Lead someone to salvation once, and you’ll be hooked forever. Luis Palau Jr. experienced that truth more dramatically than most as a young man.
He vividly recalls the first person he ever led to the Lord. Palau was 18 years old and teaching a Sunday school class in Cordoba, Argentina, for 10 young boys. The quietest boy, Marcos, lived with his grandmother and came from a broken home. Palau confesses to this day he has no idea how Marcos came to church that Sunday, since his grandmother was not a Christian. But Marcos had questions for “Senor Palau,” and the young Sunday school teacher led him to pray the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus in his heart.
About a week later, Palau received devastating news. Marcos had been riding his bicycle in the road and horsing around with a streetcar. His bike twisted beneath him and dragged him beneath the streetcar’s wheels. Marcos was killed.
“When he first received the Lord, I was so excited,” Palau says. “And the Lord took the little fellow home so quickly. But to me, it got into my blood: Once you experience leading people to eternal life, everything else is puny foolishness by comparison. … If you experience leading someone to the Lord, you don’t need anyone to kick you in the pants and tell you, ‘Go and do it.’ It comes from your DNA. It’s part of your life.”
Perhaps the drama and high stakes of the first time he led someone to Christ propelled the rest of Palau’s equally dramatic ministry. Since 1960, he and his ministry have shared the Gospel with an estimated 1 billion people in 48 countries. Over one million have registered decisions for Christ. Palau has been called the “Billy Graham of Latin America.”
“My biggest legacy is all those who came to know the Lord.” Palau smiles, then pauses.
“I wish I had done more.”
The Empty House
For years, Palau—who turned 84 last November—told his wife, his four sons and his ministry partners that he would live to be 92 years old. He came to that conclusion because George Mueller—a man of faith he greatly admires—lived to be 92. Now, he jokes wryly, God is having a good laugh at his expense. In January 2018, Palau was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The doctor told him he would be dead within nine to 12 months.
When he got the diagnosis, his first thought was his own father’s death. His father, Luis Palau Sr., caught pneumonia when he was 34. Palau, who was only 10, rushed home on a train from boarding school to be with his ailing father. He didn’t make it in time.
His mother told him that his father “sat up in bed. He sang a Salvation Army song about heaven, clapping his hands as he sang, and then, because he was exhausted from the fever, his head fell on the pillow. He pointed up to heaven, and he quoted the apostle Paul: ‘I’m going to be with Jesus, which is better by far.’ A few moments later, he went to be with the Lord.”
Palau’s father’s death plunged his family into poverty. And Palau says he spent the first few days after his diagnosis terrified of leaving his family behind, particularly his wife of 58 years, Pat.
“Once in a while, I get emotional,” Palau says. “I think, They’re going to live here alone in this house. … It really is hard.”
But, he says, the Lord is in charge. And He reminds Palau of that truth whenever despair begins to creep in.
“One day, when I was kind of grieving a bit too much probably in the early days, I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘Hey, do you think I can take care of her or not?'” Palau says. “I said, ‘Yes, I think you can.’ So I stopped over-weeping. … I’m at peace with the Lord, and I think the team and the family picked up on that.”
After decades to think about it, Palau thinks he understands now why God let his father die so young.
“My father dying when I was only 10 had a big impact on me, and I think the Lord allowed it because I can talk about eternity without any embarrassment,” Palau says. “I don’t apologize for talking about heaven and hell. I don’t major on hell, but I do bring it in, because it’s the only alternative to eternal life. But nevertheless, my father died as a believer, thanks to the missionaries who sacrificed and gave their whole life to bring the good news to Argentina. The Father’s always been with me.
“My dad was well-off. When he died, we lost everything, because my mother didn’t know how to run the business, and we went into extreme poverty. At first, I thought, ‘Wow. This is hell.’ You know? Hardly anything to eat. Yet my mom never complained. She never blamed the Lord. We would get on our knees and thank God for a cup of coffee and a loaf of French bread that we divided into seven pieces so we could all eat a little bit of bread. I was always grateful that we even had seven pieces of bread. My mom never even hinted at anger or unbelief. It was beautiful. So I feel the Lord took my dad and left us to experience poverty so we would have compassion later. … So we would understand how the poor feel and how they needed.”
That faith in God’s perfect plans—even those that will only make sense on the other side of eternity—is why Palau says he trusts God even now, though his own terminal diagnosis confuses him.
“His way is perfect,” Palau says. “I don’t have to understand it all. I know my Father loves me. I know He cares. I can tell you this: … I have never gotten a response to preaching—and I preached for 60 years—like [I get] now when I tell people I’ve got cancer. … If the Lord wants to take me home, I’m ready.”
The Two Airports
Palau says he’s been thinking a lot about eternity and the afterlife since his diagnosis, studying what he can expect. He says perhaps his last book, to be released posthumously, will cover what he’s learned about heaven in this season.
“There are little snippets all over the New Testament,” Palau says. “Once you’re aware of it, you go ‘Oh, this verse is about heaven. How come I didn’t notice that?’ But I can see the tape at the end of the race, and I think a lot about what is going to be on the other side—and it is glorious.”
For years, Palau has referred to heaven and hell in his sermons as “the two airports.”
“When you die, there are only two airports you can travel to,” Palau says. “Heaven is the recommended landing site. Hell is not recommended at all—everyone crash-lands over there.”
As he prepares for his one-way flight, he says he’s not worried about the world he leaves behind. Everyone in his family has received salvation through Christ—”To see your own children walking with God is the greatest joy,” he says—and his ministry has been prepared for years for the inevitable transition of leadership. More than that, Palau sees plenty of reasons to believe the next generation of Christians will continue to carry the gospel to every corner of the earth. He was particularly pleased to hear about The Send—a one-day event in Orlando, Florida, this February, where more than 10,000 believers pledged to evangelize their colleges, their high schools and the farthest nations.
“I was blessed to think of so many people committing to world evangelism afresh in this generation,” Palau says. “It’s a dream for any evangelist to see young people in particular who get fired up and who say, ‘I’ll give my life to proclaim Jesus.'”
Palau knows many older believers fear the next generation will abandon the Christian faith. He also knows those fears have existed since before he and Billy Graham began their ministries.
“The newspapers keep talking about these people abandoning the church,” Palau says. “First off, what churches are being abandoned? It’s not the biblical, Spirit-filled churches. It’s churches who are dead and whose leadership doesn’t trust the Word of God in all of its fullness. I would leave them too. Sure, some people drift away, but they have from the get-go. I mean, Jesus had 12 fellows, and one of them sold Him for 30 lousy pieces of silver. That’s a falling away. People have been falling away from the beginning, so we mustn’t get despondent.”
What people don’t understand, Palau says, is that evangelism and mass revival never go out of style.
“People love to gather in crowds,” he says. “They like to go to rock concerts. They like to go to musical shows. They like to go to sports arenas. So why wouldn’t they also want to come in crowds to hear the Good News—if it’s being done in the Spirit and for the glory of God, not showing off?”
Palau also says maybe teenagers would be more passionate evangelists if today’s leaders stopped “treating them like morons” and pacifying them with pizzas and movies. Instead, send them out on the streets or into younger students’ classrooms and let them learn by trial and error how to preach the gospel. That’s how Palau got started—and how he saved young Marcos’ soul from a hellish fate.
“Teach your children the real heroes are the missionaries,” Palau says. “The real heroes are the servants of God who translate the Bible into other languages and who bring the Gospel. I personally am one of those millions who love missionaries, because they brought us Jesus Christ. They brought us a Bible, which we did not have in Argentina. … We need to start younger, and put them to work [evangelizing] the children.”
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SOURCE: Charisma News, Joshua Olson