Billy Graham (1918-2018): A Gospel-Centered Legacy


The story is told that, during the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne in 1974, someone asked Billy Graham, “Who will be the next Billy Graham?” In answer, the nonpareil evangelist motioned to the panorama of Christian leaders around him, saying, “They will.”

I agree with Graham. No one person will ever replace him. He has been extraordinarily called to share the gospel at a specific historical moment with more people than anyone before him. No one can “replace” him, any more than anyone could “replace” Alexander the Great, Lincoln, or Churchill. Great leaders break the mold. They can be succeeded but never replaced.

Having recently enjoyed lunch with Dr. Graham’s longtime organist, John Innes, I find myself considering what it looks like for Christians to promote Billy’s cross-centered, proclamational legacy in the church today.

Not Via Politics

We need to remind ourselves that this legacy will not be continued via politics. While many people are alternately discouraged, outraged, or disgusted by our seemingly broken political system, and while a calling into politics is valid and worthy, our salvation will not come through the ballot box or a Supreme Court decision. Though often tempted by the lure of the political spotlight, Graham recognized this fact. For instance, after the fallout of the Watergate scandal, Graham stated, “It is a mistake to identify the kingdom of God with the American way of life.”

The reality of evil and the dehumanizing effects of sin will not find their ultimate cure in a new government program or reform agenda on Capitol Hill. As always, they must be confronted by the (inherently offensive) message of the gospel—that Christ “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

Power, Humility, and Prayer

The first foundation stone of Graham’s legacy, thus, is his grasp of the gospel, which the apostle Paul says is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). While we are often tempted to forget the extent of this power, the many lives transformed through Graham’s preaching are a vivid reminder.

Such knowledge has also given Graham genuine humility, the second foundation stone. It’s easy to take Graham’s meekness for granted, having been accustomed to seeing it for so many decades—that is, until we observe the sins and foibles of other Christian leaders.

During his first crusade in Boston, when asked to identify the one item for which he most wanted prayer, Graham said, “That I will not take credit for the successes of these things whatsoever, because if I do, my lips will turn to clay.”

The Boston church leaders came away from that meeting struck by Graham’s profound humility. In fact, after the meetings, one leader commented, “Never did Billy take any credit. He never let anybody make him a big shot. Such humility I have never seen in anyone else.” Graham’s humility is a model for all of his successors.

This incident also highlights another foundation in Graham’s legacy—one that we must not neglect in the days ahead: earnest prayer. Graham knew that whatever humility he had, it was not his birthright, and it wasn’t guaranteed to continue in perpetuity. This knowledge caused Graham to constantly return to the Source.

“Every time I give an invitation, I am in an attitude of prayer,” he writes. “I feel emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained. It becomes a spiritual battle of such proportions that sometimes I feel faint. There is an inward groaning and agonizing in prayer that I can’t put it into words.”

There are many tools, in the providence of God, that can help us more effectively do evangelism—sociological research, technology, and the like. These are all good things, and Graham gladly employed them when appropriate. But Graham’s successors must never get so enamored with these tools for evangelism that we forget the engine: earnest prayer.

Supremacy of Christ

Graham PreachingThe final foundation stone in Graham’s ministry I want to highlight here is his commitment to the supremacy of Christ. It is no accident that the name of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine is Decision. At his every crusade, the great evangelist emphasized people’s need to see Christ not just as Savior, but also as Lord—and he always sealed this understanding with prayer.

In Graham crusades, there has been no room for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” While attendees were always called to make a decision, they were also challenged to make a thoroughgoing dedication to discipleship. Writing in 1956, Graham indicated the far-reaching importance of this commitment: “After you have confessed Christ, yield every area of your life. Yield your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your family, your business, your career, your ambitions, your soul, the innermost thought and depths of your heart; yield them all to Christ. Hold nothing back.”

No, as much as we might like to, there is no way to manufacture “another Billy Graham” for whatever challenges God has for us in the future. The ministries of the great evangelist’s many successors necessarily will look different and almost certainly produce different fruit.

But there is no reason we cannot carry forward Graham’s cross-centered, proclamational legacy. This legacy is surprisingly simple, yet unmistakably profound: a commitment to the gospel’s power, genuine humility, earnest prayer, and the supremacy of Christ. Despite the cultural pressure we will likely encounter to neglect these foundation stones, a pressure that greets us everyday, it’s a gospel-centered legacy we can all embrace.

In fact, we must. God will judge us if we don’t.

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