John Stott and the Evangelical Quest for Holiness

Roger Steer.

In the Autumn 2009 edition of METConnexion, Paul Wilson discussed a report submitted to the Methodist Council [09/15] which encourages discussion of how we can be “Christlike in an often un-Christlike but never Christless world”. The report listed the practices of the Methodist tradition which sustained discipleship, including scriptural and social holiness.


The pursuit of holiness has been a concern of John Stott since he became Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London in 1950 at the age of twenty-nine and Chaplain to the Queen in 1959. John chaired the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967 and 1977, shaped the Lausanne Covenant, pioneered the London Lectures, and founded both Langham Partnership International and London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He became internationally known for his writing, preaching and bird watching. He led fifty university missions worldwide.


When, in 1972, John gave the Presidential address at the annual conference of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship at Swanwick he linked holiness with the place of the mind in the Christian life. “Nobody wants a cold, joyless, intellectual Christianity,” he said. “But does that mean we should avoid ‘intellectualism’ at all costs? Is it experience, rather than doctrine, that really matters? Many students close their minds with their textbooks, satisfied that the intellect should play little, if any, part in the Christian life. How far are they right? For the Christian, enlightened by the Spirit, just what is the place of the mind?”


He made no secret of the fact that partly in his sights were some Pentecostal Christians who made “experience the major criterion of truth”. His argument was that the great doctrines of creation, revelation, redemption and judgment all imply that we have an inescapable duty both to think and act upon what we think and know. We are created to think. The fact that humanity’s mind is fallen is no excuse to retreat from thought into emotion, for the emotional side of our nature is equally fallen. In spite of the fallenness of our minds, commands to think, to use the mind, are still addressed to us as human beings. God invited rebellious Israel, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).


John insisted that the fact that God is a self-revealing God and has revealed himself to humanity indicates the importance of our minds. Redemption carries with it the renewal of the divine image in us, which was distorted by the fall. This includes the mind. Paul described converts from paganism as having “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10) and as being “made new in the attitude of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).


What is faith? John asked. It is neither credulity nor optimism but reasoning trust. Faith and thought go together, and believing is impossible without thinking. He argued that the battle for holiness is nearly always won in the mind. It is by the renewal of our mind that our character and behaviour are transformed (Romans 12:2). “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). We certainly shouldn’t think of the mind as being against the things of the Spirit: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5–6 TNIV).


In order to combat the risk of the use of the mind resulting in a barren intellectualism, John argued that knowledge should lead to worship, faith, holiness and love. The text of the lecture was published by IVP as an influential booklet, Your Mind Matters.


When I asked John which of his books he saw as his greatest achievement, he answered (as I expected) that it was The Cross of Christ. “More of my own heart and mind went into it than into anything else I have written.” John believes that the cross transforms everything: “It gives us a new, worshipping relationship to God, a new and balanced understanding of ourselves, a new incentive to give ourselves in mission, a new love for our enemies, and new courage to face the perplexities of suffering.”


Amongst other things, the cross of Christ is the path to mature holiness. Extraordinary as it may sound, we can say “it was for him, and it is for us”. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of a process in which Jesus was “made perfect”, and ascribes the perfecting process to his suffering. Not, of course, that he was ever imperfect in the sense that he had done wrong, for Hebrews underlines his sinlessness. It was rather that he needed further experiences and opportunities in order to become teleios, “mature”. In particular, “he learned obedience from what he suffered”. He was never disobedient. But his sufferings were the testing-ground in which his obedience became full-grown.


If suffering was the means by which the sinless Christ became mature, so much the more do we need it in our sinfulness. Significantly, James uses the same language of “perfection” or “maturity” in relation to Christians. Just as suffering led to maturity through obedience for Christ, so it leads to maturity through perseverance for us. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature (teleioi) and complete, not lacking anything.’’ (James 1:2-4 TNIV)


Three graphic images are developed in Scripture to illustrate how God uses suffering in pursuance of his purpose to make us holy, in other words, Christlike. They are the father disciplining his children, the metalworker refining silver and gold, and the gardener pruning his vine. All three metaphors describe a negative process but all three also underline the positive result – the child’s good, the metal’s purity, the vine’s fruitfulness. We should not hesitate to say, then, that God intends suffering to be a “means of grace”. If God’s love is holy love, as it is, then it is concerned not only to act in holiness (as in the cross of Christ), but also to promote holiness (in the people of God).


In October 2006, Christianity Today recalled that the New York Times columnist David Brooks had written that “if evangelicals chose a pope, they would likely select John Stott”. With this in mind, Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford asked John how he would evaluate the immense growth of the church worldwide during the sixty-one years since he had been ordained.


“The answer is ‘growth without depth’,” John replied. “None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers.”


“Where do we evangelicals need to go?” Tim asked. “We’ve been through quite a trip in the last 50 years.”


“My immediate answer,” John replied, “is that we need to go beyond evangelism. Evangelism is supposed to be evangelicals’ specialty. Now, I am totally committed to world evangelisation. But we must look beyond evangelism to the transforming power of the gospel, both in individuals and in society. With regard to individuals, I’m noting in different expressions of the evangelical faith an absence of that quest for holiness that marked our forebears, who founded the Keswick movement, for example, and the quest for what they sometimes called scriptural holiness or practical holiness. Somehow holiness has a rather sanctimonious feel to it. People don’t like to be described as holy. But the holiness of the New Testament is Christlikeness.”


John talked about the role of Christians in transforming society and the implications of the biblical metaphors of salt and light. “My hope,” he concluded, “is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital but controversial topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armouries of mass destruction, responding adequately to the AIDS pandemic and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda doesn’t remain too narrow.”


After I completed my biography of John, who will be 89 in April, I spent two sessions with him correcting some factual errors and making some last minute insertions into the text to rectify some omissions. I had followed his instruction at the beginning of the project to tell the story of his life “warts and all”. Ironically, in view of the subject of this article, he only asked me to redraft one short section of the book. “In that passage,” he told me, “you have made me sound too holy.”

Roger Steer is a local preacher tutor in the Ringash Methodist Circuit in mid-Devon. His book Inside Story: The LIfe of John Stott  was published in 2009.