Tony Perkins is President of Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Hill on February 25, 2018.
There will be thousands of words used to describe Billy Graham, but there was only one that he cared about: faithful. Asked what he would want the first line of his obituary to say, the greying pastor said simply, “That I loved God with all mind, heart, and soul.”
This week, Reverend Graham’s body will lie in the halls of the Capitol he once walked. But the most recognizable evangelist in the world will be somewhere else – in the paradise he spent his life preaching about. “I am not going to Heaven because I have ministered to great crowds,” he wanted people to know. “I am going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment, ‘Lord, remember me.’”
Today, the Lord isn’t the only one remembering him. An ordinary man with an extraordinary calling, Billy Graham was as comfortable in the office of presidents as he was in the gutters of India. To both, the message was the same: Jesus died for your sins, repent, and give your life to him. A living, walking manifestation of the Great Commission, no man was more willing to take the gospel to receptive hearts in every corner of the earth. From tiny tents to bursting stadiums, Billy Graham preached the same sermon for six decades — and, as the seas of people coming forward to meet Jesus would tell you, it never got old.
If fame and influence found Billy Graham, it wasn’t because he sought it. The man who dined with queens and called MLK “Mike” never wanted to be known — he wanted the work of the cross to be. Maybe that’s why so many leaders admired him. Billy Graham didn’t want anything from them, he only wanted eternity for them. “My one thought was to be a spiritual blessing,” he said sincerely. “To be a witness.” That he was — to every country on earth.
I never had the chance to meet Billy Graham personally, but, like so many generations, I grew up under his towering influence. There have been people, since his death, who have suggested that the reason Rev. Graham was so beloved is that he didn’t engage in politics. I disagree. What Billy did — knitting together what Bible says about the moral and political or the moral and the cultural — helped lay the foundation to mainstream evangelicalism. He spoke truth to power in a nonpartisan, uncompromising way. And that truth didn’t change with the circumstances or the significance of the person he was talking to. His conviction, like his compassion, was constant.
If he had critics, one commentator joked, he either outlived them or outloved them. For 99 years, his greatest testimony was his own faithfulness to preach and live the word of God. Today’s evangelicals are, I believe, the product of that example and they too want to live out their faith in every area of their lives. The only difference is, these days, they have to fight the government to do it.
When Billy Graham was at the height of his ministry, it was a different world. God still flourished in our society; He was still welcomed in our schools. Now we’ve kicked God out and let once unimaginable violence in. Maybe we ought to return to the idea that there is a God — who created us, loves us and wants a relationship with us. That, in its purest expression, was Graham’s message.
In the coming days, people will talk a lot about the impact Billy Graham left behind. But his legacy is not so much in looking back but forward. The fact that he’s poured his life into so many millions of people, including his own family, means that generations will be building on the foundation he laid.
The beauty of that legacy is that it was never about Billy Graham — it was always about the gospel. Most of us would be honored to have a fraction of the impact he’s had for God’s kingdom. An impact that goes on, even in death — as hours of sermons re-air on the unlikeliest of networks, and salvation messages appear above the fold. Who knows how many people will come to know Christ because satellite radio is devoting a channel to 70 years’ worth of messages that all of us have hope, purpose, and meaning in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? There aren’t many Christians who can say they brought more people to eternity by dying than most others will in living!
Billy Graham wasn’t just faithful to the end, he was faithful to look beyond it. “I’ll be happy the day the Lord says, ‘Come on. I’ve got something better planned,’” he said of his death. That “something better” will almost surely be walking the streets of heaven, surrounded by the generations of people pointed there by his faithful obedience to proclaim the Gospel. And the accolades and tributes here on this earth pale in comparison to the words he heard last Wednesday morning, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”