Rev. Billy Graham, who preached the gospel to more people than anyone in history, died Wednesday morning at age 99, and his earthly life is being remembered as faithful to Jesus Christ and for his integrity in leading a global ministry.
Although sidelined by health issues for the past decade, Graham traveled the globe for 60 years, preaching at crusades to more than 200 million people in person and many more via television, radio and the internet.
Former Moody Bible Institute President Michael J. Easley told WND and Radio America that Graham was blessed in a special way.
“The short answer is God’s hand,” Easley said. “You can talk about skills and learning television and communication and media and being in the right place at the right time, and all those things certainly affected his ministry. But I have to believe it was the work of God in the man’s life and his hand on him as a servant in a unique way.”
Easley added: “I have to believe God chose to use him in a remarkable way. You can go back to D.L. Moody and (Charles Haddon) Spurgeon, and other leaders like that, but no doubt this was one of America’s finest Christians, finest evangelists and honed in on the gospel all the time.”
Easley said Graham’s focus is obvious even in the brief news videos being shown about his life.
“Watching the clips, how often do you see Jesus mentioned? Not God. Jesus,” Easley said. “He was very clear in his Christology, in understanding the gospel and in how to present it simply to the masses.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Michael J. Easley:
Easley said Graham’s children explained why their father’s messages resonated with so many people.
“Billy Graham had the newspaper, and he watched the news,” he said. “He would hush his children to watch the news. Essentially, he used the news, the newspaper and the Bible to communicate. When you think of mass communication in his era, that was genius.
“He had this unique skill of taking a very clear message from a passage of scripture, tying it to today’s issues – loneliness, hurt, whatever it was – and wrapping the gospel in a package that was simple for the masses,” Easley explained.
“As a person who tries to preach for a living, you listen to the guy and think, ‘On one level, it’s pretty simple. On the other, it’s brilliant the way he sewed it together.’ He was an extraordinarily gifted communicator and simple but clear every time he got into a pulpit or behind a microphone.”
Another hallmark of Graham’s ministry was its scandal-free record over more than six decades. When other notable preachers fell into disrepute, Graham carefully guarded his team from any whiff of impropriety.
“This one professor friend of mine who would often dine with him said they would be escorted to a place. He said it was like the corridors in a labyrinth, and then there was a restaurant room somewhere in the back,” Easley said. “They had already swept the thing because there were inopportune attempts to catch him (in compromising behavior). It was wisdom on the Billy Graham ministry’s part.”
Easley said Graham’s integrity stretched from his marriage vows to his finances.
“He didn’t approach ministry for money. He took a pretty modest salary, typically speaking,” he said. “Of course the ministry pays for transportation and infrastructure. But his reputation as a man of integrity around the opposite sex, as well as financially, were never talked about, but they were given.”
Graham is being remembered in much of the media coverage as a pastor to the presidents, having met with every president from Harry Truman through Barack Obama and prayed at nine inaugurations. Some critics saw Graham getting too intertwined with politics, but Easley thinks he balanced it well.
“Billy had this unique ability to not take sides politically. For goodness sake, the presidents you mentioned were polar opposites from administration to administration and yet he still had an audience,” Easley said.
“Billy seemed to have a unique balance of not taking sides. Obviously, he had an affinity for life. Obviously, he had an affinity for a traditional view of marriage. But that was not his platform. His platform was to present the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
Inside evangelical circles, Graham received criticism for his altar calls after each crusade message, leaving some concerned that people coming from their seats would have a false sense of assurance of their salvation simply because they took those steps.
“It was Moody who said, ‘I like my way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing it.’ I’ve always thought about that when it comes to the criticism of his crusades,” Easley said.
“Certainly, there can be a misunderstanding of the action of doing that being equivalent to salvation, but let’s also give a little credit where credit is due,” he said. “They’re not that naive. I don’t think anyone in the Graham association was under the illusion that if 5,000 people came down, all 5,000 were de facto saved.”
Easley also said Graham’s ministry was very careful in training the people who interacted with those making the walk after Graham’s messages.
“The laymen and women were probably more well-prepared to follow through and share Christ, help a person understand what they were really doing, than most churches that have a robust outreach program,” said Easley, who noted that the phone operators taking calls during crusade broadcasts were also meticulously trained.
Easley said it’s fine to debate Graham’s methods, but the evangelist’s primary calling was clear and done with excellence.
“The presentation of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and trusting in Christ and Christ alone for your salvation, Billy Graham did that faithfully,” he said. “How he grows disciples after that is another discussion, but give the man credit where credit is due. God used him to present the gospel of Christ every chance he had, clearly and simply.”
Easley also stressed that it doesn’t take Billy Graham to share the gospel – all believers need to do that in their “sphere of influence.”
“Your sphere of influence needs to hear about the person and work of Jesus,” he said. “As simply and as kindly as Billy did it, you too can share that message. He lived. He died. He was buried. He paid for your sins and mine on the cross, in our place, on our behalf. He comes back from the dead and he offers anyone who trusts, believes, who put their faith in Him, He offers them the gift of eternal life.”