Stott on The Christian Life: a book review
John Stott’s messages at the Urbana Mission Conferences greatly influenced a number of missionaries of my generation. So, when Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds by Tim Chester came out this past summer, I decided to review the book. It is #16 in the Crossway’s series, Theologians on the Christian Life. See my post a few years ago on this series, and why it is a valuable resource. Why should missionaries read this particular book? I will focus on some key themes that make this book (and John Stott’s writings) an important read for missionaries.
Throughout the book, Chester emphasizes how Stott’s life and ministry has shaped evangelicalism. The author writes in the Introduction:
. . . the more I have explored his theology in its historical context, the more I have realized that it has been Stott, perhaps more than anyone else, who has influenced the evangelical world I inhabit. So it is not just that Stott reflects evangelicalism; evangelicalism reflects Stott. A contemporary evangelical understanding of the Christian life was not simply something Stott regurgitated; it was also something he significantly shaped. 1Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life, Crossway Books, 2020, p 12.
Shaped the Lausanne Covenant
A large part of the book talks about John Stott’s role in the Lausanne movement, particularly his role in drafting the Lausanne Covenant. However, there was controversy (which continues today) about whether to include social action as part of the mission of the church. Stott argued for including social action. The final covenant spoke of both social action and evangelism, but prioritized evangelism. Some feared that social action would eclipse evangelism as it had in ecumenical missions. Chester notes that Stott acknowledged the priority of evangelism along with giving his own caution:
Stott says: “If pressed . . . if one has to choose, eternal salvation is more important than temporal welfare. This seems to me indisputable. But I want immediately to add that one should not normally have to choose.” I, in turn, would add that it remains vital to keep the eternal perspective in view; otherwise proclamation all too easily ceases to be central in our mission as we become preoccupied by immediate and visible temporal needs.2 Chester, p207.
His understanding of the atonement
In chapter 4, “Substitution Through Satisfaction,” the author describes Stott’s emphasis on the cross of Christ as central to the Gospel. While Stott acknowledged that the atonement is many-sided, he insisted that the ideas of propitiation (the turning aside of God’s wrath) and the substitutionary death were key.3Chester, p 94. Chester sums up how Stott understood the New Testament’s teaching about the atonement:
Stott’s conclusion, therefore – and this is central to his understanding of the cross – is this: “Substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it an additional image to take the place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.4Chester, p 96.
In a day when progressive evangelicals minimize the substitutionary nature of the cross, it is essential we listen to Stott. Therefore, his book, The Cross of Christ, is a must-read for those who proclaim the gospel.
Though I never attended Urbana, I had the privilege of hearing John Stott preach in chapel services at Gordon College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He was, in my opinion, one of the best preachers in the English language.
Aside from reading Stott’s books, hearing him preach has had a lasting impact on me. The clarity of his preaching was his trademark. That is, the connection to the text was as clear as a cloudless day. Chester points out how Charles Simeon (the nineteenth-century vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge) influenced Stott.5Chester, p 68-90. Both were expositors. Moreover, both preachers insisted on identifying the dominant thought of the passage and expressing it in “a single, clear, vivid sentence.”6Chester, p 73. Chester comments on this feature of Stott’s preaching:
This exactly describes “the great secret,” to use Simeon’s words, of Stott’s approach to preaching. It is what person after person who heard him commented on. Neither Simeon nor Stott worked through a passage verse by verse, making a sequence of unrelated comments on successive verses (a common misunderstanding of expository preaching). Rather they preached the big idea of the passage. All the details of the sermon were marshalled to help people grasp this central message and feel its power. 7Chester, p 73,74.
His double listening
Another aspect of Stott’s perspective on the Christian life is “double listening.” That is, we need to listen to Scripture and to the culture around us. Indeed, “double listening” is reflected in the subtitle to this book, “Between Two Worlds” (which is also the title of his book on preaching published in 1982). Stott insists that double listening is “indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission.”8Chester, p 53. Chester describes how double listening builds bridges and informs contextualization:
So, biblical fidelity involves not only thinking ourselves back into the situation of the biblical authors but also thinking our way into the minds of contemporary people. Otherwise, we cannot ensure the word hits home. . . . So the true purpose of contextualization – or “transposition,” as Stott calls it – is not to compromise or to accommodate the preferences of the contemporary world. Quite the opposite. True contextualization is important precisely so that the word of God can confront us where it matters. 9Chester, p 82.
Stott’s focus on Christ
What was central to Stott’s understanding of the Christian life? A process of becoming more like Christ. Why was Stott committed to mission? Many reasons can be given, but primarily it was to bring glory to Christ. What governed his commitment to vocation and discipleship in all of life? The universal lordship of Christ.10Chester, p 226.
These are reasons why missionaries should read Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds. There are certainly more. Above all, John Stott provides us an example of one who practiced a life of proclamation and discipleship grounded in Scripture.