By Rebecca Van Noord
Throughout 50 years of ministry, Luis Palau’s message has remained the same.
Decades have passed and his evangelism methods have changed, but he is still confident in the unchanging message of the cross and the power of the Spirit. He has preached at mass evangelism events in more than 75 countries, with over one million registered decisions for Christ.
In December 2017, Palau’s life took a sudden turn when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. While he no longer participates in large-scale events, his illness has only emboldened his personal witnessing.
“When I discovered I had this cancer, I committed myself to the Lord that I would make much of the cross of Jesus Christ,” says Palau, who is 84. “I think in this generation you tend to talk about daily living, which is very good; there’s nothing like living with Christ and for Christ. But we must proclaim the cross, and do it forcefully and clearly, because the cross is the source of every spiritual blessing—forgiveness of sins, becoming children of God, eternal life, and heaven.”
In early 2019, Palau released a memoir of his life, Palau: A Life on Fire. Each chapter culminates in a spiritual element that Palau wants readers to grasp; even in a book about himself, he wants people to come away thinking about Jesus.
Growing up in Argentina
Palau’s passion for evangelism was sparked at an early age on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a boy, he accompanied his family to neighboring towns to hold evangelistic meetings. His father, a successful businessman, shared his testimony on street corners, while Palau and his siblings handed out pamphlets and his mother played the pump organ. During the summers, his father would plant churches in neighborhoods that had no Bible-believing church.
“I was brought up from the get-go that the whole point of staying on Earth is because God wants to use us to bless other people so they can come and know him,” Palau says. “You worked just to have money to get people to come to Christ. You studied to have intelligence to lead people to Christ.”
When Palau was 10, his father died suddenly of pneumonia. His father’s joy even in facing death deeply affected Palau. As a teenager, he wanted to give others that same joy and began strategizing ways to evangelize. In the late afternoons, Palau and several friends from church put up tents and held children’s meetings, followed by regular services in the evening. “We sang hymns, preached the gospel, and led people to the Lord.” They also started a radio program. “We wanted to be able to touch the whole city with the gospel, so we rented a radio space every day at one in the afternoon, when everybody went home for lunch and a siesta.”
In 1960, Palau left Argentina to study at Multnomah School of the Bible in Oregon. He was invited by Ray Stedman, a pastor who had visited Argentina and recognized Palau’s gifts. At Multnomah, Palau met and married Patricia Scofield, and after graduation they became missionaries with Overseas Crusades (now One Challenge). In 1962, Palau was given the opportunity to translate during a Billy Graham crusade in Fresno, California. That experience allowed him to observe the Billy Graham team’s model of ministry, which he hoped to apply to his own mission work in Latin America.
Beginning ministry in Latin America
At the beginning of Palau’s ministry and still today, Latin America has been his primary focus. “There was so much need in Latin America. We had a form of religion, but it was very dead; people really had no assurance of eternal life. We understood it because we were brought up in the same context,” Palau says. “The people of Latin America are spiritually open and spiritually hungry. They long for the assurance of forgiveness of sins, long for the assurance of eternal life, long for heaven when you die. That longing is easily fulfilled by the good news of the gospel. So we made Latin America our center.”
Palau began his ministry in Colombia and then Mexico during the 1960s, experiencing successful crusades in both countries. It was during this period that Palau began a regular radio ministry that is still flourishing today. “It is a very personal, fruitful way of really reaching people,” says Palau. More than 5,000 radio stations in 48 countries feature “Luis Palau Responde” and other programs, reaching an estimated 22 million listeners in the Spanish-speaking world.
After finishing his term in Mexico, Palau began full-time work evangelizing at crusades throughout Latin America in the 1960s and early 70s. Looking back, he is encouraged at the growth in Bible-believing Christians over the course of his lifetime. “One of the goals was to believe that the Lord would give us countries where the majority—at least 51 percent—would be Bible-believing Christians. And now it’s such a joy to see that Honduras has over 50 percent Bible-believing evangelical Christians. In Brazil, it’s not quite over 50 percent, but there are millions of Christians.” Palau also cites growth in the number of pastors and evangelical churches across Latin America as evidence that a spiritual revival is still in the works.
Working with, through, and for the church
In 1978, the Luis Palau Association (LPA) was founded as an independent organization. An important tenet of the ministry is seeing itself as an extension of the church. “We have a saying in the Palau Association: ‘We work with the church, through the church, and for the church,’ ” Palau explains.
Practically speaking, that means connecting with communities in the planning stages of an evangelistic festival (formerly called crusades or campaigns). In partnership with author and speaker Mark Mittleberg, LPA holds “friendship evangelism trainings” leading up to the festivals. The intention is to train local Christians and pastors how to more effectively share their faith and how to follow up with people who make a commitment to Christ at the festivals.
“One of my mentors, Dr. Hillis, the director of Overseas Crusades, used to say, ‘The best follow-up is a revived church.’ You want to have the church revived before you bring a harvest, so that the follow-up—the discipling—works well,” Palau says. “But the best follow-up is a revived church. He said, ‘If you don’t revive the church, all you do is stir up the flesh, and the flesh stinks in the nostrils of God.’ So you better have spiritual revival before you motivate and mobilize people with the gospel.”
As LPA grew, Palau was invited to hold festivals across the globe, including Scotland, England, Hong Kong, and even the Soviet Union in 1989. Reaching such diverse people-groups has its challenges. “You try to accommodate to the culture,” Palau explains. “I study the newspapers, history, traditions, revolutions, and politics. I try to understand where they are and where they’re coming from. And I’m always listening and learning. There are differences in religion, tradition, spiritual life, and levels of cynicism. All of it has an impact on us.”
Despite the differences, Palau finds we all have common ground in the human condition. “The human heart, from Adam and Eve until today, has never changed. People are the same. They have guilt. There’s emptiness, a restlessness of the human soul, a longing for some reality they can’t find in their culture, in education, in traveling, or in reading,” he says. “All people are created in the image of God, and that image has been destroyed by sin. So in the end, you present the gospel, the Holy Spirit applies it, and people will come to know the Lord. I’m always amazed by the beauty of the power of the Holy Spirit using the word of God.”
Seeing dreams fulfilled
When Palau looks back at his years in ministry, he sees many encouraging outcomes. “I think the Lord has used us to enhance the vision of many churches in many nations—that evangelism can take place in a massive, concerted, and united way in today’s generation, even in cynical places like western Europe, or places where Marxists and Leninists have dominated,” he says. “When the Lord gives you an opportunity, take advantage of it instantly.”
He is encouraged by the lives and communities that have been changed. “Thousands upon thousands have come to know Jesus Christ and find eternal life. Perhaps some of them were religious but didn’t know the Lord. And some were atheists, and they’ve come into eternal life.” The numerous church plants that have sprung up after crusades give him hope for long-term discipleship. “One of the great outcomes of mass evangelism—when it’s seriously local-church-centered—is that more churches are planted. And that was always our dream as a team, that we would be used of God to win many souls and to plant many churches.”
Now undergoing regular chemotherapy and assessments, Palau knows his life is near its end. He finds comfort in knowing his sons Kevin and Andrew will continue the work of LPA. “I realize the time is getting closer, and I’m at peace with the Lord and ready to go,” says Palau. “I’ve turned to my old comfort, the Bible, and I’ve read it over and over again.” He finds himself turning to passages about heaven and passages that point him to Christ’s work, like Hebrews 8–10. “When Satan attacks you or he plants doubts in your mind, it reaffirms all the basics of God’s will and work through Jesus in the cross, in the resurrection, and in our hearts.”
And that’s where his message returns, as always. “Make much of the cross of Christ, and never get away from the Bible,” he says. “You’ll stray quickly if you get away from the Bible. But you won’t go too far if you emphasize the cross.”
Luis Palau on evangelism, Bible study, and preaching
“When I was 22 or so, my mom pushed me to go to a certain town up in the hills, because there was no Bible church there. I said, ‘Mom, I’m waiting for the call.’ And she got upset and said, ‘The call went out 2,000 years ago. The Lord is waiting for the answer, not the call.’ That molded my thinking. The Great Commission says, ‘Go,’ so you go. You don’t wait for him to say it again. And I knew, ‘Whatever you find in your hand, do it,’ as it says in Ecclesiastes. So you continue to witness where you are, but with your friends, you begin to say, ‘What shall we do? How do we take the gospel? What shall we do next?’ ”
“I love evangelism, to win souls, but I love Bible-teaching as a personal pleasure. Our church [in Argentina] was very Bible-centered and taught the Bible extremely well. We would have weeklong Bible conferences for missionaries, and other gifted people would come. We would study an epistle for a whole week. Every night for about two hours—Bible-teaching. And so we learned the word of God.”
Palau’s top Bible passages for evangelism
Romans 6:23, because of its emphasis on salvation as a gift from God
1 Peter 3:18
Hebrews’ repeated use of the phrase
“once for all”
Paul’s letter to the Galatians
Matthew 27: 27–46
Palau’s favorite topics and passages to preach
Evangelism: 2 Corinthians 5:17–20
Forgiveness by the blood: Hebrews 9:14 and 10:17
Eternal Life: John 10:27–30
Being set free: John 8:31–36
Victory: Galatians 2:20
Vision: John 14:12–18
Holiness: 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 and 6:18–20
Second Coming: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17
Heaven: John 14:1-6
Perfect word of God: Psalm 19