The Day Billy Graham Died
This morning, Billy Graham walked through the valley of the shadow of death and into the arms of the Savior he served faithfully for decades. He was 99 years old.
Pastor John, Graham was a formative influence on you and your ministry. What’s going through your mind today as you receive the news. What memories and reflections do you have on the day Billy Graham died?
When I was growing up as a teenager and even today in my experience, I said to Noël this morning, he was just larger than life.
I can remember standing as a 15-year-old on the porch beside the basketball backboard that was fastened to it — it’s funny how clear this is — and thinking, “What would we do if Billy Graham died?” What that captures is an immature kid who doesn’t have a big grasp of the sovereignty of God yet, and yet a profound love for Billy Graham and a profound sense that he’s a big deal in my world — and he was a big deal in our world. He embodied, for John Piper, my parents’ religion written across the sky, because he was globally known and globally significant, and yet every word that seemed to come out of his mouth could’ve come out of my father’s mouth or my mother’s mouth.
So it was a massive affirmation that the same glorious good news was being heralded by this man that everybody seemed to respect and what I was being taught at home, which gives to a kid, a teenager, a sense of, “Wow, I’m really on to something glorious here, something solid, something that responsible, respectable, smart people embrace.” Isn’t that amazing that it would have that effect on me as a kid? I mean, the same basic good news: God is holy and demands allegiance. Every person on the planet is a sinner. God is merciful and sent Jesus, his Son, to die in the place of sinners. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
That basic gospel was my life as I was growing up, and there he was saying it on television and in these massive crusades, over and over again, and he embodied the same evangelistic fervor that my dad had. He preached the Bible folded back in his hand saying, “The Bible says.” “The Bible says.” And every time he said that, I said, “That’s my book. That’s what I believe.” Same authoritative preaching.
The Power of Billy Graham’s Influence
What simple power he had when he opened his mouth! A sentence that someone else might say and that he might say, they just have a cataclysmic difference in their effect because of the anointing that seemed to be on Billy Graham’s authority in preaching — the same joyful confidence in life. He’d go on to all these TV shows where these unbelievers would supposedly try to get at him, and he was just utterly unruffled by anything and could stand his ground with the simple gospel. And he stood for the same basic lifestyle of sexual purity and personal holiness that I was being brought up on. Here’s a little personal touch.
Cliff Barrows, the so-called song leader, lived in our town, and I went to school with his kids. I saw Cliff Barrows often, and we did various things together as a family. So I felt like there’s this man leading this 5,000-person choir, and I know him, and I go to school with his daughter, so this was, for me, a very personal connection, not just a formal or religious one.
I met Billy Graham when I was 14-years-old. It was at Cliff Barrows’s house, and it was some Christmas party or something. I’m not sure why I was there, but there I was. And my main impression was, “This man is tall.”
My dad is 5’7”. My mom is 5’1”. My sister is 5 feet. My grandmother was 5’1”. I was the giant in the family at 5’9”, and here’s this gargantuan public figure towering over me, and I was just amazed that I got to shake his hand as a kid.
His life — that public, big, global dimension — I think had both positive and negative effects on the church or on American culture. Let me try to explain what I mean: positive in the sense that Billy Graham imparted, as you can tell from what I’m saying, great courage to believers, evangelical believers, to speak their faith, because there he was doing it on the television. And it also was positive in the sense that his public preaching forced Jesus into the public arena, into the public square you might say.
My Concern with Billy Graham’s Influence
But the downside seems to me to be that, inevitably, there became a blending of evangelical Christianity that he stood for — and I stood for — with the dominant American culture cause. Billy Graham really was a quintessential American, as well as a dominant voice for evangelical religion. Therefore, there emerges this wedding, often uncritical wedding, of evangelical Christianity and American culture, which I think we are still paying the price for today, and it had a couple of negative effects.
First, it took away the prophetic edge of the faith because if you’re wedded with the culture so intimately, how can you stand outside or over the culture and make prophetic statements of criticism about the culture?
And the second negative effect it had — and this, I think, we’ve only recently begun to talk about more clearly and forthrightly — is that it made the white, Protestant, evangelical church virtually unconscious that it had a culture. When you’re swimming in the water, you don’t know there’s water. It’s just what you are and we have, over the recent decades, awakened globally and in America to the fact that outside of the kind of evangelism that Billy Graham embodied, there are other culture expressions of biblical Christianity all over the world, as well as in America. And we were basically oblivious to that.
When you’re oblivious of something, you can make some really unhelpful assumptions that put people outside that sphere into a light that is not going to be helpful or unifying. And to his great credit, Billy Graham, I think, awakened, in some measure, to the dangers of this cultural conformity of the wedding of evangelicalism with the faith, and began to say things that were very, very helpful.
I just wrote an article today where I quote Martin Luther King to the effect that at one point he thought the Billy Graham crusades after the requirement for integration were some of the strongest impacts for the good of the fight for integration that happened in those days.
So anyway, the public nature of Billy Graham proved to be both, I think, very positive and had these negative downsides.
Billy Graham and Christian Hedonism
One other thought is the fact that I love to talk about Christian Hedonism. That’s who I am, what I’ve lived for and stood for and tried to say in all my books and preaching; namely, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, and that this satisfaction in him comes to its peak when it overflows in joy in God that meets the needs of others. In other words, it produces love. And Billy Graham, in his own interesting way, fed this, I believe.
I was just thinking about that this morning and even came to tears again in my devotions as I was singing “Just as I Am” to myself. He ended every service with these words: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee. O Lamb of God, I come.” It has another verse in it — as if that weren’t good enough! — “Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; sight, riches, healing of the mind; yes, all I need in thee I find. O Lamb of God, I come.”
That’s a massive statement, isn’t it? “All I need in thee I find” — which, if people were listening, they had to realize Jesus is not a ticket. He’s not a ticket out of hell into heaven. He is heaven. He’s everything we need. He is the end of the soul’s quest. “Sight, riches, healing of the mind; yes, all I need in thee I find. O Lamb of God,” I’m coming. I’m coming. That’s my Christian Hedonism. And I sang it hundreds of times. We sang at church. We sang it at crusades. We sang it at home. “Yes, all I need in thee I find.”
And then there was one other signature song, right? “How Great Thou Art.” And I can see Cliff Barrows, one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. I’d met him recently. As we were talking — and he’s blind — he has hundreds of hymns memorized. And he just overflows with joy. Well, there he was, with a big smile on his face, leading 5,000 people in “How Great Thou Art,” which has this verse in it: “And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in — that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing . . . ” I wonder if we ever let that sink in — “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). It streamed back in, and even in Gethsemane, and on the cross, he was sustained. He was not begrudgingly giving his life. He was gladly giving his life for us.
Or the next verse: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow in humble adoration.” And there’s the connection between joy filling the heart and humble adoration, which is what I’ve been arguing all my life; namely, that the only adoration that honors God is the adoration that is overflowing with joy in God. You can’t have dutiful adoration. It’s either real in your heart, or it’s not. So I thank God that the entire team of the Billy Graham crusade efforts with the music and the preaching were feeding my convictions about God being most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — even before I knew that sentence or knew the term Christian Hedonism.
Billy Graham’s Greatest Impact
So Tony, when I step back and just ask about what was his greatest impact, both in the world and on me, my answer is that thousands and thousands of people came out of darkness into light. Their eyes were opened through the work of the Holy Spirit in the mouth of Billy Graham.
Jesus said to Paul, “I am sending you to open their eyes” (Acts 26:17–18). Isn’t that amazing? “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified.” That’s what happened to thousands and thousands of people.
So if you talk about impact, how can you measure the impact when somebody is not going to go to hell and spend eternity in misery, but is going to have everlasting joy in the presence of God because this man opened his mouth, and God Almighty used him to rescue thousands and thousands of people from everlasting destruction? Not to mention, the earthly impact of all those thousands of people who turned from darkness to light and, therefore, their actions are transformed, and their marriages are saved, and their children are reared in righteousness, and they’re honest now at work, and their sexual relations are pure, and they do countless good deeds for the physical good of others and the eternal good of others, as is so wonderfully embodied in his son’s life today, Franklin’s ministry, Samaritan’s Purse.
For me, personally, I would have to say that the greatest impact, since I was already a believer when I got to know who Billy Graham was, the greatest impact was that, today, I still love the old, old story. I love the gospel that Billy Graham preached, and I love saying out loud, with people or privately to God, “How great thou art!”
Billy Graham’s Impact on Me
Are there any distinct marks of his ministry beyond the Christian Hedonism that you talked about that, if you listened to a Graham sermon today, are there things that you picked up from him that transferred into your ministry? Do you hear yourself in him? How did he influence you in other ways?
I’ve already mentioned in bullet point, but I hope that I have been a biblically faithful preacher who may not have said the words, “The Bible says” as often, but oh it was implicit. I’ve always wanted to preach in such a way that nobody cared a hoot what John Piper thought, but rather, “Look: he’s showing us what God says in the Bible.” Which is what Billy Graham showed us over and over again. “The Bible says.” “The Bible says.” “The Bible says.” And that’s the kind of ministry I have wanted to have, and I want to have. I want Desiring God to be that kind of ministry.
Bible-saturated is the way I talk about it. Not just Bible-based preaching — like, you say a verse and then you spend 30 minutes talking about stories that you’ve experienced, instead of telling people what’s in the Bible and quoting it to them and applying it to their lives. So that’s one thing.
And the other is a clarity and directness. When he opens his mouth and speaks, there’s such pointed, forceful, unabashed, un-hypocritical clarity just right straight to the point, and I want to be clear. I don’t want to be clever. I just want my preaching to be clear and anointed and authoritative and forceful the way his was.
When I Met Billy Graham
Yeah. I can definitely see that. When I listen to Graham, I can hear some Piper in there. Very much an influence. A few years ago, you met with Graham again. Anything to share from that meeting? Anything stand out?
You know, that’s right. I didn’t even mention that while I was chatting earlier about the impact.
It was three or four years ago. What a gracious man! He had a little tube in his nose, but he could sit up. He walked in and sat down — I think Justin Taylor was with me — and we chatted about various things. The impression everybody gets when they’re in the presence of Billy Graham is of a gracious, Southern gentleman who puts you first. He doesn’t default to himself. He defaults to the person that he’s talking to, and he draws you out. We want to draw him out: “Tell me some interesting stories from your life.” And the next thing you know, he’s asking you questions about your life and your ministry.
It was precious in that it simply put a flesh-and-blood kind of closing of the brackets of my life — from the first time I met him at age 14 until I guess I was 65, when that meeting happened. To have that kind of closure was very precious.
Billy Graham’s Legacy
Some people are saying with the death of Billy Graham now that there’s a major chapter in American evangelicalism that’s closed. Not just his life, but a chapter of American evangelicalism. Do you get that sense at all? Is that reading too much into it?
I can see what they mean. There was a group — a very dominant, strong group — of newer evangelicals, I guess they were called, from the late 1940’s over the next 20 or 30 years with their dominance of creating institutions like Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today and represented by Wheaton College. And I get that there was a kind of remarkable unity around that mid-20th-century expression of evangelicalism. And it has lasted — he’s the last, one of the last, dominant figureheads in that movement.
My own sense, though, is that what God is doing in the world is so inscrutable. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (Romans 11:33–34). I would be very slow to have any neat picture of chapters. It just seems to me God’s story doesn’t break easily into chapters. And so, if we’re going to talk that way, we better leave lots of holes at the end of the chapter for mighty influences to flow further on, and for those in this chapter, whatever this is, to reach back with benefit. So yes, I get that, and I would want to say the God of Billy Graham and the strength of Billy Graham are alive and well today.
Outstanding. Would you mind leading us in prayer in closing to thank God for Billy Graham’s life?
That would be a pleasure.
Father, I feel today thankful for my father who was like a little Billy Graham with his 500-person evangelistic crusades and Billy with his 50,000-person evangelistic crusades. And I simply stand in awe of the faithfulness and the power of these men in the Holy Spirit.
I bless you that you raised up Billy Graham for the season that you did. I bless you that you preserved him from scandal and unbelief. I bless you for pouring out your Holy Spirit on him throughout all the difficulties surrounding an evangelistic life in the family, and yet preserving his marriage and preserving his witness and anointing him for the gathering of tens of thousands — yes, probably hundreds of thousands of your lost sheep.
So God, receive our thanks. And I pray that whatever chapter is closing, this next chapter that we are in would be even more fruitful, a thousand times more fruitful, not over against, but in part because of Billy Graham. In Jesus’s name I pray, Amen.
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead,” Graham once wrote. “Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally. This article first appeared on desiringgod.org.
Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons
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