Billy Graham on the gospel, society, and the public square

February 23, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is a print interview conducted by David Lockard of the Christian Life Commission (now the ERLC) and answered by Billy Graham on March 2, 1982.

1. Are repentance and change stressed enough in contemporary Christianity?

No, I don't believe they are. All too often we have given the impression that grace is cheap, or being a Christian is just a matter of easy belief.

But the New Testament stresses discipleship. It stresses that when a man comes to Christ he must leave his old life behind and follow Christ. Christ commanded us to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28: 19). I'm afraid there are far too many people in our churches who would say they believe in Christ—they believe He was the Son of God, that He died on the cross for our sins, and He rose again from the dead—but they have never really committed themselves to Him. We need to hear Jesus' words again "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9: 23).

2. How have parachurch groups and media preachers influenced the Church as a whole? Local churches?

On the whole I believe the influence has been positive. There are certainly many people who have been converted through these ministries and have then become involved in the church. In some instances I am sure churches have also become more aware of the need of evangelism (for example) because of the ministry of parachurch organizations.

At the same time, however, there have unfortunately been some instances of parachurch groups and media preachers who have not been as supportive of the local church as they should have. This is unfortunate, because believers need the fellowship of other believers. In our Crusades we have always stressed working with local churches, and do all we can to point those who have made commitments to Christ to local churches.

3. How have the Old Testament prophets influenced your ministry?

I have been tremendously influenced by the Old Testament prophets. For one thing, I have always been challenged by their deep commitment to God and his work and their determination to declare the Word of God regardless of the cost to them personally. Also, I have been greatly influenced by their basic themes. They had a deep concern for justice, for example, and they always stressed the need for repentance and turning to God. They also underlined God's love for his people, and his willingness to receive them and forgive them. More than that, they pointed to Christ, who was to come. That also is the supreme task of God's people today—to point to Christ.

4. Do you regard speaking out on social issues, even controversial ones, as an important part of the gospel?

Social issues are not the same as the gospel. That is, a preacher may speak about a certain social issue, but that does not mean he is necessarily preaching the gospel. When we proclaim the gospel, we are declaring what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring salvation to men, and what men must do in response.

At the same time, I doubt if there is any significant social issue that I have not preached on at one time or another. One reason for this is because problems within society are actually demonstrations of our deeper problem—a problem of sin. They are the evidences of humanity's rebellion against God. Then I think we need to stress as well that when a person comes to Christ, he will be committed to righteousness—both in his own life and in society.

5. Where do you try to stand in speaking out on those issues? What dangers do you see?

There are very real dangers in any clergyman—particularly an evangelist—getting too involved in political issues. There are many very, very difficult and complex issues in this world, and we do not necessarily know the answer to them just because we are preachers or Christians. At the same time, I always try to look beneath the immediate issue to see if there is a moral principle involved. There are some issues facing our society that involve clear-cut moral principles. I believe the church must be very careful and cautious about getting involved in political issues, particularly partisan political matters. But individual Christians have a responsibility to speak out on matters where moral principles are clearly at stake.

6. Do you regard the United States as God's chosen nation?

God has blessed our nation in many ways in the past, and I am deeply grateful for our country. However, God's concern is with people, not with nations. We cannot assume that just because God has blessed us in the past that we will be immune from his judgment in the future. In fact, I am deeply concerned about the moral and spiritual drift in our land. The Bible clearly teaches that God judges nations that turn their back on Him. There is no guarantee whatsoever that God will not do that to us—and in fact we may already be seeing signs of his judgment on our land.

7. What is the greatest danger of someone such as yourself speaking out on political issues?

I believe my calling as an evangelist is to make the gospel as clear as possible to people, and then call them to commitment to Christ. If I were to get deeply involved in political issues, my message would become unclear and confusing. It is Christ who saves men and women, not adherence to any particular political philosophy. We must be very careful of diluting the gospel message. Also, as I suggested earlier, it is often difficult for us to know exactly what stand to take on a political issue. When we are dealing with the gospel we are dealing with the truth of God, but when we are dealing with political issues we may not necessarily know what the full truth is. We need a great deal of humility about this.

8. How have materialism and affluence affected Americans, especially Christians?

On the positive side, America's prosperity has meant that the church has been able to support a large number of missionaries and relief efforts in many parts of the world. I am grateful for this, although I do not believe on the whole we have been nearly as sacrificial in our giving as we could have been. We need to realize in a fuller way that everything we have has come from God's hand, and we are to be only stewards.

Unfortunately, there is also a negative side. Materialism and affluence have all too often made us "at ease in Zion." Far too many people—and I am talking about Christians now—have gotten their priorities wrong. We have not sought the Kingdom of God and his righteousness above all else, but have pursued material wealth and pleasure instead. In addition, materialism has often shaped our thinking. We have forgotten we are commanded to "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2). We have lost sight of the fact that millions upon millions of people live on the knife edge of starvation in our world, and we have been selfish and uncaring.

9. What responsibilities do we as Americans, as American Christians, have to other nations in economic matters?

This is not an easy question to answer, because the issues are extremely complex. We all still need to do a great deal of thinking about this. Certainly, however, we ought to be concerned about the great gulf between the rich nations and the poor nations. We need to be concerned about starvation and malnutrition. At the same time, we have to avoid simplistic thinking, believing that somehow a change in the economic or social systems will erase all the problems.

10. Why did you endorse SALT II?

What I have actually endorsed is SALT X—the complete destruction of all nuclear weapons. We live in an age which is completely without parallel in history. For the first time, humanity has the awesome ability to destroy itself. As a Christian, of course, I believe that the last is with God, not man, and that God will not permit us to destroy the human race on our own. But our modern weapons have an incredible capacity for destruction, and this must concern every Christian.

We need to recognize, however, that the basic issues in our world are spiritual. We have wars and the threat of war because of the greeds and lusts of the human heart. Certainly we need to do all we can to work for peace in our world. At the same time, we know as Christians that only Christ can change the human heart. Political solutions alone will not do the job. I believe we need to work for peace in the world, and our most effective way of doing that is by preaching the gospel of the Prince of Peace.

11. Do you detect much evidence of fear in the world? Is it worse than ten or twenty years ago?

In some ways modern man is almost numb because of the events of the last few decades. Many people, I find, are almost fatalistic about the future. They sense that somehow our world is falling apart, but they don't believe that anything can be done about it. At the same time, I believe there is growing fear and anxiety in our world today. Jesus spoke of a time when men's hearts would fail them for fear, and you can't help but feel that we are approaching that time.

This is a great challenge to those of us who know Jesus Christ. Christ is the One who is able to calm and quiet the fears of the human heart, because He alone gives us hope for the future. It is interesting to note that some of the great revivals of our time are taking place in areas of the world which are beset by chaos and fear. In such times, people seem to realize their only hope is in God.

12. In your opinion, do we need to be embarked on the program of military build up which is now occurring, especially of nuclear weapons?

I was told in Europe that both the United States and the Soviet Union have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the whole continent of Europe thirteen or fourteen times over. Certainly a terrible Sword of Damocles hangs over the human race because of the constant production of nuclear weapons.

I wish the great nations of the world could move ahead on a practical program of disarmament. I am not a pacifist, and I am not in favor of unilateral disarmament. Disarmament will take cooperation on all sides, and that involves a certain level of trust on all sides. That is going to be difficult to achieve, particularly in the current political climate. We need to pray for our president, and for the leaders of the other nations of the world, that progress will be made on this issue.

13. You have said that you think racial problems might be facing the nation again. Why?

I have talked with many leaders in our country—both black and white—and have found a great deal of concern about this. Perhaps one reason, of course, is the country's present economic situation, which highlights the poverty of many of our minority people.

During the last few decades there have been many positive steps to fight discrimination, such as new laws. These have helped in many ways, but at the same time we are discovering that they have not necessarily eliminated the economic problems—unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunity—that affect so many ethnic minorities. We have also discovered that simply changing the law does not necessarily change the attitudes of people. Christians in our nation must not assume that the racial issue has been solved just because many laws have been changed. It is a continuing problem, and Christians, of all people, need to set an example of love and concern for justice.

14. Do you think that the hard right (or political right) is interested in manipulating religion?

I don't consider myself a member of the hard political right, so I don't think I am in the best position to answer a question like this. As a general principle, however, there are always those—both on the left and the right—who may try to manipulate religion to their own uses. This is one reason I believe the church needs to be very wary about becoming deeply involved in political and social issues. By doing so, it becomes very vulnerable to manipulation. That manipulation can come from the right or the left.

15. Why is family decay so prominent in our society?

As a Christian I believe the ultimate reason is because we have left God out of family life all too often. It is commonly said that a good marriage involves three people—the husband, the wife, and God. When we neglect Him and his moral laws, then we begin to make up our own laws and that is disastrous.

Certainly the heart of many of the problems in marriages today is a failure to love. Our society is infected with selfishness on every hand. Young people are constantly told to "do your own thing." We also have given the idea that life should be without any problems, and that if problems crop up we should bail out of a marriage. But that is simply not so. A marriage involves work. It involves love, which is the opposite of selfishness. I am greatly distressed by the decay in family life in our nation, and I believe it is one of the most crucial challenges facing the church today. We should be doing all we can to bring stability into the marriages of people in the church and we should do all we can to help our young people who are looking toward marriage.

16. What advice would you give to husbands?

Well, I could write a whole book on this subject! One thing I have found, is that a husband really needs to learn to be gentle with his wife. He needs to learn tenderness. He needs to pay careful attention to the small things in a marriage that keep the spark of love alive and growing. Most marriages don't fall apart by design—they slowly fall apart by neglect. A man needs to be sure that his priorities are straight—Christ first, then others including his family. Far too many husbands put their career first or their recreational interests.

17. What advice would you give to wives?

I ought to let my wife Ruth answer this! She has just written a book on the subject entitled, It's My Turn.

However, wives need to realize that their husbands need a great deal of emotional support. They may not always want to admit it, but they need encouragement and support. No man likes a wife who is constantly cutting him down or nagging him. And just as the husband needs to pay attention to the little things that keep love alive, so the wife needs to pay attention to them also.

18. How can churches affect family life, either positively or negatively?

For one thing, through our teaching we need to stress the priority of family life. We also need to do that in our practice. I have heard of churches that have meetings every night of the week, and I don't think that sets a good example for family life. We also need to encourage people in practical ways so that they grow together as a family spiritually. Are we teaching people, for example, how to have family devotions?

19. You have expressed some concern about the super churches. Why?

Large churches are not necessarily wrong. At the same time, in large churches it is much easier for a person to get lost and remain relatively uninvolved in the life of the church. If a particular church happens to be quite large, I think its leaders need to think through very carefully how each individual will be ministered to in a personal way. Of course small churches can lose sight of the individual also, but the danger is usually found in larger churches.

20. You have always emphasized financial integrity. Does the emphasis on fund raising and the manner in which it is done by media preachers disturb you?

In some instances it certainly does. The same is true of fund raising in some churches I have seen also. Paul said, "Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception" (2 Corinthians 4:2). That includes deception about our message, but I believe it also applies to our methods in all we do—including fund raising. I think we especially need to be sensitive to the way our fund raising in the church is perceived by outsiders. There also needs to be very careful financial accountability within any Christian organization. It is interesting, for example, to note the care with which Paul dealt with the collection for the Jerusalem Christians (see especially 2 Corinthians 8 and 9).

21. Is the pro-morality emphasis of the New Religious Right defined broadly enough?

I am not sure exactly to what you are referring, but I certainly share concern for the moral issues that have been highlighted by some groups today. We need to be deeply concerned about issues of personal morality. We also need to be concerned about hunger, peace, and justice. We have a responsibility to be concerned about social issues, although that is not our main message as Christians. We have a glorious gospel, and we must never lose sight of our Lord's command to proclaim that gospel. We need to be witnesses of his love and grace—both by our words and our deeds.