Three weeks ago, on February 21, 2018, Billy Graham passed from this world and entered into glory. He was 99, a mere nine months away from becoming a centenarian. Over the last few years as I’ve worked my way through seminary, I have occasionally thought about Graham and wondered how much longer he might have. Well, his time has come, and for his sake I am glad. I would like to say a few things as way of a tribute to Graham, and so I shall start with a confession.
Confessions from a Former Fundamentalist
I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist (really cultish), Conservative Baptist-turned-Bible church that viewed Graham as a heretic. Billy Graham, his crusades, and his “gospel” message epitomized what was wrong with American Christianity: a nominal faith and easy-believism that offered a cheap salvation through a simple sinner’s prayer, and that did so in an American supersized way by taking advantage of concert venues, commercialism, and digital programming. What about the hard sayings of Jesus? Forget it. What about discipleship? Missing. What about obedience and holiness? Nowhere to be found. What about Bible literacy? Pathetic.
Or at least that’s what I was told and spoon-fed from my youth. I was taught that Satan not only attacked the Church through non-Christian and secular forces, but especially through co-opting Christian organizations, ministers, and denominations that artificially looked Christian on the outside but on the inside were rotten through and through. Graham wasn’t a preacher or prophet, he was a charlatan, and the best we could do was shake our heads at a distance and vow to never become like him or follow his example.
The first problem, of course, is that this characterization of Graham and his ministry was a caricature, relying upon distortion, hearsay, and slander—and a toxic predisposition that judged any kind of Christianity outside our own as being deficient. There was no systematic study of Graham’s sermons, books, or ministry outreach, for if we had we would have been forced to confront the truth that Graham did speak about repentance and faith; he did practice and preach on discipleship; he did emphasize obedience as central to the Christian life; and he was deeply literate in the biblical texts. But it was much easier to simply watch a televangelism crusade from a distance, isolate a few sayings here and there to be harshly condemned, and be told by our pastor that this was a false Christianity.
The second, and more serious problem, was that it wasn’t Graham who had the gospel wrong, it was us—but we didn’t know it. We were self-righteously judging a minister of the gospel of Christ from the vantage point of a moralistic, works-righteous Christianity. How, then, did we explain Graham’s success? Well, it had to be evidence of the power of the great Deceiver, who could blind a minister like Billy and sell the masses a false gospel message all in order to placate their spiritual longings, and all the while dragging them to hell. The real problem is that we had already grasped upon an idiosyncratic, unbiblical, and legalistic version of Christianity that judged most other Christians as being unworthy of the faith because, well, they weren’t us. In such circumstances, I’m afraid to say that no matter what Graham taught or did we would have found a way to condemn him.
I eventually came to reject this pseudo-Christianity and moved from hyper-fundamentalism to what I consider to be a healthy, moderate evangelicalism. As that transition took place, I came to view Graham differently. I began to listen to his sermons, read about him, and dipped into some of his books when they came into my possession. What I found impressed me. And not just that, Graham’s preaching convicted my spirit and encouraged me to pursue God even more. So, from the perspective of one who went from disdaining and scoffing Graham to admiring him and being moved by his messages, what do I think made Billy Graham so phenomenal a preacher?
1. The Simple Gospel
First, and most importantly, Graham simply preached the gospel. The power of his ministry came not from his education, his rhetoric, or his popularity, but from the power of the gospel itself. Time and again he proclaimed that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God who came to earth to redeem us and the whole world from the power of the Evil One. Jesus died, was raised again, and gave us the Holy Spirit so that we might be adopted as sons and daughters of God, live in obedience and be shaped into the image of Christ, and one day receive our reward in the new heavens and new earth. Our new creation was part of the story of cosmic redemption that God is weaving. We must respond to such an invitation and Person, and our lives must be transformed in response.
Unlike my church’s characterization of Graham as teaching a sub-Christian gospel, Billy actually regularly and consistently emphasized three things. First, the need for repentance of one’s sin and rebellion before God, and acknowledgment of our helplessness and need for salvation. Second, genuine but childlike faith in Christ’s atonement on our behalf to save and redeem us. And third, obedience to God’s will though the process of discipleship that results in a transformed life. This is not some nice advice or self-help remediation, it is the simple gospel—the good news of what God has done and is doing.
In all of his sermons, Graham would always find a way to work in the simple gospel. The gospel is simple but not simplistic: it is rich and deep and wide, and this is why Graham would preach on the Holy Spirit, suffering and evil, love, discipleship, forgiveness, biblical eschatology, and so much more, and yet he would always tie the specific topic back to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Graham’s singleness of mind about the gospel of Christ is what set him apart.
2. Urgency and Public Profession
One of the unique and most well-known aspects of Graham’s preaching was his altar calls that he never failed to include at the end of a message. Every time he took the podium he never wasted the chance to give someone the opportunity to come forward and believe in Christ. In many respect, this was the centerpiece of his messages. He didn’t just ask people to stay in their seats, bow their heads, and privately ask Jesus into their hearts. No! He declared that they must come forward and make a public profession, because everyone Jesus called in the New Testament he called publicly; and everyone who came to faith in the early church did so through the public ritual of baptism. Graham would ask that no one leave during the altar call and that any cars or buses waiting outside would hold on until anyone who wanted to come forward had the chance to. This was important to him, and he would cut no corners.
Graham never grew tired of calling people to believe in Christ. Much like the writer of Hebrews, he indefatigably proclaimed that today is the day of salvation. He would often emphasize that we never know what day might be our last, so why wait? What are we waiting for anyway—today is just as good as tomorrow or the next. How many people responded to such urgent, earnest, and unrelenting pleas to believe who wouldn’t have believed had the altar call not rung out? I can only image that number would be in the thousands, perhaps many more.
Graham’s consistent, faithful, and simple call for people to place their faith in Christ puts us to shame in many ways. Perhaps we have become complacent or content to preach heady, intellectually satisfying, or advice-oriented messages that fail to call on people to believe. Perhaps too, American Christianity now focuses less on reaching the lost and more on instructing the faithful—not that this is wrong in itself, but the two go together in the witness and mission of the church. In an increasingly secular and post-Christian society, we need another Billy Graham to call America to faith and revival.
3. Style and Delivery
Billy Graham would say that he was not a gifted orator or rhetorician, but simply that God used him. This is true. However, it is also true that he had a certain style and way of communication that was effective and stirring. He had a clear, articulate, and loud voice—certainly not as booming as George Whitefield—but loud enough to get people’s attention without overwhelming them. Combined with Graham’s southern cadence, his speech was easy to listen to, comforting, and inviting. There was a friendliness and warmth in Graham’s voice that made listening to him for hours on end effortless.
In addition, Graham’s preaching was not complicated but was marked by clarity and singleness of thought. He told you what he was going to talk on, why it was important, and then he preached on it. He didn’t inundate his audiences with complicated philosophical systems, ancient linguistic terms, or detailed historical reconstructions. He made use of modern examples to catch the audience’s attention and drive home the point. Yet he wasn’t stupid. He was a student of Scripture and the biblical world, and was well-informed about the appropriate grammatical, historical, and exegetical disciplines necessary to properly interpret and proclaim God’s word.
Most importantly, Graham was not ashamed of the gospel. He loved the gospel and he loved sharing it with the world. His passion for the gospel shown through in the manner of his preaching, his non-verbal communication, and his zeal to see people saved. Graham’s style and delivery of preaching made the gospel understandable and accessible to people like never before, and attractive to those who wouldn’t have paid attention otherwise.
4. Integrity of Character
One thing that made Graham’s preaching and ministry so credible to so many Americans was that he was an honest and upright individual himself. His life clearly demonstrated the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, and he was free from scandals and corruption. He wasn’t perfect by any means and had his faults. But he was faithful to his wife, Ruth, and led his crusades and other ministries (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) with integrity and humility.
Although I don’t know the details of Graham’s life or the specific of how he ran his ministries, the key virtues that guided his work from the beginning were: honesty in reporting, integrity in finances, purity in sexuality and marriage, and humility in edifying the body of Christ. In addition, he was a man of prayer, who abided in God’s Word, and who was led by the Spirit. This basic approach, when faithfully pursued, was critical to his success and the impact of his ministry.
There is some debate about Graham’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement. Graham was not a racist, and he clearly preached that all people of color were equal before the cross of Christ. Some of his earlier crusades were segregated, but later (starting the 1950s) he began to racially integrate his events. Some claim that he was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., while others say he obstructed King’s vision of a Beloved Community. Wading through the details and competing claims is not the goal here; all I will say is that Graham was fallible, and while it looked like he was attempting to overcome the scourge of racism and segregation in mid-2oth century America, this was one area where he fell short at various times.
5. The Holy Spirit
Finally, Graham’s life and ministry was marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. He prayed and his prayers were answered by the Spirit. In one of his early crusades (1957) he recounts how they had originally planned to run the event until August because they knew that interest in evangelistic events waned during the hot summer months. Yet when August rolled around and the people kept coming, they kept the doors open and trusted the Spirit’s leading that they should continue as long as they could because lives were on the line. That kind of wholehearted reliance upon the Spirit of God and zeal for ministry allowed God to use Graham in ways that a less trusting and seeking man would have missed.
Additionally, Graham would deny that his success was due to any innate talents that he possessed. Instead, he credited the filling of the Spirit for the effectiveness of his preaching, and for the response of millions to his call to repentance and salvation. His ministry was, in a sense, a recapturing of the great Spirit-led revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (First and Second Great Awakenings). A simple reliance upon the Spirit to teach, guide, and comfort us might not seem wise in the world’s eyes, but Graham proves that it is one of central keys to transformative ministry.
A Life Well Lived
Billy Graham wasn’t perfect, and I certainly disagree with various things he believed or positions he held. Yet he tirelessly proclaimed the gospel and he exemplified it in his walk with Jesus. He lived life well, and set an example for us to emulate and admire. But most of all he knew Christ as his Savior and Lord, and that was enough. It should be enough for us too.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed his MA in New Testament Biblical Studies. He is currently completing a second MA in Christian Apologetics and Ethics, and hopes to pursue a PhD in the near future. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.