(Photo: Langham Partnership International)
The journalist who famously described John Stott as the presumptive “pope” of the evangelicals also complained that the world knew so little about the man who had won exceptional honors and was celibate, humble, articulate, and once even controversial.
“The evangelical world has lost one of its greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisors,” said Billy Graham, paying tribute to the Rev. John Robert Walmsley Stott, who died at the age of 90 Wednesday.
A year before Time magazine ranked John Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2005, Jewish journalist David Brooks from The New York Times said the reason “why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians” in America is that their critics, namely the media and the Democrats, could not identify “authentic representatives” of the global evangelical movement, pointing to Stott.
“It could be that you have never heard of John Stott,” Brooks wrote. “I don’t blame you. As far as I can tell, Stott has never appeared on an important American news program.”
Brooks commented that Stott’s writing had a voice, “friendly, courteous and natural.” “It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.”
If evangelicals could elect a pope, Brooks added, “Stott is the person they would likely choose.”
As chair of the Lausanne Theology and Education Group from 1974 to 1981, John Stott contributed powerfully to the growing evangelical understanding of the relation between evangelism and social action. He also headed the drafting committee for the Manila Manifesto, a document produced by the second International Congress in 1989.
It’s noteworthy that Stott, a clergy from the Church of England, didn’t draw much limelight even when he publicly deviated from the traditional evangelical approach to the doctrine of hell, espousing the annihilationist view that hell is incineration into non-existence, and not eternal conscious torment.
“I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice, unless perhaps the impenitence of the lost also continues throughout eternity,” Stott was quoted as saying in David Edwards’ book, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, in 1988.
Quoting Revelation 14:11, which reads: “And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever,” Stott went on to argue, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’, but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises for ever and ever.’”
The ultimate annihilation of the wicked, Stott added, “should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.” However, he acknowledged that his opinion of hell was not based on his emotions alone.
“Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it... my question must be - and is - not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?” Stott said around five years later, according to his authorized biographer Timothy Dudley-Smith.
Stott also advocated for ordination of women deacons and presbyters though he did not say they should be in positions of headship, Dudley-Smith mentioned.
Compared to the heated reactions American author and pastor, Rob Bell, a universalist, drew after his book, Love Wins, came out recently, Stott was treated gently by other leaders.
“I regard him as a brother in Christ who differs on this particular point [hell],” Banner of Truth quoted Dr. Barker, Dean of Covenant Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America in St. Louis, as saying in December 1999. There is “no question in my mind that John Stott is an evangelical Christian,” added Barker, who was commenting on a sermon Stott had delivered at the seminary.
John Stott, who remained single, has written over 40 titles, the best-known among them being Basic Christianity, and hundreds of articles and other contributions to Christian literature. He also formed Langham Partnership International, which now has six national movements, including the U.S.A.-John Stott Ministries.
Stott’s achievements could partly be attributed to his celibacy, which he saw as a “gift,” but he believed, “the gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment,” as he was quoted as saying in Singles at the Crossroads.
Apart from his achievements, John Stott was known for his remarkable personal attributes.
Biographer Dudley-Smith had this to say about him: “To those who know and meet him, respect and affection go hand in hand. The world-figure is lost in personal friendship, disarming interest, unfeigned humility-and a dash of mischievous humour and charm.” By contrast, Stott thought of himself as “simply a beloved child of a heavenly Father; an unworthy servant of his friend and master, Jesus Christ; a sinner saved by grace to the glory and praise of God.”
It was perhaps due to this rare combination of work-life qualities that John Stott was appointed a Chaplain to Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1959, and an Extra Chaplain on his retirement in 1991. He was also appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2006.
Although Stott was confirmed into an Anglican church in 1936, he accepted Christ personally two years later. When he was 17 and studying at Rugby School, he heard a sermon entitled “What Then Shall I Do with Jesus, Who Is Called the Christ?” by the Rev. Eric Nash. The sermon led Stott to invite Christ into his life. The same Anglican priest, popularly known as Bash, mentored him through weekly letters.
“As a typical adolescent, I was aware of two things about myself,” Stott said describing his conversion experience to his biographer. “First, if there was a God, I was estranged from him. I tried to find him, but he seemed to be enveloped in a fog I could not penetrate. Secondly, I was defeated. I knew the kind of person I was, and also the kind of person I longed to be. Between the ideal and the reality there was a great gulf fixed. I had high ideals but a weak will... [W]hat brought me to Christ was this sense of defeat and of estrangement, and the astonishing news that the historic Christ offered to meet the very needs of which I was conscious.”
Stott was born to Sir Arnold, an agnostic, and Emily Stott, member of a Lutheran church, in London in 1921. He studied theology at Trinity College Cambridge, and was trained for the pastorate at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. In 1945, he was ordained in his local church, All Souls, Langham Place in London. He was awarded a Lambeth doctorate in divinity in 1983 and has honorary doctorates from schools in America, Britain and Canada.
At the Church of England, Stott played a key role as a leader of evangelicalism, and was regarded as instrumental in persuading evangelicals to play an active role in the denomination rather than leaving it.
While the world may not have known him well, Stott knew the world. A keen bird watcher and photographer besides being an evangelist, he travelled the world, including to the United States, armed with his Bible, binoculars, and camera. He faithfully devoted three months of every year to travel for over three decades.