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Gospel Lessons from a Train Whistle

I have always been partial to train whistles. My grandparents lived about a half mile from the railroad tracks in the little lazy mill town of Lindale, Ga. I would hear the train whistle blow day and night. My favorite time to listen was late on a fall night. Everything else in the house was quiet and tranquil. Suddenly, off in the distance, the first whistle pierced the darkness. The whistle grew louder as the train neared. After the powerful locomotives passed the crossing and the whistle stopped, the only sound was the rhythmical clickety-clack clickety-clack of the wheels as car after car rolled past and then disappeared into the darkness. I don’t know why, but somehow it brought to me a sense of comfort.

Over the past 35 years, by my calculation I have spent close to 3,000 days on the campus at Southwestern either as a student, pastor, trustee, or professor. Each one of those 3,000 days had a single common denominator: a train whistle. Not a day passed, or ever passes, but that the whistle blows loud and long as the train approaches the public crossing at Seminary Drive between the NW corner of the campus and the old Student Village. Over the years, that 100+ decibel train whistle caused not a few Southwesterners domiciled near those train tracks to come within a whisker of losing their sanctification, especially in the wee hours of the morning!

I never really noticed this until recently, but if you listen carefully as the “Southwestern Express” approaches the crossing at Seminary Drive, conductors blow the whistle in a particular four note sequence: long, long, short, long. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the locomotive whistle must be sounded in this sequence 15 to 20 seconds prior to and until the train arrives at a street crossing. And for good reason! A 100-car freight train traveling at 55 miles per hour requires 18 football fields to stop. That’s more than a mile. The weight ratio of your car to a train is equivalent to that of a soda can to a car. Bottom line: you have no chance; the train wins every time. Lives have been saved through the years because of train whistles; and lives have been lost by ignoring them.

Like the train whistle, the Gospel of Jesus Christ alternatively warns and saves.

Like the train whistle, the Gospel of Jesus Christ alternatively warns and saves. The soda can has a better chance of winning its suicidal encounter with a car than a human soul has of entering heaven apart from the Gospel. The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is to save souls. But every time it is trumpeted forth, it serves first as a warning that rejection of this good news is eternally deadly to your spiritual life and health.

Not all train whistles are alike, but they are all loud. Throughout train history, a variety of whistle sounds have been employed— from single-note shriekers called “banshees” on the Pennsylvania Railroad; to the larger, deeper tone like the “hooter” of the Norfolk and Western; to the multi-chime whistles in a three-note or five-note version.

Like the train whistle, the Gospel is trumpeted forth with many accents by God’s Gospel whistlers. Some are “shriekers,” some are “hooters,” some are “multi-chimers.” But every true Gospel preacher emits that same four-fold Gospel sequence: man has sinned; sin brings eternal death; Jesus saves; repent and believe in Christ. Like the train whistle, the Gospel is only beneficial when it is heard and obeyed.

When my children were little, Sherri and I used to rock them to sleep while singing part of the lyrics to the song “500 miles”:

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone,
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.

. . .
Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four,
Lord I’m 500 miles from my home.

So, next time you hear the whistle of the “Southwestern Express” as it comes rumbling down the tracks past Seminary Hill, don’t lose your sanctification. Pause for a moment and give thanks that by God’s grace you heard and obeyed God’s clarion call of the Gospel and you are now a passenger aboard the “Salvation Express” … headed for home.

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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