The Incomparable John Stott on the Incomparable Christ

While I suppose I am not particularly superstitious, I have at times
been accused of sentimentality. Although, like most Protestants, I askew
customs such as carrying “lucky” prayer cards or charms, or having certain
items “blessed” (according to Zechariah 14:20-21, ordinary stuff has already
become holy!), I must admit that in my Bible I carry certain items that
might be considered religious relics. Not only does my Bible sometimes
have notes of a personal nature–days when certain verses rang true
for me, like the day Romans 1:17 grabbed Luther’s tortured soul, or certain
promises I underscored to remind myself to live in response to such blessings
of God–but I carry stuff, too: bookmarkers given to me after speaking
at a particular church, news clippings with certain meaning, scraps of
paper with notes or quotes.

One of these which I have long had in my Bible is a wonderfully clear
reminder of much of what my passion has been over these last few decades.
It is a quote taken from an obscure little book by a famous Anglican theologian
and elder Christian statesman, John Stott. In Christian Mission
in the Modern World
, the Rev. Stott writes:

“Some are indeed called to be missionaries,
evangelists or pastors, and others to the great professions of law, education,
medicine and the social sciences. But others are called to commerce, to
industry and farming, to accountancy and banking…. In all these spheres,
and many others besides, it is possible for Christians to interpret their
life work Christianly, and to see it neither as a necessary evil (necessary,
that is, for survival), nor even as a useful place in which to evangelize
or make money for evangelism, but as their Christian vocation, as the
way Christ has called them to spend their lives in his service. Further,
a part of their calling will be to seek to maintain Christ’s standards
of justice, righteousness, honesty, human dignity and compassion in a
society which no longer accepts them.”

That solidly biblical teaching–and all that it implies–means
so, so much to me, and guides our work here at the shop. It has been increasingly
expressed in recent years in various organizations, networks and in the
publishing world. (For instance, ask us about the recent Faith@Work
series of books and the journal of the same name.) InterVarsity Press
has just released a mammoth resource which will be loved by all true bibliophiles
and anyone serious about researching this field of “marketplace” ministry,
The Marketplace Annotated Bibliography: A Christian Guide to Books
on Work, Business & Vocation
(Pete Hammond). This text is an annotated
bibliography of all sorts of books on all sorts of work-related subjects.
(Or, click elsewhere on our
own Web page
to see our annotated listing by professional area,
which is a bit more useful than Hammond’s sprawling work.) The website
is another good ministry dedicated to compiling just such resources and,
again, illustrates the broad interest in taking seriously the challenge
Stott gave decades ago. Exciting things like this are happening as this
vision of faithful expression across the whole of life catches on, that,
frankly, were not happening a few decades ago. And Stott has something
to do with it…

John Stott is a quiet and studious Anglican priest, broadly evangelical,
balanced with a wholly orthodox and yet contemporary faith perspective,
prolific and energetic and prayerful. He turned 80 in 2001 and still writes,
speaks and seriously pursues his hobby of bird-watching. Quite simply,
he is one of the most significant Christian leaders of the twentieth century.
Besides his newly reissued and altogether lovely gift book on birding
(The Birds Our Teachers), two new books testify to this
serious claim. (Even here, where I sometimes have been known to overstate
my enthusiasm for a book or author, I am aware that to insist on that
degree of Stott’s importance may raise some eyebrows. He’s good, but is
he that good??)

Firstly, there is the second volume in the two-volume biography of Stott,
written by a clergyman colleague, Anglican Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith.
The first volume, John Stott: The Making of a Leader: The Early
, which came out of few years ago, traces Stott’s early years
(from his childhood up to the 1960s) and shows the significance of his
ministry in the evangelical awakening that pressed across England in those
years. Indeed, such reliable and solid British theologians–think
also of J.I. Packer and, more recently, the towering intellect of Alister
McGrath–have played quite a role amongst students in the States,
too, significantly shaping the thoughtful and balanced apologetic and
whole-life discipleship of groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
and our own Coalition for Christian Outreach. (Stott spoke at CCO’s famous
Jubilee conference in 1989.) Through those sorts of groups alone, Stott’s
impact is perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of lives.

The new volume in this two-volume biographic set, John Stott: A
Global Ministry: The Later Years
, is a real treat, telling the
story of some of the drama as Stott pushed increasingly into world missions
and social concerns, establishing his Centre for Contemporary Christianity
in London and his very British, very careful insistence that biblical
faith demands not only proper thinking and theology, but a deep experience
of the Spirit, which catapults one inevitably into a discipleship of engagement
with the modern world. While holding firmly to traditional biblical interpretations
of matters such as sexual ethics and the family, he gently called fellow
evangelicals to a progressive agenda of advocacy for human rights, ecological
concern, justice for the poor and a clear stand for international peacemaking.
A favorite Hearts & Minds friend, Elaine Storkey (Baker Books recently
released her excellent book on gender issues, The Origins of Difference:
The Gender Debate Revisited
), worked for a while as the director
of the Centre and that tale is told here as well. Stott and his influential
mission organizations have accomplished quite a lot, and it is good to
see just what one person can do in God’s service and time.

One discerns from Dudley-Smith’s work that, although it surely cannot
be said that Stott served single-handedly about such things, the more
culturally-responsible, socially-active and wholistic vision of the Kingdom
increasingly presumed in many evangelical circles as we move into the
new millennium has come about somewhat by Stott and his work. Even skimming
through this biography, it is remarkable how God was pleased over and
over to use this bird-watching saint.

Stott has not been as flamboyantly passionate as, say, a Tony Campolo,
nor as theologically detailed as Packer, nor as focused on the cultural
intelligentsia as, for instance, his friend Os Guinness (three leaders
who themselves admire Stott and have played a role in recent years of
nudging evangelicalism towards a more broad understanding of her calling
and task.) But as book two, John Stott: A Global Ministry,
shows, he has had an impact far greater than most leaders, and it is an
impact which has reached around the globe and for which we can only give
thanks to God.


Many love Stott’s many books, and fans argue over which is his best.
His commentary in the solid “Bible Speaks Today” series on the Sermon
on the Mount (formerly entitled Christian Counter-Culture)
is standard, as is the one on Ephesians (formerly called God’s New
); his little intro to the life of Jesus, Basic Christianity,
has been instrumental in the conversion of thousands of seekers; Your
Mind Matters
was the book we choose 20 years ago to pass out to
all our customers during the grand opening of Hearts & Minds. He has a
little book on the role of the Holy Spirit which is quite useful.

I very highly recommend owning his two-volume set, Humans Rights
& Human Wrongs
and Our Social & Sexual Revolution
(each with the subtitle of “Major Issues for a New Century”). The first
several chapters of the first volume are brilliant and easy to read, reminding
us of the biblical basis for social engagement, the historical precedents
of evangelical involvement (William Wilberforce’s story of ending slavery,
with the Wesley/Methodist revival as the backdrop is well-told and is
very inspiring), and he invites us to consider complex matters of societal
pluralism and developing a solid Christian frame of reference.

One book which is sort of “Stott’s greatest hits” is the helpful and
jam-packed paperback, The Contemporary Christian. It is
a book loaded with stuff you either (a) need or (b) need to share with
others. How to read the Bible. How to pray. The nature of who God is.
Why we do evangelism. Learning to think Christianly. How to cope with
life’s problems. This is Discipleship 101 with the biblical and pastoral
wisdom of John Stott comin’ at ya. It is a fine example of much of his
life’s work of writing and teaching and is a perfect intro to his many
themes. It is a good one to start with if you are unfamiliar with his

Many have said that The Cross of Christ is his crowning
work, a serious-minded (but relatively readable, as books of this nature
go) study of the work of the cross of Christ. Only available in hardcover,
this work makes a glorious study during Lent, although knowing the various
theories and teachings about the atonement and the significance of the
Cross is important any time. If anyone made New Year’s resolutions to
stretch yourselves by reading a more serious work of theology this year,
this would be a great selection. It is not aimed at other professional
or academic theologians, of course, but is for ordinary folk who want
to dig deeper into perhaps the central teaching of the Christian gospel.
I think it is his most substantial work.

Indeed, I would have considered it Stott’s most important work, until
last week. Last week I laid eyes on his new book, a book based on lectures
I heard last year which were, to say the least, thrilling, informative
and inspirational. I cannot say enough about this important, new work
called The Incomparable Christ (IVP, $19.99). This may be
Stott at his finest!


The Incomparable Christ was originally given as stunning lectures,
the original venue being Stott’s own parish, All Souls in London, delivered
as part of a prestigious lecture series on Christian faith and contemporary
issues. Introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with members of the
Royal Family in attendance, this was, by all accounts, an electric series
which was very well received. The book captures much of this dynamism
and the topic could hardly be more timely. I cannot imagine a finer person
to do this kind of overview, this fully readable, historically informed
and biblically-solid exposition of the ways in which Christ has been seen
and understood through biblical and church history. With no pun intended,
I would easily call this work magisterial.

No human question, of course, is more pivotal than the question of what
one thinks of Jesus Christ. In recent years, numerous books have been
written on Jesus–from the media-happy boys of the silly Jesus Seminar
to the renewed (now called third) quest by serious scholars for the historical
Jesus. N.T. Wright’s brilliant academic work comes immediately to mind,
and his creative yet orthodox biblical perspective makes him surely one
of the finest and most significant scholars around. (We have often encouraged
reading N.T.’s many books and Hearts & Minds stocks some of his fabulous,
brainy lectures–including his historic and irenic debate with Marcus
Borg–on cassette and CD.)

But for all of our appreciation for Wright’s brilliance, his passion
and creative engagement with contemporary philosophy, it is Stott’s classic
evangelical take on Christ that so warms the heart with this book. As
a preaching pastor, Stott cares deeply for his flock (he has never sought
an academic career). It is evident that these are messages of a man who
has had a lifetime of love for his Master. It is also evident that they
emerge from a lifetime of service to the Master.

There is much, much, much in this book–more than a reviewer could
fairly summarize. Allow me to describe each section, though, so that you
may get a feel for the agenda of this weighty book. (I say weighty to
indicate its significance and breadth–not its academic rigor–so
don’t be put off or misunderstand. )

Firstly, Stott writes about what can be called “The Original Jesus” or,
as he puts it, “how the New Testament witnesses to Him.” In quick fashion,
he explains the four gospels and their unique approaches to Christ, the
letters of Paul, the pastoral letters and Jewish views represented by
James, the letter of Hebrews and Peter. If it is true that the New Testament
is about Jesus, this workmanlike overview is, frankly, itself worth the
price of the book. His closing comments in this section (“Unity in
Diversity”) is a hermeneutical key to New Testament authors and a
wonderful summary of the various voices of the New Testament all pointing
to one, central and non-negotiable truth: Jesus Christ is Lord!

The next part is entitled “The Ecclesiastical Jesus” in which he shows
how the church has presented him down through the ages. This is a rich
and wonderful section–thoughtful, wise and exciting. He dashes through
two millennia of thinking about the Christ–from Justin Martyr and
the early councils, to N.T. Wright who sees Christ as the Jewish Messiah
who finally brings exodus and new creation out of exile. In each section,
Stott highlights an insight drawn from a particular person in a certain
setting and reflects on the truth learned (and sometimes, distorted).
For instance, St. Benedict saw Christ as the perfect monk, and Stott then
offers two important questions about monasticism. Similarly, he applauds
and critiques Medieval atonement theology by clearly and briefly explaining
Anselm. His survey of other thinkers and their unique perspectives on
Christ include Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther,
Thomas Jefferson (the Enlightenment skeptic), on through Gustavo Guiterrez
and the insights and errors of Marxian liberation theology. The closing
section in this wonderful part is entitled “Christ the global Lord,” which
surveys ideas of Christ which have shaped mission in the twentieth century
(from Edinburgh in 1910 to Lausanne in 1974). He looks at evangelical
missions, the early and later work of the World Council of Churches, citing
Leslie Newbiggin and drawing important links between Christology and mission.

His conclusion to this part is as important a few pages as I have read
lately: he insists that to be authentic, we must guard against accommodation.
He writes:

“It is good to present Jesus in the
best possible light, so as to commend him to the world. But it is not
good, in order to do so, to eliminate from the portrait everything that
might offend, including the offense of the cross. This is to pander to
Christianity’s “Ëœcultured despisers,’ as Schleiermacher called them. There
is always a price to pay for this kind of feeble-minded accommodation.
Jesus is wrenched out of his original context. He becomes manipulated
and domesticated, and what is then presented to the world is an anachronism,
even a caricature.”

As Stott calls us to an authentic, relevant but uncompromised vision
of Christ, he cites a famous line or two of C.S. Lewis, where Lewis uses
an analogy of looking at a painting:

“We must look, and go on looking, till
we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture
in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with
it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look.
Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”

Next, the incomparable Stott covers more ground in a section called “The
Influential Jesus.” This, not unlike the previous chapter, tells stories
of twelve different people who each, by their inspired service, understood
and responded to a particular aspect of who Christ was and is. For instance,
he illustrates the nativity of the poor king by telling of Francis of
Assisi making the first creche set. George Lansbury redeems manual labor
while Thomas Barnardo (and his “ever-open door”) shows Christ’s love of
children. Missioners such as Father Damien (who famously worked with lepers)
shows how Jesus “touched the untouchables” and the challenge of non-violence
is illustrated by the diverse trio of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and
Martin Luther King, Jr.

From Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa’s view of the cross to Joni Eareckson
Tada’s hope for restoration for her wracked body, from Lord Shaftesbury’s
comprehensive programme of social reform as an illustration of living
in anticipation of the second coming, to William Wilberforce’s tenacious
and heroic work against slavery as an insight into the last judgment,
this section of the book is just spectacularly useful. Not only are these
stories gold mines of personal inspiration and challenge–Christ’s
call is radical and these stories push us hard–but it is a treasure
trove for any of us who are called upon to speak, teach and do Bible studies–or
who need examples of full-fledged Christian activism.

If Part I of this book keeps us thoroughly rooted in the biblical text
and Part II helps us theologically, this whirlwind tour through various
social and political activists helps us to put feet on the gospel, flesh
on the doctrine. It is instructive that Stott does not start here, nor
end here. But it is an exciting, moving and absolutely central key part
of the core of the book. I assure you that you will learn something new,
be challenged to consider something afresh and, unless your heart is terribly
hard, be moved to consider greater service for the Lord.

Part IV is called “The Eternal Jesus” and carries the subtitle “How He
Challenges Us Today.” This is a study of the various portraits of Christ
found in the book of John’s Revelation. Done in ten sections, each is
a fairly standard approach to Jesus as the Lamb, on the throne, supervising
his churches, controlling history, overcoming the devil and the like.
Stott waxes eloquent in some parts of this section, as he point us to
Christ riding in triumph on a white horse, being “the first and the last,”
or as a bridegroom coming for his bride, ushering in a new creation. Near
the end he reminds us:

“It is thus that the book of Revelation
leaves the church–waiting, hoping, expecting, longing, the bride
eagerly looking for her bridegroom, clinging to his threefold promise
that he is coming soon, and encouraged by others who echo her call,’Amen,
Come Lord Jesus'”

It is in books such as these that Stott has shown the clarity and power
of evangelicalism at its best. Shallow-minded TV preachers with their
prosperity-gospel shenanigans, on one end of the theological spectrum,
and arrogant, skeptical scholars who hardly trust a paragraph of Holy
Scripture on the other, fall away into the obscurity they deserve when
faced with warm-hearted, historically-informed, biblically-respectful
and socially-engaged pastor/leaders of this high caliber. Good doctrine,
historically and ecumenically-sensitive and biblically-rooted, leading
to worship and service, praise and mission, doxology and discipleship–that
is what drives the likes of John Stott and that is surely the need of
this hour. Congratulations to the Rev. Stott for these magnificent lectures,
and gratitude to InterVarsity Press for making them available in this
handsome, reasonably-priced hardcover. With such evangelical scholarship
at our disposal, perhaps God’s people will mature greatly, knowing and
doing, more and more, until we illustrate in our own communities, the
grandeur, wonder and love of the incomparable Christ Himself.


Of course we want to sell you this new book, and there is something
to be said about having this sort of resource on your shelf, handy. But
I would further recommend hearing Rev. Stott deliver these extraordinary
talks. Our good friends at the C.S. Lewis Institute, who hosted Stott
in November 2001 as he delivered these lectures on this side of the Atlantic,
have a limited number of audio tapes available for purchase. Visit their
website at
for these and other good audio resources–from James Houston, Os Guinness,
N.T. Wright and other such high caliber contemporary Christian thinkers.
They have a wonderful newsletter, too.