The Legacy of Billy Graham at Fuller Seminary
Billy Graham: Preacher to the World
By Lloyd John Ogilvie
Preacher, Author, and Former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate
Billy Graham has graduated to heaven. The impact of his preaching is greater than any preacher since the Apostle Paul. No preacher has proclaimed the gospel to more people and seen more commit their lives to Christ than Billy Graham.
We only can imagine the reception he received by the multitudes in the company of heaven who met Christ through Billy’s dynamic preaching. “Welcome home!” they must have shouted. “We are here because we experienced grace and began abundant and eternal life through your preaching.”
Added to those in heaven are millions of people still in this phase of eternal life on earth who, through Billy’s preaching, confessed their faith in Christ, renewed a faith that had become dull and drab, or received healing and hope for some anguish they were facing.
Today, as we celebrate the legacy of the communication of the gospel by Mr. Graham, it is inspiring to reflect on the dynamics of his preaching and the stunning success of his life-changing ministry.
Billy preached Christ. From the time of his conversion at 16 to his death, he never veered from his primary commitment to Christ. The Savior was everything to him, right to the end of his physical life. His relationship with Christ transformed his own life and he never stopped growing in an ever-deepening friendship with him. Billy believed that without Christ, people were lost now and for eternity. This accounts for the urgency of his preaching. He lived out Richard Baxter’s motto and mandate, “I preach as a dying man to dying men and women, as if never to peach again.”
As a result, Billy Graham was a passionate preacher. When I saw him preach with such verve and vitality, I could sense that with one hand he held the nail-pierced hand of Christ and with the other, he reached out to grasp the hands of stumbling, struggling people whose greatest need was to receive Christ as Savior, be born again, and start living life to the fullest. Billy was on fire as he preached because he had church leader Nicholas von Zinzendorf’s priority, “I have one passion only. It is He! It is He!”
Billy was a biblical preacher. He really believed that the Bible is the Word of God. He was convinced that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures was present in power as he preached his expositional messages. He held firmly the ancient conviction expressed in the phrase, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
Billy was gripped by the assurance that when he preached the Bible, God spoke through him.
One night in the summer of 1949, he came to an unshakable recommitment to preach the Bible as God’s Word. In the woods of the Forest Home Conference Center in California’s San Bernardino Mountains, he dropped to his knees, opened his Bible on a tree stump, and made an unreserved dedication to preach the Bible. “Father,” he prayed, “I’m going to accept this as thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be thy inspired Word.” A spiritual battle had been fought and won. Billy was now ready for the historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, which catapulted him into national fame and world recognition.
Recently, when my wife and I visited Billy, I offered to read to him passages from the Bible. I looked up as I read and saw his lips moving in perfect sync with the words. He knew all those passages from memory! The Bible was his constant companion. When he preached, there was a sense of “This is what God says!” authority and power.
Coupled with this was Billy’s ability to be up to date and down to earth in using illustrations from life. He was an astute analyst of human nature and the unfolding drama of contemporary life. His ability to illustrate and draw parables from current events gave each point of his exposition a ring of reality. People felt his empathy.
They also felt his urgency about ethical and social issues. A study of his sermons reminds us of his strong commitment to racial justice and care for the poor. In his own words, “Certainly we as Christians have no right to be content with our social order until the principles of Christ are applied to all men. As long as there is enslaved one man who should be free, as long as slums and ghettos exist, as long as the color of a man’s skin is his prison, there must be a divine discontent. We as Christians have two responsibilities. One, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only answer to man’s deepest needs. Two, to apply as best we can the principles of Christianity to the social conditions around us.”
What was the reason for this clarity about the vertical and horizontal dimensions of living as Christ’s disciples? Billy Graham was a man of prayer. Everything he spoke or wrote was steeped in prayer. I remember sitting next to him on the platform of the Hollywood Bowl at his 25th anniversary crusade. Just before he stood up to preach, I said, “Billy, I will be praying for you as you preach.” His blue eyes flashed and sparkled. “I need that more than my next breath!” he responded. All through his ministry he expressed that same conviction. He really believed that all that was accomplished and all he had become was an answer to his prayers and those of millions of people around the world.
Finally, Billy Graham was a truly great preacher because he loved people. And they loved him. From presidents to members of Congress, from stars of the media world to the nobodies he treated as Christ’s somebodies, from the captains to the laborers of industry, from the financial up-and-outers to the despairing down-and-outers, from scholars to the searching students of academia, from religious agnostics who needed Christ to intellectual atheists who needed bracing truth, Billy Graham was thought of as a caring friend. His humility, along with his identification with people’s hurts and hopes, galvanized his listeners to him as he preached.
One evening during his last Crusade in the Rose Bowl in 2004, a man who had experienced a life-changing conversion when he came forward in response to Billy’s invitation said to me, “I just had to go forward. When Billy preached the Bible with such love, it was as if I was the only one here and he was speaking just to me. He understands what I am going through. He really believes I can change, and now, so do I!”
And so, when Billy Graham graduated to heaven, I am convinced there was one voice there that rose above all others saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” It was the voice of his Savior and Lord!
Lloyd John Ogilvie, renowned preacher and author, served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate eight years and as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood for more than 20. He is founder of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary.