Why Graham’s Preaching Worked
It’s what he said, how he said it, how he looked saying it—and how he believed it.
CRAIG BRIAN LARSON
To be honest, Graham’s sermon content does not set him apart from other preachers, if you judge a sermon by one-of-a-kind outlines, profound biblical exposition, or unforgettable illustrations. Slip a transcript into a homiletics professor’s grading pile and it’s unlikely to end up with very high marks.
Make no mistake, though, Graham wrote messages ideal for the masses and for calling people to decision. In other words, to understate the obvious, he really knew how to preach an evangelistic sermon. Graham spoke of life and death, heaven and hell, repentance, society in decay, souls in misery, the love of God, the Cross of Christ. He majored in the gospel in a way simple and clear, relied on Scripture alone for his authority—repeating “the Bible says” without apology—and pursued the listener’s heart and will from beginning to end. The title of his ministry’s monthly magazine—Decision—testifies to this single-minded aim. His preaching displayed a galvanizing urgency because he asked the listener what they would do with Christ today.
Watching Graham stand and deliver, it’s hard not to notice externals. Though not alone among preachers, he certainly enjoyed a commanding appearance. Tall and straight as a ship’s mast, he had long arms that sliced the air constantly, eyes as arresting as any general at the head of a charge or any prophet come down from the mountain, thick hair, a high forehead, and a super-hero jaw. If we tried to explain Graham’s preaching results empirically, we likely would land here, on his visage and voice.
Oh, what a voice. Other preachers may sound as wonderful as Graham, but few have surpassed him. You should listen to his sermons preached in the 1950s and ’60s—for example, “The Great Judgment” in 1958, “The Moral Problem” in 1964, and “The Second Coming” in 1969. His voice draws you in with its Carolina elegance, masculine strength, Beethoven-like melodic authority, kitchen-fire urgency—and passion, passion, passion. His voice was a Steinway piano, and the strings were lightning and thunder.
Yes, on the natural level, external factors played a part in Graham’s impact, and it is theologically correct to acknowledge that. Scripture says all our natural abilities come from God, and that God works through what he has created. Thus our natural abilities align with God’s providence in how he guides and uses us. Although 2 Corinthians 12 teaches that God’s power was made perfect in the apostle Paul’s weaknesses, God also used Paul’s towering intelligence and zealous personality.
Even so, observable factors played only a supporting role in Graham’s fruitful preaching. No one hearing a preacher sincerely responds to Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no matter how impressive the preacher. If God had not been moving in Graham, his sermons, and his hearers, not one person would have truly embraced Christ—not one! Billy Graham would have been Billy Who?
Therefore, though it’s a truism, we must ultimately credit Graham’s success in preaching to God’s choice. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” (Rom. 11:36). No doubt, other preachers prayed and read their Bibles as much or more than Graham, lived as holy as he did, and set their hands to the plow with equal commitment and diligence, but God in his wisdom decided Graham would be the one to reap the gigantic harvest.
There is one more thing, though, about Graham that ties together the human and divine, the natural and supernatural. What animated his voice, frame, and sermons was his heart. When I watch Graham’s messages, I sense a heart of goodness, honesty, faith, sincerity, and humility. I listen, I weigh his heart, and I trust that man. Partly because I believe him, I believe that the resurrected Jesus he proclaims is God’s unique Son and man’s only Savior. Graham’s heart and life have stood the test of time, stamping the final seal of moral authority on a once-in-a-century preacher.
Credit- Christianity Today
Craig Brian Larson is the former editor of Preaching Today and pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago.