Billy Graham: Further Musings

"In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others."
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison)



One of the most valuable benefits to writing a blog is that one’s views get vetted in the marketplace of ideas. This allows a writer to see if her ideas make sense or are in need of revision or elaboration. Or maybe her thoughts are just plain stupid. Both Deb and I are gratified by the wealth of intelligent comments that we receive on this blog; both pro and con.


Lydia made some valid observations about yesterday’s post on Billy Graham and I would like to discuss them. I hope she will forgive me if I group a few of her observations together.



“There are many things I have a problem with when it comes to BG but the main one is the lie about walking the aisle and how many people leave that Crusade thinking they are saved but are not. BG knew this back in the late 50’s and big meetings were held about this very thing. They knew a very small percentage of those walking the aisle, who claimed not to be saved, went on to get involved with other believers. The figure was less than 5%, if I remember correctly.

There are people in this country who went forward at a Graham Crusade 20 years ago, born NO fruit of sanctification since, and still believe they are saved because of walking the aisle that ONE night at a Crusade. I do not think that is a great legacy. He kept telling them to come forward when he should have told them that walking up there does NOT save. But everyone was there for the big finale.

I think he was much like Charles Finney. His entire ministry was about decisionism. To the point that it became a numbers ministry.”


I think Lydia brings up some important points. Charles Finney is considered on of the earlier proponents of forcing people to make a decision for Christ. He was considered a part of the Second Great Awakening in the United States in the early 1800s. This would become know as “decisionism” or “invitationalism.”I found a good review of this issue at the following site.


Here are some quotes from the site. I urge you to read the entire article.

“While there is debate over the exact origins of this practice, most agree that it came into prominence in the 1830’s with Charles Finney (1792-1875), who popularized it through the mourner’s bench or anxious bench (some today call it the “altar”).”

“Finney believed that the new birth and revival were not miracles (i.e. something only God can do) but were states accomplished by means of the proper use of the will. He knew that to arrive at regeneration and, on a larger scale, revival, the will must be excited to action. Hence he developed the “new measures,” one of which was the “anxious bench.” In many ways, this anxious bench is the mother of our modern day invitationalism.”

“Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham are other evangelists who contributed to the widespread acceptance and use of the altar call.”

Here are a couple of concerns about this method.

1. “Many today equate “coming to faith” with “coming down the aisle.”

“Examination of the invitation used by Billy Graham shows just how confusing the system is:

I’m going to ask you to come forward. Up there—down there—I want you to come. You come right now—quickly. If you are here with friends or relatives, they will wait for you. Don’t let distance keep you from Christ. It’s a long way, but Christ went all the way to the cross because he loved you. Certainly you can come these few steps and give your life to Him.

Yet, Graham says that the coming forward is a “testimony of an inward experience that you have had with Christ.” So when is the person converted? Why are they coming?

So it is unclear just what is being required of those who come forward.

If the walk forward is an outward declaration of an inner-saving decision already made by the hearer in the seat, is this just an “act of witness”? Why then are people told to “come forward to receive Christ”? How is receiving Christ related to coming forward? Is there any relation? Most important, are these exhortations truly biblical expressions?

At the altar, the confusion continues: You have come tonight to Jesus Christ, you have come to receive Him into your heart. But which is it? Have they already come to Jesus, or are they coming now to receive Him?

To a greater or lesser extent the sermon has already shown the need of a change in those who do not know Christ. The invitation is represented as providing the opportunity for such a change to take place. The hearer is told that his need is to “let Christ come into his heart.”

2. “There is a danger of giving assurance to those who are unconverted.”

“After someone has prayed the sinner’s prayer, it’s typical to give him or her immediate assurance that they are now part of God’s family.

Such a system leads some to believe that their decision “settles things with God” for all eternity. It actually encourages people to make a response that “settles things” and, through subsequent counseling, to never doubt that decision.

This is dangerous because it deceives many into resting their faith on a “profession” rather than on Christ, who alone is “able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him” (Heb. 7:25). Scripture makes a sober statement about those who think they are saved when they are not: “The Lord will say to many, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me’” (Matt. 7:22-23).

The invitation system leads many to trust their eternal destination to confidence in a “confession” even though they may openly live in rebellion to Him throughout their lives. In other words, their assurance is coming from an act on their part, rather than a genuine trust in the promises of God along with recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in their life. They can point to a date when they walked down an aisle, but they would be hard-pressed to point out proof of regeneration.”



I am very much aware of the problems inherent in the belief that once one “walks the aisle” one is saved. One only needs to mosey on over to the Ex Christians web site and read the number of unbelievers who have walked the aisle numerous times at their former churches and no longer consider themselves Christians. I can categorically state that I do not believe that walking the aisle saves anyone. That salvation only occurs when a believer accepts Jesus as their Lord and Savior and Jesus is the one doing the saving, fully by His grace alone.


In my post, I was approaching the evangelism of Billy Graham from a different perspective. I don’t know if anyone reading this post grew up in a culture, as I did, in which they knew absolutely, utterly nothing about salvation through Jesus. No one I knew even read the Bible. I heard about some crazy “Pentecostals” that met in a rented room near the wharf area. When I asked what that was, I was told they rolled on the floor and spoke in gibberish. One thing I knew, I wasn't going to be doing that! As I look back on my life in Salem, Massachusetts, I remember the utter silence and darkness in regards to Christianity.


Billy Graham was allowed an unprecedented access to the world via television and his crusades. He preached a simple and pure Gospel. I heard the words about acknowledging my need for a Savior. I heard from him that Jesus loved me. I also heard that I needed to acknowledge my guilt and ask Jesus to forgive my sins. I learned that this Jesus would live in my heart through the Holy Spirit. This was radical. I never once heard these words until Billy Graham spoke them through my television set. He was a light in a very dark culture and I knew that he was pointing to Jesus as the answer.


I did not become a Christian while listening to Graham. I did so during an episode of Star Trek while reading a magazine article about Christians. However, it was my earlier exposure to Billy Graham’s preaching that helped me in making this final decision. Subsequently, listening to his crusades and reading his books helped me to begin my growth in the faith. Billy Graham was the only sane Christian voice that I could find. Eventually I found a small church in a suburb of Boston that elucidated this same Gospel and my growth began to accelerate. Do any of you know how hard it was to find a believing church in New England?


When I looked at those Russian babushkas crying and listening to Graham in Russia, I knew how they felt. They were hearing something for the first time. And Billy Graham’s words were powerful and moving to those of us who were hearing this new Gospel . Billy Graham spoke in many venues in which the attendees had never heard the simple message of salvation.


I know that going forward at an altar call does not lead to salvation for many. However, it made sense to me for another reason. Growing up in a nominal Russian Orthodox (dad) church and a Methodist (default church down the street) church, I had never learned that one must respond to the call of God in one’s life.

Up until my conversion, I was merely a passive attendee at church services, muttering some responses that made no sense to me. As I watched the crowds going forward at Graham’s crusade, it slowly began to dawn on me that a living faith is active and one should seek it with all one’s heart. Getting up and walking down to pursue the faith is a way to express that it is time to really follow this Jesus. That does not mean that I am saved by this action. But, for some, it is a good start.


Just like many of our readers, I, too, am sick and tired of people following a cheap Gospel. Dietrich Boenhoffer said, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”


Finally, Lydia brought up the following. "Also, in the past 20 years or so, Graham made some shocking declarations both on TV with Robert Schuller in 1997, and in an interview with Newsweek a few years back, declaring that someone could be saved and not know Jesus. He was asked to clarify and he said the same thing again."


I must admit that I am perplexed by this statement. In fact, i would be interested in knowing what our readers think. Was he referring to children who die in infancy? How about the tribesman in a remote jungle who has never heard the word Jesus? I know there is much debate about this issue and I hesitated in even bringing it up. But courage should be part and parcel of any honest  blogger's disposition. So, let's have at it!


In Billy Graham, I see the hand of God, lovingly reaching out to a lost, clueless teenager and using his words to point her to the Hound of Heaven who was hot on her trail. Do I think Graham is perfect? Absolutely not. I know that he and I might disagree on a few doctrinal issues. But there is no question in my mind that God used Graham to share the Gospel to a dark and lost world in a remarkable way.


Billy Graham: Further Musings — 9 Comments

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    Dee – thought-provoking articles. Probably the writings that most influenced me on the dangers of this “decisionism” were the writings of John MacArthur. As I recall I hadn’t been a Christian but about 4 or 5 years, trained in Envangelism Explosion and CWT (anybody remember that in the SBC?) – I think it stands for “Continuous Witness Training” – and I read his book “The Gospel According to Jesus” and I think there was one other…and he called this trend of getting someone to simply recite a sinner’s prayer as “easy believism”.

    MacArthur warned against “getting people to say a prayer”. Since then I have always been so uneasy when reports would come to the church about our youth having “seen 20 people saved” while knocking on doors doing surveys. That never seemed right, and it seemed to send the wrong message to the youth about what the gospel truly is.

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    My you do range a lot in this website-from CCMusic to Luther and now to a critique of BGraham.
    I would not wish to get into the middle of the first 2. They are debatable [at least CCM is]-Luther on the other has never been a favorite of mine]
    However, when you come to BG,then it may be worth noting that this kind of evangelism flourished post-war,when much of the nation both in the US and in my nation [UK] had an inbuilt sense of GOD and while you may disagree with the practices of BG in respect of the altar call, much of the emphasis was on the follow up work,done by the many thousands of workers at these crusades. many of my contemporaries went into the Pastorate [as I did] and many went on to the mission field.
    In this day of mega-churches and all that they do,and the resurgence of neo-calvinism- spare a thought for BG,with all his failings,a man of God,who was respected by many leaders of the world and who, in the face of constant criticism from both within and without the church [but mostly within] refused to be drawn into defending either the Gospel he preached or the people to whom he preached.
    I realize that this website flourishes often by stimulating differing points of view and this is to be welcomed I am sure, but in evaluating the ministry of BG, I for one,would not wish to cast the first stone.
    Over the years,let me tell you, BG has been the subject of such questions as Compromiser or Visionary and I have seen how he has handled these things with dignity and grace. He is in his late 90’s now and suffering from the loss of his lovely wife Ruth and bearing the illness of Parkinson’s with fortitude.
    Let him spend his last years in peace.


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    Hi Luapram

    I hope that you understand that my two posts on Billy Graham were meant to be a thoughtful expression of gratitude by one who was positively affected by his ministry. In fact, I ended my previous post by asking if someone could tell him how grateful I am for his life.

    I do not look at the discussion on decisionism as a critique of him. It is merely an interesting debate about the validity of such a method.

    From my perspective, and I think my posts are clear, I do not believe that Graham was a compromiser. I believe he was a visionary.

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    Hi Dee,

    It wasn’t your post that I was commenting on. It was a ref to what it ‘stirred up’ comments ranging from ‘walking the aisle’ to wondering if BG was a universalist by the comment on his supposedly views about ‘not having to believe in Jesus ‘to be a Christian.
    Dee, if people are going to quote BG or others,would it not be a good idea to request the ref.. In this day of Google and You-Tube its so easy to do so.


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    Thank for your clarification. I knew that he had made that statement so it didn’t dawn on me to ask for the reference. I’ll try to find it and post a link for those who want to follow up.

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    As you requested, here is a link to the you tube video with Billy Graham answering Robert Schuller on the issue of salvation. This video starts about 1 minute in after the editor makes some comments in writing.

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    I listened and watched this video..
    The context of what he was saying was difficult to see. Depending on what you wish, it could be taken as Universalism but I would give him the benefit of the doubt by believing that he is saying, that no matter your background,belief or otherwise, you can come to God via Jesus.
    The wideness in God’s mercy is that it is extended to all irrespective of our background or belief.
    For me, I choose to believe that.. Your other contributors have the freedom of course to believe otherwise.

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    I am closer to your perspective. I actually do not believe that Graham is talking about universalism.However, as always, I am open to the discussion. CS Lewis also said to expect some surprises in heaven.

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    When someone became a Christian up north, it was a major event since it was going against the culture. When I moved to the south, I was somewhat naive when I met people who told me they were Christians, had gone forward,etc. Then, I noticed that they didn’t seem to live a particularly Christian life. Walking the aisle in the south is as ubiquitous as eating barbecue. Transformation is a different story. I, too, get a little glassy eyed when I hear that 10 kids accepted Christ at a rally. It is just expected and is sometimes coercive. Time will tell the full story. However, at least they are hearing the Gospel and maybe one day that will impact them on a deeper level, if not then.