Dr. John Piper was recently interviewed about the way that Billy Graham's life and legacy have affected his ministry. Piper, who leaves a noteworthy legacy of his own as an evangelical preacher and Christian author, says Graham has been a hero of his ever since he was a little boy. "I don't know anybody who has called people with greater clarity - greater effectiveness - out of darkness into light than Billy Graham," he says.
At the age of eleven, John Piper remembers being terribly afraid that Billy Graham would die. Looking back at his fears now, he laughs - "I had this fear that something terrible would happen to the church if Billy Graham wasn't there for us ... Billy Graham just seemed to be bigger than life, he just represented what we believed about the Bible and to lose him would have almost been to see Christianity vanish off the American cultural scene." Piper remembers that there were very few prominent evangelical Christians in America at the time, and Billy Graham's ministry was producing abundant fruit for the kingdom of God.
In an Ask Pastor John episode entitled "When I Met Billy Graham," Dr. Piper told Tony Reinke that he has since learned that no one is indispensable to the cause of Christ, no matter how much God uses them for His glory. He now sees that it was as if his adolescent heart was "somehow thinking, ‘Poor Jesus - poor risen, omnipotent, all-authority-having Jesus is going to stumble if one of our heroes stumbles." Thankfully, since then, God has raised up several evangelical leaders in the Christian community. "No one is ever indispensable to the cause of Christ. Only Christ is indispensable. I needed to learn that," Piper says.
The Piper family went to a crusade in New York that year, and saw the amazing work that God was doing through Graham with their own eyes. Piper later had an opportunity to meet Graham at a friend's house when he was fourteen years old. More than half a century later, he visited with Graham for a few moments at the aged saint's home. He calls Graham a "man who is remarkably humble ... he seems to very naturally speak of others rather than himself, and he speaks most endearingly of Jesus ... what a privilege it was to spend a few minutes with him," Piper says.
Dr. Piper also discussed the controversy between Billy Graham and Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist institution in South California which accused Graham of compromising the Gospel because he was sometimes backed by liberal supporters. Piper's father, who was also an evangelist and had graduated from the university, resigned from the school board after discerning that Graham was doing the Lord's work - though sometimes using unconventional methodology.
"Billy always said he would go anywhere and preach under any circumstances if he was allowed to say what he wanted to say," Piper remembers. Dr. Piper now holds similar convictions when deciding whether or not to preach at a conference - while he may not agree with the theological views of others preaching at an event, he will still accept the invitation to preach if it allows him to tell a lot of people about "the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus," as he feels called to do.
Piper was then asked about some controversial comments that Graham had made in his later years in an episode entitled "When Our Heroes Age." In essence, an elderly Graham had implied that people could go to heaven without ever having heard of or having placed their faith in Christ during an interview. "I think those statements were very out of character and out of sync with a lifetime of proclaiming a pretty edgy Gospel, with regard to the necessity of believing in Jesus Christ in order to be saved," Piper says. He believes we should "chalk-up our heroes' aged lapses to their weakness, rather to their heterodoxy." In other words, Piper believes that since Graham's entire life ministry was contrary to something he said once in his old age, people should view his comments in light of Graham's ability to think critically and to respond to an interviewer's question at that time, rather than see it as a change in his theology.
"I think he spoke carelessly, and I think it would have been wise for his friends to put their arms around him and draw him away from those situations ... I hope those who are responsible for me when I'm old will discern when I'm no longer responsible as I should be with what I say," Piper says with humility.
"I think if you look at Billy Graham's whole life, all over the world, his ministry was predicated on the necessity of faith in Jesus in order to be saved. I think this is his legacy - a simple, fathomous Gospel of Jesus Who came into the world to die and rise again so that everyone who believes might escape the wrath of God and be forgiven, justified, [and] have eternal life. That's the crystal-clear resounding message that came out of Billy's mouth over and over again ... we should be careful not to nullify a man's life-work by some statements he makes when he's old," Dr. Piper says.
Piper believes it is hard to measure the abundant fruitfulness that Billy Graham's life and ministry have had for the kingdom of God. He doesn't chalk Graham's success up to personality or learnedness - "The reason for Billy Graham's stunning fruitfulness is that the hand of God has been on him. I think that's key to his influence - he had a spiritual presence about him, an aura of the presence of God ... He had a candor about him, a clarity, a guilelessness," says Piper.
Even those who disagreed with Graham were often taken aback by the way that God speaks through him - "He undid them," Piper laughs, reminiscing of Graham's interviews with well-known skeptics of the faith - "His spiritual demeanor put a lid on their vileness so that somehow his presence restrained evil. There was a kind of peacefulness about him."
The renowned Billy Graham is now ninety-five years old. He addressed our nation with his last crusade, "My Hope America," in November.
"You can't ever be your heroes, but you can love their gifts," Piper says of God's incredible anointing and gifting of Billy Graham. "You can admire the grace of God in their lives, and then you can realize each of us has a measure of Christ's gifts," he says. Piper believes that he will never lead people to Christ the way that Billy Graham has, but rejoices in the fact that God gives the Holy Spirit, and spiritual gifts, to each of His children for the glory of His name. "Receive from God whatever He's given you, and just give yourself to being you with all your might for the glory of Jesus," he says.