Part of my wonderful association with Dr. Billy Graham, for more than 20 years, increasingly has included many, many conversations about the wonderful privilege that he considers concerning God’s calling for him to be a proclaimer of the good news of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He holds very close to his heart what Paul had to say in Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those that proclaim the gospel.”
Graham has a profound conviction that God not only called him into the gospel ministry, but that He called him specifically to be an evangelist, and even more specifically to be about the business of explaining the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ at the deepest level, yet in the simplest form, to a lost and dying world. As our conversations have gathered momentum to the point at which invariably we talk about preaching almost every week, Graham’s conversation always seems to find its root in the heart of his call to be a proclaimer of the gospel.
The Life of the Preacher
He believes his preaching really finds its expression in two forms. First, through his own personal witness, the way he conducts his life, his attitude toward life, his manner of speech, his conduct with other people. He believes very much—to the point that he has impressed this on me repeatedly—that what he has to say from the pulpit in crusades around the world is only seen in proportion to the life he lives outside the pulpit. So for Graham, preaching begins with the very expression of his walk.
He has spoken to me many times about people he has encountered who may well have great qualifications to preach, who may be accomplished in exegesis, who may have spent many years in systematic theology and the study of God’s Word, and who may have a great ability to coin a phrase or put a sentence together, but they lack terribly in their walks outside the pulpit. In Graham’s opinion, it greatly diminishes the effectiveness of what God intends to take place through preaching the gospel.
He believes preaching is far more caught than taught and that the person who preaches is vital and critical to the manner with which that person preaches or the manner with which he or she imparts the content of that which is preached. He speaks so often about the great men of the faith, particularly from God’s Word. He has taken me many times as far back as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. He loves to talk about the great preachers—D.L. Moody, George Whitefield and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Then I have had so many conversations with him about men who are his peers and contemporaries, people for whom he has had greatest admiration; he has told me about people he has tried to model his own life after; invariably he talks about the model of their lives as much as he does about the manner with which they preach the gospel. So the first part of that call has to do with the person.
The Call to Preach
He also talks about the manner in which God called him. Graham speaks so much about the early days and how he came to know Christ and the impact of Mordecai Ham in relation to his call to preach. In the early days in Florida, when he was first given opportunities to preach, he would go out and preach his heart out to tree stumps. He would practice and rehearse his preaching repeatedly, believing so much that preaching was a spiritual art form molded in the heart of God by His Spirit.
He never regarded himself as having arrived; his whole life was dedicated to that moment. I’ve heard him speak about the preaching moment, that moment when God allows him, by His grace, to be the conduit and the channel of His grace, that moment God would use him to be able to preach. So it behooves Graham, as God’s messenger, to refine that spiritual art, not in terms of a tapestry or painting, but in terms of a deep and profound sense of God’s call and anointing for that moment in time.
The Preaching Act
The third component—the first being his person, the second being the fact God had called him—leads him to the actual act of preaching itself. One can only imagine how “the fear of the Lord” would come upon me as—time after another when I have traveled up to his home—Graham invariably would want to discuss my sermon from that previous Sunday. It’s gotten to the point after all these years that every week that is part of our discussion. He is so humble, he doesn’t want to discuss my sermons in terms of what I can do better. This man is so humble, his conversation is frequently punctuated with so much encouragement and affirmation that he never hesitates to point out to me the need for better illustration, for further explanation or understanding.
So it seems to me that in the big picture of preaching, I think Graham would prioritize the following essential components in preaching. First, the matter of prayer. I dare not talk to Graham about any message I intend to preach or any message I have preached that I have not roundly bathed in deep, systematic prayer. Graham is a man of prayer, and I have been with him for years and seen it in practice through his person.
When it comes to preaching, Graham believes powerlessness is inevitable for any preacher—no matter who that person is and no matter how profound he or she may consider him or herself as a proclaimer of the good news—if the person has not bathed everything about what is being attempted to be done for Christ in prayer. In fact, this past week, in a long conversation—more than two hours—on this very subject, his deep blue eyes glowed when he talked about praying, preaching and the connectedness of the two. He believes prayer is the lifeline to the preached word and that the person who preaches is simply the instrument. The person is not the power. The person is not the gift. The person is not the influencer, but simply the channel of blessing. Prayer is the power; God is the Source alone. So, prayer is where it all begins.
The second component has to do with the Holy Spirit. Anything void of the presence and indwelling of God by His Holy Spirit in every regard concerning preaching, would again render everything he did futile and make what he was doing powerless. It would make everything powerless. Graham has a remarkably deep, holy respect for the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit. It permeates everything he does, and he believes the Holy Spirit not only draws alongside him as he preaches, but that the Holy Spirit infuses the very action and engagement of the preaching activity from the words he reads from God’s Holy Word to the manner with which those words are coined and phrased, to the intricacies of real-life illustration and application, to the actual sound of his voice, the tempo with which the message is delivered, the manner with which it is received by those who are listening.
He believes the gospel is overheard by the Spirit of God in the hearts of people and impressed into hearts only by the Spirit of God, which literally means it is the Holy Spirit who carries that word through the God-called person of prayer into the hearts of all who must hear the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. I’ve heard Graham say, “No Spirit, no power. Take the Spirit out of my preaching, and I’ve got nothing to say.” So it comes back to that essential ingredient.
The third ingredient of preaching is his deep and profound belief in the infallibility of God’s Word. He has one of the highest views of God’s Word, from Genesis to Revelation, believing it doesn’t just contain God’s Word, but that it is God’s Word. He has such a high view of absolute truth that I’ve heard him say, “There’s a sense in which I don’t actually have to say anything about God’s Word. God’s Word does not need me. God just chose me to pass His Word along,” which puts the preacher into the correct perspective. Graham has said, “If I ever think more highly of myself as a preacher of the gospel, God can just as easily use anybody.”
Many years ago, when they first began, Graham asked George Beverly Shea to speak at a meeting Graham could not attend. Shea called his own father to say, “Dad, what do I do? Billy Graham wants me to speak. I cannot preach,” to which Shea’s father said, “Well, if God could cause a donkey to speak, he could use you.” Graham loves that story because it reinforces the wonderful spiritual truth concerning prayer, the Spirit of God and the Word of God.
Your three essential ingredients of preaching are carried by the fourth essential, which is the Person of God. So you have prayer, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the Person of God. In Graham’s economy, that’s what it takes to share the good news. From that perspective, Graham believes, comes the abandoned heart, comes the discipline necessary to preach, for he believes preaching is the ultimate self-discipline.
Preparing to Preach
He and I talk often about
To prepare to preach, you’ve got to understand the source of power; to prepare to preach, you’ve got to understand God is love; to prepare to preach, you’ve got to be self-disciplined, because it’s the greatest work to which you can be called. He considered nothing more important than that moment when he stood and told people about the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the means by which that is accomplished is the stirring up of the gift. Graham said, “God gave me a gift of evangelism and a gift of proclamation. My job as the preacher is to stir up that gift, which means I have to study, I have to pray, I have to shut myself off, I have to prepare, I have to read, I have to analyze, I have to ask questions, I have to soak up the Word of God, I have to have devotion. I have to do everything necessary consistently, meeting every day with the Lord, because if I don’t stir up the gift, I’m going to have no power, I’m never going to preach with love, and I’m going to have no self-discipline to accomplish the task.”
He brings that to bear on this wonderful moment of preaching by which people throughout the world have been so deeply blessed. Now what does that produce? Graham believes it produces, first, power, and it’s a godly power. When he talks about power, he talks about the anointing of the Spirit of God. That’s power. To Graham, power is not loud or soft; power is not a person; power is not a reputation. Power is the anointing of God’s Spirit upon the preacher through His Word.
Then he talks about love. He has said many times, “What does it accomplish to get up in the pulpit and preach the good news, and stick a finger out and just criticize, rip apart, major on minors, tell everybody all these horrible things?” He said, “You’ve got to preach with love. You’ve got to preach truth with love, an uncompromising truth with love.” To Graham, sin is not nice; in fact, it kills. God doesn’t compromise with sin. Sin condemns every person. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and so love is the essential ingredient.
Graham believes preaching the gospel without conviction is meaningless. That conviction comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but it is born in the heart of the preacher. He’s looked at me many times and said, “Don, do you really believe what you’ve just said? Do you really believe what you are saying to those people?” Not, “Have you just experienced that?” Yes, I am born again. I know Christ as a preacher. I have been forgiven. But am I convicted about that? Is this a life conviction? Preaching is a life-or-death condition which renders the preacher unapologetic. It’s not a compromise. It’s God’s truth to a searching world.
Graham, being an evangelist, understands clearly the difference between a pastoral preacher and an evangelistic preacher, though he has the profound belief that all preaching is evangelistic. All preaching is evangelistic because any preaching void of Jesus Christ is not Christian preaching, and the Bible is about Jesus: His birth, His death and His glorious resurrection.
However, he understands that my role as pastor of a local New Testament church is to expound and expose the Word systematically, building precept upon precept, teaching my people the whole counsel of God. Whereas his role as an evangelist is to present the truth that God loves you, that Jesus died for you and that all people can know Christ when they are willing to repent of their sin and by faith put their trust in Christ alone as the only One who has the full authority of God the Father to forgive sin. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts us of sin and unrighteousness and administers judgment.
Graham believes the freshness of every message he has preached was simply a magnificent result of the fact that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He was always fresh, and you never had to look for freshness if, in fact, everything you are doing has been based on prayer, the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. That’s what brings the freshness. It’s the Word of God, not the preacher; but in order to be fresh, the preacher needs to take care of himself and do everything necessary in preparation, paying the price of systematic study in order to present that truth with fire in his eyes that comes from the heart of God.
The impartation of that truth comes through a proper organization of that truth, and Graham believes preaching needs to be organized properly. He always preached with notes, well-prepared, well-thought-out—not a manuscript but sermon notes.
He always preached with great illustrations. He believes very strongly that Jesus led the way in connecting Earth to heaven, with parables, with stories. He strongly believes that preaching with illustration needs to serve only the objective of helping listeners understand more keenly the truth of what God is saying. So illustration without spiritual purpose is meaningless, though, he quickly adds that he appreciates the use of humor in the pulpit, particularly for those who have the gift of humor, because causing people to smile and “enjoy being in the presence of God” is an essential ingredient when it’s appropriate.
Yet, real-life illustrations are more important to him. An illustration, to Graham, needs to be current. It needs to be appropriate. He never used inappropriate illustrations and made it his business before God always to avoid any kind of suspect illustration that potentially could hurt someone individually or corporately—whether nationally or culturally—because he believed God would harness him by His Spirit, though one of his greatest statements is that the cross of Christ is offensive. It’s offensive to those who do not believe. It’s offensive to Sadducees and Pharisees. It’s offensive to the religions and pagan gods of the world.
Still, he believed his role and responsibility was to do everything he possibly could to respect and love people in every way he possibly could without compromising his stand on the gospel in order to get people to come and hear the gospel. He believes there are many preachers today who offend so many people long before they preach, that the very people they believe they need to reach won’t come and listen to them preach in the first place because they’ve been offended so much by things they’ve said that are not relevant to getting them to hear the gospel.
The preaching of the gospel must be designed in a way to attract everybody, particularly sinners, to come and hear the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. So Graham made it his business to make friends with everybody, though he was roundly criticized many times. His motive was to spur them to come and listen to the Word of God by the power of God through the Spirit of God. The result was that throughout the world, many people from different nationalities, cultures and religions came into a direct encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally but not conclusively, Graham believes preaching without an invitation to call people to repent is not Christian preaching. He believes God gave that responsibility to the men He called to preach, and so many today are abdicating that responsibility. When Jesus gathered His disciples around Him, Jesus said, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus gave to His prime preachers the responsibility of fishing for lives—and standing there with a rod, putting the bait on, casting it into the sea and reeling by hand.
Graham believes the responsibility of the preacher of the gospel is to take the Word of God (not his word) with the instruments God has put in his disposal—his voice, eyes, call, preparation, winning heart, conviction—to cast it all into the sea of people and let God do His work. To be sensitive to the bite of the fish, and when he feels it, spiritually, he senses (the preacher does) the movement of God’s Spirit, then he knows God is in the house and is doing His work. The preacher’s job is to flick the rod, straighten the rod and reel in the fish so the fish can fulfill its ultimate purpose.
So the preacher reels in those who, by the Spirit, have eaten the flesh of God’s grace and are brought on board, which explains why, to Graham, following up his preaching was as important as preparing to preach and the act of preaching, because people need to be reeled in, brought into the boat, where they are put together with the right people and counselors, thereby becoming part of the family of God.
These are babes in Christ, and we never would abandon a baby once it’s been born; how much more so ought we not put our arms around these baby believers and begin to walk with them through the wonderful journey of Christian life, feeding, teaching and helping them so these disciples can become disciple-makers? Graham believes that’s the work of the New Testament church.
In his preaching, he put in place extraordinary follow-up. When people came at the invitation, they were met immediately to be brought into the boat and connected to the local New Testament church, where the work of the church, the family of God, begins to sail and do its work.
Billy Graham loves to talk about preaching. It is one of his favorite subjects, and my own life has been deeply enriched as I have had the privilege of sitting at his feet all these years. He has caused me to think greatly and fall on my face often, crying out to God for mercy. I have come to the conclusion that if Dr. Billy Graham could consider himself so unworthy to be a preacher of the gospel, how much more so me? I just ask the Lord to help me be His servant as I proclaim God’s Word, too.