“America’s Pastor,” Billy Graham, passed away Wednesday at the age of 99. The news of his death opened a floodgate of tributes from near and far. President Donald Trump tweeted, “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! A very special man.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he was “profoundly grateful” for Graham’s life. TV host Kathy Lee Gifford tearfully remembered Graham as the man who led her entire family to Christ.
It would be tempting to say that Billy Graham is in heaven because of all he did while on earth. After all, this was the man who was the confidant of 12 U.S. Presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Over a span of 60 years, he preached to approximately 215 million people in 195 cities and territories. He founded Christianity Today magazine in 1956, helmed a media enterprise that produced religious movies and radio programs, wrote a popular syndicated newspaper column and authored more than 30 books, including his best-selling autobiography, Just As I Am. Between 1950 and 1990, Graham garnered a spot on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” roster more often than any other American. Graham was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, some of the highest civilian awards in the United States.
But Billy Graham is not in heaven today because of any of these deeds or accolades, as great as they were. By all accounts, Graham himself was a humble man, preferring to be called “Billy” rather than by a ministerial title. He once said, “I despise all this attention on me. I wish we could publicize the meetings in some way in which my name was not used. I’m not trying to bring people to myself, but I know that God has sent me out as a warrior…to preach the Gospel.”
Graham would be the first to admit that he was not saved by his good works. At a Cincinnati Crusade in 2002, Graham preached that he had felt death coming for him several times. During those moments, he didn’t brag to God that he was a great preacher, but a sinner who still needed the Cross.
We human beings love pointing to our works as a badge of honor. Most of us want people to recognize how good and noble we are. We picture a scale that we try to tip in our favor by feeding the poor, clothing the naked, championing justice. But mixed in with our laudable deeds is sin, and our sin is what separates us from God. Graham preached the Gospel solution: “Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Savior, and if we do, we have forgiveness of all of our sins.”
If you’re relying on your own power to get into heaven, “Billy” would point you away from yourself. A drowning person cannot be his own lifeguard. As the Bible says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
Billy Graham believed this and he lived it to his dying day.