This past weekend, I spent most of a 24-hour period at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, at a mini-conference entitled “Stand Firm: Christian Courage and the Struggle for Civilization.” Speakers making an appearance at Covenant Seminary’s Francis Schaeffer Institute Lecture Series included author and social critic Os Guinness; William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary; and Andrew Fellows, director of Christian Heritage at University of Cambridge in the U.K.
Apparently, the preferred Schaeffer Institute approach to their lecture series is to encourage the practice of “drinking out of a firehose,” and this year was no exception. The topic of pursuing Christian faithfulness in post-Christian Europe and North America was fascinating to me, though daunting. Summing up the lessons learned from these three men would take me days to process and articulate.
Nonetheless, I’d like to share one of the more memorable (and sobering) takeaways from this experience, contained in a brief anecdote about John Stott.
For those not familiar with the name, John Robert Walmsley Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011) was an English Christian leader and Anglican cleric who was noted as a leader of the worldwide Evangelical movement. In 2005, Time magazine ranked Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world. He was widely known as a man of deep faith and influence in his time; even those who strongly disagreed with Stott would admit that his integrity was above reproach. He might not be correct in his interpretations 100% of the time, even though his work was uniformly excellent, but no one seriously doubted that he was entirely earnest in his desire to follow hard after Jesus.
Stott gave his life to Christ in 1938 while at boarding school at the age of 17, never married – “The gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those He calls.” – and devoted all of his time, talent and treasure to the single goal of loving Jesus and sharing that love with others. He was 90 when he died, having given more than 70 years of his life in service to the Lord.
This anecdote about a man of clearly-enviable faith was told almost as an aside during a lecture given by Guinness, a world-class apologist in his own right for whom writing a “brief bio” and Quick Checklist of Lifelong Accomplishments would be as daunting as summing up the career of Stott. Guinness and Stott were friends, and Guinness had the unique privilege of a personal visit with Stott just a couple of weeks or so before Stott died. As Guinness described it, Stott’s body had given out to the point that he “remained horizontal” in his bed and spoke in a low rasp of a voice for the entire time. As Guinness prepared to leave, he asked his old friend if there was any particular way in which he would like Guinness and his wife Jenny to pray for him. Stott replied:
“Pray that I remain faithful to Jesus right up to my very last breath.”
After Guinness shared this personal insight, I was so stunned that I lost track of what was said for several minutes as I ran down my mental catalog of 1) who John Stott was, and 2) how powerfully his life and writings had influenced modern Christian thought and theology. “Surely, if John Stott – At age 90! After seven decades of faithfulness! – thought it possible that he might yet be turned sideways in his Christian faith, or even walk away entirely, it merits at least a few immediate applications to my own life.”
- If I understood my own salvation properly at all, I ought to wake up every day and fall on my face in tearful gratitude that the Lord has given me the ill-deserved gift of faith for at least one more day of my life.
- We should never take God’s grace for granted, and yet most of us (if we are honest) regularly do just that. “Me and Jesus? Yeah, we’re good. Got that covered.”
- I need other people who truly care for me to regularly pray that I not abandon Jesus to pursue worldly passions. If brilliant and obviously-faithful Christian leaders like John Stott thought it could possibly happen to him, then I certainly should be humbly and constantly asking for the Spirit’s help to persevere in my own faith.
The Crossing is five Sundays into a new series entitled “Running the Race of Your Life,” and the focus (as you might expect) has thus far been on “finishing well.” Our collective memory is littered with examples of people who seriously blew it prior to the end of their lives, a gracious warning that sounds itself across all faiths, industries, careers and people groups. No matter what race one starts – Christian or otherwise – we ought to be rightly sobered by the statistics that are brought to bear as we do so. Far too often, it seems as though we presume upon the grace of God in a manner that betrays our own pride. May we all embrace the humility of men like John Stott, who understood, far deeper than most, that it is the grace of God alone that carries them faithfully through to the last day of life this side of heaven.
Sermon Series: Running the Race of Your Life
- Aug. 21: “The Race of Your Life” (Dave Cover)
- Aug. 28: “The Promise of a Better Story” (Keith Simon)
- Sept. 4: “Uncompromising Convictions” (Keith Simon)
- Sept. 11: “Why Your Race Will Be Hard” (Dave Cover)
- Sept. 18: “Will You Finish Your Race?” (Keith Simon)
Hebrews 13:7-9 (ESV)
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
Upon learning of John Stott’s death in 2011, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had this to say:
“The death of John Stott will be mourned by countless Christians throughout the world. During a long life of unsparing service and witness, John won a unique place in the hearts of all who encountered him, whether in person or through his many books. He was a man of rare graciousness and deep personal kindness, a superb communicator and a sensitive and skilled counselor. Without ever compromising his firm evangelical faith, he showed himself willing to challenge some of the ways in which that faith had become conventional or inward-looking. It is not too much to say that he helped to change the face of evangelicalism internationally, arguing for the necessity of ‘holistic’ mission that applied the Gospel of Jesus to every area of life, including social and political questions. But he will be remembered most warmly as an expositor of Scripture and a teacher of the faith, whose depth and simplicity brought doctrine alive in all sorts of new ways.”