A Talk given (online) by Ajith Fernando at the John Stott 100th Anniversary Service held at All Souls, Langham Place, UK, organised by the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion
I discovered John Stott in the late 1960s in the library of my father who was a layman. I was a university student then and my father would get the compendia of the Urbana Student Missionary Conferences held every three years and at which Stott used to do the Bible readings. Reading those messages gave me a taste of verse-by-verse exposition which became my preferred style of preaching.
Around this time, I found Stott’s book The Preacher’s Portrait. I read it slowly over a period of several months. It was one of the most influential books in my life as I was given a model from the Scriptures of what a servant of Christ should be like.
This book opened the door to another major contribution of John Stott to my life. He gave me a model of looking at issues facing Christians from a biblical perspective. It was an aspect of his emphasis on the preacher as a bridge builder. We interact with culture out of a biblical base and apply biblical truth to contemporary issues. Later from Stott’s pen, or I should say pencil, came some classic treatments on contemporary issues from a biblical perspective, like Issues Facing Christians Today, I Believe in Preaching and The Cross of Christ. I have tried to use this approach in books responding to some of the issues facing the church in Sri Lanka.
The Hard Work of Devotion to Truth
I still remember the impact that Stott’s exposition of 2 Timothy 2:7 at the 1967 Urbana conference had on me. Paul said, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” I remember reading that teaching and preaching involve the hard work of seeking to understand what the author meant. Paul said, “Think over what I say.…” But there was also dependence on God through prayer to help us understand. Paul went on to say, “The Lord will give you understanding….” While Stott may not have said it this way, the message I got was that perspiration and inspiration were vital parts of study. I must work hard to understand what the scripture says with an attitude of humble receptivity to God’s leading.
The perspiration and inspiration are, of course, interrelated. Study drives us to prayer. We want to know what the inspired writer meant. We feel inadequate and plead for God’s help. Study is ultimately an expression of the respect we give to the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures. We want to take what he said seriously and find out what he meant. But we acknowledge our weakness and inadequacy. That makes us work hard to find the truth, but it also makes us depend on God. Depending on God in turn opens the door to God’s grace impacting us. 2 Corinthians 12 expounds this idea well, culminating with the statement, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Preachers, then, are weak people who work hard to study the truth while always depending on God’s guidance.
By now I had come to be convinced that I was called to the ministry. So I resolved that my ministry will be characterised by careful study and earnest prayer. The more I read John Stott the more I realised the implications of 2 Timothy 2:7. Christians are people who value truth and are careful about the way they handle it. As Paul put it a few verses later, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
I met John Stott at a conference, two years after I had returned to Sri Lanka after my theological studies. The first question he asked me was, “Are you giving time to study.”
The Loss of Interest in Truth
This approach of facing issues by carefully and prayerfully studying the Word and the world is sorely needed in today’s world. We are driven by the realisation that God has spoken to us through his Word, and we humbly submit to that Word because we believe it comes from the Creator of the universe. As Isaiah 66:2 puts it, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
Today many people view the Christian attitude of submission to God and his Word as a violation of a human right. They say we have the right to determine our way of life according to our desires and inclinations. Those desires and inclinations are viewed as an essential feature of our identity. And denying that is considered an assault on the person and his or her identity. Because God has been rejected or ignored, the fact that God’s word opposes those things is irrelevant. What to us is temptation to avoid, is to others desire to be embraced.
Romans 1:18-32 clearly shows that after people gave up an attitude of submission to God the door was opened to various deviant lifestyles. People have come to regard what the Bible calls sin as an authentic alternate lifestyle. They see the Christian approach to truth as something that subjects people to bondage to unjust rules that deny their humanness.
Of course, for us, living under the Scriptures is not bondage but the path to freedom. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). In fact, Bible lovers view the word as a delight, as the psalmists often said.
But presenting a gospel based on truth to people who see truth as bondage is a challenge.
New Attitudes in the Evangelical Community
The evangelical community has not escaped the influence of this lax approach to truth. The conscientious, sometimes laborious, pursuit of God’s truth is scoffed at in some circles. They see it as a denial of dependence on the Holy Spirit. Theology is considered a hindrance to an exciting Christian life.
To us evangelicals, truth is profoundly serious, and we should be careful about the way we handle it. But recently we are seeing a carelessness in the attitude of Christians towards truth.
This carelessness is seen a lot on social media where the availability and possibility of instant reactions makes us lazy to give thoughtful responses to issues. Christians are defending their convictions by doubtful means. They pass on news that they are not sure about which is later labelled fake news. If they are not sure of its authenticity, they may include a prescript saying something like, “Forwarded as received.” If we are not sure about something, why forward it?
Despite the strong condemnation of the sin of false witness in the Bible, Christians will espouse conspiracy theories, the veracity of which they are not sure. Because it buttresses their conviction of what is orthodoxy, it is considered worth propagating even without making sure that it is true. Unscrupulous people create stories which are not true knowing that they will catch on. And Christians are duped in believing these stories and forward them. The fake news phenomenon and the lightness with which people respond to it is one of the surest signs of the devaluing of truth. People seem to have the idea, “If it is wrong, well, so be it. It’s not a big deal.”
Prophecies are in vogue in some Christian circles today. Prophecies are sometimes given to buttress our convictions about political issues. Sometimes prophecies give specific predictions that fulfil people’s dreams, such as the promise of success in a venture. People claim to be blessed by them. It feels good to hear things you like to hear.
But some of these prophecies are not fulfilled. Unfulfilled prophecy has been a reality all through history. But it is alarming that today people conveniently forget about the prophecies that did not come to pass. It’s not a big deal. In the Old Testament, the death penalty is decreed for prophets whose predictions do not come to pass (Deut. 18:20-22). And why? Because prophecies claim to be God’s word, and in biblical religion God’s word is desperately important. The flippant response to unfulfilled prophecies shows that Christians have become careless about truth.
A careless attitude to both fake news and false prophecy results in a devaluing of one of the great pillars of Christianity: its foundation of truth. If our generation of Christians is careless about truth, we could give birth to a new generation that does not believe in the validity and necessity of truth. Just like anti-supernaturalism gave birth to a dark age of liberalism in the church over a century ago; carelessness with truth can give birth to a dark age of truthless Christianity.
At the Cape Town Lausanne Conference in 2010, Os Guinness said, “The Christians who are careless about truth are as wrong and as foolish and as dangerous as the worst sceptics and scoffers of our time.” John Stott’s approach has always challenged me to be careful about truth.
Quiet Confidence in the Truth
John Stott also demonstrated to many of us not only the primacy but also the beauty of truth, not only the authority of our proclamation but also the humility of the proclaimer. He displayed what I like to call a quiet confidence in the truth. It is a confidence that comes from the nature of God’s word. As Peter said, “…the grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever (1 Pet. 1:24-25).
This must be our approach too. As we see a completely different approach to truth in the world today, we don’t have to throw up our hands in despair. As we see opposition to our unflinching assertion to the truths of the gospel, we don’t need to back down and compromise on the truth. What we need is humble proclaimers who have done their homework and now present it with quiet confidence in the truth.
Let me give you five truths that lie behind this such confidence.
- First, our confidence emerges from a belief in the truthfulness of scripture and from a careful study of it. Yes, in this age of confusion we can proclaim the word with certainty—because it is God’s word.
- Second, we know that this is the word of the Creator which meets the deepest needs of his creation, even of those who are most resistant to the good news. Not only is it true. It is relevant: exactly what they need most to hear, because it comes from the one who created every human being.
- Third, we go to people out of an attitude of prayer and the knowledge that God has sent us. He is the one who called us to this work. We are on assignment with a mandate from him.
- Fourth, the world is not going to be impressed by a boring recitation of facts. That would reinforce their idea that adherence to truth results in bondage. Instead, the Holy Spirit kindles a fire in our hearts and brings fire to our words.
- Fifth, when we speak, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who is at work. He convinces people of the truth. We do our part as best as we can and leave the rest to him.
This is the basis of our quiet confidence. It is this confidence that prevents us from giving up. It prevents us from giving in to the bitter hostility that has become associated with fundamentalism. This ultimately comes from insecurity. It also prevents us from being diffident like those who don’t believe in the absolute uniqueness of God’s revelation. God has spoken to his creation, and we are bearers of this message. And his Spirit speaks through us.
Authority and Servanthood
Let me say one more thing. The contemporary distaste for living under the authority of truth would brand authoritative preaching as arrogant. But there is no place for arrogance in Christian proclamation. The authority of the preacher is the authority of being hidden behind Christ. We preach with authority because we know it is true. As for ourselves, we are so enraptured by Christ and what he done for us that we are not going to waste our time and energy boosting ourselves. We cannot look down on others because we know how dependent we are on grace. There is no place for arrogance in Christian proclamation.
On the contrary, filled with the love of Christ and with confidence in the truth of the gospel we have the strength to be servants of people. Paul said, “… what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Jesus is the only Lord, and we are servants of the people he sends us to.
John Stott reluctantly took on the assignment of writing the basic document coming from the Second Lausanne Congress in Manila in 1989. The assignment was given to him at the last moment. He set to work losing a lot of sleep and managed to come up with a document during the conference. The drafting committee reviewed it and edited it and presented it to the wider body.
Some delegates pushed strongly to do away with this comprehensive document and replace it with a few basic affirmations. The drafting committee debated this issue for some time, but they could not find agreement. The next day when the committee met, Stott announced that he has grappled with the Lord the night before and that he was agreeable to the idea of the comprehensive document being scrapped, if that was the wish of the committee.
Fortunately, the committee voted to keep it while including the affirmations at the start of the document. That became what we know as the Manila Manifesto. This incident it showed me the character of a servant. He was willing to surrender all the hard work he sacrificially did, if that was the wish of the committee. The great John Stott chose to be a servant of us lesser mortals on the committee.
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People today live in a maze of uncertainty regarding truth. The winsome, confident witness of Christians, who are also humble servants of people, could become a breath of fresh air in such a world. That could commend to the truth about Jesus to people. We always associated John Stott with winsome authority combined with humble servanthood. May God raise up more and more such authoritative, humble servants of truth.