Should Billy Graham's Tombstone Be Controversial for Christians?
Billy Graham made a bit of controversy with his death. More to the point, on his tombstone, there is the inscription that reads, "Billy Graham, Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ" followed by John 14:6. The controversy stems from the verse chosen for his tombstone, particularly its exclusivist claims. The Scripture features a teaching from Jesus himself where he says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn. 14:6, CSB).
Among the Christian world, progressive ministers argue that such a verse should not have been chosen. In our area, two Presbyterian ministers (who will remain nameless) went on the air, claiming that Christ was inclusive of all people and that it was arrogant for Christians to claim that they possessed the only pathway to heaven. I would like to respond in four ways.
1. Jesus made exclusive claims.
From John 14:6, it is self-evident that Jesus made exclusivistic claims. He not only claimed to be the way, truth and life, but he also makes a bolder claim in the next verse, saying, "If you know me, you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (Jn. 14:7, CSB). Furthermore, Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (Jn. 14:10-11). The writer of Hebrews takes Jesus's words a step further, claiming that in Jesus, one finds the "radiance of God's glory and the exact expression of his nature" (Heb. 1:3, CSB). Even the most popular verse in the Bible makes an exclusive claim, saying, that God loved the world so much that he "gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (Jn. 3:16, CSB). One and only Son shows that God had implemented one plan to save the world by his only Son.
2. Salvation is exclusive in nature.
Let's consider the whole aspect of salvation itself. To be saved from one's sins indicates that the person has been spared from a life of sin and from an eternal condemned state. When Evangelicals claim that they have been saved, that is what they are implying. Previously, we mentioned John 3:16, but again, let's put the verse in the context of the message being given. A few verses later, the text reads that "Anyone who believes in him [pointing to Jesus] is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God" (Jn. 3:18, CSB). Isn't it funny that we often mention John 3:16 while neglecting John 3:18? The nature of salvation is exclusive. For it is by Jesus alone that one finds salvation. That may not be popular to say. But, if Jesus is truly the Son of God and is the means by which the Father has chosen to save the world, then there cannot be another way.
3. Jesus is inclusive of all people, but exclusive in the means by which he saves.
Let's pause for a moment and consider the fact that progressives are right in one sense. Jesus accepts repentant individuals from all walks of life. Jesus accepted women, Gentiles, children and the oppressed. The apostle Paul notes that in Christ, "There is no Jew or Greek [no ethnic differences], slave or free [no socio-economic differences], male and female [no gender differences]; since you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, CSB). That is to say, Jesus accepts people as they are. But, this does not mean that Jesus changes his standards. Jesus notes that "Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out" (Jn. 6:37, CSB). So, does Christ accept those from various backgrounds and perspectives? Yes! But, does God change the method of salvation? Absolutely not!
4. All worldviews make exclusive claims.
Lastly, one must note that Christianity is not the only worldview that makes exclusive claims. Buddhists claim that one must reach enlightenment before escaping the wheel of reincarnation. For Buddhists, the escape results in nirvana; for Hindus, it's a utopia. These are exclusive claims. Muslims claim that one must recite the shahada and keep the five pillars of Islam in order to be saved. Even progressives make exclusive claims. They are saying that it is wrong to say that there is only one way to heaven—an exclusive statement! Those who hold that truth does not exist makes an exclusive truth claim, resulting in a self-defeating statement. The point is, everyone makes exclusive claims, but it seems that Christians are targeted when they make the same type of claim to exclusivity.
Was Billy Graham wrong to put John 14:6 on his tombstone? Absolutely not! In fact, this issue should not be controversial for any believer who wholeheartedly holds to the truths of Scripture. In fairness, I think the problem is emotional, not logical. Some believers do not want to seem arrogant, and rightfully so. No Christian should be arrogant. Christians should be the humblest people in the world as we realize that salvation is not work-based, but grace-based. However, we cannot dismiss the genuine claims of Christ in an attempt to appear humble. In the end, God's word will stand true. Billy Graham stood by the principles of Scripture even in his death. May we be revitalized to hold to Scriptural authority with the same effervescent vigor!
Brian G. Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is currently in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian is full member of the International Society of Christian Apologetics and the Christian Apologetics Alliance. Brian has been in the ministry for over 15 years and serves as the pastor of Huntsville Baptist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.