In Memoriam: Billy Graham (1918-2018)

February 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Billy Graham was 99 when he entered his rest with Jesus last Wednesday.  The man who was a pastor to presidents and plebeians alike leaves a legacy that is difficult to overestimate.  Reverend Graham accomplished many things over his long ministry.  He founded what has become the practically official periodical of evangelical Christianity, Christianity TodayHe served as the president of Youth for Christ and headed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  He steadfastly, but also humbly, confessed a traditional, broadly orthodox Christianity, defending such doctrines as justification by faith, the sufficiency of Christ as the world’s singular Savior, the reality of heaven and hell, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.  He declared these doctrines at a time when many churches, especially in the mid-twentieth-century, were drifting into modernism and began to deny these, along with many other, core tenets.  But Reverend Graham will perhaps be most remembered for his moving crusades, where he preached the gospel to stadiums chocked full of eager listeners and curious onlookers.  His association estimates that he preached the gospel to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries over the course of his ministry.

I remember attending one of Billy Graham’s crusades as a child.  His passion for the gospel was infectious as his preaching resonated sonorously through the stadium in which I was sitting.  At the end of the evening, as he always did, he invited people to trust in Christ and come forward to receive prayer.  Thousands walked down to the stage that night as strains of “Just As I Am” wafted across the hall.  To say the least, it was a moving experience.

Whenever I remember my experience at this Billy Graham crusade, I am reminded of a conversation that Jesus has with Martha shortly after her brother Lazarus has died of a devastating illness.  Martha, understandably, is distraught and politely registers her disappointment that Jesus was not around before her brother died to lend some help and, perhaps, a miraculous healing to him.  “Lord,” Martha complains, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).  Jesus, who never intended to heal Lazarus of the sickness that ailed him, but instead to raise Lazarus from the death that overtook him, responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).  These words are some of the most famous in Scripture not only because they describe what Jesus would do for Lazarus, but because they reveal who Jesus is for everyone.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  What is less famous, however, is the question that Jesus asks Martha next: “Do you believe this” (John 11:26)?

This simple question was the question behind every Billy Graham crusade.  After Reverend Graham would proclaim Christ and His death for sinners, after he would declare that Christ’s resurrection can mean your resurrection, and after he would explain how Christ can bear your burdens and carry your cares, he would ask, “Do you believe this?”

When Jesus asks this question of Martha, she responds, “Yes, Lord” (John 11:27).  When Reverend Graham asked it of millions, they responded with a “yes” as well.

As one who is part of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith, I have, over the years, heard many in my tradition criticize Reverend Graham for the way in which he often spoke of faith in terms of a “decision.”  His ministry even publishes a magazine titled DecisionIt is certainly true that Scripture does not speak of faith as a decision of the will, but as a gift from God.  The apostle Paul writes, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  Unfortunately, some in my tradition have become so concerned about the possibility of implying that faith is somehow an act of the will that they refuse to invite people to faith at all.  They forget to ask Jesus’ question: “Do you believe this?”

It is in this precious question of Christ that we can best come to understand and appreciate Reverend Graham’s legacy.  He was never afraid to ask this question.  And neither should we.  Sometimes, a simple invitation, because it is a reflection of Jesus’ invitation, bears the fruit of faith.  This is why this question is the question our world needs.  When was the last time you asked it?

Even without a sermon, a choir, and a stadium, when you ask this question, someone might just answer, “Yes.”  And all of heaven will rejoice (Luke 15:7) – including, with what I would guess might be an especially bright smile, Billy Graham.

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