We weren’t sure when Granddad woke up, but we knew it was long before sunrise. My earliest memories of him revolve around a small kitchen table where he sat each morning, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. The walls of his basement were decorated with World War II honors and pictures of his hunting victories. I learned my first curse words from Granddad, who was sure to drop colorful language every few sentences. He could be an intimidating man, but his smile and belly laugh calmed our trepidation. His love for my grandmother was marked by a service and tenderness I’ve rarely seen rivaled. He stood when she entered the room and attended to her every need.
Granddad was an occasional churchman. His faith would’ve best been described as private. As our family’s patriarch, he always prayed before meals, taking the opportunity to thank God for our country and blast whomever occupied the White House. I never saw him open a Bible or speak of Jesus, except when interjecting his name as an expletive.
In 2011, my wife and I planned a summer vacation trip to Wilmington, North Carolina. We chose it because we love the beach, but mostly because my grandparents lived there and we wanted them to meet our newborn son. Our family was buzzing as the days drew closer, but a weighty awareness rested on my heart. The Lord was calling me to share the gospel with Granddad. Though burdened for his salvation for years, I hadn’t enjoyed many in-person opportunities for that kind of conversation. But Granddad was now in his 80s and, though he wasn’t in bad health, I sensed the Lord had set apart this time for a gospel conversation.
I guess I’m like anybody else when it comes to sharing the gospel. I believe the good news with all my heart, but I still get anxious whenever I proclaim Christ’s name. The looming conversation with Granddad took my fear to another level, for several reasons.
I believe the good news with all my heart, but I still get anxious whenever I proclaim Christ’s name.
First, it was Granddad. He was a man of steel. I was scared to speak truth to someone who’d lived nearly four times as long as I had. He’d forgotten more than I’ll ever learn; the thought of calling him to repent and believe in King Jesus made me so anxious I was nearly nauseous.
Second, he claimed to be a Christian. He’d heard a thousand sermons. But he was a long-standing member of a church that appeared to be, to put it charitably, light on the gospel. Though Granddad was a man of impeccable integrity and faithfulness, he didn’t display fruit that would be characterized as Christlike (Matt. 7:16; Gal. 5:22–23).
Third, he was family. It’s always tough to share the gospel with family since they know all about you—the good, the bad, and the real bad. Granddad knew me when I was a womanizing cokehead who mocked religion and disgraced my family. Though Jesus has done a wonderful work in my life, I was still aware that Granddad knew my past.
So I prayed—and asked others to do the same—with the hope God would soften his heart and give me courage to speak truth. The Lord answered. On the last day of the trip, we had a clear gospel conversation for about 30 minutes. Though Granddad raised questions and registered doubts, he expressed willingness to consider the good news. I sent him a letter addressing his questions, some Scriptures to consider, and a copy of my friend Mike McKinley’s excellent book Am I Really a Christian?. We had one follow-up conversation, during which he remarked, “I’ve never understood this ‘born-again’ thing, but I think I’m starting to get it.”
Granddad died on December 17, 2012, his wife of 55 years by his side. I had the honor of leading a memorial service in his birthplace of Currituck, North Carolina.
In the years since Granddad’s death, I’ve often wondered whether the seed sown upon his soul took root. I hope God brought about repentance and faith in my grandfather before he died, but I can’t be certain. What I am certain of, though, is that the Scripture’s words are true: “The fear of man lays a snare” (Prov. 29:25). It prevents us from sharing the good news—which, Carl Henry quipped, is only good news if it gets there in time.
It’s always tough to share the gospel with family since they know all about you—the good, the bad, and the real bad.
I haven’t always obeyed the Lord’s call to share the gospel. Not even close. But even though I’ve withheld the gospel from some, God’s mercy extends to me. The conversation with my grandfather was uncommonly challenging, but I’ve been sobered in hindsight. In light of eternity, my fears appear quite shortsighted today. The weightiness of eternity presses us into deeper dependence on Christ to do what he’s called us to do—while we still can.
God has deployed each of us into our families, neighborhoods, classrooms, and workplaces to be ambassadors of the King (2 Cor. 5:20). We aren’t there by chance, and there’s no time to waste. Pray for God to open doors for the gospel. Ask him to give you courage to speak his name. One day, when we’re standing before his Son, we’ll be grateful for those tough conversations.