Abrahamic and Apostolic: John Stott in his Centenary Year
‘I am a great believer,’ John Stott would often say, ‘in the importance of B.B.C. Not the British Broadcasting Company, nor Bethelehem Bible College, nor even Beautiful British Columbia. But “Balanced Biblical Christianity”.’ In my own assessment of John’s life and ministry I suggest a biblical balance of Old and New Testaments by saying that the scale and scope of John Stott’s significance within the global church has been both Abrahamic and apostolic.
John Stott was Abrahamic in two ways, of which the first is the most obvious.
a) Blessing the nations
The gospel, according to Paul (Gal. 3:8), was announced in advance to Abraham – namely, the good news of God’s promise to bless all the nations on earth through him. Ultimately, of course, this was fulfilled through Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel in his name to all nations. But the role of God’s people has always been ‘Abrahamic’ in the sense of being instrumental in God fulfilling that promise. And in that sense, John Stott was truly Abahamic. His whole life, from a very early stage of his pastoral ministry, was spent in reaching out to the nations of the world.
His travels in all continents were not just some kind of tourism for Jesus (or sanctified bird-watching), but were integrated into a growing passion to gain a truly global understanding of Christian theology and mission, and of what it meant to be the worldwide body of Christ. Wherever he went, he did as his father had told him as a small boy in the countryside – he kept his eyes and ears open. He listened respectfully to other cultures, learned from them, and sought to see the richness of the eternal biblical gospel through the eyes, needs and aspirations of others. It could be said that he was a blessing to so many people in every part of the world, because he opened himself up to be blessed by them. And the extent to which John Stott was Abrahamic in ‘blessing the nations’ can be seen in the number of international evangelical organizations in which he invested many years of encouragement, advocacy and practical ministry, such as IFES (the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), EFAC (the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion), the Lausanne Movement, WEA (the World Evangelical Fellowship), Scripture Union, A Rocha, Tear Fund, and doubtless many other less well known national initiatives that were blessed by his support.
b) The obedience of faith
But John was Abrahamic not just in the scope of his ministry, but also in its substance. ‘By faith Abraham…obeyed’ (Heb. 11:8). God’s promise came along with a demand, that he should walk in the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, and teaching his household to do the same (Gen. 18:19). God’s people were to bless the nations by living among them in a way that was ethically distinctive at every level – political, economic, judicial, familial, sexual, etc. God’s people are to be, as Jesus put it, salt in a corrupt world and light in a dark world. And we can perform that function only by being engaged with and in the world in every area of life over which Jesus is Lord (which means – every area of life on earth, and even the earth itself as God’s creation).
John Stott was as passionate about the engagement and penetration of the gospel into every area of public life as he was about the truth of the gospel itself. He could not separate them. Indeed, he would have argued that the truth of the gospel has not really been grasped unless and until the radical demands of the gospel, as well as the gracious promises of the gospel, are being presented and lived out in the world by ‘integrated Christians’, that is, Christians who have rejected the disabling falsehood of the ‘sacred-secular divide’. It was this conviction that led to the foundation of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, as well as books like The Contemporary Christian and Issues Facing Christians Today.
John was not interested in ‘the irreducible minimum of the gospel’. He was once asked to define what he thought that might be, and declined. Rather, he said, he wanted to be faithful to the whole biblical gospel in all its glorious richness and in its transforming power, which brings all of life in heaven and earth under the Lordship of Christ.
John would never have claimed or used the title ‘apostle’ for himself, of course. ‘There are no apostles in today’s church,’ he said, ‘with the same status or authority as the unique apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament.’ Nevertheless, his ministry was apostolic in the sense that it faithfully reflected the passion and priorities of the biblical apostles, in two ways. In the New Testament we see the apostles’ evangelism and the apostles’ teaching.
The apostles were commissioned to proclaim the good news that the one true God of Israel had kept his promise of blessing to the world, in sending his only Son, Jesus of Nazareth, as the promised Messiah and Lord, and to call people of every nation to receive the salvation that God had accomplished through his cross and resurrection, by repentance, faith, baptism and obedience.
John Stott had the heart of an evangelist from his own teenage conversion to his final years in the hospice known as the College of St. Barnabas. About a year before he died, he told me with some excitement how he had been able to ‘explain the way of salvation’ to one of his carers – a woman who asked him a question while wheeling him back from lunch in the dining room to his own room.
The first of John’s international travels was to conduct evangelistic missions on university campuses in the USA in 1956-57, and for years his effectiveness as a university evangelist was the main reason for his growing international ministry. His early book (almost but not quite his first) Basic Christianity distilled those evangelistic messages and has led thousands of people to faith in Christ. And his last book, The Radical Disciple, written when he could scarcely hold his pen steady, still breathes the truth and the appeal of the apostolic gospel.
It was John’s heart for evangelism, and his emphasis on its centrality within Christian mission, that led to his involvement with Billy Graham in the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, providing in The Lausanne Covenant a classic definition and theology of evangelism that is biblically faithful and contextually relevant, and which continues to bear rich fruit in the subsequent documents of the Lausanne Movement including The Cape Town Commitment.
The apostles were tireless also in teaching their new churches, by word or letter, grounding them in their faith and urging them to grow up in their faith, living, and endurance. In this, just as much as in evangelism, they were doing what Jesus told them in ‘the great commission’ – namely, ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you’.
John Stott was as passionate and committed to the work of apostolic teaching as to apostolic evangelism.
Like the Apostle Paul, he longed to see Christians and churches growing up to maturity in Christ and growing into the likeness of Christ. He observed, and rejoiced in, the numerical growth of the church in the ‘majority world’ (long before that term was used, and before the phenomenal growth of the church in the ‘global south’ was brought to the attention of Christians in the west by books like Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom). But he also lamented the lack of teaching, discipling and godly leadership that left such new churches weak and vulnerable, plagued by spiritual extremism and moral laxity, and at the mercy of self-appointed mega-leaders who exploit the flock with more greed than grace. Like the Apostle John, he also longed to see Christians and churches living in love and unity, and saw our chronic dividedness (particularly among so-called evangelicals) as very visible evidence of our immaturity.
‘How would you sum up the state of the church around the world today?’ he would often ask, when called on to introduce the work of the Langham Partnership. ‘I can do it in three words,’ he went on. ‘Growth without depth. There is much evangelistic growth in numbers. But sadly there is also shallowness and immaturity everywhere, and it is not pleasing to God.’ From that challenging start he would go on to articulate what he called ‘The Langham Logic’ – based on three biblical convictions (supported with many biblical texts) and a logical conclusion.
- God wants his church to grow up in maturity – not just to grow bigger in numbers.
- God’s church grows through God’s word.
- God’s word comes to God’s people mainly (not exclusively) through biblical preaching
So if these three convictions are true, then the logical question to ask is, What can we do to raise the standards of biblical preaching? For then the word of God will feed the people of God and they will grow to maturity and thereby to effectiveness in their mission and ministry in the world.
This rationale, provided by John Stott, remains the driving engine of all the ministries of the Langham Partnership International, which he founded. It began as the Langham Trust in 1969 (characteristically named, not after himself, but the street where his church stands), which provides scholarships to help gifted younger evangelicals gain doctorates and be better equipped as teachers of pastors in their own countries. Then came the Evangelical Literature Trust in 1971, recycling John’s own book royalties and other donations to provide books for pastors and seminaries to resource their biblical preaching. And finally in 2001 John Stott and I pioneered some preaching seminars in Latin America, to motivate and train pastors in the skills of biblical preaching, which gave birth the following year to a plan for such training in other continents. These three initiatives now work together as three integrated programmes: Langham Scholars, Langham Literature and Langham Preaching, under the unifying vision,
‘To see churches worldwide equipped for mission and growing to maturity in Christ through the ministry of pastors and leaders who believe, teach, and live by, the word of God.’
- Langham Scholars has enabled more than 300 men and women from ninety countries to gain doctorates in Bible and theology and most of them are now teaching future generations of pastors in Bible colleges and seminaries, or in positions of senior leadership in national churches. Partly as the fruit of this work, there are now some high quality evangelical seminaries offering doctoral degrees in majority world countries and the voice of majority world theological scholarship is being heard in the west through the writing and speaking of Langham Scholars.
- Langham Literature has provided evangelical books to hundreds of thousands of pastors and hundreds of seminary libraries over many years. Initially this was mainly western books in English or translation. Now Langham’s major effort lies in fostering indigenous evangelical writers, editors and publishing houses in majority world countries, to feed the minds and hearts of their own people in their own languages and to resource pastors and preachers for their primary task. The past 15 years have seen the production of major one-volume commentaries on the whole Bible, entirely written by scholars in their own region, for Africa (in several languages), South Asia, Latin America, the Arabic speaking and Russian speaking regions.
- Langham Preaching is fostering whole movements for biblical preaching in more than eighty countries, with a combination of training seminars, multiplying local preachers’ clubs, training of local and national facilitators and trainers, regional conferences, and providing books and other preaching resources.
All of these ministries can be included under the category of ‘apostolic teaching’ – whether that teaching happens in a pulpit, in a classroom, or in the pages of a book. They are comparable to the ministries of Apollos (a scholar teacher), Timothy (a preacher and trainer of others) and even Tertius (a trained writer who wrote Paul’s letter to the Romans). All teaching that builds up the church (theological education in its broadest sense), is part of the great commission, so by its nature, missional. John Stott understood clearly that there is mission beyond evangelism – the mission of teaching and discipling. Every Paul needs an Apollos.
In these various ways, then, John Stott was both Abrahamic and apostolic. The global church has been incalculably blessed by him in both respects.
Whether the church has yet learned and implemented the lessons he taught, is another matter.
Global Ambassador and Ministries Director
Langham Partnership International
*Photo credit (top): InterVarsity Christian Fellowship