“Wanted, Not Worthless”

foundWhen I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own.  It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”

sheepDr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80).  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point.  In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it!  And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15.  The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb.  And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought!  The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.

Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said.  Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died.  Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35.  He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house.  His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back.  And Jeff did.  He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

jeffJeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan.  Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school.  Jeff was a good athlete and a great student.  Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School.  He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college.   Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success.  He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.

It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him.  He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things.  He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs.  During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness.  They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure.  Jeff never was drug free for six months.

Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace.  And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”

The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother.   A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search.  And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people.  Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find.  When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well.  After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.

Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given.  The phone rang once, twice, three times.  Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word.  It was Jeff’s voice.  He’d done it.  He’d found his brother.  But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say?  He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you.  We miss you. Please come home.”  There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.

Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day.  Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul.  It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.

parnellJonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine.  We are told to bridge the gap by our effort.  If you want salvation, they say, seek it.”  And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5).  He’s the seeker.  He’s the Savior.  Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us. 

“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you.  And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+




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God’s “No” & God’s “Yes”

I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.

hatMartin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament.  Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

noThe Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).

I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing.  In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….”   A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment.  It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly.  It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!”  And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”

Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.  The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society.  And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.

The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.

The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.

yesGod says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.

cookJerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”

People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –

First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception.   Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)

God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel.  It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel.  And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving.  DBS+


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“Are you saved?”

edwardsI can still remember reading Jonathan Edward’s (1703 – 1758) sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in an American literature anthology when I was in high school, and being absolutely horrified by it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you… God’s wrath towards you burns like fire; God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”

 When I was in the 11th grade, I didn’t think that I was nearly as bad a person as that sermon said I was, and I didn’t think that God was nearly as mean and awful as that sermon made Him out to be.  And if this is what I, someone who actually believed in God and regularly went to church thought about what Jonathan Edwards said in his sermon, then, I wondered, what would an unchurched unbeliever think? I’ve since found it.  If getting “saved” involves the view of God and self that Jonathan Edwards described in his sermon, then they’re just not having it.  But what if getting “saved” doesn’t involve Jonathan Edward’s view of God or self at all?

Back in the day, when students at Yale University would tell Dr. George Buttrick (1892 – 1980), Dean of the Chapel, that they weren’t coming to his services “because they didn’t believe in God anymore,” his standard response was always to say -“Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in anymore because I probably don’t believe in that God either!” And this makes me think that before rejecting “saved” talk because of the spiritual offense of what Jonathan Edwards famously did with it, maybe it should first be wrenched from his grip so that we might look at it from another vantage point.

The New Testament word for “saved” means to be “rescued,” “delivered,” “kept from harm.” It was a word that assumed that there was something or someone powerful out there that’s threatening people; someone or something that’s trying really hard to destroy them.  And the New Testament word for “Savior” was the title given in the ancient world to anyone who was able to keep people from that something or someone actually harming them.  Generals who won great military victories were called “saviors” in the ancient world.  So were ship captains who navigated terrible storms and brought their passengers and cargo safely to port, as were wealthy benefactors who rebuilt cites after natural disasters, as were rulers who brought stability and prosperity to their states.  We do the same thing.  A “Savior” is someone who “saves” people from something horrible that’s happening to them.

When he was just a little boy the preacher David Pratte says that he and some of his neighborhood friends built some rickety rafts to float down the drainage ditch in front of their homes after a big storm (https://www.gospelway.com).  A neighbor warned them that the ditch was deep, that the current was fast, and that the water was muddy. “It’s dangerous boys” he told them. “You could drown if you fall in,” and David almost did.

raftWhen his raft predictably capsized, David struggled to get to the shore, but he couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery bank and he kept being pulled away and under by the swift current. When he finally slipped exhausted beneath the dark water for what he thought was the last time, that neighbor heard the commotion from his house, ran just as fast as he could to the ditch and jumped in fully clothed.  He couldn’t see where David was in the muddy swirling water, but he just happened to kick him when he jumped in, and so he was able to reach down and pull David up and out to safety. You saved my life,” David kept repeating to that man that day, “you saved my life.” And to this day David will tell you that he thinks of that man as his “savior,” and the story that the Bible tells us is the story of how God does this for us as human beings.  He jumps into our lives, and into our world, to pull us out of the trouble we’re in.

The Gospel is not as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. We’re made for fellowship with God, but that intimacy got shattered when we chose to cut God out of our lives, and then everything else in our world began spinning out of control because God was no longer at its center holding everything in good balance and proper orbit.  Seeing the damage we’d done, and understanding the trouble we were in, God began the slow and deliberate process of making His way back into our lives.

Now, when we talk about getting “saved,” I believe that what we’re talking about is God doing this hard work of fixing what’s broken, of repairing what’s gone awry, of restoring us to a right relationship with Himself.  Some Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, when talking about salvation put the emphasis on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on God.  What we do wrong makes God mad, and so getting “saved” means escaping His punishment. But there are other Christians who, when talking about salvation, put the emphasis instead on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on us.  It makes God sad to see the way we struggle and suffer, and so getting “saved” means that God steps in to help make things better.

LouiseI like to read mysteries, and one of my favorite series are the books that the Canadian author Louise Penney writes about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force of Quebec, and the quirky little village where he lives with his wife and friends – Three Pines. Armand Gamache is one of the wisest literary characters that I have the pleasure of knowing, and he is forever saying that there are four sentences that we all need to learn how to say as human beings — “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”  And “I was wrong.” It’s gotten so that now when people ask me why I think they need to be “saved,” I think in Inspector Gamache’s terms –

  • People need to be “saved” because we need help. As the folks in recovery know all too well – we are powerless over so many things, and our lives are unmanageable in so many ways, and only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and stability. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, my emphasis when thinking and talking about salvation is not that we’re bad and that God is mad, but that we’re in trouble and need God’s help.
  • We also need “saving” because there’s just so much that we don’t know. We don’t really know who we are, or what it is that we finally want. And we aren’t really sure about who God is, or what it is that He finally wants. Thus is why the book of Proverbs begins with the declaration that “reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Jesus meant the same thing when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and then everything else in your life will start to sort out for you” (Matthew 6:33). When the fact of God’s existence and the truth God’s being gets fully reestablished in our lives, then we have a firm place to stand, and a sure foundation from which operate.
  • And finally, we need “saving” because we’re frequently wrong and we’re often sorry. I know I’m guilty about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, and I’m deeply ashamed of the kind of person that I know I can be at times. You may have seen that bumper sticker that says – “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, I’ve got cats and I’m not sure that they even give me a thought except when they want to be fed. So, for me, it’s different.   I want to be the kind of person that I know God created me to be, that Jesus Christ has made possible for me to become again by dying and rising for me, and that the Holy Spirit is right now empowering me – bit by bit and day by day – to actually become.

When I hear the word “salvation” these days, I don’t primarily think about a God who needs to be appeased because He’s mad at us for being sinners, but rather, I think about a God who’s steadily, relentlessly making His way towards us, at great personal cost to Himself, because He knows we’re in trouble, in desperate need to help, and He loves us.

Practically speaking, believing this has some very real consequences for me –

  • First of all, I know that every single person I meet every day, all day, is in some kind of trouble. The fact is, we all need “saving.” As Dr. Charles Kemp, my professor of Pastoral Care at Brite Divinity School 40 years ago constantly told us – “Always be gentle and kind to people because everyone is carrying a heavy burden of some sort.”
  • And second, I know that every single person I meet is someone for whom Christ died (I Corinthians 8:11). Jesus Christ is the way God makes His approach to us in our need, and it’s what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and then by getting up out of that borrowed tomb that is how God deals with all of those forces in our lives and this world that seek to work us woe. Jesus Christ is how God jumps into the deep, dark, swirling waters that are pulling us under to pull us up and out.

It was hard for me to see the face, and heart, of the God I knew in Jesus Christ in the things that Jonathan Edwards said about Him in his famous sermon. But rather than throwing the theological baby out of the homiletical bathwater that he was using, I discovered that there are other, better ways of Biblically thinking and talking about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ than the one Jonathan Edwards chose to develop.

Christianity is a religion of salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Christians are people who have been saved.  And it matters, it really matters, that we who know this firsthand in our own experience of it by faith to then think and talk about it in ways that emphasize God’s goodness and grace in a world where suffering, struggling people are desperately seeking help and hope. DBS+


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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 5)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


Steps to Peace with God”

  1. RECOGNIZE GOD’S PLAN – Peace and Life

God loves you and wants to give you His plan that begins with the gift of eternal life that is filled with peace, satisfying and good. However, billions of people are not saved because they do not know that they are lost and headed for hell. Only when people recognize that they need to trust Christ alone as their Savior from sin can they recognize God’s plan for their life. Many go through their entire life not recognizing God’s will for their life and consequently suffer distress, frustration and emptiness then eventually hell and eternal judgment. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

  1. REALIZE OUR PROBLEM – Separation from God

People chose to disobey God and go their own way. When sin entered the world, because of man’s disobedience, death passed upon all men, for we have all sinned through the sin of Adam as well as with our own disobedience to God’s holy character. Realizing that one is separated from God means that one fully comprehends the condition of one who is at enmity with our Creator. Paul wrote about this state in Ephesians 2:1-3 when he wrote, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient… Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” The Bible says, “For everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence and glory” (Romans 3:23).

  1. RESPOND TO GOD’S REMEDY – Cross of Christ

Christ died, was buried and resurrected from the dead to provide a sacrificial atonement for the forgiveness of all our past, present and future sins if we will respond to Him with saving faith. It is not enough to just say we believe in Christ. We must place our trust in Christ as the substitutionary payment for the forgiveness of our sins. We must trust Christ to become our personal Savior from sin as the one who became our sin bearer. The Bible teaches, “But God has demonstrated his own love for us. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us… and not just for our sins only, but also for the sins of the world” (Romans 5:8). Jesus is the medicine we need to respond to if we want to receive the remedy for sin, death, hell and eternal separation from God.

  1. RECEIVE GOD’S SON – Savior and Lord

A person crosses the bridge to become a member of God’s eternal family when you ask Christ to come into your life and receive Him by saving faith. The Bible says, “But to as many as did receive and welcome Him. He gave the authority (power, privilege, right) to become the children of God, that is to those who believe (adhere to, trust in, and rely alone on) His name – the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (John 1:12). Only when we personally invite Christ into our life as our Savior and Lord do we become a son or daughter of God. Until that time we are not a part of God’s eternal family. The Bible teaches, “Who owe their birth neither to bloodlines nor to the will of the flesh (that of physical impulse) nor to the will of man (that of a natural father or mother) but to God. (They are born of God and receive His nature into their soul)” (John 1:13).


Repent (turn from your sins) and by faith receive Jesus Christ into your heart and life and follow Him in obedience as your Lord and Savior.


“Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner. I believe You died for my sins. Right now, I turn from my sins and open the door of my heart and life. I receive You as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank You for saving me now. Amen.”




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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 4)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


“The Next Billy Graham”

Now that Billy is gone, a question that is being actively, and even urgently, discussed by many Evangelicals is – “Who’s next?” Who is going to step up now to take his place as the great unifying voice and public spokesperson for this diverse “conversionist” (Lives need to be transformed through being “born-again” and undertaking a lifelong process of following Jesus), “activist” (The Gospel needs to be actively demonstrated through lives of witness and service), “Biblicist” (The Bible is our highest authority in matters of Christian faith and practice), and “Crucicentric” (a focus on the cross of Christ as the basis of our redemption and reconciliation) community called “Evangelicals”?

My favorite answer is the one that Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers.  He writes –

Whenever I start to get discouraged about the future of the church, I remember the last conversation I had with the Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry… Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church… We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals, and I will never forget his reply.

“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals,” he said. “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans… Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was going to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis or a Charles Colson? They were both unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith…” And then he said, “The next Billy Graham might very well be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now.”

I actually hope he or she is, because this is the truth to which Billy Graham devoted his entire life, that – “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and that – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What would be more fitting than for the next Billy Graham to be someone whose life gets suddenly and powerfully transformed in this way by the Gospel that Billy himself preached and trusted so faithfully for so many years?  DBS+

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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 3)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


 “Two Giants; Two Perspectives; One Gospel” ________________________________________________________________________________________

One of my favorite explorations of the true significance of Billy Graham and his ministry was what Loren Mead of the Alban Institute wrote about him in his 1994 book Transforming Congregations for the Future (Alban Institute Publication) –

Growing up as a Christian in the South… I was exposed to two giants of faith. Although most people around me had an aversion to at least one of the two, from my earliest exposure to them I understood that both were evangelists and both were giants…. Both were Southerners and Protestants like me, so I felt regional kinship with them. One was black; the other is white. Both were Baptists… Over the years I watched them, learned from them, and admired them…

Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the prophetic strand of our heritage, standing strong against oppression. Many people in the white culture in which I grew up, people I cared about, thought he was the tool of the devil.  Others thought the sun rose and fell on him.  As a child of my culture, I started out with the former group and had to do some growing to discover that he was a true prophet for me. One of the treasures of my life is the worn copy of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” that I found in my father’s effects after his death.   I did not know what my father thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., until I found that letter filled with my father’s appreciate marginal notes.  Billy Graham is the other giant.  The people with whom I normally consort – generally leaning liberal in politics and theology – have such low regard for him that I rarely bring up his name in their company.  With those folks I keep Billy Graham as my private closet saint! (32)

This background set up Dr. Mead’s point –

For years I accepted the fact that my admiration of the two defied rationality; what they were was more important than whether or not they fit into my categories. [It was] Struggling with their different gifts as evangelists, however, that led me beyond traditional ways of thinking.  If both of them were evangelists; if both of them were bearers of good tidings, then our definitions are simply inadequate.  Evangelists are not just one thing and always the same.  The truth is more complex than is comfortable.  My first clue came when I recognized that King and Graham were speaking the same Gospel, but that each had a different target.   They saw the bad news differently… [In King and Graham] I was facing two people, each of whom was committed to the Gospel, but each of whom saw a different kind of bad news.

Billy Graham speaks to the bad news he sees as he looks at the human condition. He sees human beings turned away from God, people who separate themselves by their actions or their values, and build barriers against God’s presence in their lives… That is the bad news that Billy Graham addresses with his good news.  He proclaims that human beings do not have to be condemned to separation and death.  He speaks the message that Christ through His cross and resurrection has broken down the walls of separation…

King saw a very different dimension of bad news. He saw corporate systems whereby one group takes oppressive power over another, destroying the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed… To that specific bad news King preached good news that was quite different from that preached by Graham.  He saw and proclaimed that God’s love means liberation not only of the soul, but also of human society.  King demonstrated that both the oppressed and the oppressor can enter into liberation, and that indeed one party cannot be freed without the other. (33-34)

Loren Mead could hold both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham in his head and heart because he had a view of the Gospel that saw it as being big enough to be able to address more than just one question and that could solve more than just one problem at a time. As Dr. Mead concluded, “King’s way of stating the good news is very different from Graham’s, yet both are grounded in the story of Jesus.” Billy Graham’s admirers need to be told that their Gospel is Biblically incomplete if they can’t admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his perspective too, just as Dr. King’s admirers need to be told the same thing about their Gospel if they can’t, or won’t, make room for Billy Graham’s ministry and perspective as well.  Our Gospel is big enough for both; our Gospel requires both. DBS+

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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 2)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


“I Stand by the Door”

Billy Graham was an instrumental voice in my own spiritual awakening in 1969 when I was 16 years old. People I know like to criticize Billy Graham for not being more theologically sophisticated. But that’s always seemed to me to be a little bit like criticizing Nolan Ryan for not being a better batter, or Bill Gates for not ever having a song in the Billboard top ten. Nolan Ryan was not paid to hit the ball but to throw strikes, and he was pretty good at that! And we don’t know Bill Gates for his singing abilities but for his technical and entrepreneurial genius, and that genius is pretty impressive! So, to criticize Billy Graham for not writing anything comparable to Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics,” or for not teaching at some top tier theological seminary where he might have become a first-rate scholar is to completely miss his gifts and call.

Robert Raines got it exactly right when he wrote in his 1961 book New Life in the Church (Harper & Row) –

When Billy Graham came to New York City for a Crusade (1957), Protestant clergymen came out both for and against him. Reinhold Niebuhr, a top-flight theologian, took what appeared to be a thoroughly negative view of Graham’s coming, “as though the eye were to say to the hand, I have no need of your” (I Corinthians 12:20). But Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the President of Union Theological Seminary where Dr. Niebuhr was a world-famous teacher, said – “There are many, of whom I am one, who are not ashamed to testify that they would probably never have come within the sound of Dr. Niebuhr’s voice or the influence of his mind if they had not first been touched by the message of the earlier Billy [Billy Sunday]. Quite probably five or ten years hence there may appear in the classrooms and churches of Billy Graham’s severest critics not a few who will be glad to give parallel testimony to his role in starting them in that direction.” (42)

Sam Shoemaker, another evangelist of the last generation, spoke of his ministry in a way that helps me understand and appreciate Billy Graham’s ministry.

I stand by the door. I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out. The door is the most important door in the world – It is the door through which men walk when they find God. There is no use my going way inside and staying there, when so many are still outside and they, as much as I, crave to know where the door is. And all that so many ever find is only the wall where the door ought to be. They creep along the wall like blind men, with outstretched, groping hands, feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door, yet they never find it. So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world is for men to find that door – the door to God. The most important thing that any man can do is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks and opens to the man’s own touch. Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter. Die for want of what is within their grasp. They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it. Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it, and open it, and walk in, and find Him. So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in – Go way down into the cavernous cellars, and way up into the spacious attics. It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is. Go into the deepest of hidden casements, of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood. Some must inhabit those inner rooms and know the depths and heights of God, and call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is. Sometimes I take a deeper look in. Sometimes venture in a little farther, but my place seems closer to the opening. So I stand by the door.

…I admire the people who go way in. But I wish they would not forget how it was before they got in. Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door… As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there, but not so far from men as not to hear them, and remember they are there too. Where? Outside the door – Thousands of them. Millions of them. But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them. Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch. So I shall stand by the door and wait for those who seek it. “I would rather be a door-keeper” (Psalm 84:10) – So I stand by the door.

Billy stood by the door to show people where and how to get in, and as one who was ushered by him into a deeper understanding and a fuller experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am so grateful that he was there. DBS+


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