The last time I saw John Stott was at the funeral of Liz Bewes, the wife of Richard Bewes. Richard had followed Michael Baughen, who succeeded John Stott as Rector of All Souls Langham Place in London. Liz had died all too soon after their retirement and there was a very long queue of people waiting patiently to go into the church. Suddenly round the corner came John, rather frail, walking with the aid of a stick. He made to go to the end of the queue and of course he was immediately thrust to the front by all those who were waiting. It was characteristic of the man who had served that church as curate, rector and rector emeritus for over fifty years that on such an occasion he would instinctively want to creep to the back, away from the limelight. Humility was his hallmark.
There is so much one could say about his outstanding ministry—as a church leader first of All Souls, then on a national level in the UK, particularly with missions in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, then on the global stage where he became a passionate champion of emerging evangelical leaders particularly in what has come to be known as the Majority World. It was no surprise to anyone (except to him!) that Time magazine listed him in 2005 as one of the world’s most influential people.
He had a formidable intellect, having gained a double first in French and Theology at Cambridge University; it was that mind together with his unwavering evangelical convictions which made him a match for any liberal theologian. On one BBC radio programme he listened as an Anglican bishop explained why the Virgin Birth was an impossibility. “Rubbish,” came the reply from Stott, who in a few succinct words proceeded to demolish the arguments of the hapless prelate.
From that same mind came a succession of books—books like Basic Christianity which has been foundational to the faith of perhaps millions of Christians, having been translated into over 60 languages; books like Issues Facing Christians Today, which faced head on some of the most controversial contemporary issues from the role of women in the church, to homosexuality, to the sanctity of human life. His founding with others of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity furthered his concern that lay Christians should be equipped to apply the gospel effectively in a secular culture. But perhaps it is his last book, The Radical Disciple which he himself described as his “farewell” which we may find the most moving for in the last two chapters he wrote about dependence and death. John Stott’s willingness to write about the, at times, undignified and humiliating weepiness of old age, and the increasing need to depend on others will only serve to increase understanding of a state so often ignored till we face it ourselves; it brings us back to that characteristic we mentioned at the beginning, his humility.
To ministers like myself, perhaps it is John Stott’s concern for careful, faithful and meticulous exposition of the Scriptures that will be his lasting legacy. For him, preaching was not just an ‘add on’ to the busy life of a minister but a huge privilege and a solemn responsibility. His commentaries, Romans: God’s Good News for the World and his Guard the Gospel: The Message of 2 Timothy, should be at the heart of any pastor’s library.
The last words we read about the apostle Paul in the book of Acts are these: “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ,” Acts 28:31. Those words too could be an epitaph for John Stott. As we thank God today for his life and example, we can rejoice that, in the words often used by the Salvation Army, John has been ‘promoted to glory,’ into the presence of the Lord he loved and served so faithfully.