by Brian Carpenter
I told the story of saving Dale a couple of weeks ago, and remarked on the joy of evangelism, and how it ought not be an occasion for fear, but for holy boldness and trusting in God for the result. But there is a sense when it can sometimes be a fearful thing, for whenever we speak the gospel to someone we must start by showing them their sin and their need of a Savior.
That means we must apply the Moral Law of God to their lives, for that is God’s appointed means. We must show them that they are idolaters and Sabbath-breakers and blasphemers. We must show them that they are thieves and adulterers and contemptuous of God-ordained authority. We must show them that they are not good people. We must set before them the mirror of the Law that condemns them. Go and read the evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts. Never once did any of the Apostles preach a message that said, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” They preached the judgment of God based on the sinner’s transgressions of the Law of God, and then pointed the hearers to repentance and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the way He has commanded us to walk, and that is the way He blesses. But it is not an easy way sometimes.Whenever we speak the Law of God to someone, we risk the relationship. It is not for nothing that Jesus says that a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. He did not come to bring peace, but a sword. We labor under the illusion that there is this vast, floating “neutral” party of humanity all around us, and if we are nice to them and apply the right technique, we can cause them to love Jesus and become Christians. But there is no such neutral party. You are either for Christ, or you are against Him. You are either at enmity with God or reconciled to Him through Christ. You are either of a carnal mind or a spiritual mind. There is no in between. Thus, if your unconverted neighbors know you are a Christian, and they think you are a really nice person and like you very much, you can be sure that you have not communicated the gospel to them clearly. For when we begin with the judgment of God there are really only two categories of reaction. Either the person you are speaking to gets really angry at you, or they get converted. One of the two. If they seem unruffled, rest assured that they are just handling conflict like white, middle-class Americans of northern European descent. Inside they are seething.
Now, that’s all fine and good to talk about in the abstract, but what if the person you need to speak to about the gospel is one of the people you love most in this world? That’s what happened to me.
My Granddad was a man I loved more than life itself; and he loved me. He treated me kindly, and with understanding and humor. He was firm and unafraid to discipline, but he was loving and patient as well. My Dad could beat me black and blue and cuss me up one side and down the other, and I didn’t really care. But if Granddad simply looked at me and said, “Son, I’m disappointed in you,” I was undone. Humanly speaking, if I am anything approximating a normal adult male, it is because of my grandfather.
He was as good as a natural man can be. He was honest and well-respected in his community. He looked after his family and went without so they could have what they needed. He farmed in his youth and then built a grain elevator and went into business for himself. He attended services regularly at the Hayti United Methodist Church. But my grandfather was not a Christian. I don’t think he ever really pretended to be. The subject just never came up. He was a moral man. That was enough in his mind.
In 2003 he was 86 years old and needed some heart surgery. It was a bit risky, and I felt under compulsion from the Lord to tell my Grandfather about his sin and his need for a Savior before he went under the knife. I wrote him a letter and told him how much I loved him and how I wanted him to go to heaven. I told him that wasn’t going to happen if he stayed as he was, and then I applied the Moral Law of God to his life and begged him to respond honestly to what he saw reflected there.
Word came back through the family grapevine. Granddad did not take kindly to the letter I had sent him. I didn’t call him. He didn’t call me. He sort of cut me off, which he had never done before. I was grieved for many reasons. It seemed I had lost my Grandfather in the twilight years of his life. The rest of the family was mad at me to one degree or another. But most of all, Granddad was still in his sin.
We didn’t talk for a solid year. Then in early 2004, I got a call from him. I came home to a message on the answering machine. I called him back, and there was a reconciliation of sorts, but things were still strained. Then in April of 2004, we found out that he had cancer. There were some surgery-based treatments, but nothing really could be done. It was too far advanced. It had gone from liver to lungs to brain. He was dying.
In June of 2004 I went and spent a week with my Granddad. He was pretty weak and couldn’t get out much. I cooked for him and cleaned his house and did my best just to quietly take care of him. We talked about superficial things, mostly. I said nothing about the Lord Jesus during that whole week. I had been sternly warned through the family grapevine to never bring up the subject of religion with him again. That was one directive I did not intend to obey. But I waited, and I prayed for the opportunity to speak of these things once more.
Finally the day for my departure came. I had cleaned my room and stripped my bed and done a load of laundry. There was pot roast in the fridge. He sat in the rocking chair under the old cuckoo clock with an oxygen tube in his nose, watching my busy preparations for departure. Finally, in the last moments of my visit, I came to him and knelt down and said, “Granddad, I want to talk to you about spiritual things. But if you don’t want me to, I won’t do it.”
He looked at me. There was a look of uncertainty, and maybe bravado, and maybe fear in his eyes. “Alright. Let’s do it,” he said.
I told him again about his sin and his need for a Savior, and how the Lord Jesus Christ came and lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death and rose from the grave on the third day to make a great exchange possible. I told him that if he asked for it with a sincere and childlike faith, that God would look across time and credit the penalty for his sin to the Lord Jesus on the cross, and credit him with the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus. I told him that when that happened, God saw Ed Tillman as a perfect man, even though he wasn’t. I told him that he needed to walk closely with the Lord Jesus after that for the rest of his days, doing what the Lord commands with as much strength and understanding as he had. And I told him that he wouldn’t need to fear death anymore, and that heaven was his forever.
I asked him if he wanted to pray for the Great Exchange. He said that he did, and I prayed with him and helped him with the words. Then I prayed that the Lord would bless him and make Himself real to him, and that he would surround him with his angels and keep him from fear.
I left that morning with tears of rejoicing in my eyes.
Granddad only lived three and a half more months. We spoke as often as we could, but I was in the middle of moving and starting my ministry here at the church in Sturgis. My mother traveled down to see him as often as she could. Granddad once mentioned that when he woke up in the middle of the night, he could sense someone in the room with him. He told my mother that I had asked God for angels to surround him and guard him, and he smiled about it. Thus he who had his whole life quietly disbelieved the Virgin Birth was now sensing angels. I rejoice in that, because Granddad didn’t have much time, nor much ability, nor much help with the task of making his calling and election sure. The longer I go, the more I see the wisdom of waiting to say much until one has had a chance to watch one who newly professes faith in Christ. Many spring up with joy and fade away. Many seem to grow but are choked out with the cares of this world. But personally I take the angels and his testimony concerning them as grounds for good hope.
In his last days Mom played him CD’s of my sermons, though he was in and out of consciousness. When the end was near, I got a plane ticket and hopped on the plane. Mother told him that I was on my way, and according to her, he just smiled.
He died while I was in the air between Rapid City and Salt Lake City on my way to see him. I preached my Granddad’s funeral, and then, just three months later, I preached my Grandmother’s funeral, and suddenly a whole generation who had figured so prominently in my life was gone. It’s such a strange feeling. You feel like something truly priceless, not just priceless to you personally, but in a queer way to all of humanity—their dreams and memories and words and actions and mannerisms and expressions—is just gone forever. How will I ever tell people about his laugh, or the way he’d always tromp on the gas pedal like he was going to run over the stray cat crossing the street just to get a rise out of my grandmother? How will I tell them about the way she said my name, turning “Brian” into a one syllable word that sounded something like a cross between “Brine” and “Brahn?” Or the look she got on her face when she thought I had gotten a little disrespectful? Suddenly that time and those people are locked up in a sterile history book at best. At worst they are forgotten altogether.
But they’re not gone. Not really. I take great comfort in the knowledge that my grandparents are not really dead, and I absolutely can’t wait to see them, and to hold my grandfather’s hand again and to tell him how very glad I am that the Lord Jesus Christ saved him in the waning months of his life. Maybe then I’ll get to hear his laugh again and hear her say my name with just the right accent.
I now have that letter that I sent him. My aunt found it in his personal possessions and sent it to me with some other things. That was four years ago. The minute I saw the date and the first paragraph I put it back in the envelope and put it away. To this day I cannot bring myself to open it and reread it. It hurt too much to have to say those things to a man I loved and respected so much.
Is it a risk to tell someone about their sin and their need for a Savior? Yes. In a way it is, at least when seen from our side of the equation. But it is a risk that is well worth taking if you believe in heaven and in hell and you love someone enough to do whatever you can to steer them to the one and away from the other.
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whiskey. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.
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