By: L. R. Shelton, Sr.
|I was eleven years of age when I took an open stand for Christ on a profession of faith and joined Sardis Baptist Church on the first Sunday night of our regular annual protracted meeting in August, 1909. I made this profession of faith in Christ with all the sincerity and honesty of my heart: I know that my young heart was deeply impressed with the Gospel truth of God’s Word. From that time until the spring of 1939 I never once questioned that I was saved.
At the age of sixteen I felt the burden of what I thought was the call to preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was based largely on visions and outward manifestations. Yet, I was firmly grounded on the Bible, the Word of God, and believed its doctrines as taught by the old-time Missionary Baptist church; namely, Salvation by Faith, Blood Redemption in Christ Jesus, Immersion as the Bible mode of Baptism, the Eternal Security of the Believer, Bible Repentance, the Deity of Christ and His Lordship, the Bodily Resurrection of both the believer and the unbeliever, the Return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth again, Heaven and Hell as living realities, and kindred doctrines.
|Immediately following my call and my surrender to the Gospel ministry I became very active in church life; praying in public, teaching Sunday School classes, leading prayer meetings, taking part in young people’s work, and pastoring small country churches as well as holding summer revivals. I was generally referred to as “the boy preacher,” and large crowds attended upon my ministry from the very beginning. I never wanted for some place to preach. I was sincere and honest in all that I did, as I never once doubted that I had received a divine call to the ministry.
Having been raised under the old puritan laws, I was hard on sin both on those in the church and on those out of the church. As a result of my preaching, I was therefore constantly bringing down upon me the wrath of unsaved church members who were living under the cloak of religion. Being fearless and unafraid of man, I would stand behind the truth I preached, and I have often said, “Mr. Shelton will back up on the street what the Rev. Shelton says from the pulpit.” I was never afraid of my salary. If various members of the church did not like what I preached, I would tell them to pour it back into the jug and cork it and to take their money and go to Hell with it.
Many times I preached sermons which cost me hundreds of dollars as far as collections were concerned, but I have never regretted preaching them. I have always said that I was paid more than I deserved. One of the greatest troubles I have met with in holding meetings for other churches was to get the money that had been raised for me during the meeting, as some pastor or deacon would become jealous of the large offering and try to hold back part of it for themselves or for the church.
A Hunger That Was Never Satisfied
From the day that I surrendered to preach until the time that the Holy Spirit awakened me to the fact that I was a lost sinner (October, 1941), there was always a hunger in my heart for what I thought was a “DEEPER LIFE” with God, or a “CLOSER WALK WITH GOD”, as it has been called. I did not realize that I had missed Christ and had never been saved, and I was therefore always in search of something I knew I did not have. I attended all religious gatherings as far as possible, and when an altar call was made for surrender or dedication, I was usually the first one to the altar. Having always had a tender, religious nature, I could easily be moved upon by an emotional message.
This trait was very noticeable during my school life at Louisiana College and at the Baptist Bible Institute of New Orleans. On missionary days, when we had special speakers and the spirit of the meeting ran high, being deeply interested in mission work, I would revel in the messages and would be among those dedicating anew their lives to mission work, earnestly praying, “Lord, give me the hardest place You have on earth as my portion.” I was highly commended by many for my devotion to God’s Word and my loyalty to my convictions against sin and was considered a great personal soul winner. During these years I do not remember hearing a message in or out of the schoolroom that ever pricked my heart and caused me to question my salvation in Christ. Every message that I heard only confirmed me in the belief that I was already saved. Not one time was I ever made to wonder by any preacher or teacher whether or not I was saved; but I do not blame them.
During those years, as I came in contact with the religious world and began to see the down grade of religious life, the falling away from Bible truth and the substitution of a religious program for the Gospel, I cried out against it. At night I would walk the floor of my home, the streets or the roadside praying and weeping and crying my heart out to God for an awakening. As I saw preachers, theological professors and church leaders living such lives under the cover of religion that betrayed their profession in Christ and manifested the shallowness of their religious profession, I was constantly facing the question – is there no way out? During all my school life I met only one professor who would sit down and talk with me, and no doubt my constant inquiry worried him because he finally told me, “Brother Lee Roy, there is nothing in the world we can do about it, so go on and preach the Gospel and trust the Lord.”
In spite of this religious emptiness, I was loyal to the Baptist denominational mission program. This was the main outlet for mission work that I knew of. I raised all the money that I could and then gave all I could to the mission program. For instance, when the “75 Million Campaign” was put on, Mrs. Shelton and I pledged one thousand dollars above God’s tithe to be paid within five years. We brought God’s tithe to our church for local expenses, and then we dedicated a second tithe to pay this pledge. At that time we were in school at Louisiana Baptist College, and our income was only fifty dollars a month when we made our pledge. We paid this pledge amid suffering and tears while many forfeited theirs, but to us a religious pledge is a debt and a sacred thing. We fully believed that those handling our money and investing it in mission work for our Lord were honest. Therefore, it all but wrecked me at that time to discover how much of our mission money was wasted and stolen by high church officials.
I believe in churches supporting their denominational missionary program, but I do not believe that the local church ought to degenerate into merely a money-collecting agency and turn all of her mission work over to the denomination. Christ’s commission, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” was given to a local church and not to a mission board. May I say again, I believe in cooperative missions as much as anybody, but when a local church surrenders her responsibility of mission work and of soul winning to a mission board and becomes only a collecting agency, then the Spirit of the living God departs from that church, leaving a mere outward shell with no life or power, with profession without possession, and with religion without Christ.
Pastor of First Baptist Church Algiers
I became pastor of the First Baptist Church, Algiers, New Orleans, Louisiana, on the fourth Sunday in February, 1927, when it was looked upon as a small mission church in the midst of a vast mission field. There were only three white Baptist churches in eleven parishes of southeast Louisiana at that time, which had a population of nearly half a million people. For twelve years I gave myself unreservedly to opening up this vast mission field in southeast Louisiana to the Word of God as Baptists believe it. I spared nothing as far as time, money or effort were concerned to reach this half million people with the Word of God. Missions sprang up everywhere in spite of opposition from both Catholics and Baptists. I faced the wrath of man, preached when I was threatened to be killed, and baptized converts with the enemy ready to shoot me. It is only by the grace of God that I have lived to tell the story. I not only fought swarms of mosquitoes, but I met the betrayal of friends and endured the curses of the enemy. Ever since I have been preaching, I have met with opposition from our Baptist brethren; namely, the undercurrent opposition to any mission work carried on by a local church when it does not have its beginning with, or is controlled by, the leaders at the head of our Baptist denominational program. In all of our mission work I have repeatedly run into that opposition from our Baptist leaders. They were afraid that my purpose was to set up a mission movement independent from that which is supported by the denomination. Yet, I could not be still. If I was not given something to do by our denominational leaders, I easily found mission work to do, for by nature I am a trail blazer.
During those first twelve years of labor in this mission field, I was conscious of the fact that there was something missing in my life, but not one time did I doubt my salvation. I would talk with Bible teachers, preachers and laymen about my heart’s desire, but would always be told, “Brother Shelton, you have all you will ever have; why not settle down and go on about your preaching and forget about it?”
But this hunger planted deep in my heart could not easily be put aside. In the spring of 1932 I began to read the life stories of men like George Muller, Hudson Taylor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, David Brainerd, and others, and I saw that they lived and wrought by faith under the power of God’s Holy Spirit. I came to this conclusion: if God could use them, why could He not use me? I then began to give myself to prayer and fasting and to the reading and studying of God’s Word for one purpose, that God might use me in the salvation of lost souls. A few joined me in the prayer meetings, which were held mostly in my home.
In September of that same year, an open rebellion broke out against me in First Baptist Church, Algiers. Using these prayer meetings, they accused me of having turned Pentecostal in doctrine and practice as an excuse to try to put me out of the church as pastor. During this period the Holy Spirit taught me many things that I could not have learned either in the schoolroom under the professors who fought me or at the feet of the preachers who persecuted me, nor could I have learned them from the writings of any man. As I look back upon this period and the persecution I endured at being falsely accused, I would not now take a million worlds for the truths of God’s Word, the powers of Satan, the depravity of human nature and the shallowness of religious profession that God taught me. This was the school of experience that God was putting me through to prepare me for the work He had ordained to do through me. Apart from Holy Spirit conviction and salvation in Christ, this was the greatest schooling of my life.
So Earnest, Yet So Wrong
In the light of these religious experiences, growing out of those prayer meetings, and in the light of salvation in Christ Jesus, God has taught me by His Holy Spirit through His Word the utter religious shallowness and empty religious profession that we have today. In the light of salvation in Christ Jesus, God has taught me how Satan moves and works in the religious realm to keep poor lost souls blinded to the Gospel of Christ. My preaching today could not be as pointed and as effectual as it is in opening the eyes of unsaved, religious church members to their lost condition had not God led me through these years of religious experiences. Satan’s program today is to make the world religious without Christ; the missing note in present-day preaching is Bible repentance, and Holy Spirit conviction is an ancient mystery. To be true to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I must cry out against this religious shallowness and empty profession at any cost.
By the fall of 1935 I had begun to see more clearly the utter powerlessness of religious experiences to change the hearts and lives of men. I had also learned that Satan can give any type of religious experience, but he cannot give life in Christ. Therefore, after all the experiences I had gone through and those I had witnessed others undergo, I found myself still grappling with the same old problems of human life with no power over them. But I could not give up! I went to Bible conferences and other religious gatherings in search of that something which always seemed to be just beyond reach, but which constantly tugged at my heart and urged me on, even though I did not realize what it was I was searching for.
From 1935 to the fall of 1938 I visited one Baptist group after another and, as a result, discovered some pertinent facts: I found that CONVENTION BAPTISTS were drifting to a worship of a program; that ORTHODOX BAPTISTS were given over to the worship of the doctrines of the Bible; that the FUNDAMENTALIST BAPTISTS were being led to the worship of the Bible itself; that the MISSIONARY or LANDMARK BAPTISTS were putting the emphasis on the church; and that the PRIMITIVE BAPTISTS had drifted to Hypercalvinism, and most of them had become fatalistic in their attitude. Therefore, I did not find what my heart was longing for. I may say that these spiritual conditions are now growing worse as we are plunging into world-wide apostasy, which is preparing the world for the soon coming of the Antichrist, the world’s so-called “economic saviour.”
During this time I was offered the superintendency of a large mission movement, which covered several southern and western states. I turned it down because I could not agree with all their doctrines, and also because they had nothing to offer me but a large salary. I was also approached by a group of interdenominationalists to lead in the opening of a mission program in the South. I also turned them down for the same reasons: I cannot believe in a “mother-hubbard” affair – (a mother-hubbard covers everything and touches nothing). In discussing this matter with me, Mrs. Shelton remarked, “Well, dear, your convictions of the truth of God’s Word are too strong for you to conscientiously line up with anyone or a group who does not share such views.” My reply was, “I cannot stifle my conscience, or compromise the Word of God for anyone.” There has been a love of the truth in my heart as far back as I can remember, and that is the thing that God used to hold me and to keep me from being led astray on false doctrines.
It was at a Bible conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, in October, 1935, that I met Dr. A. Reilly Copeland, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, who exalted Christ in every message that I heard him bring. When he discussed the church he exalted Christ; when he gave a message on the Holy Spirit he magnified the Son of God, crucified, buried and risen; when he brought a study on the great fundamental doctrines of the Word Christ was the center; when he preached on the second coming of Christ it was not an event, nor a cold doctrinal fact, but the coming of Christ Himself. I could sit for hours and listen to him explain the Word of God and talk about the crucified, buried and risen Lord and His soon coming to reign. I admired his message and was drawn to him because of his frankness and the authority with which he spoke.
By the fall of 1938 I had literally come to the end of my way and was about ready to give up. I had come to see the utter shallow, empty religious life of my church, of the lives of the workers associated with me as well as that of my own life. At this time a peculiar thing began to happen within our church life. Certain members of the church began to come to me questioning their salvation, stating frankly they believed that they had missed Christ. The most singular thing about it all was that among these were the best and most spiritual members of the church.
Like the average preacher of today, I did not know what to do with them. They greatly embarrassed me! Being spiritually blinded to my own soul’s need of salvation, I did not see that the thing they needed was Christ. The only thing that I could do was to try to comfort them by telling them that they were already saved and that no doubt the only thing they needed was a more complete surrender of their lives to the Lord. I know now that any preacher, or Bible teacher, who will try to comfort an awakened sinner by trying to persuade him that he is already saved, and that the only thing he needs is a surrendered life, does not know Christ himself.
“The Spirit of God Moved upon the Face of the Waters”
Meditating and praying over this turn of affairs in the church, I was definitely moved to request the church to invite Pastor Copeland to hold a meeting for us in the spring of l939. He accepted the invitation and proved to be God’s man for the hour. For six weeks he preached, mostly on the New Birth – “Ye must be born again”, laying “precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little,” as he faced the church night after night with the one question – “Have you been born again?” (John 3:3, 5, 7). Member after member of the church, including missionaries, deacons, officers and outsiders, began to realize and admit that they had missed Christ, and many could not sleep on account of their troubled souls. One member said (referring to Dr. Copeland’s preaching), “If he doesn’t stop preaching like that we’ll all be lost and will go to Hell!” I rejoiced that God was working as He was and that the truth of God’s Word was being preached. I also rejoiced in seeing others come to the place of a lost sinner. Not one time did I say one word against the way God was working.
As the number of awakened individuals grew, different ones would say to me, “Pastor, have you been born again? Do you know Christ?” or “When are you going to break up?” But, I was not disturbed in the least, nor had I any doubts about my soul’s salvation until one day during the last week of the meeting. The question then came to me like a pointed arrow – “Have you been born again? Do you know Christ?” It was an inward call that I could not throw off. I was so glad when the last night of the meeting came and Brother Copeland left for home. I made some kind of excuse for not going with him to the depot: I wanted to get away from him as quickly as I could. It was all right for others to break up, but not for me.
The strange thing to me today is that the very thing I had needed all this time in my religious life was Christ, and now that God was wanting to show me that I had missed Him, I wouldn’t have it. By nature every sinner hates God (Rom. 8:7); by nature every sinner (religious or otherwise) does not want God to rule over him (Matt. 21:33-46). He does not know this until his will is brought in contact with the will of God by the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11). No sinner would ever get saved if he could help it.
This meeting resulted in the transformation of the whole church life, and among the many professions no doubt a few got saved. But one of the main results was that the Holy Spirit took hold of my heart for salvation in Christ. During the next few months my whole ministry underwent a complete change, and I began to preach the great old doctrines of God’s Word with greater power, which only brought folks under Law Conviction. This was the first time that I had ever questioned my salvation. I could not get away from the fact that I might not be saved.
At times, when I would preach Christ as the only Substitute for sinners, my heart would be so cut to pieces by my own message until I would be tempted to walk out and accept my own invitation not knowing then that just to accept an invitation and to make a decision for Christ is not salvation. However, I would always be held back by some restraining power, which I know now was the Holy Spirit. I would throw off this uneasiness for a while and settle down to my work in quietness, but again there would come such a disturbance in my heart about my salvation that I could not sleep. At times I lived under great fear that I might not be saved.
How Could I Have and Do All This and Not be Saved?
A year went by, and the church invited Brother Copeland back for another meeting. During this meeting I was not much disturbed about my soul’s condition, but rather became more or less confirmed in the belief that I was saved. I kept reasoning to my own satisfaction that surely a man who had preached for twenty-five years could not be a lost sinner. I had preached to multitudes all over the South from San Antonio, Texas, to Cross City, Florida – surely I must be saved! I had also led the church in a great missionary program here in southeast Louisiana, leading thousands to a decision for Christ as Saviour, building chapels, raising tens of thousands of dollars for mission work and giving away all that I had for the cause of Christ. How could I do this and not be saved?! Yes, in the face of all these facts, I wondered how I could be a lost sinner.
Then there was another point I would rest the assurance of my salvation upon, and that was my clear understanding of the plan of salvation and the doctrines of God’s Word. I believed the Bible, I believed Christ died for sinners, and I believed Christ died for me. Again I would say, “Surely I am saved!” In the face of all of this and the religious experiences I had had and the answered prayers, I could not see or make myself believe that I was a lost sinner. Also, many had confirmed me in this conclusion by saying, “If anyone in all the world is saved, I know Brother Shelton is.”
This one fact I did not know – that salvation is Christ, and the assurance of salvation is Christ, based upon His Word. The blood secures; the Word assures. I believed and preached salvation by grace, wholly of the Lord, but I had never experienced it in my own heart as a living reality. I knew about Christ and His Word, but I did not know Christ experimentally. This was because I had missed Holy Spirit conviction and Bible repentance and had built my religious superstructure upon an intellectual faith in God’s Word without having known anything about heartfelt repentance.
Yet, I was always afraid that I had not been born again and that someone would ask me the direct question, “Brother Shelton, have you been born again?” If someone would walk up to me suddenly and say, “Brother Shelton, may I ask you a question?” I would tremble all over because I was afraid they were going to ask me, “Have you been born again?” Thus I went through another year “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”that I was a lost sinner without Christ.
“Where and when have you ever taken your place…as a lost sinner?”
In September, 1941, the late Brother Joe Granier was invited to hold revival services for us. He was a missionary of the First Baptist Church, Algiers, and worked among the French people at Houma, Louisiana. In the 1939 revival he had been brought under Holy Spirit conviction but was not saved until the spring of 1941. The attendance at the meeting was good from the very beginning. I sat and listened and backed him with my “amens” as he preached the truth and was true to the souls of men. Although small in stature, he would lean over the side of the pulpit and point that index finger as if to say, “You are the guilty one.”