I keep a copy of the Africa Bible Commentary next to my Bible. It helps me understand the Scriptures, and it gives me the opportunity to learn from brothers and sisters around the world. That commentary exists, in part, because of the generosity of John Stott. During his travels around the world, he was inspired to “raise the standard of biblical preaching” in underresourced places. He forfeited all the royalties from his books to see churches strengthened by biblical scholarship and resources like the commentary on my nightstand.
On July 27, 2011, Stott entered his eternal reward and met his Savior face-to-face. Many Christians know Stott’s writings and public ministry, but Stott kept the decisions he made about personal finances and his standard of living private during his life. As I’ve learned more about that side of Stott’s faith in recent years, I’ve discovered how his life models a kingdom mindset amid a consumer-driven culture.
Sacrifice in a Material World
We live in an age of excess. Our lack of self-denial and moderation extends to shopping, eating, and how much entertainment we consume. Stott’s life stands in stark contrast to our cultural tendencies.
We live in an age of excess. Stott’s life stands in stark contrast to our cultural tendencies.
Each parishioner I’ve met who worshiped with Stott at All Souls Church—from his study assistant to those who accompanied him on international trips—talks about his generosity and simple lifestyle, the way he gravitated toward sacrifice rather than indulgence.
Stott dedicated an entire chapter to simplicity in his book The Radical Disciple. There he said,
Materialism—a preoccupation with material things—can smother our spiritual life. Jesus told us not to store up treasure on earth and warned us against covetousness. So did the apostle Paul, urging us instead to develop a lifestyle of simplicity, generosity, and contentment, drawing on his own experience of having learned to be content whatever the circumstances (Philippians 4:11).
Here are three truths I’ve learned about simplicity from studying Stott’s life and writings.
1. Simplicity is biblical.
A Christian’s conscience must be guided by Scripture, and when it comes to material possessions this means navigating away from the twin errors of asceticism (Col. 2:20–23) and materialism. As Luke writes, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
We enter and depart the world with nothing. In between, a Christian should be able to say with Paul, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). As Stott said, “Life on earth is a brief pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness. So, we would be wise to travel light.”
Limiting our lifestyle has many advantages. A Christian who lives simply can give more (1 Tim. 6:18) and express deeper gratitude for unexpected gifts (1 Tim. 4:4–5). It’s a tangible way for those who are rich in this world to obey Paul’s charge “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). The Lausanne Covenant, a confessional document of which Stott was chief architect, sums up this responsibility: “Those of us who live in affluent circumstances [must] accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”
2. Simplicity is intentional.
Simplicity doesn’t come naturally in a consumer culture. Those who live in upwardly mobile societies must make purposeful choices. For Stott, this meant living in a small flat and enjoying simple meals. Friends say he declined extra portions of food out of a feeling of solidarity with the poor. The blue blazer he wore regularly was near threadbare, and he once felt ashamed upon admitting that he’d purchased a second pair of shoes. These choices made clear that his life was not defined by material wealth.
Life on earth is a brief pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness. So, we would be wise to travel light.
Stott extended his minimalism to personal possessions (excluding books). His writing retreat was a small hermitage without electricity on the coast of Wales where he’d spend extended time writing his books longhand.
Though Stott denied himself small comforts and conveniences, he was keenly aware that his London lifestyle was still affluent compared to the average Christian in the world. So, Stott put the brakes on the pursuit of more and instead practiced biblical contentment and gratitude.
3. Simplicity is sacrificial.
A representative of John Stott’s literary trust reports that he was part of at least 60 publishing projects from which he was due royalties. Most of these were single volumes he wrote like Basic Christianity or The Cross of Christ; others were series he edited.
Stott declined to accept the royalties from all of them. Instead, Stott irrevocably assigned his earnings to a trust where the funds were used to multiply biblical scholars, pastoral training, and locally authored commentaries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That now multimillion-dollar gift to what would become the Langham Partnership is a gift that continues to have an impact through resources like the Africa Bible Commentary.
Simplicity for You
Simplicity won’t look the same for every Christian. The approach of a large family in a rural area will be different from a single man living in the city like Stott. This is a matter of liberty, and believers can do as their consciences dictate.
But no matter our circumstances, following Christ means defense against materialism’s soul-choking influence. Let’s use these three principles from John Stott’s life as a model to examine our own. Ask yourself, “What can I reduce, eliminate, or limit in my lifestyle that would enable me to invest intentionally and sacrificially in the growth of Christ’s church?”