The Rev. Dr. John Stott concluded his final public engagement this past week, asking evangelical Christians in England, "What is God's purpose for his people?"
Giving his last major address before retiring from public ministry, the man whom many regard as one of the most celebrated evangelists of the modern era told the crowd at this year's annual convention in Keswick, England: "I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth.
"God wants His people to become like Christ," Stott said, as he was greeted with a standing ovation. "Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God."
Stott, who has been called by the Rev. Billy Graham as "the most respected clergyman in the world today," spoke Wednesday night as his last speaking engagement before he is to retire from public ministry at the age of 87, moving to a retirement community for Anglican clergy.
His decision in April was made "with the strong belief that it is God's provision for him at this stage."
Building his sermon on three texts – Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 1 John 3:2 – Stott affirmed Wednesday night that "if we claim to be a Christian, we must be Christ-like."
He went on to stress the five main examples in the New Testament of how Christians should seek to imitate Christ.
"We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation," he said. "It was unique, in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to himself in Jesus of Nazareth, but the amazing grace of God in the Incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us. We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation."
Stott warned his audience that being Christ-like in "patient endurance...may well become increasingly relevant as persecution increases in many cultures."
The Anglican evangelist urged believers "enter other people's worlds …. [a]s Christ had entered our world."
"This entering into other people's worlds is exactly what we mean by incarnational evangelism. All authentic mission is incarnational mission," he said.
"Why is it, you must have asked, as I have, that in many situations our evangelistic efforts are often fraught with failure?" Stott continued. "[O]ne main reason is that we don't look like the Christ we are proclaiming."
Explaining his comments, Stott referred to a "perceptive little book" by John Poulton, entitled "A Today Sort of Evangelism."
"The most effective preaching comes from those who embody the things they are saying," Stott cited from the book. "They are their message. Christians need to look like what they are talking about. It is people who communicate primarily, not words or ideas. Authenticity gets across. Deep down inside people, what communicates now is basically personal authenticity."
To illustrate the impact that a Christ-like church could have on the world, Stott noted the words of non-Christians such as a Hindu professor in India who said one of his Christian students: "If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow."
From the Islamic world, Stott noted the words of the Rev. Iskandar Jadeed, a former Arab Muslim, who said: "If all Christians were Christians – that is, Christ-like – there would be no more Islam today."'
Rallying a captivated congregation, Stott asked the question: "Is Christ-likeness attainable?"
He concluded: "In our own strength it is clearly not attainable but God has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to change us from within ... God's way to make us like Christ is to fill us with His Spirit."
Commenting on the evening, Keswick Convention Council Trustee and preacher Jonathan Lamb said: "He may be known as one of the greatest Christian leaders of the 20th century, but few of us could remain unmoved by the sight of a stopped figure, now quietly spoken, calling us to become more like Jesus Christ.
"Emotions were high amongst the thousands present, each with memories of the power and clarity of John Stott's writing and preaching, and thankful for a life of godliness, integrity and humility. How fitting that his final visit to Keswick should deliberately point to the Lord Jesus, whom he has served so faithfully."
Stott, who served as chaplain to the Queen from 1959 to 1991, has now officially retired from public ministry and returns to a retirement community for Anglican clergy in the south of England, which his representatives have said will be able to provide more fully for his present and future needs.