This spring, thousands of Gospel Project groups in churches across the world are taking a journey through the Scriptures, tracing the thread of atonement from Genesis to Revelation.
In celebration of the release of The Gospel Project’s Atonement Thread, we are providing a free eBook version of the famous work by W. A. Criswell titled The Scarlet Thread Through The Bible. Below is the foreword I wrote for the re-release of this classic, previously unavailable in digital or print.
There’s a Story in the stories.
In recent years, evangelicals have rediscovered that the Bible is not simply a collection of interesting stories about morality but one overarching Story about salvation found only in Jesus Christ. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen an influx of Bibles for kids, like The Jesus Storybook Bible, and chronological Bibles for students and adults that show how the Bible fits together. I’m blessed to work The Gospel Project, a curriculum for all ages that shows how the whole Bible, both the Old and New Testament, points us to Jesus.
We are not the first generation to see the Bible as telling one central Story. For centuries now, scholars and pastors have traced the major themes of Scripture, showing how God’s plan of redemption unfolds in history.
A Night of Telling the Story
On December 31, 1961, W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX spent several hours walking his congregation through the Bible’s grand narrative, tracing the “scarlet thread through the Bible.” Criswell repeated this journey on other occasions and added a significant amount of material. But it’s the original sermon from Criswell that was later transcribed and published. Together with the Criswell Foundation, the Gospel Project team is pleased to re-release this book in a digital format.
Criswell’s Atonement Thread
What does Criswell accomplish in this little book? To begin, he sets up the biblical narrative in a way that envelops world history. For Criswell, the story of the Bible is the story of our world. We aren’t examining Scripture in light of world history; we are examining world history in light of Scripture. That’s why he places all earthly conflict within the framework of a spiritual battle. “What is the greatest struggle of the ages?” he asks. Not the battle between democracy and totalitarianism, he assures us, but the conflict between the evil of Satan and the love of God.
The story of the Bible is the story of God’s kingdom, and the way this kingdom arrives is through the blood of God’s Son. Criswell takes the biblical theme of atonement and uses it to weave the stories of the Bible into one single Story of God’s redemption through Christ.
“So the story of atonement and sacrifice begins and unfolds throughout the Word of God until finally in glory we shall see great throngs of the saints who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
One of the strengths of Criswell’s storytelling is his imaginative details that help us enter the scene. Take the story of Cain and Abel, for example. The Bible is silent about what happened to Abel’s body after Cain murdered him, but Criswell wants us to feel the full impact of the world’s first death. So he imagines the searing pain in the hearts of Adam and Eve. “Then was raised the first mound in the earth,” he says. “Underneath it lay a boy. And Adam and Eve knew what it mean to die in the loss of that boy, Abel, and Eve’s tears watered the soil above the grave.” Criswell’s creative exposition is the highlight of this sermon. We are not merely to hear the story; we are to feel its power.
Likewise, Criswell adds his own interpretations to the narrative, never dogmatically, but pastorally – as if in his exuberance in telling this story, he can’t help but explore the smallest details. For example, he asks why David picked five stones before killing Goliath. Because “Goliath had four brothers,” he tells us – reinforcing the faith of Israel’s greatest king. Most of the time, Criswell paints with broad strokes, but his love for the Scripture and his expositional imagination leads him to occasionally focus his paintbrush on the minutest of details, all the while maintaining a passion and flair for good storytelling that keeps the plotline moving.
Story and Doctrine
Criswell’s storytelling includes a good dose of Bible doctrine. As you read, you’ll notice brief asides where important truths are explored. A good example is Criswell’s treatment of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. He wonders, “Is not that amazing? God says he gives [the land] to them, but they have to fight for it with their lives.” Then, leaping ahead to our missionary identity as Christ’s followers, Criswell links God’s promise and our responsibility. “God has those whom he will give us,” he says, but that mustn’t keep us from fulfilling our responsibility to call others to Christ. Great Commission people believe God’s promise and obey God’s command.
The scarlet thread eventually leads us to Jesus, where Criswell ties together the narrative strands of the Old Testament.
“Think what that meant to any Jew, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ Every morning and evening for centuries the people had witnessed a sacrifice with the blood poured out and the lamb offered unto God for the sin of the nation. ‘Behold,’ said John the great Forerunner, ‘behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’”
The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible is, first and foremost, a sermon. The original sermon skips over some parts of the biblical narrative, leading us to scratch our heads at times. He passes over the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (where Isaac asks his father, “Where is the Lamb?”), yet devotes space to the intertestamental period . It’s also puzzling that Criswell devotes more space to Revelation than he does to the life of Jesus.
In the fuller versions of The Scarlet Thread delivered by Criswell in later years (where the clock wasn’t inching toward midnight!), the biblical narrative is fleshed out in more detail. But it’s the original sermon that started Criswell on this journey of preaching the Bible as one story. And it’s the original that we are pleased to present to another generation of Christians who are rediscovering the scarlet thread of atonement that takes us from Genesis to Revelation.