Billy Graham died yesterday. After 99 years on earth, right now he is seeing Jesus face to face. No doubt he also sees multitudes whom he told about Jesus. There’s no person in history who has preached the gospel to more people than Billy Graham. Not the Apostle Paul. Not George Whitefield. Nobody.
So why is a man beloved by Presidents and hailed by newscasters as “America’s Pastor” a polarizing figure? It’s complicated.
Nobody has preached the gospel to more people than Billy Graham
I have friends who can’t believe anyone would say something negative about Billy Graham. And I have friends who can’t believe anyone would say something positive about Billy Graham. Actually, both are possible—and both are necessary.
A Place for Truth
Let’s start with some hard facts. Billy Graham did preach the gospel to millions. But Graham also confused the gospel, perhaps more than anyone in the last 100 years. The problem wasn’t primarily with what he preached, but with his associations. Graham made a calculated decision to broaden his influence by partnering with those who deny the gospel, from theological liberals who denied essential Bible doctrines to Roman Catholics—both of whom hold to another gospel altogether. This isn’t a matter of partisanship. Those who object to Graham’s long-time ecumenism aren’t prigs. It’s a matter of clear biblical teaching. Christians are directly forbidden to collaborate with apostasy, even for a worthwhile cause. The clearest prohibition is 2 John 10-11:
“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
Christians are directly forbidden to collaborate with apostasy
Graham disregarded this command, lending his influence to unbelievers by treating them like genuine brothers and trustworthy leaders. Ecumenism was his policy, not an occasional occurrence. Eventually, the dissonance between his sound message and unsound methods caught up with him. In a staggering interview, he told Robert Schuller that there will be people in heaven who never trusted Christ:
“[God is] calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
That’s falsehood—and not about the fine print. It’s an outright denial of the exclusivity and even the necessity of the gospel. Was that statement an aberration or a long-term conviction? I think an aberration. He knew better. He preached better, thousands and thousands of times. But we can’t be so positive in our remembrance of him that we whitewash significant errors—decisions which historians like Iain Murray (see Evangelicalism Divided and The Unresolved Controversy) and George Marsden (see Reforming Fundamentalism) explain in great detail. For his part, Murray believes Graham irreversibly changed American evangelicalism, for the worse.
A Place for Grace
But there’s also room for grace. First, we have the example of David and his eulogy of King Saul in 2 Samuel 1:17-27. David had every reason to take the gloves off when King Saul died. Saul had envied David, lied about him, and killed innocent people in his murderous pursuit of him—all in spite of the fact that David had only been loyal in his service of Saul. Yet, David offered up a eulogy that was unmistakably gracious. He didn’t lie about Saul; he just told part of the story—the good parts.
But there’s more than just a gracious positivity in the wake of someone’s death. The Apostle Paul, who would defend the gospel against error without fear or compromise, gave us an example of rejoicing at gospel advance even in less than ideal circumstances. In Philippians 1:18, Paul rejoices that Christ is preached, despite the shady motives of those doing the preaching. Paul sat in prison, apparently with would-be rival preachers enjoying his pain. Yet Paul’s joy stemmed from gospel advance—no matter what. He didn’t give the preachers a pass. There’s a difference between gospel enthusiasm and an outright endorsement. He just celebrated the fact that multitudes were hearing about salvation through Jesus alone. Paul would rejoice that Bill Graham preached the gospel to millions.
There’s a difference between gospel enthusiasm and an outright endorsement
Further, there’s the matter of integrity. Graham lived in a glass house for 70 years, yet there wasn’t even a hint of financial or moral scandal. This was intentional, not incidental, as this article describes. That’s remarkably refreshing in a day when evangelical stars crash and burn with disheartening regularity.
For many, there are personal reasons to thank God for Billy Graham’s ministry. Most Christians know someone who came to Christ as a result of Graham’s immense ministry. I do. My grandfather, who had abandoned my grandmother, first heard the gospel at a Graham crusade. He eventually turned from his sin and trusted Christ—even returning to my grandmother, who forgave him and took him back! It’s one of the most remarkable stories of gospel grace that I know. And God used Billy Graham to do that amazing work.
We can be thankful that God uses faithful but flawed men
Finally, there’s the humility motive. I’m thankful that God used a faithful but flawed man like Billy Graham because I desire for God to use a faithful but flawed man like me. No, I’ll not ignore Graham’s misjudgments. But neither will I ignore his unprecedented usefulness. Hopefully I’ll learn from the former and strive to emulate the latter. I’d encourage every Christian to do the same.
Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association