The year was 1999, and what was known at that time as the TWA Dome became the focal point of three significant happenings in St. Louis. First, the Pope visited our region. The second was the ascent of our NFL football team the St. Louis Rams toward the Superbowl. But the third major event that year was that Billy Graham held what would be his last Billy Graham Crusade in St. Louis. For months before the crusade, churches worked together across denominational lines to organize and publicize the event. I vividly remember both the months before the crusade as we prepared and invited people, and the four nights at the dome. We took buses of people down to sing, hear guest speakers, and listen to Dr. Graham preach. Over 40,000 attended each night, and every service ended with an invitation for people to come to the stage where they could pray with someone to receive Christ as Savior and Lord, and thousands responded to that invitation, including some that attended the crusade with us.
This morning, I, like most of you, learned that Billy Graham had passed away at the age of 99. I was both saddened and grateful for the legacy of Graham, and have found myself teary a few times today as I think of a man who spent his life and ministry preaching the Gospel while at the same time maintaining an incredible personal integrity. In his life it is estimated that he preached to 215 million live-audience people, and untold hundreds of millions more through TV and radio. One estimate says that he preached the Gospel to as many as 2.2 billion people in his lifetime, meaning that he has preached the Gospel to more people than any other person who ever lived. And, I discovered this morning that my life was more deeply affected by his ministry than I even knew, learning from my dad that my grandpa (whom I affectionately knew as “Papa Bill”) on my mom’s side came to faith in Jesus while watching a Billy Graham crusade on TV. By the time I knew Papa Bill, he was a follower of Jesus, active in his church and serving as a deacon, part of my faith legacy of which I am unbelievably thankful. Graham’s speech always dripped with the beauty of the Gospel, and I was so blessed this morning as I watched The Today Show’s tribute to him. In a short, four minute clip, the Gospel was shared multiple times with the simple clarity that made Billy Graham such a gift to the people of God.
As I sit today and think about the life, legacy, and death of Billy Graham, I want to share four things about his legacy that I am thankful for on this day.
His commitment to the infallibility and authority of the Bible – Billy Graham was confident in the Scriptures and preached from God’s Word faithfully. If you were to hear him preach you would know that he believed the inspired text of the Bible and proclaimed it faithfully. But this conviction came through a crisis of faith, as one of his closest friends and fellow preacher Charles Templeton drifted in his faith and began attacking the inspiration of Scripture. Graham tells the story of having his faith rocked, but getting alone with his Bible and God to wrestle with the question of whether or not he could trust the Bible. It was there in the San Bernardino mountains that he prayed.
“O God! There are many things in this Book I do not understand … There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science.” He paused, then continued: “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
I firmly believe that one of the key reasons God has so blessed Billy Graham’s ministry was his unwavering trust in the inspiration of the Bible and faithfulness to root his proclamation in the words of Scripture.
A passion for evangelism – Simply put, Billy Graham continually reminded the church that our mission was clear, preach the Gospel to every person on planet earth. He reminded the church that we needed to be intentional and create clear strategies for making Christ known. When a crusade came to a city of region, churches would work together, setting aside other agendas to do all they could to organize these events and then take all the people they could to come hear of Christ. Oh that we would again be stirred by the type of passion to make Christ known, an set aside other agendas and things that divide us, and we would work together to see people come to faith in Jesus.
The simplicity of the Gospel – Graham preached thousands of sermons, and each of them challenged people to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. While his sermons were not simplistic, the central message of the Gospel was so clear and simple that anyone could understand it and respond, no matter their religious background, Bible knowledge, or even age. I often need to remind myself of this as I tend to make things too complicated in my preaching.
His prophetic voice in politics – Somehow, Billy Graham was able to be an advisor and pastor to every American President from Dwight Eisenhower through Barack Obama. In a culture that seems overcome with partisan politics, Graham was able to maintain friendships with these men from differing political views and priorities. He admits that he got a little too close to Richard Nixon, and was hurt by the Watergate scandal. But this further shaped his desire to reach across political lines so that he would be able to share the Gospel and speak prophetically to all Presidents no matter their party. Yet, he did this without softening his stance on issues that were sinful. This became especially apparent during the Civil Rights movement as Graham spoke clearly and took clear steps to bridge gaps and call believers in Jesus to love all. In a 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, Graham shared the stage with Martin Luther King, Jr., an act that angered many whites, and could have cost him popularity. The point is that he was somehow able to speak clearly to issues that challenged people on both sides of the political aisle while at the same time being able to maintain relationship and influence with both as well. Furthermore, this, in large part, is what allowed him to preach the Gospel and draw people from all races, cultures, and socioeconomic groups.
Today is a day to be thankful for the ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. He was a man, and he did have his share of mistakes. He had feet of clay, but they were beautiful feet (Romans 10:13-15). I will close this post with a quote I read this morning from my friend and fellow pastor, Micah Fries, “Can you imagine the reception of those who are in heaven because of Billy Graham’s ministry? The long lines of people waiting to meet the servant who told them about Jesus? I have chills just thinking about all the receptions this morning.” What a reunion!