I Am the Captain of My Soul: Billy Graham

(This post is the latest installment in a series on Billy Graham.  See Part 1, Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

Graham’s focus on human experience vis-à-vis biblical authority and as an apologetic for the Christian faith provided the bands of attachment to him and his ministry from two directions—both moderates and conservatives found resonance in his emphases. Similar effects of affirmation arose from a third area of emphasis, the autonomy of the human will. The entire work of God for salvation finally was suspended on the capacity-to-decide resident within the human will. In a sermon on slothfulness, Graham closed, “Eternal life is within reach of everyone. The savior is as near as your yielded will, or He is as far away as you want Him to be. Your own stubborn, slothful spirit is your greatest hindrance to letting Him come into your heart.” [Seven Deadly Sins, 40] Anger also finds its cure in the power of the will. “The first step then in finding victory over unjustified anger is to want to get rid of it,” Graham rightly advised. The solution, therefore, already resides within. “The will comes to the fore and says, ‘I will do something about his unruly temper of mine.’” In Graham’s anthropology, like Finney and those that followed in his wake, the human will had been unaffected by the fall. Both the “stubborn, slothful spirit” and the “unruly temper” were in the control of the human will and would yield to the force of a person’s decision to throw them off.

Graham summarized his preaching as focused on the “kerygma, which is the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the fact that people need to repent and come to Christ by faith.” His understanding and proclamation, therefore, of the objective actions of God for salvation—the incarnation, substitutionary atonement, resurrection—were sound and prominent in his crusade ministry. All persons, fallen through their connection with Adam and because of their own actual transgressions, are under condemnation and Christ’s redeeming death has created the path to forgiveness. He also recognized that apart from the Holy Spirit’s convicting power none could be brought to a desire to know Christ. Graham’s persuasion, however, about human corruption and its effect on the human will seems to be built by default on the pragmatic concerns that had become dominant in crusade evangelism. What was developed as a tenaciously constructed theology of the will by Finney, leading to a number of decision-oriented practices known in the nineteenth-century as “New Measures,” had become the received understanding of the collaterality of divine command and human ability.

According to this viewpoint, no command exists in Scripture for which there is no corresponding moral power in fallen humanity. If Graham’s position is not quite as severe as that of Pelagius, who unabashedly held to the possibility of saving merit through human goodness, at least he continued the view of Finney who always rested the turning point of salvation on the will’s power to engender faith. “’Who of you have this heart faith?,’ Finney asked, “‘Which of you will now commit yourself to Christ?’ It is not a matter of mental assent to intellectually demonstrated propositions, “but heart-faith must be reached by simple effort—by voluntary purpose to trust. Ye who say, I cannot do this, bow your knees before God and commit yourself to his will; say ‘O my Saviour! I take thee at thy word.’ This is a simple act of will” [Finney, “On Believing with the Heart”]. Graham found no reason to dissent from this but coincided with Finney that “the will comes to the fore and says, ‘I will.’”

If the Bible commands repentance, then every person can respond without any special enabling outside his own will. Each person hearing the command has no moral impediments that make the command absolutely alien to his moral power. Regeneration no longer is seen as a sovereign and effectual operation of the Holy Spirit but the Spirit’s response to the autonomous decision of the sinner to believe. The fall, so the prevailing theology implied, has brought the children of Adam into condemnation, but has left the operation of the will in tact. God provided salvation in Christ to be offered to all; the practical effect of it, however, arises from inside the sinner. The presence of mental, moral, and dispositional corruption has been minimized setting aside the idea that the moral disposition that permeates the affections is intrinsically hostile to God’s holiness. We do not need a salvation that transforms the heart, the affections, the mind, and, thus, the will; we need only the removal of condemnation, not the reversal of corruption. No longer, in Graham’s invitational directives, is any consent given to the implications of the Bible’s verdict: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7, 8).

In a 1951 pamphlet entitled Christianism vs. Communism, Graham contrasted the new man of communism to the new man of Christianity. He gave a brief definition of the new birth that would satisfy Reformed as well as non-Reformed evangelicals; he added, however, a method to receive the new birth that assumes the presence of what only the new birth can bestow. “To be born again means that you are born from above. It carries with it the idea of the infusion of divine life into the human soul, the implantation or impartation of divine nature in the human soul whereby we become sons of God.” Graham listed several mistakes made in perceptions of the new birth but proceeded to describe how one may receive the new birth. “God gives a new nature to those that receive by faith His Son, Jesus Christ.” One must grasp the non-negotiable condition of faith–not reformation, not respectability, not civilization, not church membership. After further emphasis on the necessity of the new birth, Graham noted:

“There are just two conditions to the new birth: repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. You must acknowledge that you are a sinner, you must show sorrow for your sins and transgression of the law of God, you must forsake your sin, and then turn by faith and receive Christ as our Lord and Savior. To receive Christ means far more than just believing on Him. It carries with it the idea of following Christ, giving him lordship over your body, mind and soul. The process of regeneration is done by the Spirit of God. You may not be aware of the moment when you step over the line, but there comes a moment in the life of every man who has been born again, a moment of decision, when he says, ‘yes’ to Christ.”

Graham did not mean that the “moment of decision” arises from the new birth, but that without such a “moment of decision” one never will receive the new birth. He continued, “Right now, at this moment, where you sit, can be your moment of decision. You can be born again by the Spirit of God just now. You can enter into the Kingdom of God.”

The moment at which this happens depends absolutely on the will of the sinner. After a sermon on the attributes of God in which he emphasized holiness, wrath, judgment, and the atonement of Christ, a powerful sermon in many ways, he closed:

“You say, ‘Well, Billy, what do I have to do?’ All you have to do is let Jesus in. You say, ‘Is it as simple as that?’ It’s as simple as snapping one’s fingers. You say ‘How long does it take?’ Only a second, the twinkling of an eye. Right now, where you sit, you can settle it and say ‘yes’ to Christ for eternity, and I guarantee on the authority of God’s Word that you can know before you leave here tonight that you’re going to heaven. Utterly sure! You can be certain that you’ll escape the judgment of Almighty God.” [America’s Hour of Decision, 126]

The last page of his pamphlets issued by the “Hour of Decision” contained a page entitled “My Decision for Christ.” The text read, “Believing that the Lord, Jesus Christ, died on the cross for me and is now living, I want this to be my Hour of Decision. Having confessed my sins, I believe in my heart, and do now receive Him as my Savior.” Then there was a place for name, address, and date of decision. Graham’s apparent success, sincerity, and transparency in his invitation made it seem incontrovertible and a divinely revealed method. One admirer wrote, “I do altar calls very regularly, and they don’t change. The essence of them hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, and seeing Billy Graham be faithful to that same simple message has been an encouragement to me to stay focused as well.”

We see the same emphasis on immediacy and the dependence of the entire saving event on human autonomy in a sermon Hate vs. Love. Graham closed, “In order to become a Christian, to be saved from your sins and to have the assurance that if you died you would go to Heaven, all you have to do is right now, wherever you are, say an eternal ‘Yes’ to Christ.” He then reinforced both the urgency and the simplicity of the transaction. ”Right now you can settle it—you can say ‘Yes’ to Christ! You can make this hour your ‘Hour of Decision.’” Another example of this very consistent cant of Graham proceeds, “But you say, ‘Billy what do I have to do?’ All you have to do is at this instant submit your will to Christ and accept Jesus Christ as personal Saviour. You must acknowledge that you are a sinner and then by faith let Christ come into your heart. You can do it this moment. I guarantee this will be a solution to your fears.”

In spite of the absolute guarantees that he made to his hearers, Graham estimated that about 75% of those that responded to his invitation would not seal the transaction with truly sincere and persevering faith. When asked about his view of how many of those coming forward were saved, he referred to the parable of the sowing of seed on different kinds of soil and said, in 1993, “And I’ve always thought that in any group that comes forward to make a commitment, if I’ve preached the gospel faithfully, a fourth of them will be there five years from now or ten years from now.” [Frost, 72.] Whatever else the parable indicates about the relation of the word to the human mind, it would seem self-evident that it does not justify developing a method of evangelism that admittedly produces false professions in 75% of those who respond positively to the instruction and promises given in a call to decision. The method of Jesus was far more cautious and filled with warnings about the deceitfulness of sin and the spirit of self-glory and self-preservation that pervades the human soul and the consequent need for internal transforming grace (Matthew 10:26-39; 11:25-30; John 6:60-71).

Although by his own observation many who respond to Graham’s invitation are not truly saved, so responsive was the will of man to promptings of truth, he also maintained, that some who never hear the gospel are saved. By the promptings of conscience and other aspects of general revelation as well as their natural desire to know the true God, they come to Christ virtually, though they may never hear of him actually. “I think there is that hunger for God and people are living as best they know how according to the light that they have. “Well,” he continued in response to a question by David Frost, “I think they’re in a separate category than people like Hitler and people who have just defied God, and shaken their fists at God” [166]. One might legitimately query if Hitler were not “sincere” in pursuing what he believed the light of nature taught him. Clearly, the autonomy of the human will emerges as the single most determinative factor in the salvation of any person.

Though doctrinal conservatism permeates many aspects of Graham’s thought, and zeal for conversion dominated his public ministry and private desires, those traits, combined with certain constructions in his theology—experience, biblical accommodation, and human autonomy—created loyalties from widely divergent expressions along the theological spectrum. The ethos, of which he was the premier representative, supported a unity among Southern Baptists that only broke when the clear doctrinal concerns over inerrancy emerged as the most important principle of unity.