Two Things I Learned from John Stott
Who was John Stott? It’s been a couple of years since Stott died, and his legacy is still taking shape. I suspect that for many of us he’ll be remembered as the author of one or two books on our shelves—probably The Cross of Christ and/or Basic Christianity—or as the name we associate with the International Congress on World Evangelism(think Lausanne). One thing that he deserves to be remembered for was his life-long passion to see his native England and the world beyond won to Christ. Alister Chapman recently wrote about this in a book entitled Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. Chapman highlights Stott’s passion for evangelism and explores the tension between Stott’s desire to maximize his own gifts and influence for the sake of the gospel and the temptation he faced to do the same for self-promotion. I suspect that most of the seminarians reading this will resonate with Stott’s big dreams and this tension and, therefore, would benefit from reading Chapman’s account. I don’t want to spoil it all here with a dry, full-scale review. Rather, I simply want to pass along two things I learned from Stott thanks to Chapman’s book. The first is that Christians should beambitious. The second is that it’s possible to tell when ambition is godly and when it’s not.
First, Stott reminded me that Christians can be ambitious because ambition can be godly. Stott, in fact, would want to say that Christians mustbe ambitious and that our ambitions must be extravagant. As he put it, “[a]mbitions for God…if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God” (155). “They ha[ve] to be great because God [is] great” (156). What Stott meant by all this is that if God is worthy of honor and glory and if our gifts bring him these things, then we should “develop [our] gifts, widen [our] opportunities, extend [our] influence, and [seek] promotion in [our] work—not to boost [our] own ego or build [our] own empire, but rather through everything [we] do to bring glory to God” (8, also 157). Here Stott is simply echoing sentiments we find in the New Testament, not least those found in the parable of the bags of gold where Jesus tells his disciples that they must “improve their master’s assets” as they wait for his return (cf. Matt 25:14–30; for a similar reflection, see here).
Second, Stott’s life taught me that it’s possible to tell when ambition is godly and when it’s not. Two examples come immediately to mind. The first is the way Stott pursued his ambition on the parish level as Rector of All Souls Church. His church could have been much more successful than it was had Stott continued to focus on the demographic where the gospel was having the greatest success, namely in the well-heeled section of his parish. Stott, however, had a vision for All Souls that included more than filled-pews and, in fact, more than simply conversion growth. Stott wanted to see the power of the gospel displayed in every area of his parish and, as a result, gave persistent, prayerful, and creative attention to the working-class areas of his parish. As God would have it, Stott’s efforts here were constantly frustrated. But, it’s the effort and, indeed, frustration that lets us see that Stott’s ambition, his vision for success, was not simply a pious mask hiding a heart singularly-aimed at self-promotion. Had he wanted that, it seems, he would have cared more that his pews were filled and less about who filled them.
The second example is the way Stott used his post-retirement years. Stott could have eased up a bit in his latter years and enjoyed some of the fruit of his labors and influence. Instead, it was during these years that he became increasingly burdened for the plight of the evangelical cause worldwide. And, at the center of his concern was the plight of the majority-world church, particularly its need, as he saw it, for evangelical resources and for theologically-equipped clergy. Stott, therefore, started a trust that would provide for both, and funded it largely at his own expense. (In fact, several of my own international friends at TEDS sat side-by-side with me in class thanks to the vision and generosity of John Stott.) Once again, had Stott’s ambition been simply for his own advancement and the material benefits such advancement often brings, then his sacrificial commitment to the majority world makes little sense.
Who was John Stott? Well, like most of us, he was an imperfect Christian. I suspect he’d be the first to admit this. Still, Stott wasa powerful example of what it means to pursue God’s glory with every last ounce of energy we have and to develop our gifts and expand our influence in the service of this worthy, world-transforming pursuit. So, in a month, when we remember Stott’s life and reflect on his legacy, let’s take a few moments to thank God for his godly ambition and let’s ask God to put something similar deep within our hearts as well.
“But, it’s the effort and, indeed, frustration that lets us see that Stott’s ambition, his vision for success, was not simply a pious mask hiding a heart singularly-aimed at self-promotion. Had he wanted that, it seems, he would have cared more that his pews were filled and less about who filled them.”
Thanks for the reminder Jared. Very helpful.
Jared, I’m glad you wrote this. I am almost finished with this biography. I was writing a few notes in reflection in the back of the book and the similar theme of life-long ambition resonated with me as well. Thanks!
I would have thought that Stott’s ambition would be seen as being a bit at cross purposes with an institution such as Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.
“his life-long passion to see his native England and the world beyond won to Christ.” How is this at cross purposes with DBTS?
I wish that your second lesson was as simple as it seems, but my confidence in assessing the human heart, including my own, isn’t terribly strong. Jeremiah and Paul point toward less confidence since the heart, due to its wickedness is only fully knowable to God and even our own self-assurance isn’t sufficient basis to acquit us (Jer 17:9-10; 1 Cor 4:3-5).
It would seem to me that the compromises, and the fruit borne from them, which Stott made in service of his ambitions on the ecumenical and holistic mission fronts both argue against the godliness of those ambitions. He was no doubt sincere in his pursuits, but sincerity does not excuse the choices that were made. Evangelicals like Lloyd-Jones, Ian Murray, David Hesselgrave, and Christopher Little would all call into question Stott’s ambitions here as well.
I’m making a distinction between ambitions and motives–the former has more objectivity since it is wrapped around something that one wants to accomplish. The test of godly ambitions, in this sense, has to be biblical fidelity, not merely perceived nobility. The motive and desire to reach the world for Christ is clearly noble, but if it is fleshed out in ways that violate God’s Word, then it cannot be labeled as a godly ambition.
That’s why I cannot agree that Stott’s vision of what the church should be and do was entirely marked by godly ambition. He lived relatively peacefully in fellowship with Anglican liberalism for decades (hence the disapproval of Lloyd-Jones and Murray) and he advocated for a reshaping of the church’s mission that has produced a dangerous shift away from genuine gospel-centrality (hence the challenges of Hesselgrave and Little).
My guess is that Stott would say what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” And, I am sure he would agree with me in reminding us of verse 5 too, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”
Can I know or read the motives of John Stott’s heart? Absolutely not. Must I evaluate his vision and ambition for what the church was to be and do? Just as firmly, yes.
Your point 2b (on Stott’s work in the majority world) is one I’ve witnessed first hand and for which I couldn’t be more grateful. In the past year I’ve worked alongside a Sudanese Langham Scholar who completed a Ph.D. in theology and is now working to start a theological training center in one of the neediest areas in Southern Sudan. His story can be repeated many times over, and of course, this is all funded by Stott’s ministry.
Paul Windsor, director of Langham Preaching, has graciously given me much of his time in the last few months to help direct my dissertation. The work they’re doing to promote faithful expositional preaching in far-flung South American jungles or in persecuted areas in Pakistan, is nothing short of astounding. After years of quiet labor in remote places all over the globe, much fruit is being born.
And so I’m particularly grateful to God for Stott’s vision for faithful Biblical churches in the majority world.
I share the conclusion of Dr. Doran re: John Stott. It appeared to be based on a wider assessment of Stott’s activities, writings, influences, theology, et. al., that I would factor into his Anglican/evangelical persona. In my judgment, Stott’s overall thinking and ministry were at cross-purposes with the goals and principles that I perceived at DBTS.