Billy Graham's Invitation
This last week news services around the world announced that Rev. Billy Graham (America’s pastor) had died at the age of 99. Many have testified as to how God used Billy Graham to influence their lives—such notables as former President George Bush, former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin and a host of others. Still others have written articles blasting Graham as a self-promoting hypocrite. God the Father has turned all judgment over to His son, Jesus Christ. Each of us will give an individual account of our lives to him. In eternity, it will be interesting to see who ends up being great in the Kingdom of God and who ends up being least, who was real and who was fake.
I have my own story to tell as to how Billy Graham influenced my life and ministry. When I was twelve years old a strong thought came to me that since I was a “big boy now” I should “read the book.” I took a New Testament to school and began to read it during my spare time. I so enjoyed what I read about Jesus. I liked everything he did and said.
I was believing what I read but didn’t get the full shock until the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, where Jesus said that unless a person is born again they will never see heaven and unless they are born of the Spirit they will never enter the Kingdom of God. I said to myself, “If I were born again, I would know it, but I don’t know it, so I must not be born again. That means if I would die I could not enter heaven, and would go to hell.” (See John 3:3-7) Jesus spoke more about hell than any other Biblical prophet, warning that it’s an eternal fire, worms are eating people, there is no water, no rest, and hell’s inhabitants are weeping and gnashing their teeth. He said it was a place created for the devil and the fallen angels but that most people went there when they died.
Friend, someone will be the nicest person to ever go to hell. They will have sinned less than anyone there, but they’ll still be stuck in eternal torment. Children are not held accountable for their sins, so if a child dies, they will go to heaven. But at twelve years of age, I had crossed the line of accountability and the Holy Spirit was letting me know that I was a sinner who needed a Savior.
From then on I began to pray, asking God if I could be born again. I was basically asking God to receive me. I kept reading the Bible, and my heart longed to be born again—whatever that meant. I thought perhaps an angel would drop into my bedroom, bop me on the head with a magic wand, and poof—I would be born again. That didn’t happen.
About that time (1962) Billy Graham was televising his crusades. I’d watch as each sermon concluded with Billy inviting people to come forward to receive Christ. As they started to stream forward he would say, “You come.” Then he’d bow his head in prayer. I wanted to go forward, but I didn’t know if it would work to just kneel in front of a TV set. So I’d retreat to my bedroom, but fell back into the prayer of, “Please God, accept me.” Nothing happened.
I thought, “If Billy Graham would come to Rapid City, South Dakota, I could get saved.” But since it was a smaller city of under 50,000 people I despaired because I figured that he would never come there.
After about one year my parents took me to a Rancher’s Camp Meeting held in the Black Hills under a tent. Rural people from several different denominations put this event on and they let someone preach who really knew God. While I listened he began to make an appeal for us to receive Christ. My heart began to beat wildly as I realized that he was going to give the same kind of invitation as Billy Graham.
He said, “If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for your sins and rose from the dead, you must ask him to forgive your sins and invite him to come into your heart. Once you’ve prayed that prayer, stand up as a public testimony that you have just received Christ.”
That day God gave me the faith to be saved. Faith is basically a revelation of God’s will. God names it, and you must claim it. I knew that if I prayed that prayer and stood up publicly I would be born again. Strong thoughts came from two different directions. “You can do this later. You’ll embarrass yourself. Your parents are here. What will they think?.” Another thought came, “This is what you’ve been praying for. You’ve never felt this way before, and you may never feel this way again. You may never have another opportunity. Seize this moment.”
I listened to the second voice, prayed the prayer, and stood up. When I stood up the Holy Spirit flooded into me and I was filled with intense joy. I wanted to roar in laughter, but I bit my lip to avoid making a scene. I was raised Presbyterian and we Presbyterians never made a noise in church unless the bulletin told us what noise to make and when to make it. If I had let that laughter come out I believe it might have been a gushing stream of supernatural praise that rose from the 120 believers when the Holy Spirit first fell. (See Acts 2) I knew I was born again, and I've lived with the assurance of salvation ever since.
Billy Graham knew how to help people receive Christ. He invited them to do this publicly. And now for 44 years of ministry, I’ve been inviting people to receive Christ publicly. Why is that so important and so effective?
Jesus said, “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God,” (Luke 12:8-9 NIV).
The Bible also says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (John 1:12 EESV).
In dead religions, the idea is to earn points so that God will receive you into heaven when you die. That’s a vain attempt that always fails. Instead, we must receive him! And when we receive Christ publicly and confess or acknowledge him publicly Jesus immediately accounces to the host of heaven that we now belong to him.
That’s so simple, and so powerful. Yet many pastors no longer invite people to come forward to receive Christ—as if that’s outdated. Instead, people listen to what I call a “buffered sermon.” Like buffered aspirin that won’t upset your stomach, these little sermons have no conviction—no pull from the Holy Spirit. The sermon ends without an invitation to “come to Christ.” The people are merely dismissed with a, “See you next week.”
Giving a public invitation to accept Christ will never be some outdated technique. Those preachers who refuse to give a public invitation to receive Christ are actually “out of order” themselves. People must receive Christ in order to become Children of God. There is a great advantage in receiving Christ in front of people. You see, the devil is going to say to every young believer, “You aren’t really a Christian.” But if you have received Christ publicly you can rebuke Satan by saying, “But I acknowledged Jesus before men. I received Him publicly. He’s already announced to all the holy angels that I belong to him! It’s too late to play that trick on me, you lying devil! Be gone!”
I will forever be grateful to the church that gave me that little New Testament as a child, to Billy Graham, and the preacher (I don’t know his name) who invited me to publicly receive Christ.
Asaph wrote, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory,” (Psalm 73:24 NIV). My goal remains to hold onto God, receive the counsel of the Holy Spirit and someday arrive safely into that eternal glory made possible by the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
So I’ll labor on. Today is my sixty-eight birthday. Tomorrow I get to preach five services in New York City. I’ll keep holding onto God’s hand, enjoying His counsel and fellowship. But someday I will also come to the “afterward” where by God’s grace I’ll be taken into glory. Then I’ll thank Jesus and every believer there who prayed for me and influenced me to come to Christ and remain in Christ. And together we’ll enjoy eternal ministry as we love and serve both God and his people.