Billy Graham and the Legacy of the Gospel

People around the world are mourning the death of Billy Graham, who passed away yesterday at the age of 99. He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential church figures of the 20th century. 

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I swim in the stream of his legacy. I attended a seminary which he helped to found, and I'm thankful to have his signature on my seminary diploma. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of his influence.

But I don't want to talk today about his accomplishments or the way he's shaped the Christian church as we know it. If you would care to read more about his life, ministry, and legacy, Christianity Today (of which he was a founder) has a lovely special issue in Billy Graham's honor

Today, I'm thinking about what was even more dear to Billy Graham's heart - the Gospel. As I've been thinking of his legacy, I'm reminded how simple that Gospel message is. It is simple enough that we can summarize its basic truths in one sentence: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) 

The message of the Gospel is profound. There is a reason why we devote time to understanding the theology behind it, why we want to study it and dissect it and diagram it. There is a reason why we treat it with awe, not wanting to oversimplify it, not wanting to twist it into something it is not. There is a reason why we look at the historical sweep, the context of Jesus Christ's coming, the prophecies He fulfilled and will fulfill. It is right and good to dedicate this thought and study.  

But in the midst of this complexity, the Gospel message is still simple. It is hard. It is beyond our full comprehension. We could spend a lifetime diving the depths of its riches. But it is simple: God loves you. He entered time and space to make a way for relationship with you. In Him you find complete forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. 

This simple-yet-profound Gospel message changes lives. It changes families and cultures. It touches our minds, our hands, our feet. It transforms. 

Billy Graham never forgot this simple Gospel message, and he never forgot its power. This is, perhaps, his most precious legacy.

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

- Billy Graham (1918-2018)

A Tale of Two Sermons

I once heard two sermons. They spoke of the same little passage—a mere eighteen verses, hardly a column of text. But how different they were. 

It was not merely a matter of skill or style. It was not a matter of truth or falsehood, right or wrong.

One told me what I had to do. 
The other, what had been done for me. 

One sent me off with the suggestion to reflect on what I was doing wrong. 
The other sent me with thanksgiving of the One who came for me in my lostness. 

One piled on guilt. The other mercy.
One gave a word of law. The other the message of grace. 

I am no master homilitician, but I know which I prefer. 
I know which one drives me to awe and praise, and which to morbid introspection.
I know which one inspires me to change, and which makes me despair of ever being good enough. 
I know which one turns my eyes to Jesus, and which turns my eyes to myself. 

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The secret to true transformation is never law. It is never the litany of my wrongdoings, my misplaced loves, my sins. It is never the rehearsal of how I don’t measure up. Yes, I fall short, this I know—the Bible tells me so. But I thought the song was about Jesus.

How easily we forget our own message—the one that tells a story of grace coming to us in our unworthiness, the story of what has been done for us—not of our performance or our rehabilitation. All we truly have to give the world is Gospel—all else is just a Christianized rebranding of the “earn your way” slave drivers. 

Grace transforms us. It transforms my behavior and my attitudes. It possesses me with its glorious, excruciating, intoxicating light.

The Spirit transforms us. He peels away the thick dragon skin of my selfishness and pride and makes me a new creation. He gives me a soft heart, an obedient heart. My life bears His fruit.

To assume that this can be manufactured through guilt tripping or pump-you-up inspiration is to miss the point. It’s to forget our history. It’s to forget the gateway through which we walked into glory.

Our story will always be about grace. Our life will always be shaped and molded through a response to what has already been done for us. It is finished. We respond in thanksgiving. This thanks changes our hearts, and our newly transplanted, resurrected hearts change our lives.

This is the message I can never get enough of. It’s the one my parched soul laps up in rejoicing desperation.

Repent. Don't Obsess.

It feels like it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes with our feelings toward sin. On the one hand, we can easily discount it. Instead of grievous offenses against a holy God, our sin becomes “bad habits” or “quirks.” We excuse and ignore the ways we fall short of His perfect standards, and we set ourselves up as judge, always letting ourselves off easy. We find it easy to forget the ways we have sinned, in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done and left undone. Fortunately, there are a lot of people talking about this tendency. You don’t have to look far to find an author, speaker, or church leader calling us to repentance and sorrow over our sin, which is a necessary part of the Christian response. 

The other extreme is less discussed, however - when we border on obsession over sin. We feel bad if we don’t have a recurrent sense of guilt. We rehearse our wrongdoings, reiterating the depraved levels of our vile, evil hearts.

All of this becomes an emotional form of self-flagellation. There may not be physical whips ripping open our skin, but our psychological whips lash at our hearts and minds. Instead of discounting the grievousness of sin (extreme #1), we discount the power of forgiveness. The point of our confession and repentance of sin isn’t to beat ourselves up. It’s to check our hearts, in order to turn them back toward the God whose love and forgiveness are ever turned toward us. Because of this blessed reality, we’re to “repent and get on with it”:

“It's as if sin is an obstacle, something to get out of the way so the good stuff, the real stuff, can arrive. It's as if Jesus is reminding me to yes, pay attention to my sin, but only in order to get it out of the way, only in order to move it aside and make room for the glorious beautiful goodness to follow, only in order to ask for the help I need to be forgiven and heal.” 
- Amy Julia Becker, “Repent and Get On With It,” Christianity Today

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The Church and the Mirror of the Gospel

I remember the steady stream of people slowly making their way to the front of the church, hands cupped in front of them, waiting like children to have the bread placed in their palms. I remember watching as they kept coming, one after the other. Some, I knew their heartache, the deep pain they carried. Some, I knew their joy, the dreams and delight they rejoiced in. Some, I knew not at all. Each with their story, each with scars, they steadily streamed past me—and I was overwhelmed as I saw physically enacted before me the sufficiency of Christ, in the physical elements of bread and wine. There was always enough room at this Table. No matter how many crammed into the small church, or how many folding chairs needed to be added to the back rows—there was always enough. Always enough to walk forward and hear “the body of Christ given for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.” For me. For each of us. Always enough grace to go around to any who would receive it. 

I remember sitting with quiet tears slipping down my face, my friend offering a hand squeeze of comfort and solidarity, as I heard time and time again the beautiful message of the Gospel. I longed to go back every week, to drink in as much of the thirst-quenching stream as I could, this continual reminder of the grace of God extended to me. The Gospel was for me—and it was for me in the midst of my deepest pain, my echoing questions, and the aching that would not subside in my heart. I brought my brokenness and continued to hear the message, “Yes, child, this is why I came.” I remember learning to (begin to) let go of the need to have it together, as I free fell into the Gospel of a Savior who was for me in the mess, because of the mess, redeeming the mess.

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Why Love Trumps Self-Esteem

Why is it so hard for us to accept that we are loved?

We hear talk often of the need for greater self-esteem. For my generation, we’ve been spoon fed from early on by our culture and our school, to think better about ourselves, to see ourselves as winners and capable of anything.

But as we grow older, we realize that we aren’t actually that special in the pool of humanity—and we can’t actually do anything we set our minds to. So we’re left with an overly inflated view of ourselves, or in despair of what will become of our lives. So much for that self-esteem.

As Christians, we balk against this movement in large part, which is understandable. We tend to be much better at self-criticism than self-love. Self-love is sin, we maintain; it’s pride and must be cut out. The idea of loving ourselves or thinking well of ourselves is resisted. And so in our efforts of humility and seeing ourselves rightly, we can continue to erode our ability to see ourselves as loved. Although we can easily affirm “Jesus loves me,” does that awareness that he calls us Beloved actually sink deep into our souls, shaping the way we see ourselves?

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