May I never boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, though which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, NIV)
I was among a crowd of 80,000 who heard Billy Graham preach these words of the Apostle Paul in the pouring rain at the old Wembley Stadium on a July afternoon in 1989. The verse sums up the animating principle of Paul’s ministry, and also Billy’s: an absence of boasting in any of their own achievements, but instead a public boasting in the crucified Lord Jesus as the ground of all our hopes.
Much has already been written about Billy, who died on Feb 21st at the age of 99. He is estimated to have preached live to 210 million people. He was the friend and confidant of many US presidents (expect a line-up of them at his funeral) and close to the Queen. His evangelistic missions all over the world led to vast numbers of people coming to Christ, including many currently in positions of Christian leadership.
I myself first encountered him when he came to do the CICCU main event week in February 1980. It was the second of his great missions to Cambridge University – the first had been in 1955. I was a new Christian, having been converted the previous term. Outside Great St Mary’s there were protesters with placards, claiming he was into ‘mass indoctrination’. Inside, however, we heard just a sincere and immensely clear presentation of the gospel, with no hype or manipulation. The place was packed – with a video relay for the overflow. Many look back to that week as when they found Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Billy had himself been converted at a series of Christian outreach meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May 1934. The organisers held a prayer meeting beforehand and one of them, Vernon Patterson, prayed that “out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”
Billy was a man of prayer – read the biographies and you will see that – and also of conspicuous personal integrity. He was well aware of the traps of money and sex which can come especially to people in such a prominent position. This integrity flowed into his preaching – the hearer was left in absolutely no doubt of his absolute sincerity as he drove home his points with great earnestness.
As a preacher he had an astounding clarity. I heard him give a talk at a student conference in America in the early 80s when I was living there. He said there were two great words he wanted to emphasise: Jesus says “Come” to all who don’t yet know Him (as He did to the fishermen in Galilee), and “Go” to those who have – sending them into the world to speak of Him. Not a bad outline!
Billy had a tremendous trust in the Bible as the Word of God. This had been tested in 1949 when sceptical thoughts from a friend put him into an agony of soul. He decided to trust it as the trustworthy word of a trustworthy God. His talks were peppered with the statement: “The Bible says…”
Billy believed in conversion, in both its aspects: that a person must be born again by the Spirit of God, and that, from their point of view, they must commit to Christ, as an act of the will. He has been criticised by some for his emphasis on our response as being ‘decisionism’, but we see this also in Apostolic preaching – such as in Peter’s Pentecost call “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” There is a decision to be made!
And Billy never moved far from the cross – the saving death of the Lord Jesus was at the heart of every message. Truly he would not boast except in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
You might want to take half an hour to watch this clip of Billy preaching in Madison Square Gardens, New York, in 1957 (his sermon starts about 12 mins in). It is a feature of its age, but gives you a flavour of this great Christian and what made him tick.
We thank God for him!