Category Archives: Church History

Billy Graham: The Last of the Great Revivalists

Without a doubt, Billy Graham has had a huge role in shaping American Christianity.  His death on February 21, 2018 signals the passing of an era.  American revivalism was a movement of spiritual wakening that began in the 1700s with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.  It carried on with celebrity preachers like Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody – but it really reached both its climax and end with Billy Graham.

He was born and raised in a Christian home.  His parents were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  His wife Ruth was also a Presbyterian.  He dates his conversion to 1934, when he was sixteen years old.  Billy Graham says his conversion happened during an evangelistic campaign.  Before he became a full-time evangelist, he served as a pastor of two churches and was also the president of a Bible College.  By this time, he was a member of the Southern Baptist Church.  Many Southern Baptists are monergistic in their doctrine of salvation, but sadly, Billy Graham is not.

Let’s be up front with this fact:  Billy Graham was an Arminian.  The “Statement of Faith” of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association signals this clearly when it says:  “…repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.”  Rather than regeneration resulting in faith (the biblical view found in Reformed theology), the BGEA says faith results in regeneration.  First you believe (using your free will) and then you are born again.  Regeneration follows faith, rather than preceding it.  That’s Arminianism and it was also evident in Graham’s 1977 book, How to be Born Again.  Ever since that book was published, Reformed critics have pointed out that you can’t lay out steps for people to follow to be born again – regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit who works this, as the Canons of Dort say, “in us without us” (CoD 3-4.12).  Telling someone how to be born again is just as absurd as telling a baby in the womb how to be born.

Graham began doing evangelistic work in about 1944.  The first few years were spent in obscurity in the United States and England.  But this changed dramatically in 1949.  It happened in Los Angeles where Graham was doing a series of revival meetings.  William Randolph Hearst was the head of an American newspaper chain.  Somehow word about Graham reached him.  He liked what he heard.  Graham was patriotic and young people were attracted to him.  Hearst was also an American patriot, and because this was the time of the Cold War, he was deeply concerned about the communist threat from the Soviet Union.  He saw Graham as a figure who would encourage and support American values.  Graham could be helpful in shielding America from the Soviet Union’s plans to dominate the world.  Hearst sent a two-word telegram to all his newspapers to “puff Graham.”  And they did.  Newspapers all over the United States were covering Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles.  He soon appeared on the cover of leading American news magazines.  His crusade in Los Angeles was planned for three weeks, but because of the news coverage, Graham extended it to eight.  And this is where the story of Billy Graham’s celebrity status begins.

In 1950, he started the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  The Association started organizing crusades around the world.  It also started a radio broadcast called “The Hour of Decision,” and eventually that led to his appearance on television as well.  When I was a boy, I can remember watching the Billy Graham crusades on television sometimes.  I grew up in a church of Dutch immigrants and I wasn’t used to hearing a preacher without a Dutch accent.  He preached clearly.  He often had a Bible in his hand, and he seemed to be preaching about what the Bible says.  Billy Graham was a skilled communicator.  He was simply a preacher, a man who preached with sincerity and seriousness.

Over the years, Graham did over 400 crusades in 185 countries.  His largest event ever was in Seoul, South Korea in 1986 where one million people attended a single crusade evening.  His last crusade was in 2005.  Through television and radio, he has preached to millions of people.  Consider this fact:  more people have heard Billy Graham preach than any other single preacher in the history of the world.  That’s amazing.

So what were some of the features of Billy Graham’s revival ministry?  He preached for individual decisions for Christ.  Following in the footsteps of revivalists before him, public relations campaigns were crucial.  So was getting the sponsorship of local churches.  Graham also made efforts to involve churches by having them send volunteers for his crusades.  They would work as counsellors and in other capacities.  Local churches would also be involved with follow-up.  Billy Graham wanted to make sure that the people who made decisions would be contacted by local churches soon afterwards.  Graham even said this was the most important aspect of his work.

This became controversial in the late 1950s because of who he was working with.  He worked with evangelical churches, but he also worked with the large mainline churches that were friendly to liberal theology.  Converts from his crusades would be directed to become members of these liberal gospel-denying churches.  That caused many fundamentalist Christians to become angry with Graham.

Eventually Billy Graham even came to cooperate with Roman Catholic Churches.  If someone would come to a crusade and make a decision and identify as a Roman Catholic, then they would be directed back to the Roman Catholic Church for spiritual care.  Billy Graham was surprisingly open to Roman Catholicism.  At one point he said, “I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church.”  In another place, he said, “I feel I belong to all the churches.  I am equally at home in an Anglican or Baptist or a Brethren assembly or a Roman Catholic Church.”  He was invited to worship alongside Pope John Paul II at a service in South Carolina in 1987, and he would have if not for an unexpected invitation to China.[1]  Doctrinal differences were minimized and became irrelevant.

Carrying on the tradition of previous revivalists like Dwight Moody, another important feature of the Billy Graham crusades was the music.  Especially at the “moment of decision,” it was important to have the right music played and sung by skilled musicians.  Billy Graham had a long-standing relationship with George Beverly Shea.  Shea began working with Graham in 1947.  Shea would sing a solo before Graham gave his message.  That was to prepare the crowd to receive his words.  After the message, however, Shea turned the singing over to the choir.  They would sing the well-known hymn “Just As I Am” and people would be invited to come forward and make their decision.  The music set the mood.

Billy Graham retired from active ministry in 2006.  Since then, there hasn’t really been anyone to replace him in American revivalistic evangelism.  His son Franklin has done some crusades, but he’s not as popular as his father was.  The phenomenon of revivalism appears to have run its course.  Revivals as big events with preaching and music can hardly compete with television, movies, and the Internet.  With Graham’s death, the era of American revivalism definitely seems to have drawn to a close.

[1] All of this from Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 68-69.

Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.


Quotable Church History: “You are going to burn a goose…”

This is the fifth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and, where applicable, whether it’s biblical.

Today we’re looking at something from one of “Forerunners of the Reformation.”  There were several notable figures who came before Luther.  Men like Jan Huss (1372-1415) hit on some of the same concerns Luther would about a century later.  While Huss accepted Catholic teachings such as transubstantiation and purgatory, he rejected indulgences and the position of the pope as the head of the Church.  Huss argued that Christ is the only head of the church and the Church must submit to the Word of God as its ultimate authority.   His critiques brought him into conflict with the Church.  On a promise of safe passage from the Holy Roman Emperor, Huss appeared at the Council of Constance with the hope of clearing his name.  It didn’t happen.  Instead, he was determined to be a damnable heretic and condemned to burn at the stake.  Before he was martyred, various sources will tell you Huss said something like, “You are going to burn a goose [“Huss” means “goose” in Bohemian], but in a century you will have a swan that you can neither roast nor boil.”

It’s a great quote, but unfortunately Huss likely never said it.

Huss was known to do word plays with his surname.  He was exiled from his home city of Prague in 1412 and, while in exile, he wrote a letter to the “believers in Prague.”  He referred to his enemies as those who wanted to “entwine the simple bird in the snare of citations and anathemas.”  Huss goes on to write:  “But if that bird, which is a mere domestic fowl, whose flight is circumscribed, and far from lofty, has broken through their nets, how much more will other birds that soar aloft as they announce the Word of God, despise such intellectual wiles.”  Note well: that’s a reference to soaring birds of prey, not to swans.  There’s also nothing about burning, roasting, or boiling.  In fact, this letter appears well before his fate as a martyr had been determined by the Council of Constance in 1415.

So what are the origins of this quote?  Apparently Martin Luther.  Luther wrote,

St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will endure.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills.

But the problem remains that we don’t have a primary source where we find Huss writing this.  In an article entitled “Incombustible Luther,” Robert Scribner hypothesizes that Luther combined what Huss wrote in 1412 (quoted above) with a statement made by another martyr condemned by the Council of Constance, Jerome of Prague.  A follower of Huss, Jerome had said that he wished to see what people would think of his condemnation a hundred years hence.  Luther seems to have put those two things together.  According to Scribner, at Luther’s funeral his eulogist Johannes Bugenhagen took it a step further and now Hus’ words became:  “You may burn a goose, but in a hundred years will come a swan you will not be able to burn.”  By 1556, these words were commonly believed to have been said by Huss as he went to his death.

Taken together, all this means it is highly likely Huss never said these words.  In all likelihood, it’s just a pious legend.  In hindsight, however, we can see how God did prepare the way for the Reformation through men like Huss.  Huss left behind a lasting legacy of anti-clericalism in Europe.  This providentially gave Luther the freedom to preach as he did — so when the Catholic Church would try to silence Luther as it did Huss, it would end in failure for them and success for the gospel.

What’s Up in 2018

This past year will be remembered for our celebrations of the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  All around the world, believers praised God again for what he did in leading Luther and others to recover the biblical gospel.  What a great time to recall our Father’s mercies to his people!

The year of our Lord 2018 is going to feature more such celebrations.  This year is the beginning of the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort 1618-19.  This year we’ll begin celebrating how God helped his church to reject the man-centered doctrines of Arminius and his followers.  By God’s mercies, the doctrines of grace were defended and then codified in that faithful summary of Scripture we call the Canons of Dort.

This new year is also notable because it’s a synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA).  Synod Bunbury is scheduled to begin on Monday June 18.  Though it’s being convened by the church of Bunbury, the synod will actually be held in the facilities of the Southern River church (in the Perth metro area of Western Australia).  There are a number of big items of interest, but let me just mention two, both pertaining to inter-church relations.

First is our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN).  As readers know, the RCN last year opened all the offices of the church to women.  The FRCA has warned the RCN that if they did this, our relationship (which is currently suspended) will be terminated.  It is expected that Synod Bunbury will carry through with this.  If it does, we will be the first sister church to cut ties with the RCN over their unfaithfulness.

Second, there is a proposal to investigate the possibility of ecumenical relationships with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church.  While this proposal originated with FRC Launceston, it has been adopted by Classis North of 20 October 2017.  Moving in this direction will have the greatest impact on the Tasmanian churches, since this is the “heartland” of the EPC and SPC.  Their congregations only exist in the eastern part of Australia.  Here in Tasmania, we already enjoy many contacts with EP and SP brothers and sisters.  Many of their children attend our John Calvin School.  We’re working together to establish a Christian counselling organization.  The EPC and FRC recently jointly hosted a Reformation commemoration.  I just returned from speaking at the EPC biennial youth camp — I taught apologetics to about 60 young people, of whom over a quarter were from our Free Reformed Churches.  We have many good connections already — it remains to be seen if we can draw closer together in a more formal relationship.  Here we’re certainly praying for that!

This new year certainly promises to be interesting.  God willing, I hope to be able to share developments with you here.  Whoever you are and wherever you are, I pray that God will give you a most blessed 2018!



Quotable Church History: “Here I stand…”

This is the fourth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 is one of the most dramatic (and dramatized) events in Reformation church history.  Summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther was supposed to repudiate his writings and terminate the Reformation movement once and for all.  At his first appearance, Luther fearfully hesitated.  He was granted a day’s reprieve.  On April 18, he appeared with a fresh measure of boldness.  He owned his writings and allowed that in some of them perhaps he had written too rashly.  But in other books and pamphlets, he had spoken of faith and piety in such a manner that even his critics had to grant there was some value.  Still in other writings, he had critiqued the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Church.  If he would recant these, he said, he would “add strength to tyranny.”  He insisted that unless he was convinced by Scripture or by plain reason, he would not back down, his conscience being held captive to the Word of God.

It’s the conclusion of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms that bears some extra attention.  In most portrayals, literary, cinematic and otherwise, we hear Luther saying something like this:  “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”  But did Luther really say this?

The official transcript of the Diet of Worms would suggest that he did not.  This is how the record reads:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.  God help me.  Amen.

Notice how the ending is quite different from the commonly accepted version.  There is no “Here I stand.”  Where did the extra words come from?

They appeared in the version Luther’s supporters published shortly thereafter in Wittenberg.  This was the version that became embedded in the popular mind.  As Lyndal Roper comments in her biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the words “certainly encapsulated the spirit of his appearance” (p.183).  But did Luther actually say it?  We have no way of knowing for sure.  Perhaps eyewitnesses brought this aspect of the account back to Wittenberg, or perhaps Luther himself reported what he said.  As for the discrepancy with the official record, Roland Bainton suggests this explanation:  “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Here I Stand, p.185).  But it could also be that the official record is correct and Luther’s supporters (intentionally or not) embellished his words.

Whether or not Luther said these exact words, it is eminently biblical to take this sort of uncompromising stance when the gospel is at stake.  Luther was motivated by a desire to bring the church back to the Scriptures, back to the Christ of the Scriptures.  He saw how things had gone off track and how things needed to be reformed.  The church had to get back to the gospel — there was no other way.  Luther’s position was Pauline.  Paul wrote of those who would preach another gospel.  Even if it would be angel from heaven, he said that such a one should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).  In Luther’s mind, the Roman Church had been corrupted by the preaching of another gospel.  How could he, at the Diet of Worms, then compromise and recant?  Would he not then share in Rome’s accursedness?  He had no choice but to stand firm.

Luther is a legendary figure in church history and, as with all legendary figures, there are legends surrounding him — some with less truth than others.  One thing is certain, however:  God worked through him to recover the gospel in a dark era.  God gave him the boldness to stand fast on the cardinal truths of Scripture and for this all Protestants ought to be eternally grateful.