He was strong in his dying as he was strong in his living.
Billy Graham has died at age 99. More significantly, he has gone home to heaven, a place he introduced to many people before him through his gospel proclamation.
Graham is, with pastor-theologian Harold Ockenga and theologian Carl F. H. Henry, one of the three most important evangelicals of the twentieth century, as I have written in Awakening the Evangelical Mind, my own humble study of Graham and his peers. He represented the leading statesman of the neo-evangelical movement, as Ockenga termed it, and traveled the world preaching the gospel. His autobiography Just as I Am should be read by every young Christian; it showcases a boundless love for preaching Christ to needy sinners, and tracks Graham’s travel from Russia to London’s Wembley Stadium to Boston. It is estimated that Graham preached the gospel to more people than any other in human history, and it is unlikely that anyone else will eclipse this feat. His career kicked into high gear with the Los Angeles revivals of the late 1940s, shot into the ether with the 1957 New York crusade, and never diminished in the decades following.
Graham was the last in the line of the globe-spanning evangelists, a homiletical torch lit by George Whitefield, picked up some time later by D. L. Moody, and seized with gusto by former baseball player Billy Sunday. These four figures represent an unparalleled group of traveling revivalists, a pack that links the First Great Awakening to the Second. These men made their mark not only on the church, but on Western culture beyond, and were in most cases the most famous churchman—in some cases American—of their time.
Billy Graham preached a simple gospel message. As Grant Wacker reveals, Graham did not actually consider himself a particularly skilled pulpiteer. He viewed it his task to ascend the pulpit, preach the means of salvation, and call sinners to make a decision for Christ. Graham’s sermons are shown on different TV stations even today, and occasionally I catch one of them, and two things never fail to stand out to me: first, Graham regularly made application in his messages to the issues of the day, and sometimes preached as much a cultural exposition as a biblical one; second, Graham’s ringing peroration to follow Christ rarely fails to stir me. He was a man who believed the Bible with rock-solid conviction, and he preached like it. He did not mince words; he did not qualify every sentence. He preached as if the Bible was true, and man desperately needed it. He did so because he believed in core biblical doctrines, the inerrancy and authority of the Word of God foremost among them.
Graham was not an uncontroversial figure. He famously made his “crusades” ecumenical as the years went on, a move that justly drew major outcry. Later in life, he was quoted in terms that made it sound as if he held inclusive doctrine; Graham surely had such a streak in him, but he never overhauled his theology to steadfastly champion this unbiblical teaching. Granted unprecedented access to a nearly unbroken succession of presidents, Graham became a kind of unofficial chaplain to the world’s most powerful men. Surely there were many opportunities for positive influence here, but there also were serious temptations as well, and Graham’s engagement with Richard Nixon in particular showed aspects of personal compromise. Shaken by Nixon’s failures, the evangelist recalibrated his approach to politics, a lesson that Christians must continually relearn.
In recent days, Graham landed in the news without doing anything at all. U. S. Vice President Mike Pence famously abides by the tenets of Graham’s “Modesto Manifesto,” and does not meet or eat with a woman who is not his wife without someone else being in the room. Pence, like Graham, seeks to protect his marriage and guard against his own sin. Graham and his evangelistic team did not create these guidelines due to a desire to impede the progress of women in the workplace, as some have intimated, but because they themselves were shaken by clear and present sexual temptation. They knew their limits, and they knew that there were many who wished to see them crash and burn. Graham once famously entered a hotel room to find a scantily-clad woman already in the room; the incident shook him to his core.
Christian men may or may not follow Graham’s example here in every way, but like him and Pence they do well to take the offensive against sin, guard their marriages, and prioritize their wives as he did. He had a vital if geographically-stretched relationship to Ruth, his wife; the two loved one another, by all accounts, though Graham’s ceaseless travel took a toll on his marriage and his five children. Several of Graham’s children and grandchildren serve in Christian ministry, a testament to the evangelist’s enduring influence over his family.
If the Kennedys were the royalty of the American left, and the Buckleys were the royalty of the American right, the Grahams come the closest to being the royalty of the American evangelicals. This last sentence is humorous, because Graham was nothing if not a country boy. He settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had few pretensions about him. He liked down-home food and, though always nicely-dressed (a point of personal emphasis), was no high-flown man of the world. Graham was a Baptist, a Southern Baptist, and his church membership for many years was at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, the congregation led by inimitable preacher W. A. Criswell and often called “the buckle of the Bible belt.” Baptists proudly claimed Graham as their own, and watched as this Southerner helped bring at least a touch of Southern culture wherever he went (contributing in a real way to the spread of Southern influence in America). It did not hurt, of course, that Graham was movie-star handsome, had a voice that woke the angels, and stood 6’2”. Let’s put it this way: if your grandmother was a Baptist, she probably either wanted you to be like Billy, or to marry someone like Billy.
I had one opportunity to hear Graham in person. It was in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. My uncle and I went to Veterans Stadium and took our seats high above the grassy field. There, we heard Graham preach. I grew up going to church—praise God for that—and I heard many sound sermons, but I do not remember many of them. I do remember hearing Billy Graham. The image of people streaming forward to receive spiritual counseling and gospel instruction is carved into my memory, and I suspect something lodged in my mind and my heart that day. Like so many others who witnessed Graham’s evangelism in action, I glimpsed something of the power of God in those bleacher seats.
Graham’s legacy will take years, even decades, to sort out. He exercised an influence in Baptist and evangelical life he did not necessarily call for, with many preachers essentially turning their Sunday services into revival meetings. In this way, I see the grandchildren of the neo-evangelicals—my generation—working to recover a meaningful doctrine of the church, a richly expository and biblical-theological conception of preaching, and a strong understanding of conversion and sanctification. With profound gratitude for our fathers in the faith, we must also deal with many who “prayed a prayer” and think they are eternally safe despite their complete lack of the fruit of the Spirit. The doctrine of evangelism and the doctrine of the church are not, in truth, at odds; they must ever be partners, one feeding into the other.
There is no one in history quite like Billy Graham. In human terms, it does not appear that he has a successor. It may be that the Lord raised up this man, as raise him up he surely did, to be a bright and shining light, to call evangelicals out of their marginalization, out of their inwardness, and to go back into the world as people-loving evangelists in the name of Christ. If the twentieth-century church was quieted and dissolute in the early twentieth century (by the 1930s, that is), by the close of the century, the church had regained significant confidence, and asserted itself in every area of society. This owes to many factors, but one of them is Billy Graham. Praise God for him.
No, there may not be another such figure in our day. But perhaps the spirit of Graham—his zeal for the gospel—has transmuted individuality and returned to the place it rightly belongs: the local church. The rising generation may not top the list of the most admired Americans, as Graham did many times; indeed, holding to biblical doctrine and sexual ethics will do the reverse for many of us today and in coming days. But if the evangelical standard is not so much borne by one man, we may know this: it is borne by an army of faithful preachers, a bold and fearless band of pastor-theologians, many of whom shepherd people who owe their salvation in human terms to Graham’s ministry.
We may look at Graham’s death as the end of an era, and it surely is. His peers died, in most cases, long ago. Harold Ockenga went to glory in 1985, having founded Fuller Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Divinity School and having declared the gospel at Park Street Church on Boston Common for decades. Carl Henry, the greatest theologian of the postwar era, died in 2003, and like Ockenga is being rediscovered by younger evangelicals hungry for ministerial and scholarly models. Most of Graham’s friends and associates passed on long ago while the evangelist, sturdy as oak in his preaching days, held on. Even in senescence, life did not easily ebb from Billy Graham. He was strong in his dying as he was strong in his living.
Graham’s death signals our epochal break with neo-evangelicalism. But Graham’s death is more than that. It is more than a loss, much more, as the deaths of all such leaders must be. It is a call to go onward. It is a summons to preach without apology. It is an urging to act and minister with zealous love for God and man.
Elijah is no longer with us. He is caught up in the winds of God. He has gone to his well-earned rest. Who now will preach his message? Who now will declare God’s truth? Who now will defy the world in love, and preach the message of Christ’s blood, shed for sinners like us?