One of my favorite holiday gifts this year was from my brother-in-law, Scotty Sparks. This gift originated with my grandfather, a shepherd in the church for many years in Jacksonville, Alabama. It’s a letter he’d thought about a lot and typed out to send to members of his congregation who had gone astray. Following his death in 1982, the letter ended up in my mother’s hands. She eventually gave it to Scotty at some point in the late 1980’s and, as you will see from Scotty’s note to me, he used it as an outline from which to preach the gospel. Every plea in the letter is just as pertinent to people who walk away from the Lord today as it was to wayward members of the body when it was first penned. I know my “Daddy Duncan” wrote this from a heart of grief at the lost condition of some soul that was under his care. Perhaps he sent it to several. Perhaps, he also preached from this outline.
Here are Scotty’s words prefacing the letter he gave me for Christmas:
This is a copy of a letter written by your grandfather, John Duncan, while he served as an elder at Jacksonville. I do not know the year. Your mother, Johnnia, gave it to me while I was at FHU to have as a resource. (She was always giving me good books or material.) I eventually developed this into a sermon. I hope you will overlook my “boxing in” the points. As a college student with a low inventory of sermons and an even lower inventory of dimes for the copier, I simply used the original letter for my notes. Perhaps the precious knowledge that your grandfather’s deep love for souls demonstrated in the words of this document and preached several years after his death to encourage people he would never meet on this side of heaven will compensate for the defacement.
And here is my grandfather’s letter. If you have walked away from faithfulness, will you think about his words?
Dear brother in Christ,
I am writing this letter not to censure or criticize your any way, but that I may exhort you and cause you to think of what it means to live in a lost condition.
One of the most solemn questions that could be asked of a lost person is:
“What if you should die in your lost condition?”…Terrible thing to think about….Judgment. One day we will have to stand before the great white throne and give an account unto God for the way we live here. We need to read often Luke, the sixteenth chapter, beginning with verse 19; the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and also the other passages of the Scriptures that teach what an awful place hell is.
Another question just as solemn is:
“What if you should live in your lost condition?” At first, that question doesn’t sound to be very solemn at all, but let’s think seriously about what we are doing when we are living in a lost condition.
First of all, we lend support to the forces of Satan against the Lord; fighting, whether we mean to or not, with Satan against the Lord’s cause, because there is no such thing as being neutral in the conflict between Christ and the devil. Christ, himself, said, “He that is not with me is against me.”
Secondly, we will influence others to be lost. not intentionally, of course, but inevitably. As God uses His children to lead others to salvation, the devil uses all others to lead people into sin and to keep each other in sin. Wicked men and women are used to lure some into evil, but some people will not be tempted by them, so, to reach these, Satan must use good and upright people. For example, wives may keep their husbands from being saved; husbands may lead wives to hell; parents may cause their children to be lost; or children may even do the same for their parents.
Thirdly, we will live a life less abundant than God intended for man. Jesus came to give life more abundantly (John 10:10). A more abundant life includes many things…for example, forgiveness, hope of eternal life versus no hope, hence no fear of death versus a fear of dying; fellowship with Christ versus no fellowship…and many others.
Fourthly, our hearts will become harder (Heb. 3:13). “But exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” …Hebrews 3: 7,8… “Wherefore as the Holy Ghost saith, “To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness…” …I Timothy 4:2…”Your conscience will become seared as with a hot iron.”
Fifthly, we will die in our lost condition. It is a mistake–a lie of the devil–to think that we might live in a lost condition and die in a saved condition. In Numbers 23:10, Balaam wanted to die the death of the righteous, but he had refused to live the life of the righteous. And, if we die in this lost condition, we will be lost eternally.
In conclusion, if we knew we would die tomorrow, we would want to be Christians, but if we knew we would live to be 110, we should still want to live each day for the Lord. There is one thing worse than dying in a lost condition–and that is living in a lost condition.
My grandfather, to me, was that great friend who took us hiking in the woods in the fall and fishing in the summer. He was that friend with whom we watched Bonanza on Sunday nights after worship. He was the friend who went to town on my birthday to buy me the wonderful very hard plastic horse that I still treasure and the silver necklace with the tiny blue bauble. He is the man who had such a credit rating in this small town that I could go in almost any store in town and pick up whatever he sent me for and simply say, “Put this on John Duncan’s bill.” He could build anything in that garage and he would take me to work with him and let me play on a giant old adding machine on his desk. He taught me to skip rocks and to bait hooks. He was the quintessential grandfather.
But to others, he was more. He did not, to my knowledge, have even a high school education, but he did important things. He faithfully raised two children of his own and three stepsons whose father left them at a young age. He was the progenitor of seven faithful preachers and of six women who married faithful preachers; of three elders in the Lord’s church and of four women who are wives of elders in the kingdom.
Once, as a child, I enquired about why my grandmother all of a sudden had a lady coming every now and then, to help her do housekeeping chores. I had never seen a maid before and, though my grandmother was kind of ill by then, she was the hardest-working woman I knew. “Well,” she said, “…this lady needed some food and some help with her light bill, so your grandfather told me to try and think of some jobs she could do, so he could help her back on her feet.” I didn’t think so much about that then, but I have thought a little more about it as an adult. It’s a pretty good thing when you can help people without enabling indolence.
The congregation where he worshipped and served is now 99 years old. Next year, as it celebrates its 100th birthday, it will rejoice in the fact that its publication “House to House/Heart to Heart” reaches millions of people around the world annually with the gospel. The congregation will reach thousands who attend its Polishing the Pulpit conferences around our country. Of course, none of this is his doing. It is the doing of our great God who has used lots and lots of ordinary people through the years to keep the work that began with a gospel meeting in the year 1918 by Brother C.H. Woodruff alive in Him for the next 100 years. Each man in Christ is just one little link in a chain of events and lives and opportunities: one chapter in a book that will find its last chapter around the throne. But still, I’m glad for His tiny little part and I’m glad he was my friend.
As I write, I am sitting in the large Houston Cole library (pictured) on the campus of Jacksonville State University. It is one–the last, in fact–of several buildings that my grandfather helped construct on this campus. His secular job was to direct the maintenance operations for this university during several decades of the twentieth century. He was proud of its buildings and grounds and fiercely dedicated to a work ethic and the management of a team of hardworking men. He did not own his own home, but lived in university housing. (That’s me on the porch of that university house with a surprise from under their tree circa 1963.) He did not own his own car, but drove a university truck. His large and productive garden, where I learned how to grow things and what happened to people who didn’t like to work, was planted on university soil. He typed the letter that I am holding on a university typewriter and directed his team from a little university office. His sons would gather in a particular spot in one of the dorms that was acoustically wonderful and sing hymns. I even have a recording of one of those hymn-sings, and those young men were incredibly good for a country quartet. (I doubt that the dorms at JSU are often used for hymn-singing today.)
Now, I know that I am not unique in being able to reminisce about godly influences in my early years. I know that there are congregations all over this world that warm by fires that have been stoked through the years by faithful, yet very ordinary people. I know that my grandfather never once thought about the fact that I might someday sit and reminisce, from this chair, in a building constructed from a blueprint he once held in his hands. But here I am. In the same way, you and I do not know where and how our influence may live in the ensuing decades. But there will be a time and place in which someone will be thinking about me. I will be, to the world, an insignificant name on a grave marker. But to someone, I might be able to make an eternal difference. I hope I can do that for the little souls in my family, Ezra and Colleyanna, and I hope that difference will be for heaven.
My grandfather did not own much as he traversed a tiny little area on this planet. But he owns a mansion now. It would do a lot of people I know an eternally important good if they would heed the words transcribed above from a simple twentieth century shepherd. Can I help you live in a saved condition?