The Secret That Changed Billy Graham's Ministry
In a recent interview, Psychologist Jordan Peterson says our lifetime influence reaches 1,000 people. Your influence on 1,000 people who also influence 1,000 people means your reach is a million strong. Our little lives have a massive impact.
So what about a man like Billy Graham?
No estimate can be given with one hundred percent accuracy, though some have tried. In live performances alone, Joe Carter says he preached to "nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories.” Lifeway’s Facts and Trends breaks some the numbers further. But Graham's influence reaches beyond those who heard his preaching live, on television, or radio. Using their personal influence, many hearers of his gospel message went on the share it with others. Kathie Lee Gifford, for example, whose wonderful response to Graham’s death was broadcast and shared widely. She came to faith through one of his movies. In her proclamation of Graham's gospel message, she influences others as she was influenced by him. Graham's astronomical influence stretches beyond his 99 years on this earth.
Many younger Christians fail to realize Graham's cultural force in twentieth-century America. Speaking recently with a co-worker, he remembered his mother forcing the family to eat dinner quickly to huddle around the screen. His televised sermons were Must-See-TV. Where is that in today’s world?
I was born into an America whose prime-time coverage was headed toward reality TV, not Supernatural TV. I never saw Graham's sermons on my screen, but that doesn’t mean I've escaped his influence. His impact made it's way to me indirectly through one of my former pastors, Ray Ortlund. Ray loves to preach the Bible. He’s very good at it. He believes in the full authority of the Bible, and this conviction leads to preaching that lets the Bible say what the Bible says. No apologies. No hesitation. Only power.
Billy Graham also preached with authority. He preached with conviction. That conviction came from his unfailing belief in the authority Bible. He was not a flashy preacher. He didn't need to be. He had the weight of Scripture behind him. The timeless message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was all he carried into the pulpit. But to arrive here, it took a crisis of faith.
And that's where his influence came to me--through a magazine article Ray stuffed away in his files long ago.
In 1956, Graham founded Christianity Today. In October of that year, the first edition hit the shelves. Graham contributed an article entitled “Biblical Authority in Evangelism.” Inside, he spoke of this crisis of faith, which led to the secret that changed his ministry forever.
“In 1949 I had been having a great many doubts concerning the Bible. I thought I saw apparent contradictions in Scripture. Some things I could not reconcile with my restricted concept of God. When I stood up to preach, the authoritative note so characteristic of all great preachers of the past was lacking. Like hundreds of other young seminary students, I was waging the intellectual battle of my life. The outcome could certainly affect my future ministry.
Graham's doubts about the Bible resulted, in part, from a friendship with fellow evangelist Charles Templeton. Graham met Templeton in 1945. Templeton was considered the better preacher, the one with the brightest future. But in the things of God, earthly talents and promise mean little without a close walk with the Lord. Evangelism is about the gifting of the power of the Spirit from on high.
Desiring to advance his education and influence, Templeton enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary. By that time, Princeton had turned the ship toward liberalism. Templeton told Graham they were behind the times. No one took the Bible straight anymore. It shook Graham. What was happening? He too had questions he could not answer. Was he on the wrong side of history? Then, God brought Graham to Los Angeles for a short evangelistic stint--a trip that turned out to be the start of a new era of ministry. He arrived on shifting sand. God gave him a solid rock to stand on. God transformed his questions about the Bible to assurance of what the Bible said.
Graham goes on explain the results in his article.
In August of that year I had been invited to Forest Home, Presbyterian conference center high in the mountains outside Los Angeles. I remember walking down a trail, tramping into the woods, and almost wrestling with God. I dueled with my doubts, and my soul seemed to be caught in the crossfire. Finally, in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God revealed in Scripture. I knelt before the open Bible and said: ‘Lord, many things in this Book I do not understand. But Thou hast said, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ All I have received from Thee, I have taken by faith. Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as Thy word. I take it all. I take it without reservations. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases Thee, give me authority as I proclaim Thy word, and through that authority convict me of sin and turn sinners to the saviour.’”
“Within six weeks we started our Los Angeles crusade, which is now history. During that crusade I discovered the secret that changed my ministry. I stopped trying to prove that the Bible was true. I had settled. in my own mind that it was, and this faith was conveyed to the audience. Over and over again I found myself saying “The Bible says.” I felt as though I were merely a voice through which the Holy Spirit was speaking.
Authority created faith. Faith generated response, and hundreds of people were impelled to come to Christ. A crusade scheduled for three weeks lengthened into eight weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. The people were not coming to hear great oratory, nor were they interested merely in my ideas. I found they were desperately hungry to hear what God had to say through His Holy Word. I felt as though I had a rapier in my hand and, through the power of the Bible, was slashing deeply into men’s consciences, leading them to surrender to God. Does not the Bible say of itself, ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12)?’”
Graham's experience high in the mountains outside Los Angeles was not the spiritual high of church camp, momentary and fleeting. Graham’s experience that day was a lifelong lifting of the Spirit, placing the Bible’s rock-hard solidity beneath his feet.
Charles Templeton took another route. He went the way of the agnostic. In a memoir published in 1996, he wrote of his differences with Graham.
All our differences came to a head in a discussion which, better than anything I know, “explains” Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.
In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”
“I don’t accept that,” Billy said. “And there are reputable scholars who don’t.”
“Who are these scholars?’ I said. “Men in conservative Christian colleges?”
“Most of them, yes,” he said. “But that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.”
“But Billy,” I protested, “You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.”
“I don’t know about anybody else,” he said, “but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.”
Billy Graham knew the life for him because God gave him life abundant. He could not answer every question that arose, but he could answer the most important question. How is one saved? "We must admit that we are sinners. We must turn away from our sins and to Christ. We must trust Him as our Savior and follow Him as our Lord. God promises that when we do this, He will save us and make us His children, and we will live with Him forever."
Billy Graham’s ministry took flight at those Los Angeles crusades on the authority of Scripture. The press puffed him. His fame grew. The Holy Spirit used him--not because he answered every philosophical question or every doubt about the Bible. The Holy Spirit used him because he dared to say in the face of a nation racing toward liberalism—theologically, socially, sexually, and otherwise—”The Bible says.”
Billy Graham's influence spread far and wide and deep, coming down even to a young man in a church in Nashville, Tennessee reading a fifty-year-old article about biblical authority. His faith in the Bible, and in the God of the Bible, helped me stand tall and affirm the same thing.
Biblical authority matters in evangelism. Billy Graham proved it.
You can read the full article by Billy Graham at Christianity Today’s website. You do have to have an active subscription to read it all.