Wednesday, 10 August 2011

John Stott's farewell

To mark the passing of John Stott recently, I thought I'd read his final book, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham: IVP, 2010). Its a pretty slim volume, about 140 pages of fairly large type, and I guess there's little that seasoned Stott readers will not have read before, but its power and persuasiveness really rests in its intent and timing. These are Stott's final words, self-consciously so, to the evangelical movement which he has led with such distinguished grace for much of the past half century and more. In some ways its also a companion volume to his previous book, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (2007). Where that book gave Stott's distilled wisdom on the church, this book is a passionate summary of his views on the nature of the Christian life, picking up on many of themes that have moulded his life and ministry.

The book defines a Christian as a radical disciple, and in its eight main chapters, Stott looks at eight characteristics of just such a disciple. These are: nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation-care, simplicity, balance, dependence and death. I won't talk about all eight here, just comment on a few areas which stood out for me.

Putting aside the initial surprise of an Anglican recommending nonconformity(!!), Stott argues, as he has done throughout his ministry, that Christians should be 'counter-cultural', and he identifies four twenty-first century trends that Christians should resist: pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism.

In the third chapter, on maturity, he summarizes the current evangelical world globally as characterised by 'growth without depth' (p. 43). The answer to this immaturity is Christian maturity, which he sees in deeply Christological terms. 'To be mature is to have a mature relationship with Christ in which we worship, trust, love and obey him' (p. 47). To get there 'we need above all a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ, not least in his absolute supremacy'. And how do find the authentic Jesus? ' . . . in the Bible - the book which could be described as the Father's portrait of the Son painted by the Holy Spirit' (p. 49).

For me, and perhaps for the evangelical world more generally, one of the most radical chapters in the book was that which dealt with simplicity. One of the themes that has emerged in many of the obituaries of Stott in the past couple of weeks has been the extent to which he himself embodied this humble and simple lifestyle. He identifies eight characteristics of the simple life: embracing the goodness of creation, the proper stewardship and sharing of the world's resources. Under this heading he makes the point that 'people's humanity is diminshed if they have no just share in those resources' (p.76), something being played out before our eyes here in the UK as I write (August 2011) with unprecedented levels of rioting and looting on the streets of some of our major cities. The other hallmarks of the simple life: the right attitude to poverty and wealth, our congrgations acting as genuinely new communities, a personal lifestyle embodying holiness, humility, simplicity and contentment, a committment to international development (not just aid and relief), a quest for social justice and peace, personal evangelism and the eager expectation of the Lord's return.

Equally good is Stott's stress on the need for us to live a balanced Christian life. Expounding 1 Peter 2, Stott writes that we should remember who we are as Christians, and then behave accordingly (p. 102). Radical disciples should also embrace the 'dignity of dependence' (p. 113), on Christ certianly, but also on one's fellow Christians. And then the Christian life needs to embrace death. He writes that 'life through death is one of the profoundest paradoxes in both the Christian faith and Christian life' (p. 115). Death is the way to life, he writes, in terms of salvation itself, but also in discipleship, mission, persecution, martyrdom, and as we face our own mortality.

The book draws to a close with a moving ending in which Stott bids his readers 'Farewell' and urges the importance of reading in order to live lives of such radical discipleship. Reading he concludes, is a 'much neglected means of grace' (p. 140).

So while there's little new here, the power of the book rests in the fact that these are the reflections of someone at the end of his earthly pilgrimage. Its a stripped back volume, therefore, concentrating on the essential elements of being a radical, authentic, twenty-first century disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thank you John Stott!

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