Billy Graham has been called America’s Pastor. He was a religious giant in America and was loved and respected by millions around the world. According to an ABC News report, he preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries and territories through his “Billy Graham Crusades.” His largest crusade drew one million people in Seoul, South Korea.
Graham met with every president of the United States since Dwight D. Eisenhower, knowing most of them on a first-name basis prior to their becoming president. By all accounts, he lived a moral life and was faithful to his wife of 64 years, who died in 2007. He set rules for himself to avoid the temptation or accusation of infidelity. Those rules were referred to, in the singular, as the Billy Graham Rule, and more recently as the Mike Pence Rule, which Mr. Pence himself copied from the evangelist. Simply stated, it is to never be alone, including not eating a meal alone, with a woman who is not his wife. Some see this kind of discretion as sexist and even laughable, but in light of the sexual scandals and the #MeToo movement, both Billy Graham and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence appear to have “one-upped” the critics.
Graham’s message has been summed up as, “God loves you and Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for your sins.” He spoke of a coming Day of Judgment and the need to make a decision for Christ. His message was not different from many evangelical preachers, but he took his campaigns to new levels. Advance planning called upon churches to bring out the crowds when he came into town. They were always well-organized events, including reports of “seeding the audiences” with “repentant sinners” when the altar call came at the end. Hundreds and thousands were moved to walk down the aisle to the plaintive hymn, “Just As I Am.”
As already noted, to all outward appearances Billy Graham lived a moral life, avoiding excesses, and living modestly with his wife and five children. We would all do well to follow that standard! However, when it comes to his evangelical message, should we not evaluate that separately, analytically, against Scripture and without emotion? Is it wrong to ask, “Is the message of the evangelical movement complete, or is something missing?” Is that question off-limits?
Remember that Jesus instructed us, in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, that we must, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13–14). That was a common Billy Graham theme.
But, let us examine the exact nature of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed. “Gospel” is a word thrown about loosely in religious and non-religious circles. We hear of “gospel music” and “gospel preaching,” but what, according to the Bible, IS the Gospel? Many think they know, but do they? The word gospel simply means “good news.” What IS that good news?
Many evangelicals rightly understand that a man named Jesus was, in a special way, begotten by God. He truly was the Son of God! The facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection ARE good news! So also is the fact that He lived a perfect life and died to pay the penalty for our sins. But much is often missing from the evangelical message. While sin is referred to, it is rarely defined, and when it is defined, does it match the Bible’s inspired definition? Many assume they know what it is. Drunkenness and adultery are sin in the minds of most, but there are other behaviors that remain controversial: dancing, card-playing, having a glass of wine. What about going to movies, or viewing violent sports (American football or boxing)? What about days of celebration: Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day? Is Sunday the day commanded in Scripture as the day for rest and worship, or is it Saturday? Are all days “holy time,” and therefore there is no difference? Is the question left to each individual to decide, and can you choose a convenient day of worship?
Why is the biblical definition of sin almost universally avoided? After all, the Bible does tell us! It defines sin as the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4, King James Version). The New Bible Commentary is not fuzzy in explaining which law: “The law in question is, of course, the law of God. The essence of sin, then, is disregard for God’s law.”
Perhaps you have been asked, “Do you know the Lord?” How do you answer that? The Apostle John explains the right answer to the question: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4).
Then there is the question, “What Gospel did Jesus preach for the three-and-one-half years prior to His death, burial and resurrection?” A careful reading of the New Testament clarifies. The book of Mark starts in verse 1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and explains in verses 14 and 15, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” (For a more thorough biblical explanation of this topic, contact the office nearest you for our free booklet, Do You Believe the True Gospel? The address can be found on page 4 of this magazine.)
Many assume the reward of the saved and inheriting the Kingdom of God means going to heaven right after death, but is this what the Bible teaches? It can seem that way on the surface, but a careful reading of the Scripture reveals heaven is NOT the reward of the saved, and that we are not changed immediately upon death! Jesus made two statements that appear contradictory, but are not. In what are called the beatitudes (beautiful attitudes) in the heart of His message, He declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3, 5). So, which is it: heaven, or the earth? Do the poor in spirit go to heaven, while the meek stay on earth?
A simple misunderstanding of the English language creates confusion. Notice that verse three says “the kingdom of heaven.” The word of indicates ownership rather than location, as in “heaven’s (God’s) kingdom.” It is heaven’s kingdom, not the kingdom in heaven. However, Matthew 5:5 tells us that the meek will inherit the earth—clearly indicating the location of our inheritance.
Mark, Luke and John use the expression, “kingdom of God,” whereas Matthew mostly uses the expression, “kingdom of heaven.” However, Matthew uses the expressions interchangeably in 19:23–24. It is God’s kingdom, not the kingdom IN God!
A further question that we should ask is when do the saved receive their reward? The Apostle Paul explains that the dead in Christ will be resurrected at the sound of the “last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Compare this with Matthew 24:31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17. Note that Paul likens death to sleep, as Jesus does in John 11:11–14. Note also that the sister of Lazarus understood that the awakening from death would come “in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:23–24).
What is sin? What is the true Gospel Jesus Christ taught? What is the reward of the saved? These are only three of many questions we should ask when seeking the truth. Real Christianity is more than an academic exercise. How we live is all-important. No matter how beautiful the hymn may be, each of us cannot remain “just as I am” and please our Creator. We must know what sin is and repent of it. We must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. We must also understand, believe, and act on the good news that Jesus proclaimed for three-and-a-half years prior to His death, burial and resurrection.