By Professor Peter Scaer, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
He was the friend of presidents, a preacher who could fill football stadiums. A man devoted to God’s Word, and adorned with personal integrity. What can we say of Billy Graham? Well, what he got right, he got right. Christ is the Savior, who died as a payment for our sins. In a day when the Atonement is denied here, there, and everywhere, that is no small thing. He was a man who held that the Bible is the Word of God. Not that it contains the Word of God, but was, is, and always will be God’s word, as valid today as ever. As an LCMS Lutheran, I suppose, we owe him a debt of gratitude, in that many of our own folks looked to him for inspiration, especially as so many of the liberal and mainline churches were beginning to slip, and fall away. In an age where the ELCA has become in many aspects pagan, this is no small thing.
In another sense, he wasn’t pure gold. Perhaps silver or bronze. For he promoted a Christianity in which faith became a decision, a work of man, not God. In that sense, he left out the littlest children. But he also left out God, who alone can turn the heart. For in the end, faith is not our decision, but God’s, who gives us faith as a free gift. In such a scenario, baptism is replaced with an act of will. And the results are not good. How do you know that you were sincere when you decided? What if your decision was not pure enough? Fervent enough? Better make another decision to be sure. This has left American Christians not so much as children, but as foster children. Hence, the continuing emphasis on “true discipleship” as a way of knowing I belong in God’s presence. How different is this than the truth of Baptism, in which God is the one brings about regeneration, and God is the one adopting us into his family. How different is this than being at home in our Father’s household.
And then there was the Altar Call, a unique American aberration that replaced the true altar call of the Lord’s Supper. Still to this day, some Lutheran churches sing “Just as I Am,” as they move forward to receive Christ’s body and blood, which I suppose is a quirky nod to Graham’s ministry.
What of his legacy? We would be churlish if we did not give thanks for that which was good. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians, in which Paul speaks of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. The Christian preacher who offers a mixture will enter into God’s presence as through fire. That is the straw will burn away, and the dross will be left behind. In the end, Billy must know, as must we all, that it was Christ who first chose us, that he who redeemed us also made us members of his family through the washing of regeneration. Though he did not understand the altar during his earthly life, I look forward to gathering with him around the Lamb once slain for the sin of the world, in the land where the baptismal waters still flow, and our robes are cleansed in the Christ’s blood, the very blood we drink from the chalice.
Though we need not follow Billy in all his teachings, his legacy endures, and his faithfulness may be for us a reason for emulation, as well as thanksgiving.
From Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.18
“…The free will, from its own natural powers, cannot work or agree to work anything for its own conversion, righteousness, and salvation, nor follow, believe, or agree with the Holy Spirit, who through the Gospel offered a person grace and salvation… from its inborn, wicked, rebellious nature it [the free will] resists God and His will with hostility, unless it is enlightened and controlled by God’s Spirit.”