Further Critique of Graham's Teachings

This article was written by Rev. Homer C. Hoeksema in the March 15, 1966 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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The reader will remember that some months ago [Issue 3, 11/1/1965] I criticized an essay by Dr. Billy Graham on "The New Birth." This essay was published by Christianity Today as one of a series of essays on "Fundamentals of Faith." But the essay itself was excerpted from Dr. Graham's recent book, "World Aflame." 

Partly through some correspondence with a Calvinist friend in England who was also interested in this book of Graham, and partly, I suppose, out of a certain innate curiosity and desire "to see for myself", I purchased the book. I wanted to see whether the entire book was like the sample given in the essay on "The New Birth." 

Well, it is,—and worse. And I am more convinced than ever that for Reformed churches to follow and support Billy Graham's teaching and preaching is to commit ecclesiastical suicide. 

But I will not stay with generalities. 

I was particularly interested in discovering whether or not I had correctly judged Graham's doctrine of the natural man when, I claimed that in his doctrine of the new birth Graham denied that the natural man is totally depraved. I wanted to discover whether or not Dr. Graham expressed himself very plainly on the subject. 

And I discovered that he does so and that my evaluation was correct. 

Here is a sample. On page 73 under the heading, "The Results of Sin," we read the following: 

"The totality of this infection is reflected in every part of the Scriptures. It is reflected in every newspaper we read. It is reflected in every radio and television newscast. Thus man is described as being totally depraved. This does not mean that man is totally sinful, hopelessly and irreparably bad, without any goodness at all. It means that sin has infected the totality of man's life, darkening his intellect, enfeebling his will, and corrupting his emotions. He is alienated from God and in need of restoration. His natural, instinctive inclinations are away from God and toward sin." 

Take note of what Graham does here. 

First of all, he leaves the impression of holding to the doctrine of total depravity. We may overlook the fact that he does not come right out and say, so, but expresses himself rather obliquely, "Thus man is described as being. . . ." If the sentence stood all by itself, we would surely be inclined to say, "Here is a Reformed man speaking." 

But wait a moment! 

No sooner has he penned these words than he hastens to add, "This does not mean that man is totally sinful, hopelessly and irreparably bad, without any goodness at all." 

In other words, the depravity is after all not total. Graham holds to a total depravity that is in reality only partial. He will grant that "the totality of man's life" (whatever that may be; does he mean man's nature?) is infected with sin. But this "totality of man’s life” is not totally sinful. It is not hopelessly and irreparably bad. There is indeed some goodness in it. 

Now apart from the fact that this has historically never been the meaning of the expression "total depravity," it certainly is not the Reformed doctrine of total depravity set forth in our confessions. Just compare this with the language of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 5: 

"Canst thou keep all these things perfectly? 

"In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor." 

Or compare Graham's "total depravity" with that of question and answer 7: 

"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." 

Or compare it with Canons III, IV, article 1: 

". . . .but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections." 

Or again, compare it with article 3 of the same chapter of the Canons:

"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." 

This, of course, is one element in Graham's doctrine and preaching which makes it possible for his message to be so popular with men: the sinner which Graham preaches, though he apparently paints him in very dark colors, is never so sinful that he is totally depraved, never so hopelessly sinful that the only exception to his depravity is the wonder of absolutely sovereign grace in regeneration. 

Graham with all his supposed doctrine of total depravity must leave room for what he writes a bit later in his book, p. 76: 

"The need for spiritual rebirth is evident to the most casual observer of human nature. Man has fallen. Man is lost. Man is alienated from God. Man's recovery must begin at the point of his fall. He chose self rather than God. If he is to be recovered, he must choose God over self. Man lives under the sentence of death. This condemnation can be lifted only if man, by a free act of his own will, makes a complete reversal of his original choice." (emphasis supplied, H.C.H.) 

I submit that this italicized statement is worse than Arminianism: it is rank modernism! 

It is surely utterly contrary to the truth of the word of God as it is set forth in Canons III, IV, B, 4, where the error is rejected of those: 

"Who teach: That the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God. For these are contrary to the express testimony of Scripture. 'Ye were dead through trespasses and sins.' Eph. 2:1, 5; and, 'Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually,' Gen. 6:5, 8:21. 

"Moreover, to hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery, and after life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed. Psalm 51:10, 19; Matthew 5:6."

Now remember that I am not writing here about something very incidental in Graham's preaching, but something fundamental. This is a key element in Graham's book and in all his preaching. Just put this to a test. Every time Graham writes or speaks of the sinner, of an evil world, of man's lostness, man's fallenness, man's alienation, supply in a mental note these words: "but not totally sinful," or, "but not hopelessly and irreparably bad," or, "but not without any goodness at all," or, "but not so sinful that he cannot, by a free act of his own will, make a complete reversal of his original choice." 

All of the above adds up to this: Graham's gospel is not the gospel of free grace. 

Incidentally, I would like my Missionary Monthly critic, Dr. Jerome De Jong, to state unequivocally whether he agrees with Dr. Graham on this matter or with our Reformed confessions. It is either. . .or. And if he cannot agree with Graham—as I would hope,—then he is disagreeing with one of the most fundamental elements in Graham's preaching. And then he can hardly support him and defend him. 

How about it?