John Stott died two days ago in London. He was ninety years old.
More than any single person, he shaped the way I approached, interpreted, and taught Scripture.
Although Protestants don’t have a Pope, the British leader, author, theologian, and teacher was the next best thing for many of us.
A lifelong bachelor, Stott was the rector for many years at All Soul’s Church in Langham Place in London – right across from the BBC. Although I’ve been inside the church, I’ve never attended a service there. (If you look across the photo, you can see an exterior balcony at the BBC building. U2 did a brief concert there not too long ago.)
After his tenure at All Soul’s, Stott undertook a worldwide teaching ministry. I had the privilege of hearing him one time – at the Congress of Biblical Exposition in Anaheim in 1986. Although the conference featured such great preachers as Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, J. I, Packer, Howard Hendricks, Stuart Briscoe, and many more preaching all-stars, Stott was invited to give the first message. During his talk, he referred to the perspicuity of Scripture, a term I had never heard before. It was the genius of Stott that he could use a word like that and help us to understand both its meaning and application for our ministries. (The word refers to the fact that the Bible is clear in its teaching. If a passage seems unclear in one place, it will be made clear in another place.)
Although he was a great teacher, for me, Stott was primarily an author. In the series The Bible Speaks Today, Stott wrote books on The Sermon on the Mount, Acts, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Stott’s analysis of each Bible book is accurate, clear, succinct and practical – and he can turn a phrase like nobody else. And while some popular Bible teachers skip the problems in Scripture, Stott fearlessly plows right into each one, a trait I greatly admire and have tried to emulate.
For some reason, I have always been attracted to British thinkers and theologians, like Stott, Packer, F. F. Bruce, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Alister McGrath, and the incomporable Charles Spurgeon, to name a few. Their scholarship, thinking, and writing styles have always resonated with me.
Let me recommend three books by John Stott to you. They are relatively inexpensive volumes:
First, Baptism & Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today. While I’ve owned as many as 30 books on the Holy Spirit, Stott’s 119-page paperback volume has long been my favorite. He deals biblically and sensibly with four topics: the baptism, fullness, fruit, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I first encountered this book 35 years ago, it challenged and then changed my thinking on the Holy Spirit.
For example, he writes “a word to those who may have been given some unusual visitation of the Spirit.” He goes on:
“It is understandable that you should want to bear witness to what God has done for you. But I beg you not to seek to stereotype everybody’s spiritual experience, or even to imagine that the Holy Spirit necessarily purposes to give others what he has given to you. It is spiritual graces which should be common to all Christians, not spiritual gifts or spiritual experiences. In a word, let your experience lead you to worship and praise; but let your exhortation to others be grounded not upon your experiences but upon Scripture.” Wow, that’s good!
Second, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today. Although the book is now 21 years old, Stott goes where most Christian teachers won’t go: headlong into controversies about social issues like the environment, human rights, racisim, feminism, abortion, and homosexual marriage. Stott interacts with secular authorities first (many of them British) so we can understand their positions, and then lets Scripture clarify and arbitrate. For example, here’s what he writes about gay sex:
“Christians should not therefore single out homosexual intercourse for special condemnation. The fact is that every kind of sexual relationship and activity which deviates from God’s revealed intention is ipso facto displeasing to him and under his judgment. This includes polygamy and polyandry … clandestine unions … casual encounters and temporary liaisons, adultery and many divorces … and homosexual partnerships…. In sum, the only ‘one flesh’ experience which God intends and Scripture contemplates is the sexual union of a man with his wife, whom he recognizes as ‘flesh of his flesh.'”
Finally, The Cross of Christ. Published in 1986, it may be Stott’s greatest book. It’s certainly my own favorite. I have turned to it over and over again over the past 25 years, always with great profit. Because Stott is always well-read, the book is penned with some theological depth, but is always richly rewarding. This passage about Pilate protesting his innocence before Jesus’ crucifixion makes us think:
“It is easy to condemn Pilate and overlook our own equally devious behavior. Anxious to avoid the pain of a whole-hearted commitment to Christ, we too search for convenient subterfuges. We either leave the decision to somebody else, or opt for a half-hearted compromise, or seek to honour Jesus for the wrong reason (e.g. as teacher instead of Lord), or even make a public affirmation of loyalty while at the same time denying him in our hearts.” Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Stott’s hobby was bird-watching, and I’ve read that he loved James Bond movies as well, so he wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky leader. He was transparently human.
But even though the man’s body his left our planet, his writings live on. While he certainly wasn’t infallible, Stott was always gracious, willing to dialogue with his enemies and even chide his friends in the pursuit of truth.
Heaven is richer because of his departure from our planet. But I am eternally grateful to God that I not only own most of his books (some are about two feet behind my left shoulder), but that the truth of God as taught in those books has worked its way into my own heart and soul.
Long live John Stott!