ST. LOUIS (BP)–Freeing the world from the tyranny of sin surpasses even the task of freeing the world from the horror of terrorism, declared James Merritt in his presidential address to the Southern Baptist Convention June 11 in St. Louis.
“Every Southern Baptist pastor, every Southern Baptist church, and this entire denomination has been given the highest power to carry out the greatest task,” Merritt stated, urging greater passion for sharing the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
After serving two years at a pace that had been exhausting, Merritt said the honor of being elected SBC president had been exhilarating, helping him realize “how blessed I am to be a Christian and how great it is to be a Baptist.” He appealed to the familiar blessing of Jabez that God would enlarge the territory of Southern Baptists and protect the denomination from evil.
“I not only leave you with a blessing, I leave you with a burden,” Merritt said. Citing a researcher’s study of 100 of the most prominent leaders in the Bible, fewer than one in four could be said to have “finished well.”
Twenty years ago Merritt would have identified liberalism as the greatest threat and danger to the SBC, he said. “Though we must never let our theological guard down, I believe there are greater dangers facing the Southern Baptist Convention today,” he said. Merritt addressed the need to apply the text of 2 Timothy 4:7 in order to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith.
“We face a secular culture that is becoming increasingly strident and militant in its anti-Christian, anti-truth, anti-God mentality and I fear the danger of facing this spirit with a lackadaisical heart,” Merritt said as the audience applauded. “We face a world whose heart is becoming increasingly cold, [a world] that needs to feel the hot fire of evangelism,” he stated, concerned that Southern Baptists have a lackluster passion about the need. With the devil encouraging Southern Baptists to give up under such pressure, Merritt said he fears the danger of a lukewarm spirit toward such demonic attacks.
Merritt turned to the apostle Paul’s last words to provide a blueprint for the commitments Southern Baptists should maintain until the return of Jesus Christ. “Every saint is a soldier of the cross,” he said, referring to Paul’s description of having “fought the good fight.”
“Christianity is not for the faint of heart. There is no place for conscientious objectors in the kingdom of God,” Merritt said. “When you come to Jesus, he does not invite you to a picnic; he calls you to a fight.”
The three foes of Christians — the world, the flesh and the devil — don’t fight fair, don’t fight clean, don’t accept ceasefires, and don’t sign peace treaties, Merritt exclaimed. “If you don’t believe there is a war going on right now with these three foes, just pick up your newspaper, turn on your television, listen to your radio or attend a Southern Baptist Convention.”
He spoke of abortions having become commonplace, hard-core pornography becoming available on the newsstand and homosexuality increasingly being declared legitimate as evidence of the war Southern Baptists must be faithful to fight. “I warn you that we will get no help from Hollywood or from the media,” Merritt said, citing surveys that find 90 percent of the media to be pro-choice, 75 percent finding homosexuality to be morally acceptable and only 8 percent regularly attending religious services.
“More and more we are being told to sit down, shut up, go along and get along, be inclusive, be tolerant, be nice and be quiet,” Merritt said. “More and more I see pastors, churches and denominations crumbling before this onslaught of humanistic, political correctness.”
Merritt acknowledged that certain groups protest the annual meetings of the SBC every year, stating that they will not go away. “Well, I’ve got news for the pornographer, the adulterer, the homosexual, the pedophile and the abortionist. We are not going away either,” Merritt said, drawing a standing ovation.
“With love in our hearts, tears in our eyes, but resolve in our souls, we are not going to march under the white flag of compromise. We’re going to march under the bloodstained banner of the cross of Jesus Christ. Flying the flag of biblical truth higher than we have flown it before, we will never give out, never give up and never give in when it comes to standing up for the truth of the Word of God.”
While the Southern Baptist Convention may be “a denominational David standing against a world full of Goliaths,” Merritt noted: “We have the slingshot of truth in one hand and the Rock of Ages in the other and we are guaranteed to have victory in Jesus Christ.”
Merritt also urged Southern Baptists to follow Paul’s example of having “kept the faith,” describing the reference as a responsibility to guard God’s Word as if guarding a treasure. “This book is a treasure of truth that should be guarded as if it were the crown jewels of England. This faith includes hell as well as heaven, the holiness of God as well as the love of God, the wrath of God as well as the mercy of God, the problem of sin as well as the pleasure of salvation, repentance as well as faith.”
Using H. Richard Niebuhr’s definition of classical liberalism as consisting of a “God without wrath, bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through a Christ without a cross,” Merritt said such preaching and teaching is creeping into the evangelical world. “Every preacher, regardless of your style of worship, I don’t care if you are sinner-sensitive, seeker-sensitive, or if you don’t have enough sense to be sensitive, keep the faith.”
Merritt cautioned preachers against the advice of church growth gurus, baby boomer experts, and church marketing agents who discourage preaching on hell, money, politics or other controversial subjects. “Never shy away from preaching the whole counsel of God. Drama is wonderful, praise and worship music is refreshing, but what God has promised to honor above everything else the preaching of his Word,” Merritt said.
In addition to preaching the faith, Southern Baptists must share the faith, he continued, voicing concern that 84 percent of members of SBC churches are not regularly involved in personal witnessing of any type. “We have not been able to create a sustainable trend of increased baptisms during the past 50 years,” Merritt stated.
“The only cure for this malady is getting back to evangelism — relational, situational, confrontational evangelism that realizes we have come to seek and to save that which was lost. If we ever lose that distinctive, we will fall by the wayside and join the ranks of other denominations whose corpses litter the religious highway today.”
As a motivation to “finish the race,” Merritt said Southern Baptists should remember that they are running for the crown of righteousness that is awaiting them. While many pastors are on the verge of quitting, Merritt urged them to stay faithful. “Paul knew he not only faced the Lord’s appraisal. What he wanted was the Lord’s approval.”
Merritt told Southern Baptist pastors, “It doesn’t matter what this world thinks about your ministry. It doesn’t matter what the politically correct, the intellectually elite or the financially powerful think about your ministry, or what that deacon with the spiritual gift of criticism thinks about your ministry. It doesn’t matter if anyone else is standing and clapping when you hit the finish line as long as Jesus is! I want that crown, but the greatest privilege of my existence will be to cast that crown at the feet of Jesus on bended knee, and proclaim him as my Lord.”
Reminding Southern Baptists they are running to Christ, Merritt said, “A real Christian is someone who from the moment he is saved, looks for, lives for and longs for the second coming, and friends, that is all that matters.” Recognizing that Southern Baptists will not agree on everything, Merritt insisted, “We agree on far more than we disagree on and I exhort us today not only to finish well, let’s finish well together.”
Preaching a short time after the audience heard President George W. Bush speak via satellite, Merritt expressed gratitude for Bush’s leadership in the war on terrorism. “I am thankful he has the greatest military power in history to help him fight this war. But far greater than the task of freeing this world from the horror of terrorism is the task of freeing this world from the tyranny of sin. Far higher than the power of nuclear missiles is the power of the Holy Spirit of God,” Merritt said.
With the power to carry out the task of evangelism, Merritt said, “Until he comes, let us exercise this highest power, let us carry out that greatest task, being faithful to the fight, being faithful to the faith and faithful to the finish. Even so, come Lord Jesus.”