In a recent speech, Franklin Graham demanded that pastors in his audience speak out boldly on several moral issues, lest they fall under God’s wrath for being cowards. He said:
“The definition of a coward: a coward will not confront an issue that needs to be confronted due to fear. That is a coward,” said Graham.
“God hates cowards. And the cowards that the Lord is referring to are the men and women who know the truth but refuse to speak it.”
Graham essentially used the fear of God to prompt his audience to overcome their fears of speaking out.
There are many different aspects of Graham’s talk we could challenge, but I’d like to call into question the role of a wrathful God who hates people in prompting people to change their behavior, such as speaking out on specific moral issues. Graham’s right wing agenda aside, is God really in heaven with his finger on the “hell” button, waiting for us to screw up? I know that I’ve lived this way, fearing that one day’s failure had finally cut me off from God.
Most importantly, how does this approach to God’s wrath and holiness compare to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers about holiness?
A misconception of holiness is at the heart of Graham’s statement. According to Graham, God demands a particular lifestyle, one of moral crusading in American culture, and those unwilling to conform to God’s program receive God’s hatred and an eternity of suffering.
I’ve stated that crassly, but I believe it’s accurate because I also thought that way for most of my life. It’s pretty much what you’ll hear today if you listen to most Christian radio shows.
The only way to avoid God’s wrath in Graham’s system is to change your actions out of fear for self-preservation.
Did Jesus relate to people through fear and the threat of his hatred?
How Did Jesus Interact with Sinners?
Jesus said he didn’t come to judge the world. Isn’t that nice to know? Perhaps he knew that his followers would do enough of that in the future.
In fact, Jesus adopted the role of doctor, comparing the “notorious sinners” of his day with the sick. They were still told to leave their lives of sin, but he didn’t walk around telling people to clean up their acts or God would hate them.
In fact, Jesus sat down to share meals with tax collectors and women with unsavory reputations. When Jesus saw someone living in sin, whether that was cowardice, sexual immorality, cheating, or violence, he had… wait for it… compassion.
Rather than Jesus pounding his fist on the table and shouting that his followers needed to shape up, he slapped his palm to his head when they failed to understand the gift of the Spirit that would empower them to serve others rather than rule as kings.
Far from sitting with his finger on the hell button, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and entered into real life with people. He humbled himself, even taking the form of a servant to help us find the way of redemption.
He called his disciples “friends” rather than threatening them with an eternity of suffering.
Before facing the cross, he promised that the Spirit would come to empower us, fill us wisdom, and guide us into all truth. Yes, there are consequences for rejecting the message of Christ. But he related to others through mercy and grace, imparting his Spirit to imperfect people who desperately needed God’s presence in order to pursue holiness.
How Do We Live Holy Lives?
Whatever you’re trying to do for the sake of Christ, the most important lesson from the Gospels and epistles is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. You won’t last long by simply trying harder.
Living in fear of an angry God will grow old.
When fear of God gives way to loving God as a father, holiness becomes a natural response.
Graham wants the pastors in his audience to fear God, and he’s hoping that this fear of God will trickle down into their congregations. He wants them to try harder as culture warriors in order to win God’s favor.
Sadly, Graham has adopted a kind of works-based righteousness for the sake of a political agenda.
Graham doesn’t realize that God’s favor already belongs to us. All who are thirsty are called to come and drink. God so loved the world after all…
Before the cross, God had an intense, undying love for us.
In the epistle to the Romans, Paul had God’s mercy rather than his wrath in mind. He also called his readers to be renewed in their minds rather than trying harder:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV via BibleGateway)
I rarely call out specific Christians in my writing, but Franklin Graham’s approach to holiness is contrary to the message of Jesus. It grieves me to think that pastors who look up to him are receiving a message that fails to consider the mercy of God, the healing Jesus brings, and the power we receive from the Spirit to live in holiness.
Paul wrote that the Spirit of God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7, BibleGateway). We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters. God demands holiness. It’s not a free for all, but God’s ways under the Spirit are not rooted in fear and wrath.
God relates to us as a caring and compassionate parent who desires to restore us—end of story.