Why should I read John Stott?
Why should anyone in the 21st century read books by someone whose prime years of global evangelical leadership were fifty years ago in the 20th? The answer could be summarized in three words that we use in Langham Preaching to identify what is required in good biblical preaching: Faithfulness, Relevance, and Clarity. Let’s start with the third:
1. Clarity. The thing with John Stott is, you simply cannot misunderstand him. You won’t have that experience you get with some authors where you struggle to make sense of a sentence or indeed a whole page. If you find yourself reading a John Stott paragraph twice, it will not be because you don’t understand it, but because you do, and need to drink in its full significance.
He wrote as he spoke, in a straightforward and crystal clear way. He has an economic style – never wasting words in needless repetition and waffle. Yet his writing also has very attractive elegance, with nicely balanced phrases, carefully structured points, illustrations that genuinely illustrate, contrasts and comparisons that are easy to grasp. He has a real gift of explanation, showing you exactly how he has come to a particular conclusion. And where his own view differs from others, he explains why in logical but gracious terms.
All this makes John Stott very easy to read. By which I do not mean that he is shallow and simplistic. On the contrary, his writing can deal with profound truths and depths of biblical Christian faith and life, but in a way that is digestible and nourishing for the mind and heart. It also means that his books are very translatable; they are still blessing the global Christian church in hundreds of different languages.
2. Faithfulness. By this I mean faithfulness to the biblical text – a standard by which John Stott would insist that all preaching and writing about the Bible should be judged. John Stott’s love for the Scriptures was second only to his love for Christ, and it showed in his lifelong passion to handle them very carefully.
He believed that nothing was more necessary to the life and health and growth of a church (and of individual Christians) than being regularly fed by God’s Word. He gave us what he called “The Langham Logic”, which motivates all our Langham programmes. He said we have three biblical convictions and one logical conclusion.
- God wants his church to grow up to maturity, not just to grow bigger in numbers
- The church grows through God’s Word, without which churches will wither and die, or go off into false teaching
- The Word of God comes to the people of God mainly through regular biblical preaching.
- So the logical question to ask is: What can we do to raise the standards of biblical preaching?
Well, one thing we can do is to provide books that help believers, and especially pastors and preachers, to understand the Bible itself. And John Stott set a massive personal example in doing just that.
When you read one of his many expositions in The Bible Speaks Today series, you meet someone who worked very hard indeed at understanding what the original authors meant to say. Using all the tools of careful exegesis, knowledge of the original languages, attention to the historical context and the literary genre, and wide reading of the books of other biblical scholars, he dug and wrestled and pondered until he was satisfied that he had as good a grasp of the meaning of the text as anybody could get. And where he considers that there could be more than one way of taking a text, he will say so and explain the alternatives. In other words, he is a trustworthy guide, one who feels keenly his responsibility not only to his readers, but even more (out of honest integrity) to the original human author of the biblical text, and ultimately to its divine Author above all.
The bulk of John Stott’s biblical commentaries are on New Testament books, but his biblical knowledge was so extensive that he constantly makes connections with the Old Testament roots of the faith of Jesus’ first followers. Indeed a diet of Stott biblical commentaries would constitute in itself a worthwhile course in biblical theology.
All who have listened to John Stott’s preaching, or read his commentaries (that were originally honed in his preaching), testify to many “Aha!” moments, when you suddenly “get it” – when some possibly familiar but puzzling passage of Paul (for example) becomes clear and its force bears in upon you. He had the gift of bridging the distance between the world of the biblical text and the world of today, and making the Word come to life and power. And that brings us to the third point.
“The Bible Speaks Today” was, I believe, John Stott’s own choice for the title of that benchmark series of Bible expositions published by IVP. For many years he was the editor of the New Testament volumes, and contributed seven of his own. The title conveys his conviction: that God continues to speak today (whenever that “today” may be) from what God spoke originally in the words and writings that we now have in our Bible.
The Christian faith is and must always be contemporary, he urged, because we serve the living God and the risen and reigning Christ who is Lord of all the earth. That’s the reason why he founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (www.licc.org.uk ), still thriving in its home at St. Peter’s Church, Vere Street, in London. And it’s also the reason why he constantly insisted on the necessity of “double listening”. We must listen to the Word, he would say, in order to believe and obey it. But we must also listen to the world, in order to understand it and to relate the Bible with missional effectiveness to our own contexts and cultures.
And when John Stott talked about “listening”, he did not mean a casual hearing. He worked as hard at understanding the cultural world around him as he did at understanding the biblical text. He delved widely into contemporary secular literature and the arts. He did his research, or he instructed his Study Assistants to do the research, on a whole range of ethical issues – social, economic, political, medical, environmental and so on. Similarly he listened and learned from the vast circle of friendships he cultivated with people from other lands, especially in the global south, or majority world.
All this resulted in books that have demonstrated their relevance by being constantly updated and revised as culture moves on, books such as Issues Facing Christians Today and The Contemporary Christian. Even a short classic from the 1970s, Christian Mission in the Modern World, was worthy of a fresh lease of revised and updated life recently. And it is characteristic of this insistence on applying faith to life, that his greatest classic, The Cross of Christ, does not stop short at expounding the doctrine of the atonement (rich and profound though his exposition is), but goes on to a whole fourth section, “Living Under the Cross”, with chapter titles including: “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving”, “Loving our Enemies”, and “Suffering and Glory.” This is no armchair theology.
John Stott didn’t only write books, of course. Along with Billy Graham he was the inspiration behind the Lausanne Movement for world mission, after the First Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974, where he was the chief architect of the Lausanne Covenant – an epoch-making document that has defined the character of holistic evangelical mission for half a century. He went on to craft many of the statements on mission that arose through consultations within the Lausanne Movement, which can be read at www.lausanne.org. And while he was not personally able to participate in the Third Lausanne Congress in 2010, he thoroughly approved the Cape Town Commitment that emerged from it.
Why should you read John Stott? You will find few if any writers who will give you more help to understand the depths of your Christian faith more clearly, with dependable faithfulness to the Scriptures, and with constant challenging relevance.
*Photo credit (top): Kieran Dodds