Remembering Billy Graham

by Dan Buttafuoco

The death of Billy Graham, the beloved American evangelist, marks the end of an era in American (and perhaps world) religious history. Billy Graham was best known for his “crusades” but he was also the founder of Christianity Today, an evangelical periodical magazine first published in 1956 and continuing monthly to the present. His importance to the Christian world cannot be overstated. Living to almost 100 years of age he brought the Christian message of hope and redemption to the world and made Jesus Christ accessible to the public on a wide scale. He took literally the mandate of Jesus in the Scriptures to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The word “gospel” means “good news.” It is the good news of God’s message of salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ. Organized religion makes it complicated but Graham made it simple. He was right.

He transcended denominational lines and could often be seen on television in homes across the world of every denomination, religion and creed. If you grew up in an evangelical home he was considered a staple. Everything would stop when he was on the television preaching (first in black and white and later in color). My own wife’s family of staunch Polish Roman Catholics was watching him regularly, as well. He was universally accepted and a recognized ambassador for the Christian message of grace and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. He was a counselor to Presidents for generations and, though not perfect (like the rest of us), his life was free of scandal.

Billy Graham personified evangelical Christianity for much of the 20th century. In some ways, Billy Graham was a modern Martin Luther though he was nowhere near as confrontational or earthy. Luther’s message was at a time when the Bible’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith was lost in a morass of complicated religious teachings and church corruption. Graham’s message was much the same even if he was criticized for making it too simple and “dumbing down” salvation for the masses. The worst thing that can be said about Billy Graham’s theology, if anything, was that he made entrance into heaven (what we call “salvation”) too simple by reducing it to a “come to the front and accept Jesus” act. He was widely criticized by professional “theologians” for this because some believed that his message was too simplistic. Salvation of one’s soul, especially for all of eternity should be a much harder feat, after all. But is it really? Salvation and forgiveness of sins by a perfect God demanding perfection is truly all but impossible, not just difficult. Graham acknowledged this. He indeed taught that it was impossible for man to save himself. Man could no more save himself from his own condition than could a drowning man save himself in the middle of an ocean with no life raft. But Graham provided access to the spiritual life raft: Jesus Christ. It was not man who needed to perform a feat of some incredible difficulty or live a life of monastic devotion to God in order to be saved. The difficult (impossible) part was indeed already performed for us by Jesus Christ who met all of the Father’s requirements for salvation on our behalf. And as Graham rightly recognized and preached tirelessly, it was enough if we simply accepted the pardon offered to us in Christ BY SINCERE FAITH and allowed the grace of God to do its work in us. A pardon is not deserved nor is it justified. A pardon is a free gift to one who all acknowledge is guilty. That is us. Graham preached the pardon for our sins found in nobody else except Jesus Christ. A forceful proponent of the Scriptures, Graham knew, as did Martin Luther that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). It is not our works that save us before a Holy God but it is faith in the one who already did the work. “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

That was Graham’s message. That was what made him a modern day Martin Luther. In Luther’s day it was buying indulgences that gave one forgiveness of sins (a corruption of the Christ’s teachings in the Bible, for sure). In Graham’s day it was church membership or faith PLUS something else that gained one access into heaven. Billy Graham did his best to dispel this notion and thus opened the doors of heaven for many people by preaching the heart of God, that God “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Billy Graham preached the love, mercy and grace of God and tried to simplify it for the masses by telling them that all they needed to do was to come down and publicly accept the work which Christ already did for them on the cross. He preached Jesus as the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. He preached it loud and clear. Millions did, in fact, come. Were all really saved? That is impossible to answer since only God knows the heart. Simply walking down an aisle in a stadium saves nobody but that same act performed in faith and with repentance before an all-knowing God who knows the sincerity of every man’s heart is a powerful turning point in a life otherwise lost to sin. We let God be the judge.

Millions walked down the aisle to the song “Just as I am…” That is how God works. He accepts us “just as we are.” We come “just as we are.” We do not clean ourselves up. He cleans us. Billy Graham taught this powerfully.

Billy Graham was not only interested in having people do that “walk” of repentance and acceptance of Christ. He was also thoroughly interested in following up with each and every person and had systems and organizations in place to follow up with each person to make sure that this first step with God was not the only step. In this he (and his organization) excelled and he worked closely with churches of all types and denominations. I know this firsthand because I worked on the very Committee to bring Billy Graham to Long Island in September of 1990. He did not leave these new believers to die on the vine and so the “follow up” was just as important as the first step. Post crusade, his organization sent these new believers for “follow up” to the churches from which they came, not to any single denomination. Billy Graham was not interested in converting people to a denomination. He was interested in turning people to Christ.

And so, we have lost a legend. Billy Graham was man who loved people and wanted above all to see them saved. Saved from themselves, from sin which ruins lives. You see, even though we “come as we are” we do not “remain as we are.” Something happens when we place our trust in God to save us. God transforms us. Over time we become different people. We are made free from sin. Theologians like to say that “we are saved, we are becoming saved and we will be saved” by faith in Christ. Billy Graham believed this and he acted on this with all of his heart, mind soul and strength. He made it real to millions. May we be inspired to do likewise.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

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