Billy Graham and Conversion

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

-Mark 1:15

Today we mourn the temporary loss of the great evangelist Billy Graham. God was glorified through his ministry, which saw an unusual blessing in a remarkable number of conversions.

By “conversion” I don’t mean converting from one religion to another. Here “conversion” means a person repenting of their sin and believing in Jesus Christ for salvation. Countless people did just that after being encouraged to do so by Billy Graham in a sermon.

In conversion, the Spirit of God must be at work, regenerating a person if they will truly repent and believe. The normal way the Spirit works is to use the preaching of the gospel and the call to respond:

How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?

-Rom 10:14

Perhaps the reason why Billy Graham stands out is because calls for conversion have become rare. The reasons why should concern us.

Pluralism Reigns

In a culture where most people believe that every religion is equally true, calling for someone to repent and believe the gospel doesn’t compute. Why insist on change? Isn’t it arrogant to think that Christians have the only message of salvation? So pulpiteers have quietly adjusted. Calls for conversion have been relegated to personal conversation, if they happen at all. People in the pew have lost their taste for a direct call to respond to the good news by faith.

Invitation or Manipulation?

Many people who grew up in evangelical, especially baptist, churches experienced the never ending altar call where the pastor stubbornly leads the congregation in singing as many verses as “Just As I Am” as it takes until sometime will yield and mercifully come down the aisle. It felt like sheer manipulation because often it was.

But should we throw out the baby with the bathwater? In an overreaction to manipulative attempts to grow church numbers, many have stopped calling people to respond to the gospel at all. The main problem with this is Jesus called people to respond (Mark 1:15) Paul and John called people to respond (Acts 2:38), and throughout church history preachers of the gospel have /invited/ people to respond by faith.

People Don’t Believe in Hell

They just don’t. They don’t believe in a God who would judge sinners. They don’t believe in sin except in extreme cases. So why attend a church where such topics are regularly expressed?

Do we believe in hell? I recall an episode of Seinfeld that satirically dealt with this very issue. The character Elaine was dating a Christian who refused to share the gospel with her and she was irritated about it. Didn’t he care that she was destined for hell?
One of the greatest gifts of Billy Graham was his genuine love for the lost. As he preached, he had passion. Why? Because he knew hell is real and people need to be convinced and convicted.

Should Conversion Be Rare?

Everyone is blown away at the way God used Billy Graham. Rightly so. But I wonder if we preached the gospel more and called for a response more if we wouldn’t see God save more sinners right before our eyes.

We can’t force people to repent. No one will believe unless God brings them to life. But we know that the regular means of God saving sinners is to use the preaching of the gospel.

By the end of Billy Graham’s life, what he is best known for is now seen as passé. As we look back, we can see his success wasn’t about him at all. It was God who blessed his preaching with such great fruit. As Jonathan Edwards said, remarking on the First Great Awakening,

Indeed God has not taken that course, nor made use of those means, to begin and carry on this great work, which men in their wisdom would have thought most advisable, if he had asked their counsel; but quite the contrary. But it appears to me that the great God has wrought like himself, in the manner of his carrying on this work; so as very much to show his own glory, exalt his own sovereignty, power, and all-sufficiency. He has poured contempt on all that human strength, wisdom, prudence, and sufficiency which men have been wont to trust, and to glory in; so as greatly to cross, rebuke, and chastise the pride and other corruptions of men.

May we reject the counsel of men, and continue preaching the gospel and calling for people to repent and believe. Just like Billy Graham.

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