In his autobiography Billy Graham recounts the time that he met Karl Barth, arguably the 20th Century’s most significant Protestant theologian. 

Graham and Barth were both on holiday in Switzerland and decided to hike up a mountain together. In the course of their climb, Graham mentioned that he would shortly be holding an outdoor meeting in Basel and that he would be giving a clear invitation to people to respond to the gospel.  Barth’s response was to gently suggest that he should prepare himself for very few to attend. Further, he counselled him against giving an invitation since, assured Barth, no-one would respond.  

When Graham held the meeting despite the pouring rain around 15,000 showed up, including Barth himself huddled under an umbrella. Graham preached clearly from John 3 and the words of Jesus, ‘You must be born again’.  When he issued the invitation to respond to the gospel, hundreds responded positively.  Afterwards, Graham and Barth met again and discussed the meeting.   Here is Graham’s account of their conversation.

‘I agreed largely with your sermon,’ he said afterward, “but I did not like that word must. I wish you could change that.” “It’s a scriptural word, isn’t it?” I replied. He had to agree that it was. He felt, though, that one should not give an invitation; one should just declare that God had already acted. I heard him out and then said I would stick to Scripture. In spite of our theological differences, we remained good friends.[1]

What to make of Graham’s response: ‘I said I would stick with Scripture’?  It is easy to imagine a case where this would be inappropriate.  For example, you suggest to your Christian friend that she is actually free to eat pork. She replies, ‘I’ll stick with Scripture’  and cites Leviticus 11:7 ‘And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you’ (cf.  Deut 14:8). Your friend has a verse to back-up her practice, but she has not situated that verse in its proper biblical context.  So, Jesus in Mark 7:19 clearly declares all food clean. So, it is not simply enough to quote a verse without taking into account an overall theology of the Bible.  The phrase ‘I’ll stick with Scripture’ is obviously not a panacea that will deliver us from all wrong uses of Scripture.

And yet Billy Graham’s response to Karl Barth in this instance is perfectly appropriate.   The words of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:3 have universal application: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (ESV).  Barth’s response  is an illustration of a person’s systematic theology moving away from a truly Scriptural foundation.   This is not a subtle dig at Systematic Theology - some of my best friends are systematic theologians! Any approach to Scripture necessarily rests on a systematic understanding of what Scripture is.  The conviction that John 3:3 functions as normative Scripture is itself a systematic theological conviction.  Nevertheless, in our right aversion to naïve proof texting we mustn’t forget that to the extent that any system of holding the Scriptures together fails to account for the actual detail of Scripture, it is in error. Karl Barth, in this instance, was in error.  Our systems must always be subservient to the Scriptures.

And so like Billy Graham our evangelistic preaching needs to be direct, bold and to call for a response.  There may be contexts where it might be appropriate to simply lay out the facts of the gospel in a more ‘didactic’ way (and interestingly Billy Graham did that on occasion), but in general we need to follow the example of Billy Graham who followed the example of the apostle Paul who followed the example of the Lord Jesus!  We need to spell out the dangers of rejecting Christ, the impossibility of eternal life without him and the need to repent and believe the gospel.  Too often our evangelistic sermons (and I include my own preaching in this criticism!) end with a limp ‘you might like to do this course and find out more’.  Jesus started his evangelistic ministry calling people to ‘repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mk 1:15)  and Paul ends (according to Acts) his ministry ‘teaching about the Lord Jesus with all boldness and without hindrance’ (Acts 28:31).  Let’s go and do likewise!

But, I feel the only appropriate way to finish this blog post is to ask you, dear reader, whether you have been born again?  If you want to have eternal life, you must be born again! In John 3 (verses 15-16) Jesus explains that the way to be born again, the way to have eternal life is ‘to believe in him’  because everyone who believes in him can be absolutely sure that they will ‘not perish but will have eternal life’.  Now that’s a message worth preaching to thousands in the pouring rain!

Dr Peter Orr lectures in New Testament at Moore Theological College.

[1] Graham, Billy (2011-10-11). Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (p. 702). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.   

Pictured: Karl Barth

Credit: Wikimedia Commons