Date Published: 27th April 2021
John Stott was born on 27th April 1921, meaning today would have been his 100th birthday. John Stott is without doubt one of the most important and influential Christian leaders of the 20th Century. In 2005, Time magazine named him among the 100 most influential people in the world and in 2006, he was appointed a CBE in the New Year Honours list.
I was born in London in 1994, and attended All Souls Langham Place when I was a baby whilst Stott was the Rector Emeritus. However, my parents inform me that baby Ben sadly never met Stott in person. I returned to All Souls as a medical student in 2012, and although Stott died the year before I arrived, I have found myself very heavily influenced by his ideas and teaching, through his books, recorded sermons, organisations, and individuals he mentored.
So here are four things I’ve learned from John Stott, from four of his many books.
1. The Bigness of the Cross: “The Cross of Christ”
Stott’s most famous and iconic book is almost certainly “The Cross of Christ”. Vaughan Roberts said of the book “There is no more important theme than the cross of Christ, and there is no better book on the subject that John Stott’s timeless classic”1. If there is one must-read book for all those in pastoral ministry, I am yet to find a better candidate than “The Cross of Christ”.
In the centre of the book is Stott’s four-part expounding of the doctrine of the atonement. Stott lays out the following four key biblical images of the atonement2:
- Propitiation: Christ bore the righteous wrath of God on our behalf
- Redemption: Christ bought us out of slavery to sin and death, a great cost to Himself
- Justification: Christ paid our legal penalty for breaking God’s laws
- Reconciliation: Christ broke down the barrier between man and God so that our relationship might be restored
Understanding the wide scope of the doctrine of the atonement has been really eye-opening to me as I have pondered how to best preach Jesus in evangelistic events. Classic gospel summaries such as “Two Ways to Live” as well as most evangelistic talks I have heard, concentrate on “justification”- Christ paying our legal penalty to God. This is clearly good and biblical. But the danger is that we risk reducing the cross to nothing more than penal substitution for personal sin. Stott’s 360-degree view of the atonement leaves the reader in awe at the bigness of the cross, and has profoundly shaped the way I present the cross in Christian Union mission events or apologetics seminar streams. I’m of the belief, and I think Stott would be too, that if we only talk of the justification of the cross, we short-change our listeners, and miss out much of the gospel. Rather, in the words of the motto of the Lausane Covention, which Stott founded with Billy Graham: “evangelization requires the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world“
2. Double Listening: “The Contemporary Christian”
Another one of Stott’s classic books is “The Contemporary Christian”, in which we find one of the phrases classically associated with John Stott: “double listening”. Stott writes:
“How can we develop a Christian mind which is both shaped by the truths of historic, biblical Christianity, and acquainted with the realities of the contemporary world?… We are called to double listening, listening both to the Word and to the world…We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to obey, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it”3
I first heard of the idea of “double listening” from Stott’s close friend and my mentor Prof. John Wyatt, and it has since driven a lot of my work and passion for medical ethics and apologetics. To Christians in secular fields, Stott’s call is to think deeply and profoundly about the biggest and most pressing issues and questions in our line of secular work, whilst at the same time rigorously and seriously studying the bible; it is only through doing both that we can live fruitfully and faithfully as Christians in the world. To speak and act Christianly in the A&E department, or in the university ethics debate forum, or in a global pandemic, I need to know my sepsis algorithms and my soteriology; my Cartesian Dualism and my Creation Doctrine; His world and His Word. To use Stott’s own image, to build a strong bridge between the bible and the world, we need to drill deep down on both sides.
3. The Preacher’s Roadmap: “I Believe in Preaching”
One of Stott’s shorter but nonetheless widely loved books is “I Believe in Preaching,” which was subsequently abridged and re-released under the title “The Challenge of Preaching”. The book is a pleasingly practical outline of how Stott prepared sermons: from having a grounding in deep knowledge of the whole of scripture, to selecting a text, studying it, meditating on it, isolating main themes, and then arranging the material4. According to Stott, this whole process should take, on average 10-12 hours, although more experienced preachers can do it in less.
Stott’s style of expositional preaching was one of the most impactful aspects of his ministry on the global church, and has become the staple framework for many Conservative Evangelical churches. However, it is interesting to note that in “I Believe in Preaching”, the bulk of Stott’s emphasis is not on structure or delivery, but on studying and meditating on the text. I think this is a challenge to all of who preach, and has certainly shaped the way I try to prepare sermons.
4. Stop Swinging: “Balanced Christianity”
The first three books mentioned in this article are three of Stott’s most famous works. This final book is less well known, but is probably my favourite. In “Balanced Christianity”, Stott identifies that the Church is very good at dividing, through swinging to extreme positions on secondary issues. In the book, Stott argues convincingly for the position of balance on the modern controversies of: intellect vs. emotion, tradition vs. modern, structure vs. freedom, and evangelism vs. social action.
I think many of the current big church disputes could be resolved or at least remedied if ardent proponents on both sides read “Balanced Christianity”. Rather than swinging to extremes and lobbing grenades at the opposite side, Stott’s desire was to walk the tightrope of balance. That is of course not to say that Stott didn’t hold firm positions on primary issues. He was an uncompromising critic of positions such as the prosperity gospel or Zionism. But when it comes to issues such as intellect vs. emotion or evangelism vs. social action, I’ve been convinced by Stott’s reasoning that the bible is balanced between the extremes, and so the Christian life should be too.
To quote Stott’s words: “In at least these four areas (and they are not the only ones) we have good biblical warrant to replace a rather naïve ‘either-or’ with a mature ‘both-and’. Let us place our feet confidently and simultaneously on both poles. Don’t let us polarise!”5
Although I never met Stott, I have certainly felt his influence and been transformed by his teaching. Many of his radical ideas are as relevant today as they were in the 80s. And so, on this centenary of his birth, if you’ve never read a John Stott book, get off my blog and go on Amazon!
- Vaughan Roberts, quote on the prologue endorsements for The Cross of Christ
- John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 195-236
- John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, p. 27-29 (emphasis mine)
- John Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, p. 49-67
- John Stott, Balanced Christianity, p. 64-65