October 14, 2001
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
My family and I drove three-and-a-half hours from Los Angeles to Fresno, to attend the first two nights of the Billy Graham Crusade at Bulldog Stadium, on October 11 and 12. According to The Fresno Bee (October 12, 2001, p. 1), 40,000 people attended the opening night of the crusade. Every seat in the stadium was filled by 7:00 PM, when the program started.
The meeting opened with a soft, humanistic video, projected on large screens, which showed workers for the crusade giving out packages of crayons and other material to "needy" children in the Fresno area. The choir then sang "The Lord's Prayer," while photos of a Catholic Mass, the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and other pictures were displayed on the screen. Choir director Cliff Barrows led a hymn, which was followed by loud, pulsating music from evangelical singer Crystal Lewis. An offering was taken. Then a musical group called "The Katinas" performed a series of loud Pentecostal-type musical numbers. During this music about one-third of the people raised their hands above their heads. Then, during a Jimi Hendrix-style steel guitar number, nearly everyone stood and raised their hands, shouting "Praise the Lord" and "Hallelujah." It was like a meeting seen on TBN, completely Pentecostal in feeling and tone. I can only say that it felt like we had entered a totally Pentecostal service.
After an hour of this, we saw a black car pull into the back of the stadium and Billy Graham got out. He was brought onto the platform in a wheelchair, as the Mayor of Fresno, Alan Autry, gave his testimony. The Mayor gave an "emptiness and void"-type of testimony. He said, "Next Thursday night, it will be fifteen years since I had a drink - thanks to the power of God." The audience applauded. He did not emphasize his sin or the Blood of Christ, but rather spoke of God "filling an empty place" in his heart.
Then George Beverly Shea came to sing before the sermon. He is now 92 years old, but looked remarkably well, as he sang "The Love of God" with a strong voice. The people directly in front of us, and behind us, who had raised their hands to the Pentecostal music earlier, talked loudly as Mr. Shea sang.
Then Billy Graham got out of his wheelchair and shuffled slowly to the podium. The audience gave him a standing ovation. He had broken his foot the day before, and wore a wooden brace on it, which was shown on the large screen. He looked very old and very tired at 82.
The newspaper ( The Fresno Bee) says that he spoke for 26 minutes, but they must have included his opening remarks in that figure. I timed the actual sermon at just over 16 minutes. Graham did not open his Bible, or ask anyone else to open the Bible. He quoted John 3:16, and then began to preach on "The Love of God." It was essentially the same sermon, much of it word-for-word, that I have heard him give on this topic for nearly fifty years. But he was much milder and less controversial than the Billy Graham I remember from my childhood.
I have been listening to Billy Graham since 1956. As a fifteen-year-old boy, I was captivated by his strong delivery, his denunciation of sin, and proclamation of the gospel on television. I also listened to him on his "Hour of Decision" radio program every Sunday in the 1950s.
But I can only say that Billy Graham has changed over the years. Journalist James A. Wall said in The Fresno Bee, "Over the years he has mellowed." The Fresno Bee went on to say that Graham "polished his ecumenical credentials during a 1964 crusade in Irish-Catholic Boston. Addressing his Catholic concerns about mass evangelism, Graham made it clear he wasn't trying to turn Catholics into Protestants" ( The Fresno Bee, October 7, 2001, p. 8).
Billy Graham seems like a balloon with a slight pin-prick in it. The air doesn't gush out all at once - it goes out slowly, with the balloon growing softer and softer each decade - until now it is very limp, with very little left to it. Each decade, the balloon loses more air. My boys noticed this. One of them said to me, "If he had started out preaching what he does now, no one would have come to hear him." Of course, he was exactly right. It was painful listening to him stumble through a sixteen-minute sermon that I have heard dozens of times across the decades.
Why do people still come to hear him? The Lutheran scholar Martin Marty says Graham's appeal today "Rests heavily in the category of American celebritism: It's like when the Dalai Lama [of Tibet] comes to town and 30,000 college students want to be therepeople want to tell their grandchildren they were at a Graham rally" ( The Fresno Bee, October 7, 2001, p. 8).
I think there is something basically wrong with Billy Graham's preaching. It isn't that he's old. No one can help getting old. It's that his message "has mellowed," as the newspaper put it. There was a time, back in the 1950s, when Graham made his audiences afraid - afraid of what was happening in the world - afraid of God's judgment - and, yes, he made people afraid of Hell. The newspaper recalled a 1958 meeting in Fresno where Billy Graham preached about the danger of overpopulation and nuclear bombs and missiles, which he called "Frankenstein monsters." In 1958 Graham said that a sinful, Christ-rejecting America had brought those problems on us ( The Fresno Bee, October 7, 2001, p. 2). But there was nothing like that in his sermons Thursday or Friday night.
Real evangelistic preaching must always contain the elements of fear and judgment. The old preachers called it "Law before Gospel." They preached the judgment of God on sin. They made sinners afraid - before they offered them the gospel. Billy Graham no longer does that. Early in the twentieth century, J. Gresham Machen said, "Without the preaching of the law, the gospel will only seem like an idle tale." That's what Billy Graham's sermons seemed like on the first two nights of the Fresno Crusade - just an "idle tale."
The Fresno Bee said that 2,000 people came forward at the invitation Thursday night. I noticed that the entire row in front of me went. Only a few minutes earlier they had lifted their hands and shouted, "Hallelujah." But at the invitation, every one of them responded!
I would venture to say that virtually every person (probably every last one) would have told you that they were already Christians, and already going to Heaven, before they came into the stadium. Why did they go forward? Graham told them to come and "rededicate themselves." He told them, "Say by coming forward, 'I need Jesus'." So, they shuffled forward to rededicate themselves and say, "I need Jesus." They were not coming because they thought they were lost sinners in the hands of an angry God! And that is basically what now makes Graham's preaching different from that of George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Asahel Nettleton - and even different from later "decisionist" preachers like Charles G. Finney. The old preachers let people know, in no uncertain terms, that they were lost - and on the way to Hell.
And that is the basic error of Billy Graham. We disagree with his ecumenical emphasis, his music, and for sending people into liberal churches, and for sending them back to the Catholic church. Yes, we disagree with all of that. But the greatest tragedy is in his sermons themselves.
On Friday night the music was better, but Graham's message was even worse. He preached from John 3:7 on the new birth. But though he announced his text on Friday night, he read it before anyone could turn to it. It didn't make much difference, since no one but me and my family had a Bible with them anyway. I didn't see a single Bible Thursday or Friday night.
Graham then went on in his sermon to give nine different ways to be saved! Here they are. Since each one of these ways to be saved is different, it must bring total confusion to a lost person hearing them for the first time. Here are the nine different ways Billy Graham told people to be saved in his sermon Friday night:
1. You must accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
2. You must repent to be saved.
3. You must come to Christ to be saved.
4. You must come to faith in the Word of God to be saved.
5. You must open your heart to Jesus to be saved.
6. You must believe that Jesus died on the Cross, and you will be saved.
7. You must get up right now and come forward, and you'll be saved.
8. You must acknowledge Christ publicly to be saved. Jesus said that if you don't acknowledge Him publicly, He will not acknowledge you when you get to Heaven. It's important for you to come so that Christ will acknowledge you.
9. You must rededicate your life to be saved. Last year I thought I was dying. I was in a Catholic hospital. I thought about all the sins I had committed and I looked up at a crucifix on the wall, and I rededicated myself to Christ. And that's what I want you to do tonight.
I love Billy Graham. I always have, and I always will. But those nine different ways are a total confusion. A person hearing nine different, mutually exclusive (and even conflicting) ways to be saved, could only have his religious understanding scrambled with an egg beater. That kind of preaching doesn't get anyone saved, and God knows that's true!
A statement was written and signed by over sixty preachers during the First Great Awakening, the history-changing revival of the eighteenth century. This statement said that those who responded to the sermons experienced "extraordinary outward distresses, and most of them, when we came to converse with them, were able to givewhat so affected their minds; [that is] a quick sense of their guilt, misery, and danger" (Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening, Banner of Truth, republished in 1989 from the 1842 original, p. 297).
How could a modern Billy Graham sermon produce " A sense of guilt, misery, and danger"?
Martin Marty says Graham is more of a "comforter than a converter" ( The Fresno Bee, October 7, 2001, p. 8). That has become particularly true in the last three decades. A real evangelist
causes people to be deeply troubled by their wretched condition. For true conversion to occur, the preaching must
lead a sinner to the experience portrayed in this hymn:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed.
Billy Graham's sermons on Thursday and Friday night could not possibly bring about an experience like that in a sinner's heart. Two thousand people came forward on Thursday and three thousand people on Friday - but I would be very surprised if even one person got saved. In all likelihood not even one person who came forward was converted - if by "conversion" you mean what John Newton described in his hymn, "Amazing Grace."
If I can get you to believe that Billy Graham isn't getting people saved, maybe you'll give up decisionism - like I did.
Calvary Contender, November 2001
c/o Calvary Baptist Church, 1800 Sparkman Drive
Huntsville, Alabama 35816
In a Feb. 15 letter to a Grace Partner, John MacArthur takes issue (and rightly so) with some remarks Billy Graham made in an interview with Robert Schuller a few years ago when he said that those who may not even know the name of Jesus will be in heaven, etc. MacArthur commented that based on what he told Schuller, Graham's theology includes some unorthodox views. He added: "He claims that the Body of Christ encompasses non-believers and that God's mercy is wide enough to encompass people who don't follow Christ...Obviously [his] comments to Schuller (and later to Larry King) have caused a great deal of confusion...Can Billy Graham...truly believe people can be saved without the gospel?...Billy Graham is the highest profile evangelist of our time, and when he makes statements about the gospel people listen. And because he wields so much influence, when those statements are unclear, or contradictory, problems arise..." We have disagreed with certain of Dr. MacArthur's teachings in the past, but he is on target in taking Graham to task on this issue.
For an in-depth study of "decisionism," you should get a copy of Today's Apostasy: How Decisionism is Destroying America, by Dr. Christopher Cagan and myself. Phone me at (818)352-0452 to order it.