Did he really say that?

I’m reading President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, and I’m finding it difficult to put it down. I’m puzzled by one anecdote near the beginning of the book that I thought deserved some comment. The story is about a Bush family gathering in Kennebunkport in the mid-80’s, and the Reverend Billy Graham was their special guest. At a discussion session after dinner one night, President George H. W. Bush asks Reverend Graham a question, and here’s how the younger President Bush recounts what happened:

“The first question was from Dad. He said, ‘Billy, some people say you have to have a born-again experience to go to heaven. Mother [my grandmother] here is the most religious, kind person I know, yet she has no born-again experience. Will she go to heaven?’ Wow, pretty profound question from the old man. We all looked at Billy. In his quiet, strong voice, he replied, ‘George, some of us require a born-again experience to understand God, and some of us are born Christians. It sounds as if your mom was just born a Christian” (Decision Points, p. 31).

In the introduction, President Bush says that the book is based mainly on his recollections, though he has been able to confirm many of the stories through government documents, personal notes, news reports, and other sources (p. xii). Nevertheless, he says, “If there are inaccuracies in this book, the responsibility is mine.” This sounds like an inaccuracy to me, and I have to believe that the President is not remembering correctly what Graham said. Perhaps he misunderstood him at the time. I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that Billy Graham said anything like what President Bush reports here.

28 Responses to Did he really say that?

  1. Micah November 10, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    Dean Burk,

    Perhaps you have not seen this clip:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNCnxA91fHE&feature=player_embedded

    It is consistent with that quote.

  2. Allen November 10, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    This does not surprise me one bit. His wife Ruth has repeatedly said she has not had a “Born again” experience. I have never seen any indication that Billy had a problem with that. His public speaking always focuses on being “Born again” at an older age, but in reality he seemed to have no problem with traditions like Presbyterians and Lutherans.

  3. caroline November 10, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    I wonder he said that some of us have a born-again experience and some of us were too young to remember a born-again experience…

  4. Amos November 10, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    I was shocked as I just read this quote as well. I believe that we will hear more about this from Dr. Graham. I can’t imagine being in his seat to answer that question, but I cannot imagine even me answering the questions that way.

  5. Derek November 10, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    I also suspect that W. “misremembered”. That said, Billy Graham did say some pretty eye brow raising things that struck many as a sort of universalism that he began to embrace later in life. At one point, he opened the door of possibility that a person in a tribal context who has never read the Bible or heard about Jesus having the potential of being saved. Google “Schuller, Billy Graham, Larry King” and you’ll get transcripts and even video of some of his more controversial statements.

  6. D.J. Williams November 10, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    I don’t know – sadly, after the inclusivist comments he made to Schuller, these wouldn’t be completely unbelieveable.

  7. Ryan November 10, 2010 at 10:50 am #

    Interesting. But coming from a Reformed perspective I would argue that one may be born-again without having a noticeable “experience.” The question is not did you have a highly emotional and memorable experience, but did your desires, passions, and love for God become awakened in reconciliation to the King of the Universe?

    I have even heard DA Carson ponder when his “born-again experience” was as he feels unable to pinpoint it. I can relate to this as I had a number of turning points in my life, but the key is that by grace I have been given faith to become a new creation in Christ and become awakened to the things of God and the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord of all.

  8. Ron November 10, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Dr. Graham was probably coming from Mrs. Graham saying she didn’t ever remember a time not believing. It could also be coming from what is found in Scripture…

    Jer 1:4 Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” ESV

    Luke 1:13 “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. ESV

    Gal 1:14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace… ESV

    I tend to understand Dr. Graham’s comment in light of these passages.

    Your thoughts?

  9. Darby Livingston November 10, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    I agree with Ryan. Even if Graham said exactly what Bush remembers, there is a non-universalist, completely orthodox way of interpreting it. Then again, with Graham’s track record, it’s difficult to say which one it was.

  10. Dave Moore November 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    Conversion is a point in time, but that does not mean we are aware of that moment. Asking Timothy when he became a believer would have resulted in an answer like, “I don’t know actually. I always loved sitting with mom and grandmother as they read the Word of God to me.”

  11. MRS November 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Surely Dr. Burk realizes that lots of Christians – particularly in the Reformed/Lutheran world – don’t buy into the “born again” experience.

  12. D.J. Williams November 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Ryan,

    Good points. The question is repentance and faith in Jesus, not a particular experience.

  13. MRS November 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Also important to remember that GHWB’s mother (like GWHB himself) is Episcopalian.

  14. Derek November 10, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    MRS,
    Surely you’re aware that Reformed Christians believe in total depravity?

  15. Tom1st November 10, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    I’ve heard BG make a number of extremely odd comments. So I can’t say I’m surprised. That said, W. may have remembered correctly, but maybe BG ‘meant’ something different. Who knows. But I can’t say I’m surprised.

  16. JG November 10, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Given Graham’s quotes in the past regarding salvation, inclusivism, and universalism…is this really shocking?

    I tend to read those comments with his other stated comments on this issue in mind. Graham is, and evidently has been for a long time, some type of inclusivist…whatever type it is it is an unbiblical type.

    Sad, yes. Shocking, no.

  17. Derek November 10, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Last I checked, Bush was United Methodist, though I think he was raised Episcopalian.

  18. Ryan November 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    Yeah the United Methodist element is important here.

    Because many in the media hated Bush they were always more than willing to paint him as a full on Evangelical. Yet if you go back and actually read many of his comments on religion, The Bible, and God, you see he has elements of mainline beliefs that do not neatly comport to being an Evangelical.

    I would say this is true for his wife Laura also after I saw here interviewed on Larry King last year.

  19. David Rogers November 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    I’ve been leading my congregation through Gordon T. Smith’s book “Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation” Baker Academic, 2010.

    This anecdote will provide a good discussion point.

    Thanks for pointing it out.

  20. RD November 11, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    I think the older Billy has gotten and the more he’s traveled and spoken with religious leaders from all parts of the world, the more he’s discovered that God is inclusive. His thoughts on the inerrancy of scripture and universalism seemed to become less evangelically affiliated some time back in the 1980s.

  21. MRS November 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

    Derek – not sure what your question implies. I am an Episcopalian of the conservative (Paul Zahl, etc.) variety. We absolutely believe in total depravity, but we don’t necessarily believe in a “conversion experience” in the traditional evangelical fashion.

  22. Derek November 13, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    MRS – I was wondering how to square the idea of Barbara Bush being born a Christian (“some of us are born Christians”) with any variation of Reformed or Episcopalian theology.

  23. John Thomson November 16, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    DJ

    I do think that people are converted without a memorable moment of conversion – I know too many to affirm otherwise, however, your comment is precisely why I sometimes wonder. You write,

    ‘Good points. The question is repentance and faith in Jesus, not a particular experience.’

    My problem is, can you repent and believe without being conscious of so doing, without remembering?

  24. Jason Nash November 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Denny I was quite surprised when I read that as well. While I have great respect and admiration for Bill Graham, there are a few events in his past that are surprising. One I can think of is his rant against Jews while visiting Nixon in the white house.

  25. MatthewS November 16, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    I knew a couple elderly missionary ladies who rented a house together, one a widow, the other single. They had lived their lives serving the Lord.

    One had a clear memory of a moment of salvation, the other did not. They used the analogy of night turning to day. They both believed that for some folks, night turns to day in a moment clearly remembered. For other people, step by step, night seems to turn to day over a period of time; there is not a particular moment they can remember when it clearly was not night and clearly was day but after a while they realized it was now day.

    If a child grows up in some sort of environment that affirms the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus, and the child just seems to have “always” believed it, and continues in adulthood to believe it, then I believe this is saving faith.

    Neither a prayer nor a conversion experience saves us. I think this agrees with Acts 16:31, that belief in the Lord Jesus saves. A prayer is nice, a moment of conversion is nice, but perhaps the Lord draws some by steps.

  26. Derek November 16, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    MatthewS,
    I doubt that many people will argue with you here. Keep in mind what is being questioned is the idea that someone is converted at or before birth – an idea that George W. Bush asserted, based on his understanding of Billy Graham’s statement: …some of us are born Christians. It sounds as if your mom was just born a Christian.

    Perhaps paedo baptists can explain how Billy really meant that Barbara Bush was converted at the time of her infant baptism, but obviously many of us are surprised to hear that Billy Graham might share this belief and might even go even further than a paedo baptist would, tracing possible conversion practically to conception.

  27. C. M. Sheffield November 17, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    Dr. Graham has held to aberrant and erroneous (and some would say heretical) doctrines for years. It is well documented and MacArthur has even addressed it directly from his pulpit.

    It’s sad, but not surprising. It could be interpreted from an orthodox perspective (thought that’s a stretch), but that’s not likely how it was meant.

  28. Bill Crawford November 17, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    If one believes that regeneration precedes faith (as Reformed theology teaches and total depravity requires), then God can sovereignly regenerate someone quite young, even in utero (see above citations from previous poster).

    If one believes that faith preceds regeneration, then a conscious experience seems to be required.

    However, that opens the door to other problems….

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