I could not help thinking as I have been looking over this audience of the great throng that greeted Mr. Sunday in this same building just about a year ago when some 7,000 crowded this place. Many more had to be turned away, so eager were they to hear this messenger of the cross. We knew then that he was a very sick man; he came out of a sick bed to speak to us, and yet he took hold of that meeting most heroically, and some of us are very thankful indeed for the opportunity we had of hearing that message.
When I was asked to say a word or two on this occasion, four passages of Scripture came before me very vividly, four scriptures that to my mind bring before us most clearly what I may call the spiritual history of our departed brother. The first of these is found in the second chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, verse 12. There we read: "At that time ye were without Christ ... having no hope and without God in the world." That expression, "without Christ," tells us what was true of every one of us in our unconverted days. It was true of "Billy" Sunday. As a young man, well-known in the athletic world, a good friend, a royal sport, and a jovial companion, he was, nevertheless, without Christ. As he himself afterward looked back upon those early years, he realized in a very deep sense how ungodly his life had been. I notice that some who have put in print their estimate of his character in these last few days since the news was wired throughout the world that "Billy" Sunday had suddenly died, declared that he quite overestimated his own wickedness. He was not, they tell us, the vile man that his words implied. He was never a hopeless drunkard. He was never as corrupt in the sense that his language would seem to convey. But "Billy" Sunday in this was like John Bunyan, who, when the arrows of conviction entered his soul and he saw himself as a poor sinner in the presence of a holy God, felt as though he could not exaggerate the corruption of his heart and the wickedness of his life. It is only men who have a very low sense of holiness who are likely to have a feeble sense of their own sinfulness. The man who is brought into the light of the sanctuary realizes the evil of his own heart in such a way that he cries out in agony to be delivered, and never ceases to magnify the grace of God that could take up such a wretch as he. This explains "Billy" Sunday's sense of his own deep, deep need in those days when he was without Christ.
The second scripture speaks of the great change that came to him when he heard the gospel at the Pacific Garden Mission in this city and received the Lord Jesus Christ as his own personal Saviour. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we are told: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." This is what the Bible calls "conversion," or "regeneration." This great change came to "Billy" Sunday, as it comes to every truly saved soul, as a great miracle, One moment he was without Christ, the next, to his joy and amazement, he was in Christ. Doubtless he did not fully understand the meaning of this at the time, but his life all through the years since has proven the reality of it. Now the man who is in Christ is the man who has been born again, has become a partaker of the Divine nature and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. "He which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God, who hath also sealed us and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts." (2 Cor. 1:21). The man who is in Christ is justified before God and freed from condemnation. Having learned that he has no righteousness of his own, this man has found a perfect righteousness in the risen Son of God. This was true of "Billy" Sunday. It was no mere lip profession with him when he declared himself to be a Christian. It was not simply turning over a new leaf or joining a church or accepting certain religious views. There had ,been in his case a definite dealing with God on the basis of the sacrifice of His beloved Son. "Billy" knew he was lost, but he knew that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners," that "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10), and he rested on the word, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life."
When he knew that he was secure himself, he was not satisfied; his heart went out to others who were where he had once been, and he felt that henceforth he must devote his redeemed life to trying to win as many of his fellows as possible to the knowledge of the Saviour who meant so much to him. This brings me to the third passage I had in mind: 2 Corinthians 5:20, "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." The young convert of so many years ago realized that the One who had redeemed him had claims upon his life. Jesus was not only Saviour, He was Lord, and if He is not Lord of all, then He is not Lord at all. "Billy" Sunday was a very weak Christian at that time, but there was within him a yearning to be used of God in the salvation of others. He wanted to be absolutely for Christ, and the Lord took him up in wondrous grace and made of him a great ambassador of the High Court of Heaven. There have been few soul-winners like him in the history of the Church of God. His methods may at times have seemed spectacular, his language sometimes strange for the pulpit and the church, but "Billy" Sunday was dead in earnest in seeking to reach lost men. He knew that in order thus to reach them he must, so far as in him lay, go to them where they were and meet them on their own ground. Remembering the example of the Apostle Paul who said, "I am become all things to all men if by any means I may save some," he fitted his message to the people whom he sought to reach. It may be a surprise to some if I say that he who was so thoroughly at home in talking to vast throngs of what we sometimes call "the common people" was equally at home in the halls of learning. "Billy" Sunday was not, as some have attempted to make people believe, an ignoramus — he was a cultured, educated man. Whether addressing vast multitudes who filled the largest tabernacles that were constructed for his great meetings, or whether standing before university audiences, "Billy" Sunday realized that he was there to represent the Son of God, and he presented his message in the way which he felt was most adapted to the people who were before him. He had his critics. What man who has accomplished anything in any sphere has not? In my study I have on my wall a little motto that reads, "To escape criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." But I am afraid if any one fulfilled all three of these conditions, he would be criticized as a nonentity. "Billy" Sunday knew that he was exposing himself to criticism, but so desperately in earnest was he in his zeal for Christ that he could say, "None of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself, if so be that I might finish my course with joy." The more people loved Christ, the more they loved "Billy"' Sunday after they got to know him. The more people hated Christ, the more they hated this preacher of righteousness. A cultured old French evangelist, who looked askance at many of his methods, said to me some years ago, "I love that man because of the enemies he has made."
And now, he has finished his course, he has kept the faith, and he is at Home "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." In Philippians 1:23, the Apostle tells us, when he lay in a Roman prison, that he was in a dilemma, not knowing whether he would rather be set free to continue his work or go Home to heaven. "Having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." This, then, is what death means to the Christian; this is what death has meant to "Billy" Sunday. It is to be with Christ. It is, "Absent from the body, present with the Lord." And we may be sure of this, that as we are gathered here to pay our respects to the memory of our departed brother, and as we lay away this precious body in the tomb until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering unto Him, that we are not burying the real "Billy" Sunday. He himself is with Christ in that city that hath foundations, to go no more out forevermore. We are simply laying away the tabernacle in which dwelt for a season that earnest personality that we knew as "Billy" Sunday.
What a history this is! Once "without Christ," then through grace "in Christ;" to become for many years an ambassador "for Christ." And now his labor ended, the victory won, he is at Home "with Christ," waiting the glad hour when all the redeemed shall meet in the Father's house.
I want to add one more word, and I am quite certain that if Mr. Sunday were able to, he would tell me to do it. It is this: — Am I addressing any in this great audience today who do not know Mr. Sunday's Saviour? Oh, then, I plead with you, as he would plead if those still lips of his were yet able to speak, come to the blessed Saviour of sinners, come to Him just as you are, not attempting to make yourself any better. Take your place before God as a poor needy soul; tell Him you are the sinner for whom Jesus died and that you too want to know the salvation that "Billy" Sunday knew, that you want to experience the blessed change of regeneration. Tell Him that now, today, without putting it off even until the close of this funeral service, you are ready to trust Him, for you are a sinner. He died for sinners; "This Man receiveth sinners," and says, "Him that cometh unto Me [I] will in no wise cast out." I would that many might go from this service today saying, "Thank God, I too now know for the first time 'Billy' Sunday's Saviour." How glad he would be to meet you by-and-by in the glory and have you say to him, "Mr. Sunday, it was at your funeral service that I yielded my heart to Christ, that I trusted your Saviour and devoted my life to Him."
From Miscellaneous Papers by H. A. Ironside. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc.; Oakland, Calif. : Western Book and Tract Co., 1945. Vol. 1. See Billy Sunday Funeral for complete text of service.