Billy Graham and South African Christianity: One Pastor’s Thoughts and Prayer

What does Billy Graham’s death last week in North Carolina have to do with a church in South Africa? And why does the mention of Billy Graham have such a polarising affect—some hailing him as a hero, and others saying he denied Christ? These were questions I’ve wrestled with after Graham’s departure.

Recently, I used my regular Lord’s Day pastoral prayer to address Graham’s legacy. I wanted to honour such an exemplary and fruitful life, and to help my people see where we stand within the broader stream of modern evangelicalism, a stream that seems to grow ever wider and less defined. I also want to keep growing in my grasp of trends in church history, like the sons of Isaachar, “understanding the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32), so this was a helpful exercise.

Last Wednesday, at the age of 99, the best-known evangelist ever in the history of the Christian church went home to glory. No one has ever preached the gospel to more people on this earth than Billy Graham: some 215 million in over 185 different countries! Who of us does not know someone impacted by Billy Graham’s ministry? Now, multiply that by the millions in heaven who must have greeted him when he entered heaven’s courts, thanking him for bringing them the words of eternal life.

Graham’s first visit to South Africa was in 1973 when he preached to tens of thousands in Durban and Johannesburg. People in my church were there and still recall that historic occasion. For twenty years prior, Graham had declined every invitation to come and minister in apartheid South Africa, insisting that he would only preach to a fully integrated audience. He stood firm for the biblical equality of all people and against ethnic divisions in the body of Christ (cf. Genesis 1:26–27; Ephesians 2:14–16). As he often said, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

Steve Lawson tells his students to watch and learn about evangelistic preaching from videos of Graham’s early preaching. It was said that he preached like a man swatting bees, or that he was a “gospel windmill,” because of his arms flying in every direction, animated with zeal for the lost, boldly proclaiming the only Saviour for sinners.

Graham was also exemplary in his moral life. For decades, married Christian leaders who will not dine alone with a woman other than their wife have referred to this as “the Billy Graham rule.” This was Graham’s spotless reputation for integrity—sexually and financially, publicly and privately.

However, our Puritan forefathers stated in the London 1689 Baptist Confession: “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error” (26.3). That’s true of the best churches and of the best preachers. If you’re looking for perfection in a Christian leader, you’ve got only one option: our Lord Jesus Christ. If you’re looking for perfect examples in church history, you’ll look in vain and miss out on all the rich lessons and heroes of church history.

Small-minded saints tend to be grumpy, while big-hearted believers tend to be encouraged at the work of God through imperfect vessels, both past and present, as they see Christ building his church (Matthew 16:18). Heterodoxy corrupts the gospel and kills churches; but hyper-orthodoxy can feed pride and kill love, straining a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24).

Billy Graham has left us a mixed legacy. Some of his ministry methods were unbiblical. From the 1950s, wise men like Martyn-Lloyd Jones were pleading with Dr. Graham to renounce his Charles Finney-style pragmatic altar-calls, which gave false assurance to many who later proved not to be truly converted. Lloyd-Jones also urged Graham not to invite apostate, false-gospel churches to share the platform in his crusades. In his later years, these compromised methods led to a compromised message that badly undermined the very gospel he’d given his life to proclaim. Graham’s ecumenism produced false unity, and caused untold damage to evangelical Christianity around the world, including here in South Africa. (Iain Murray has best documented this here and here.)

In our church’s membership class, we state that we are an unashamedly evangelical church: not so much the modern kind of evangelical, but more of the historic kind, marked by doctrinal clarity. We are less broad, big-tent, middle-of-the-road evangelical, and more conservative and reformed, built on the biblical truths championed by the Protestant Reformers.

History and eternity will give the final verdict on Graham’s ministry—and upon yours and mine. Only on that last day at Christ’s return will we know what was gold, silver and precious stones, which will last, and what was wood, hay and straw, which will burn up (1 Corinthians 3:10–15).

For now, it is appropriate for us to thank God for Billy Graham’s legacy and to learn and discern all that we can from a great man and a huge influence on global Christianity today. If King David could graciously mourn and honour King Saul at his death, as his sworn enemy, then surely we can honour Billy Graham’s godly life (2 Samuel 1:17–27).

Matthew 4:19 sums up Billy Graham at his best: “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” May a prayer like this be the prayer of our hearts.

Our great God and Father, you are Lord of creation, Lord of history, Lord of eternity. How we praise you for those faithful fishers of men, those catchers of souls, whom you sent to us. We bless you for those soul-winners whom you sent our way, to bring your saving gospel to us, to each one of us, that we might be saved.

With our Lord Jesus, wherever we hear the true gospel preached, we want to be thankful, for those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:38–40). With the Apostle Paul, we want to rejoice wherever the true Christ is preached, regardless of the motives (Philippians 1:15–18). How we praise you for all the gospel good that has come to this world through Billy Graham’s influence—for Christ being proclaimed to presidents , queens and prime ministers; for countless ordinary people, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, hearing of your beloved Son and his cross and of your great salvation.

O God, grant us more of Graham’s compassion for the lost, more of his humility about success, more of his common touch for the people you bring across our path daily. Teach us to preach the gospel with more of his Spirit-filled boldness, simplicity, clarity and authority. Thank you for his blameless life morally, sexually, and financially—above reproach, with not a hint of scandal or impurity (1 Timothy 3:2; Philippians 2:15). Thank you for his lifelong habits of lengthy time in your word and prayer. O that we would not neglect these essentials!

O that you would raise up many more Billy Grahams here in South Africa, courageous Christian leaders living holy lives, with a zeal to reach the lost at any cost, here in our cities, townships and villages. Give us more preachers whose signature statement would be, “The Bible says!”, whose prophetic voices will thunder out across this land saying, “Thus says the LORD.”

Dear Father, we praise you for Word as our plumbline, by which we can measure and examine all things, and by which we can reject what is evil and cling to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Romans 12:9). As Jesus prayed, your word is truth (Jn. 17:17). So, wherever there has been unintentional gospel harm and doctrinal confusion through Billy Graham, help us to be discerning, wise and careful. May we ever watch our life and doctrine closely, until the very end (1 Timothy 4:16). May we have the courage to separate from false teachers, to not be intoxicated by influence or entangled in politics, to trust your word to do your work in this world (Romans 1:16–17).

Teach us what it means that your greatest evangelistic program is the local church—our gospel clarity, our faithful witness, and our love for one another (John 13:34–35). Grant that we would yearn for fruit, weep for souls and long for results—yet trust you with those results, for your glory, in your time, through the methods you have appointed in your Word (2 Timothy 3:14–17).

Help us never to put relevance over faithfulness, bigness over the Bible, or man-made revivalism over true God-sent, Holy Spirit revival. Produce in your people across our land a true, spiritual unity, far deeper than mere organisational or external unity. Give us a genuinely unified witness, rooted in biblical truth, which will convict a watching world (John 17:21–23; Ephesians 4:11–16).

Keep our churches faithfully guarding the gospel, never assuming it (1 Timothy 6:20–21; 2 Timothy 1:13–14). May we carefully practice baptism, membership and discipline in our churches to that end (Hebrews 13:17; Matthew 18:15–18). Keep us ever careful in defining what it means to be a Christian, never taking that for granted. Fill our land with churches and pulpits that are both vigilant and compassionate, alert and kind, bold and gracious—like our Lord Jesus, who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Keep us faithful, though flawed we are. Your Word alone is flawless (Psalm 19:7; 119:160; Proverbs 30:5–6). “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:6–8). You use great men and big crusades, but you need neither. You bury your workers, but your work carries on, your word advances, and still today your gospel is unstoppable and unhindered (Acts 20:31). Praise be to your glorious name!

In your Son’s matchless name we pray, amen.