Today, God added one more saint to his cloud of witnesses. And somehow, though I never met him, I feel a sense of loss. When asked to list those Christians living and dead who have had the most significant impact upon my ministry, the name of John R. W. Stott has always seemed to come up. If his name is unfamiliar to you, you can read an obituary here.
My first exposure to Stott came in college through his book Basic Christianity. I was already a Christian but found his careful expression of the Christian faith something that deepened and solidified my own commitment. And I remember clearly his respectful invitation to non-Christians to read and give consideration to what he was saying. He invited them to hear, he did not hound them to believe.
In 1979, Barb and I had the privilege of attending the Inter-Varsity Urbana Missions Convention where John Stott lectured daily on the book of Romans. A rich theological and biblical foundation was being laid for me day after day. And though I cannot today tell you anything he said I can say that I ‘caught’ through that an attitude of respect for the Bible and a love for the importance of a Biblical theology. Stott modeled that.
Shortly thereafter I plunged into Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World which gave my wife and I a sense of God’s heart for the whole world. We became persuaded that a career in missions was what God had in store for us. That persuasion led us to seminary where God turned my heart toward pastoral ministry. But that sense that the mission of God encompassed all peoples was not something that has ever left me.
As a preacher I have long learned to depend upon a series of commentaries Stott championed and called The Bible Speaks Today. His contribution to that series included a volume on Acts which came to me at a time when my vision for what the church was meant to be was maturing and expanding. I was not left the same.
And several times I have read his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, and have been encouraged and challenged to persevere in what can be an exhausting and draining task. And those who have listened to me will appreciate the answer Stott gives to the question of how long a sermon should be: “It does not matter as long as it seems like twenty minutes.” Wise answer, that.
In 2004, NY Times columnist David Brooks penned a remarkable tribute to Stott. In an age when the news media would rush to find the most extreme examples of Christian thinking to comment on whatever issues were in the news, Brooks wondered why none ever thought to seek the insights and wisdom of a man who was the best representative of Christianity.
I came to Stott’s magnum opus, The Cross of Christ late. Having just preached on John 12:31 I feel a need to return to his mature reflections upon the central event of our Christian faith.
All this could be said about the influence of any scholar and model pastor upon a younger generation, I suppose. But there is something more. I cried shortly after reading about Stott’s death. It’s not that I have lost a friend. I never met him; how can I call him that? It’s not that I feel the church on earth is weakened by his absence; his influence has been minimal in recent years. Rather, I think I cried because of these words written by his associate and biographer Timothy Dudley-Smith and quoted by Justin Taylor:
He thinks of himself, as all Christians should but few of us achieve, as simply a beloved child of a heavenly Father; an unworthy servant of his friend and master, Jesus Christ; a sinner saved by grace to the glory and praise of God.
He modeled that for which I long: to know myself primarily “as a beloved child of a heavenly father.”
To whatever degree I am in the least bit able to live my life to the glory and praise of God, John Stott has played a role in that. I thank God for the privilege of falling under his influence.
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UPDATE: A good tribute is this from Don Sweeting, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
I appreciated your post as I hadn’t heard of his death or his particular influence on your life. As is often the case, I find your reflections informative and helpful. Thanks for writing.