There is currently appearing in Christianity Today a series of essays on “Fundamentals of the Faith.” In that series, there appeared an essay recently by Billy Graham entitled “The New Birth.” (See Christianity Today, September 10, 1965)
This ought to be of interest to Reformed people because it offers an opportunity to compare Graham’s doctrinal position with that of the Reformed faith, and that too, with respect to a very fundamental aspect of the truth, the new birth, or regeneration. Dr. Billy Graham has a large following and many supporters also among supposedly Reformed people. There are many ministers, leaders, church members, and even consistories and congregations who lend their support to his crusades and those of Leighton Ford. In some cases, people of Reformed persuasion travel by the bus-load and for miles to attend his meetings. Reformed periodicals openly lend their support to Graham’s work. In fact, one can most easily arouse a storm of protest and questions by criticizing Graham’s work and the support of him by Reformed people.
One of the tests that ought to be applied to determine whether he should have the support of Reformed people is: does Billy Graham proclaim the truth of the gospel, according to the Scriptures and according to our Reformed confessions? If he does, he is worthy of support. If he does not, then Reformed people ought not only to withdraw their support; but they should oppose him and his “preaching” militantly.
This test I propose to apply to Graham’s “gospel” as set forth in his essay on the new birth, or regeneration.
I will certainly’ agree with Graham and with Christianity Today that the new birth is one of the “fundamentals of the faith,” that is, it belongs to the very foundation of the faith of the gospel. But I must insist that Dr. Graham’s essay does not constitute an exposition of and a defense of this “fundamental” of the faith, but, on the contrary an attack upon the very foundation. Graham does not really teach the new birth and its necessity, but he denies it.
It is not my intention to review Graham’s entire essay. The doctor is obviously not much of a dogmatician: for instead of limiting himself to an exposition of the new birth in this comparatively brief essay, he virtually covers the entire subject of the “order of salvation” from regeneration to perseverance. But let that be; I would not even criticize this if Graham’s presentation were the true one.
Nor is it even my intention to criticize in detail everything that Graham writes here about the new birth as such.
I wish to make but one point.
That point is that Billy Graham, in spite of the fact that because he quotes Scripture so often he seems to leave the impression of being a Biblical teacher, denies the Biblical truth of regeneration and the absolute necessity of the new birth by making the new birth something that is in final analysis dependent on man.
On page 4 of his essay we find the following:
Jesus Christ demanded: “Ye must be born again,”
He would never have given such a challenge, had it not been a possibility. Yes, man can be changed, radically and permanently, from the inside out. There is the possibility of a completely new man.
It is interesting that Jesus made this statement to Nicodemus, an upright and devout religious leader, who must have been stunned by it. If Christ had said this to Zacchaeus . . . . . or to the woman at the well . . . . or to the thief on the cross . . . . or to the woman taken in adultery, it would have been easier to understand. We know that those persons needed changing. But Jesus said this to ones of the great religious leaders of His time. Nicodemus fasted two days a week, spent two hours daily in prayer at the temple, tithed all his income, taught as a professor of theology at the seminary. Most churches would have been glad to have him; but Jesus said: “It is not enough. You must be born again.” This implies that all men need the new birth, and it also implies that all men can be born again.
Notice in the above quotation that Graham already is beginning his teaching that the new birth is up to man:
1. Jesus words of John 3:7 he calls a challenge to Nicodemus. There is nothing of the kind in the text. There is not even a “demand” here. Jesus simply flatly states the absolute necessity of the new birth, without which, mark you well, a man cannot even see the kingdom of God.
2. Graham speaks of a “possibility” of a completely new man. He means, of course, a possibility for men, as is plain from the fact that he connects this possibility with the “challenge.”
3. He not only speaks of the necessity of the new birth for all men (something with which, in the abstract, we could agree), but he speaks of a possibility of the new birth for all men. This he states literally in the last sentence quoted above. Where does he get it? Not from the text, which only speaks of the absolute necessity of regeneration for Nicodemus and for any man in order to see the kingdom of God.
Take note, next, of the following quotation:
Thus the Bible teaches that man can undergo a radical spiritual and moral change that is brought about by God Himself. The word that Jesus used, and which is translated “again,” actually means “from above.” The context of the third chapter of John teaches that the new birth is something that God does for man when man is willing to yield to God. As we have already seen, the Bible teaches that man is dead in trespasses and sins, and his great need is LIFE.
One day a caterpillar climbs up into a tree where nature throws a fiber robe about him. He goes to sleep and in a few weeks he emerges a beautiful butterfly. So man—distressed, discouraged, unhappy, hounded by conscience, driven by passion, ruled by selfishness, belligerent, quarrelsome, confused, depressed, miserable, taking alcohol and barbiturates, looking for escapisms—can come to Christ by faith and emerge a new man. This sounds incredible, even impossible, and yet it is precisely what the Bible teaches.
Notice in this quotation that Dr. Graham comes out very bluntly with his Arminian and Pelagian conception of salvation:
1. He teaches that the new birth is something that God does for man when man is willing to yield to God. This means nothing else but that man is the deciding factor in regeneration. God’s work of regeneration is dependent on man’s willingness to yield to him. Graham tells us that “the context of the third chapter of John teaches” Again, this sounds Biblical. Fact is, however, that Graham does not prove this statement; and I make bold to say that he cannot prove it either from John 3 or from any other portion of Scripture.
2. In his very next statement Graham seems to teach total depravity in plain Biblical terms. For he writes: “. . . . the Bible teaches that man is dead in trespasses and sins, and his great need is LIFE.” Remember, however, that Graham does not actually believe that the natural man is dead: for this “dead” man of Graham’s theology can nevertheless have the willingness to yield to God and the decision to be reborn. By the same token, Graham does not actually believe the Biblical doctrine of the new birth. For just as the natural man is not truly dead, so his great need is after all not LIFE, but some kind of moral reformation. This is the only possible conclusion one can come to, and it is based on Graham’s own statements. He contradicts himself, of course. He asserts that regeneration is more than reformation. And he asserts that man is dead. And he asserts that man needs “LIFE.” In the meantime, however, mancan undergo the change of the rebirth, and man can yield himself to God, and man can come to Christ by faith,—all BEFORE the new birth.
3. This Pelagian conception of man and of regeneration as something short of the radical change of the heart from death unto life becomes more explicit in the next paragraph of the above quotation. Man is like a caterpillar1 Yes, but that caterpillar that emerges from a cocoon as a beautiful butterfly is not dead! As Graham puts it, he goes to sleep! Man is “distressed, discouraged, unhappy, hounded by conscience . . . . . .” Here Graham piles up descriptive terms, and I could probably add a dozen more. But is he dead? Is he by nature incapable of doing any good and prone to all evil? Not in Graham’s conception! For this sinner is never so dead that he cannot “come to Christ by faith and emerge a new man.”
Graham writes that “this sounds incredible, even impossible.” I say, with Scripture and the Reformed confessions, that this is indeed incredible and impossible,—unless, of course, one pours a different meaning into the terms death and life. Graham adds that “this is precisely what the Bible teaches.” I say that Graham cannot point to a single passage of Scripture which offers this idea of the new birth and of the natural man.
I could quote several more paragraphs from Billy Graham’s essay which present the new birth and salvation as a matter of man’s decision and willingness. But let the above be sufficient.
Now let us place along side of Graham’s teaching the teaching of our Reformed confessions.
First I quote Question and Answer 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?
Indeed, we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
Next, I quote Canons III, IV, 3:
Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.
Further, take note of the Reformed teaching concerning the exercise of “free will,” Canons III, IV, 10:
“But that others who are called by the gospel, obey the call, and are converted, is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others, equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion, as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains; but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as he has chosen his own from eternity in Christ, so he confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of his own Son, that they may show forth the praises of him, who hath called them out of darkness into his marvelous light; and may glory not in themselves, but in the Lord, according to the testimony of the apostles in various places.
Or, note how the Reformed conception stands diametrically opposed to that of Billy Graham in Article 12 of the same chapter of the Canons:
And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture, and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. (literally: which God works in us without us. H.C.H.) But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed his part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly and effectually regenerated and do actually believe.—Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.
The conclusion is very plain. Graham’s gospel is not the gospel of the Scriptures, no matter how frequently he likes to say, “The Bible says . . . .” On the contrary, his message is that of an Arminian, “do-it-yourself” religion.
I write this as a word of warning to Reformed people, first of all. When you support Billy Graham, you are supporting one who by our Reformed confessions and by Scripture stands condemned as a false teacher! If you value your Reformed heritage, you will never do this.
Secondly, I write this as a word of warning to Reformed ministers and elders. When you support Billy Graham, you violate the Formula of Subscription, the vow of your office. In that Formula you promise:
1. Diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the doctrine of our Reformed confessions, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by public preaching or writing.
2. Not only that you reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod (Canons of Dordrecht), but that we aye disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.
For Reformed churches to lend their support to the teaching and preaching of Billy Graham is nothing short of ecclesiastical suicide!