Billy Graham: A Meditation on His Life and Legacy

Billy Graham
Billy Graham and Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. Creative Commons

The news spread rapidly today that Billy Graham was dead. Throughout the day, I pondered the great evangelist’s life and legacy and what he has personally meant to me.

I was born in the heat of the Cold War. President Kennedy was assassinated just a few months before my birth. Dr. King was assassinated a few years later. President Nixon resigned the office of the presidency due to Watergate several years after that. Throughout those years, the Vietnam War raged. Those were tumultuous times. One point of constancy to me as a child during that era was Billy Graham and his gospel witness. Even when I was young, I was struck by Graham’s strong conviction, his simple message, and the striking response as scores of people made their way to the stage at his crusades to confess their sins and receive Jesus into their lives as Savior.

I could always count on Rev. Graham. Unlike many other evangelists whom I watched on TV over the years, there were never any scandals associated with Graham. The only scandal I ever recall associated with his name was the scandal of the gospel: Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. All we must do is confess our sins and believe to receive eternal life. But who really wants to humble themselves to admit they are desperate and that they need Jesus hanging on a cross to rescue them? (See John 1:12; John 3:16; see also 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB)

Graham emerged in post-WWII America. In certain ways, he was a product of his time. He made use of the emerging television technology available to him. He was also very mindful of the Cold War and was concerned about America’s moral fiber and if it could spiritually withstand the assault of Communism and its ‘spiritual’ assault on the West. Eventually, Graham would become more truly global in his focus, in keeping with his passion for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ around the world. And even though his message stayed simple, it moved increasingly from a message focusing on the fear of God leading to the love of God to a message focusing on the love of God leading to the fear of God. Instead of beating people down with sin to show them their need for Jesus, he increasingly focused his gaze on Jesus’ love that reveals our sin and need for him.

Dr. Graham was not a prophetic voice in the same vein as Dr. King as he spoke to Presidents and the public. Graham was really an evangelist through and through. No doubt, some if not all the Presidents he counseled wished to use him and his influence, though I believe he really wanted to influence them for the gospel. On the whole, Graham was non-partisan, just like his crusades were ecumenical in nature. Religious leaders from across the Christian spectrum sat on stage during his crusades in a show of solidarity from town to town.

This leads me to highlight Graham’s spirit of charity. He had a big and inclusive heart. His character was also marked by humility, as he would take to heart criticisms from the left as well as the right. While he flexed and grew as a person and as a public voice, Graham intended to remain true to the higher calling of preaching the good news of Jesus in all its simple purity and profundity to people everywhere.

If Dr. Graham’s legacy of faith and faithful witness is going to make a vital impact on the Evangelical movement in the years ahead, it will require that we prayerfully submit ourselves to the Lord, asking God to make us truly humble, open-minded and teachable, simple of faith though not simplistic, and marked throughout by integrity in our gospel confession with Christ-like character, just like Billy Graham.

Many people inside and outside the Evangelical movement wonder if Evangelicalism has fallen on hard and irredeemable times in view of certain suspect political ambitions. In the midst of these concerns and fears, my hope and prayer are that we will take to heart Billy Graham’s life and witness. In these tumultuous times, may we hold firmly to Graham’s legacy. In the face of so much partisanship, confirmation bias and incivility inside and outside the Evangelical movement, may we remember and revisit Billy Graham’s undying example of faith, hope, and love. Movements and monuments, issues and individuals—including great evangelists—will come and go. Only faith, hope and love will remain, and the greatest of these is love.

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