I had Wednesday morning set aside to write my monthly column for KSR, but I was at a loss for a topic. On Tuesday I tweeted out a request for ideas and got a lot of good suggestions, but none of them resonated. So I woke up Wednesday with a few hours to write, but nothing to say. Then with one breaking headline, I am now overwhelmed with too much to say.
Billy Graham has died.
Where do I even begin? Of course I could talk about his impact as the greatest evangelist the Church has known, arguably since the Apostle Paul himself; perhaps a piece on his above-reproach character as a needed rebuke to the scandal-plagued lives of public religious leaders in our days; or his willingness to serve as a spiritual advisor to both Democrat and Republican presidents as a refreshing example to our deeply polarized and partisan culture. These and many other ideas came to mind, but none seemed fitting. In the coming days, years, and even centuries, historians and biographers much more qualified than I will be writing on those matters.
Instead, I want to write what I believe, with all my heart, he would ask me to write. The best way to honor this great man is to once more share what he devoted his life to sharing. And the best way for you to honor one of the greatest figures of American culture is to at least spend a few minutes considering what he had to say. Agree or disagree with Billy Graham, I think we can all agree his life’s work is worth consideration.
I won’t say it as well as he said it, but thankfully its truth is true, whether expressed in the eloquent and powerful words of Billy Graham or from the clumsy stammering lips of the rest of us. In hundreds of different ways, throughout thousands of different places, to millions of different people, Billy Graham had only one thing to say: Gospel.
Have you ever wondered what it is that Christians actually believe? At the core of our faith is this word gospel, which means “good news.” Religions are full of good advice—systems to follow, tenants to adhere to, rules to keep. But in contrast, Christianity is good news. Not something that we are to do, but something that has been done.
But this good news begins with bad news: We are all sinners. In our day, the concept of sin is at best trivialized and at worst despised, but on the deepest levels, we all know it to be true. Our guilt and shame bear witness to the reality that none of us is as we ought to be. This is because we were created by a just God who has just expectations for the world in the same way you have just expectations for the world.
Not only do you believe in this thing called justice, you demand it. From the deepest forms of injustice to the smallest acts like cutting in line, everyone expects that everyone else behave rightly. And yet that same expectation we have of others simultaneously indicts us. I cannot demand justice while also asking to be the one exception to justice. Instead, I must play by the same rules. If I want there to be such a thing as right and wrong (and who doesn’t?), then I must I ask whether I myself do what is right and not do what is wrong. And friends, I do not. Again and again, I fail to do what I demand of you.
But the reality of justice gets only worse, because God is not interested in whether I adhere to my own standard of justice. God wants to know how I measure up to his standard. And if I can’t even live up to my own standard, then how shall I stand before perfect justice? The answer is I cannot stand. When people say, “Only God can judge me,” I don’t think they realize how awful that news is. Indeed, only God can judge us, but God judges based upon his standard of justice, not ours. And God’s standard far exceeds my standard, for it is nothing short of perfection. Therefore, none of us has any hope of ever escaping the justice of God.
Perhaps you’re wondering at this point how this could ever be called “good news.” Well, there is more to the story. God is not only just; God is love. In the same way God’s justice far exceeds our standards of justice, God’s love far exceeds our standards of love. Indeed, God is the perfect standard of love. And so it would seem that the justice and love of God are irreconcilably at odds. He must judge perfectly, and yet he loves perfectly those he must judge.
Every revival that Billy Graham ever preached confronted his hearers in some way with that tension, and every revival that Billy Graham ever preached ended with Jesus as the answer to that tension. Jesus Christ—specifically the cross of Jesus Christ—is the answer to the justice/love dilemma of God. Here I’ll quote Graham directly, “God proved his love on the cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’” But how is the death of Jesus the love of God? Because the death of Jesus wasn’t just his death, it was my death.
Jesus took upon himself all my sin and carried it to Calvary to receive the judgment day it deserves. On the cross, Jesus received the justice that I deserve, endured the punishment that I have earned, and died the death I should have died, so that now the justice of God is satisfied and the love of God is all that remains forevermore.
That is the good news Billy Graham shared with hundreds of millions of people. And today, that is the good news Billy Graham died trusting. The messenger finally inheriting the good news of his message. I’ll let him have the final word: “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.”