Reflections on Billy Graham and Spiritual Heroes

Why did Billy Graham’s life and preaching impact so many thousands of lives? This is a question I have pondered a lot since news broke that he went on to be with the Lord.

The news of Billy Graham’s death came out this week as I was preparing a sermon on Jonah 3. I had been wrestling with the question of why Jonah’s preaching had such a profound impact on the Ninevites when I heard of Billy’s passing. After discovering a few reasons why Jonah’s preaching was “God-timed” for the people of Nineveh, I still knew that only the Spirit of God brings the preached Word of God to bear on sinners. But then I considered other spiritual heroes in recent generations, like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and John Wesley, and the same question struck me. Why did God choose these men as opposed to others? Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, had little effect on his home church, but God used it to spark a nation-wide revival when he preached it in Enfield, Connecticut. Why is it that the people in Enfield were grabbing hold of the pillars of the church, moaning, and crying out, “What must I do to be saved?” but the people in Edwards’ congregation were often laying down horizontally on the pews asleep as he preached?

In my research, I discovered no shortage of reasons from the world’s perspective as to why Edwards’ sermon had such profound impact on early America. One scholar, Edwin Cady, says it was the fresh imagery Edwards used. Another, Lee Stuart, says it was the element of comfort after such a long, negative message. Another, Rosemary Hearn, suggests that the logical structure and persuasiveness of Edwards’ sermon made it successful. Yet another says it was Edwards’ references to Newtonian physics and the earth’s gravitational pull that created a feeling of falling among his hearers. Still others say it was Edwards’ use of vivid illustrations which made the listeners feel like they had been transported to hell even as they sat in the church pews. These were all plausible ideas, but something about them rang hollow and didn’t fully explain the monumental response that followed the preaching.

After reading George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, by Dr. Thomas Kidd last year, I discovered something else interesting: Whitefield’s words and concepts in preaching were not particularly unique or novel. One contemporary of Whitefield remarked that Whitefield could move men to tears simply by repeating the word mesopotamia.’ Whitefield also had one lazy eye that one would think would have lessened his fame, but it did not in the least. John Wesley’s ministry is comparable in many ways to Whitefield’s. This reminds me how the Lord used all the heroes in the “hall of the faith” listed in Hebrews 11. God often uses the simplicity of the preaching and the weakness of the servant to bring all the glory to Himself.

As for Billy Graham, is there any spiritual leader that has had such profound, worldwide acclaim and impacted so many vast numbers of people through his life and preaching since these earlier famous preachers? I was recently given Billy Graham’s autobiography by an elderly widow in our church, and one picture in it shows Billy Graham preaching to over a million people at one time in South Korea in 1973. Perhaps some of Billy Graham’s impact is owing to the fact that he lived in the age of television and jet travel. Nevertheless, anyone who has heard Billy Graham’s preaching can tell you his messages were not anything new. Billy Graham preached the same old gospel that countless other lesser-known heralds have preached. Yet as Billy Graham spoke, his words carried clarity, compassion, and spiritual force unlike any for generations.

While it can be argued that some of the droves of people who descended the bleachers at Graham’s preaching crusades were doing so merely in response to the emotional tug of the music and the zeal of the preacher that day (Graham himself said he wouldn’t be surprised of only 2% who came forward were actually converted that night), this still does not sufficiently explain why Billy Graham did not become just another TV preacher out there with his own little following. He was invited to the White House by many presidents in his day and was esteemed by all for his moral purity and faithfulness to what he believed.

Ultimately, God has not chosen to reveal to us why He uses some men to impact thousands and others only hundreds. But Scripture does tell us that He does so according to His sovereign purposes in the world. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, He explains that some are given more talents than others (Matthew 25:14-30). Then, in Jesus’ parable of the soils, He shares that the crops growing from good soil will produce various amounts: some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some one hundred-fold (Mark 4:8). But God does not tell us specifically why there is a difference in the growth. Instead of telling us why God uses some more than others, He charges each of us to be good stewards of whatever amount of time, gifts, relationships, and resources with which He has entrusted us.

Billy Graham was faithful with his and may we all be faithful with ours. May Paul’s question to the church at Corinth echo in our minds, “What do we have that we did not receive?”

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