Lessons from John Stott, 1921-2011
July 28, 2011
John Stott died Wednesday at the age of 90. He was a faithful expositor of the Word of God, a preacher and witness to the Gospel, and a teacher and advocate for pastors from poor countries around the world.
I met him in the early nineties when the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Williams College brought him to campus. In a Q and A with the few Christian faculty on campus, I asked him about his record of faithfulness over decades, and how we too might achieve that. I had not used the word “sin” in my question. His answer was direct; with eyes flashing, he said something like this: “The real question is: How do I overcome sin in my life? If we coddle ourselves and allow ourselves to fall into laziness and indiscipline, we will not be faithful. I face the same temptations and have the same sin nature that you have. Faithfulness results from confronting, battling, and, by God’s grace, overcoming those temptations on a daily, indeed hourly, basis.”
So that’s my first lesson to take away from John Stott: Be strong in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Fight sin. You are a child of light – live like it!
Stott was an expository preacher when many were teaching that such preaching was passé. My pastor in California, Ray Stedman, worked together with Stott in the seventies and eighties to advance expository preaching in the UK, the US, and around the world. At Stedman’s recommendation, one of the first books I read on preaching was Stott’s Between Two Worlds. This paragraph superbly encapsulates the biblical rationale for preaching:
How dare we speak, if God has not spoken? By ourselves we have nothing to say. To address a congregation without any assurance that we are bearers of a divine message would be the height of arrogance and folly. It is when we are convinced that God is light (and so wanting to be known), that God has acted (and thus made himself known), and that God has spoken (and thus explained his actions), that we must speak and cannot remain silent. As Amos expressed it, ‘The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?’ (3:8) . . . God has spoken. If we are not sure of this, it would be better to keep our mouth shut. Once we are persuaded that God has spoken, however, then we too must speak. A compulsion rests upon us. Nothing and nobody will be able to silence us. (1982 edition, p. 177).
So that is the second lesson from his life: Preach the Word! Don’t preach your opinions. Don’t preach cute stories about your children. You have nothing of eternal value to say except what He has said. God has spoken – and if you are called to be His herald, you must speak.
Third: At DGCC, we emphasize that preaching is not separate from worship but a necessary and integral component of worship. That emphasis comes to us from the Bible, via John Stott. He wrote in Between Two Worlds:
Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other. All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God, because it is the adoration of his Name. Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching. For preaching is making known the Name of the Lord, and worship is praising the name of the Lord made known. Far from being an alien intrusion into worship, the reading and preaching of the Word are actually indispensable to it. The two cannot be divorced. Indeed, it is their unnatural divorce which accounts for the low level of so much contemporary worship. Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded in its fulness, and the congregation begin to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before his throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable. (1982 edition, p. 95-96).
So the third lesson: Fight tooth and nail against the prevalent attitude, “We have a time of worship, and then we have the sermon.” Pay attention to the public reading of Scripture. Pay attention to the lyrics of the songs, for they too constitute “making known the Name of the Lord.” Make the service a unity in which reading, singing, praying, and preaching all come together to edify and stir the people of God to express joy in the person of God.
Finally, like Francis Schaeffer, John Stott was an accomplished but humble man. This came out in part through his devoting the bulk of the last twenty years of his life to serving pastors in poor countries around the world. As the Sri Lankan Ajith Fernando writes:
Here was humility personified …. We are grateful that he gave so much time coming to the poorer nations not with some huge program which would impress the whole world, but simply to teach us the Bible.
That is my fourth lesson: Serve graciously, lovingly, humbly, not designing some grand program that bears my imprint, but opening up the Word here and around the world to those who hunger for such teaching, and who will in turn teach it faithfully to their friends, their families, their congregations, and the unreached around them. Teach the Word with all authority – knowing that there are children of God listening who far surpass me in godliness and Christlikeness.
So I thank God for the life of this servant of the church. May we imitate him as he imitated Christ. And may our Lord be pleased to raise up – from Charlotte, from Victoria, from Andhra Pradesh, from Mayasilla, from east Asia – the next generation of John Stotts, who will fight sin diligently, who will preach the Word faithfully, who will worship God biblically, and who will serve the Lord humbly.