in the days of my growing up, all of them are dead.  Who can save me?  Dead cadavers.  Dead corpses.  Dead.  Inevitably, inexorably dying.  I cannot save myself.

Sin carries with it the inevitable judgment of death.  “The soul that sins shall die.”  “The wages of sin is death.”  I shall certainly die.  How can I save myself?

Well, this will I do, that I can deliver my soul.  This will I do that I can be saved in that hour of judgment.  This will I do: I will reform.  I will seek perfection in my life.  I will do better.  I will improve.  And I shall bring myself before the great Lord God Almighty and say, “Look, look, Lord!  Look at the advancement.  Look at the improvement.  Look, Lord, at my righteousness.  And the Lord replies, “All human righteousnesses are as filthy rags in My sight.”  The holiness of God demands perfection.  And however I seek, or try, or strive, dereliction, mistake, falling short characterizes all of my life.  I cannot be perfect.  I cannot measure up to the canon of God’s Law.  I fail, and I fail, and I fail.  And even when I seek and try, I still fail.  My strivings do not deliver me.

How can I deliver myself?  This will I do.  They speak of the divine spark that is in me, made in the image of God.  This will I do.  I will cultivate that divine spark, and it will leap up into a flame and finally into the Shekinah glory of God itself.  I shall advance.  I shall achieve.  And I shall come before the Lord God, in whose image I am made and say: “See, Lord, at last, I am like Thee, holy and pure. “

My very thoughts condemn me.  I can never achieve the likeness of God.  And death hounds me to the grave, stalks me until I fall into the open pit itself.

But I—I can deliver myself.  This will I do.  Lord, I will give my life for a great and heroic cause, make the offer of my life for my country.  Or I shall sacrifice, and I shall be altruistic, and philanthropic, and I shall give my life in all of those noble causes that grace the finest and the choicest of our human race.  This will I do, that I might appear before God, that I might overcome evil and certainly face death a victor.  This will I do.  I will be heroic in my life and sacrificial in my nature.

And however I entertain great and noble thoughts and give myself to the heroics of human life, I am cursed, and I am damned in my soul and in my spirit by the iniquity that drags me and by the hounds of death seek after me, and finally I go down into inevitable and inexorable defeat.  However I try, whatever dreams I entertain, whatever achievements and reformation and advancement I made in which I may find success, inevitably that judgment falls upon me.  As a sinner, I die, fall into the grave, and face the judgment day of Almighty God.  We are a lost humanity.  We are a dying people and we cannot deliver ourselves.

Then salvation and deliverance must come outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves.  If I am a cadaver, somebody must speak life, for I cannot speak it to myself, and you cannot speak it for me.  Somebody who is able, and mighty, and loving, and merciful must deliver me and save me.  I cannot save myself and you cannot save me for me, a dying people.

And that is the mercy, and the goodness, and the grace, and the loving kindness of God.  Salvation is of him.  All of it is of Him.  Salvation is a display of the love and mercy of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus.

He does it.  He does it.  He does it and He alone does it.  When I at last stand with the redeemed in the presence of the great throne of glory, it will not be, “All praise to the Lord Jesus and to me; I’m saved,” or “All praise to the Lord Jesus and my reformed life; all praise to the blessed God and what I was able to achieve in personal righteousness.”

No.  When I stand in the presence of the great Lord God, with the redeemed of all humanity, it will be:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and dominion, and glory. For He hath redeemed us by His own blood,

out of our sins, washed us, clean and white, and hath made us kings and priests unto God forever and ever.

He does it.  Salvation is of the Lord.  It is a gift from His gracious hands.

Now, there are two things in it.  Number one, God has to deal with the sin question.  How does God overlook my sin?  If God just forgets it and passes it by, then the whole moral universe collapses, for the law of God is that sin demands punishment, retribution, death.

“The soul that sins shall die.” “The wages of sin is death.”  How can God overlook my sin? For sin carries a penalty inevitable, and the whole universe, in its moral structure, welds those two together: the sin and the penalty.  There is no sin that does not carry its penalty.

How does God forgive my sin, overlook it, obviate its inevitable judgment?  How can God save me?  As Paul raises the question: how can God be just, and at the same time justify the ungodly?  How can God be true to His character, and true to His law, and true to His moral universe, and at the same time I escape from the judgment of everlasting damnation and death?  How can God do that? 

That’s the first thing God does.  He deals with the sin question in my life. And this is the way in His goodness and grace God did it: God took all of my sins—all of them—and he laid them upon His only begotten Son.  He took all of the debts that I owe Him, and He made them chargeable to the account of Jesus.  And the death I should have died, He died in my stead.  And the debts I couldn’t pay, Jesus paid it all; and the Lord substitutes Jesus for me. 

And had there been no you, and had there been no world, had there been no one but just I, the Savior would have died just the same, dying for me.  He paid the penalty of our sins; in His own body, He bore them on the tree.  His death is the death of the judgment upon my sins.  He died for me.  That’s first: how God dealt with the sin question.  Jesus is my substitute; He died, paid the penalty in my stead.

Number two: how can God face the question of free moral agency.  How can God save me and not violate my personality?  For I am free.  If God coerces me, I’m not free.  If God forces me, and makes me, I’m not free.  How can God save me, and at the same time leave me morally free, and not violate, destroy my own personality, my freedom of heart and choice? 

This is the way God did it: God left it to me to make the choice in a free moral act.  The Lord lays before me the whole story of the self-revelation of His heart. He loved me and gave His Son to die for me.  His Spirit woos and makes appeal, and the gospel message tugs at the strings of my heart.  And God, having opened wide the door, leaves the choice to me.

I can say “No” to God.  I can.  Even though I’m made of the dust of the ground, I can say “No” to God.  I can double my fist, and shake it in the face of God.  I can curse God.  I can trample under my feet the blood of the covenant that sanctified Jesus.  I can reject His every overture of love and mercy.  I remain free.

But I also can accept.  I can trust.  I can look.  I can believe.  I can be washed.  I can be saved.  Thus God has done for me.  Oh, the depths of His love, and the heights of His grace, and the breadth of His immeasurable kindness to us lost and dying sinners! … And God speaks life and deliverance to that man who bows in humble hope, expectancy, belief, for a gift of life from His gracious hands.

That’s God!  That’s salvation.  That’s deliverance.  God does it, and He does it out of the love and mercy and grace of His heart.


Come ye sinners, poor and needy

Lost and ruined by the fall.

If you tarry till you’re better,

You will never come at all.


I will arise and go to Jesus.

He will embrace me in his arms.

In the arms of my dear Savior,

O, there are ten thousand charms.


I heard the voice of Jesus say:

Come unto Me and rest.

Lay down, thou weary one,

Lay down thy head upon My breast.


I came to Jesus as I was.

Weary and worn and sad

I found in Him a resting place.

And He hath made me glad.

[Joseph Hart]


Welcome!  Welcome.  God has forgiven us.  God has pardoned us.  In Christ, God is reconciled to us.  The judgment is passed.  The storm is over.  Death is vanquished.  The grave is conquered.  Nothing remains but life everlasting, eternal—His presence now, His blessing tomorrow, and the golden days of a new and heavenly home in eternity.  Thus has God done for us.  And it is ours in a great moral act.  I look and I live.  I wash and I’m clean.  I believe, I trust, and I’m saved.

Will you?  The Holy Spirit bids you come.  The church, washed in the blood of the Lamb, bids you come.  The congregation, praying, hoping, expectant, bids you come.  The angels of heaven encourage you to come.

And in a moment, when we stand and sing our hymn of appeal, a family you, a couple you, just one somebody you: “Today, Pastor, I have heard his voice.  I’m answering with my life.”  On the first note of the first stanza, come; down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles: “I made the decision, Pastor, in my heart.  I’m on the way.”  May angels attend you; may the Holy Spirit of God encourage you; may the presence of Jesus walk by your side as you come, while we stand and while we sing.

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