One of Britain's finest preacher-theologians says incarnational evangelism will turn the world upside-down
In his final public address Dr. John Stott addresses the question, 'What is God's purpose for His people?'
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
KESWICK, UNITED INGDOM (ANS) -- Walking slowly and clutching a sturdy wooden cane, the 86-year-old Rev Dr Stott looked every bit the statesman that, in 2005, Time magazine called "One of the 100 most influential people on the planet today."
'Dr. John Stott believes God's purpose for the Church is incarnational evangelism.
Echoing that accolade he also received a CBE (the honor of Commander of the British Empire bestowed by Queen Elizabeth the Second) in 2006 shortly before completing his 50th, and possibly his last, book "The Living Church" launched in 2007.
Close to the end of his own journey Dr. Stott called for "incarnational evangelism" as the way to turn the world upside down at the recent Keswick Convention in the Lake District of northern England.
Having successfully passed the baton of leadership for the international church growth ministry he founded, the Langham Partnership, to the current International Director, the Rev Dr Chris Wright, John Stott is now enjoying a well-earned retirement in leafy Sussex in southern England. However, the opportunity to speak again at the Keswick Convention 2007 was enough to draw out another one of those memorable sermons so many have come to expect from this grand orator.
Walking slowly to the podium, and assisted by his research assistant, Chris Jones, John Stott was met by a standing ovation from a Convention tent filled to overflowing, on this warm summer evening on the 17th of July 2007. He began by thanking those who had introduced him in such glowing terms and then, in typically self-deferential fashion, he smiled and added, "But actually I thought I might be listening to my own obituary."
John Stott clearly explained that the essence of what God is doing in the church today is the work of transforming His people into the image of His Son. Leading his audience from the past reality of predestination (Romans 8:29) through to the present work of transformation (2 Cor 3:18) and culminating in a glorious future (1 John 3:2) when we will discover that 'we will be like Christ.'
In vintage Stott style, the veteran theologian and preacher took the Keswick Convention along a clear and well-crafted journey through the evidence for this central purpose of God -- to turn the world upside down by transforming His people into the image of His Son. But, he added, it's the church's lack of cooperation with this central purpose of God for His people that has been so damaging to our world.
Incarnational evangelism or entering into other people's worlds with Christ-likeness, Stott noted, is essential to the church's walk in the 21st century. However, our evangelistic efforts often lead to failure simply because we fail to look like the Christ we are proclaiming. Quoting John Poulton, Stott noted that, "The most effective preaching comes from those who embody their message. What communicates now are people, not words or ideas but rather personal authenticity, that is, Christ-likeness."
In his address, a copy of which was obtained by ASSIST News Service, Dr. Stott said he remembers very vividly some years ago that the major question which perplexed him as a young Christian and some of his friends as well was this: "What is God's purpose for His people?"
"Granted that we had been converted, granted that we have been saved and received new life in Jesus Christ. What comes next?" he asked.
"Of course we knew the famous statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that 'Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.' We knew that and we believed it. We also toyed with some briefer statements like one of only five words 'Love God, Love your neighbor.' "
But somehow, said Stott, neither of these nor others we could mention seemed wholly satisfactory.
"So I want to share with you if I may this evening where my mind has come to rest as approach the end of my pilgrimage on Earth; and it is this. God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. So if that is true I am proposing the following: I propose first to lay down the Biblical basis for the call to Christlikeness. Secondly, I propose to give some New Testament examples of this. Thirdly,I propose to draw some practical conclusions; and it all relates to becoming like Christ.
"So first, the Biblical basis of the call to Christlikeness. This basis is not a single text -- I haven't yet brought you a single text for the basis is more substantial than can be encapsulated in a single text. So the basis consists rather of three texts which we will do well to hold together in our Christian thinking and living. They are Romans 8: 29, no not Romans 8: 28. We'll come to that a moment later. Romans 8: 29, Second Corinthians 3: 18 and 1 John 3: 2. Let's look at these three quite briefly.
"The first text is Romans 8: 29. It reads that God has predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His son that is to become like Jesus. We all know that when Adam fell he lost much, though not all, of the divine image in which he had been created. But God has restored it in Christ. Conformity to the image of God means to become like Jesus. Christlikeness is the eternal predestinating purpose of God. That's Romans 8: 29.
"My second text is 2 Corinthians 3: verse 18. Let me quote it. 'We all, with unveiled face beholding (or perhaps) reflecting The Lord, the glory of The Lord we are being changed or we are being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.' For this comes from The Lord who is the Spirit.' So it is by the Spirit, by the indwelling Spirit Himself, that we are being changed from glory to glory. It's a magnificent vision. Now in this second stage of becoming like Christ you will notice that the perspective has changed. It has changed from the past to the present; from God's eternal predestination to His present transformation of us by The Holy Spirit. It has changed from God's eternal purpose to make us like Christ to His historical work by His Spirit to transform us into the image of Jesus.
"That brings me to my third text,1 John Chapter 3: and verse 2. 'Beloved we are God's children now and it does not yet appear what we shall be but we know that when He appears we will be like Him for we shall see Him as He is. '
"The book was called The Imitation of Christ. And it was written by Thomas A. Kempis in the early fifteenth century. It became so popular that more hundreds of thousands of editions and translations have been published. So that after the Bible it is probably the world's bestseller. It's largely about imitating Christ and its enormous popularity is an indication of the importance of this great theme or topic which is concerning us tonight. So let me return now to the third text 1 John Chapter 3 verse 2.
"Here we're told both that we don't know and that we do know. We don't know in any detail what we shall be in the last day. But we do know that we will be like Christ. There's really no need for us to know any more than this. We are content with the glorious truth that we will be with Christ, like Christ forever. Well are you with me so far?
"Here are three perspectives past, present and future and all of them are pointing in the same direction. There is God's eternal purpose, we have been predestined; there is God's historical purpose, we are being changed, transformed by the Holy Spirit; and there is God's final or eschatological purpose, we will be like Him for we shall see Him as he is. All three, the eternal, the historical and the final or eschatological, all three combine towards the same end of Christlikeness. This, I suggest, is the purpose of God for the people of God. So that's one that's the local basis for becoming like Christ. It's the purpose of God for the people of God.
"Now I want to move on secondly to illustrate this truth with a number of New Testament examples. But first I think it's important for us to make a general statement as the Apostle John does in 1 John 2: and verse 6. Here it is: 'He who says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.' In other words if we claim to be a Christian we must be Christlike. So here is the first New Testament example.
"We are to be like Christ in His incarnation. Now some of you may immediately recoil with horror from such an idea. Surely you say to me the incarnation was an altogether unique event and cannot possibly be imitated in any way. My answer to that question is yes and no. Yes it was unique in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to Himself in Jesus of Nazareth once and for all and forever, never to be repeated. That is true. But no, there is another sense in which the incarnation was not unique but the amazing grace of God in the incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us.
"So though we say the incarnation in that sense was not unique but universal. We are all called to follow the example of His great humility in coming down from heaven to earth. I expect you're thinking of this in Philippians 2: verses 5-8. 'Have this mind' Paul wrote -- either which you have among yourselves or which was in Christ-'who though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped for his own selfish enjoyment.' No, 'he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.' So we are to be like Christ in His incarnation the amazing self humbling which lies behind the incarnation. I hope we've grasped that.
"Secondly, we are to be like Christ in His service. We move on now from His incarnation to his life of service, from His birth to His life. We move on from the beginning as it were to the end. So let me invite you to come with me to the upper room where Jesus spent His last evening with His disciples recorded in John's Gospel chapter 13. During supper you recall He took His outer garments, He tied a towel round Him, He poured water into a basin and washed His disciples' feet. When He finished he resumed His place and He said if then I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet you ought to also wash one another's feet for I've given you an example. Notice the words I've given you an example that you should do as I have done to you. That's John 13: verses 14-14.
"Now some Christians take Jesus' command literally and have a foot washing ceremony in their Lord's Supper or once a month, or on Maundy Thursday and they may be right to do it. But I think most of us also transpose Jesus' command culturally. That is just as Jesus performed what in His culture was the work of a slave so we in our cultures have must regard no task too menial or degrading to undertake for each other. We must be like Christ in His incarnation, like Christ in his service.
"Thirdly, we are to be like Christ in His love. I think particularly now of Ephesians 5: verse 2. 'Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.' Now please notice that in that wonderful text that it is in two parts. The first part is walk in love. Walk in love is an injunction that all our behavior should be characterized by love. But the second part of the verse is that He gave Himself for us, which is not a continuous thing but a clear reference to the Cross. So Paul is urging us to be like Christ in His death to love with self-giving Calvary love. Now I wonder if in these three verses you have followed what is being developed. Paul is urging us to be like the Christ of the incarnation, to be like the Christ of the foot washing and to be like the Christ of the Cross. These three events in the life of Christ indicate clearly what Christ likeness means in practice. And in the middle of Ephesians 5: verse 25 of this very chapter Paul urges husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. We are to be like Him you see in His incarnation, in His service, in His love.
"And now fourthly we are to be like Christ in His patient endurance. In this next example we consider the teaching not of Paul but of Peter. Every chapter of Peter's first letter contains an allusion to our suffering like Christ. For the background of the letter is the beginning of persecution. In chapter two of First Peter, in chapter two in particular, Peter urges Christian slaves if punished unjustly to bear it and not to repay evil for evil. For Peter goes on 'You and we have been called to this because Christ also suffered leaving us an example,' there is the word again. 'So that we may follow in His steps.' One Peter two: verse eighteen. Now this call to Christ likeness in suffering unjustly may well become increasingly relevant as persecution increases in many cultures of the world today.
"And my fifth and last New Testament example is that we are to be like Christ in His mission. Having looked at the teaching of Paul and Peter we come now to the recorded teaching of Jesus recorded by John. In John 16: verse 18 we have Jesus prayer and in John's Gospel chapter 20: and verse 21. In prayer Jesus said:'As You Father have sent me into the world so I send them into the world.' That's us, and in His commissioning in John seventeen He says: 'As the Father sent me into the world so I send you into the world.' These words, friends, are immensely significant. This is not just the Johanan version of The Great Commission it is also an instruction that their mission in the world was to resemble Christ's mission. In what respect? Well the key words in these texts are the words sent into the world. As Christ had entered our world so we are to enter other people's worlds. It was eloquently explained by Arch Bishop Michael Ramsey some years ago who wrote this. 'We state and commend the faith only in so far as we go out and put ourse lves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubters, questions of the questioners, and the loneliness of those who have lost the way.' This entering into other people's worlds is exactly what we mean by incarnational evangelism. All authentic mission is incarnational mission. We are to be like Christ in His mission.
"Here then are the five main ways in which we are to be Christ like. We are to be Christ like in His incarnation, in His service, in His love, in His endurance and in His mission.
"So we've considered the Biblical basis of Christ likeness and we've considered five examples. And very briefly I want to give you three practical consequences.
"First, Christlikeness and the mystery of suffering. Now of course suffering is a huge subject in itself and there are many ways in which Christians try to understand it. But one way stands out and that is that suffering is part of God's process of making is like Christ. Whether we suffer from a disappointment or a frustration or some other painful tragedy we need to try to see this in the light of Romans 8: 28 and Romans 8: 29. According to Romans 8: 28 God is always working for the good of His people and according to Romans 8: 29 this good purpose is to make us like Christ.
"Secondly, there is Christ likeness in the challenge of evangelism. Why is it you must have asked as I have that in many situations our evangelistic efforts are often fraught with failure. Well several reasons may be given and I do not want to oversimplify. But one main reason is that we don't look like the Christ we are proclaiming. John Poulton has written about this in a deceptive little book entitled 'A Today Sort of Evangelism'. I think you will agree with me that it is well-worded. 'The most effective preaching comes from those who embody the things they are saying. They are their message. Christians need to look like what they're talking about It is people who communicate primarily not words or ideas. Authenticity gets across in deep down inside people. What communicates now is basically personal authenticity. That is Christ likeness.'
"So let me give you another example: There was a Hindu professor in India who once identified one of his students as a Christian and who turned and said to him if you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow. I think India would be at their feet today if we Christians lived like Christ. There's another example from the Islamic world from a former Arab Muslim. He has said, 'If all Christians were Christians that is Christlike there would be no more Islam today.'
"That brings me to my third and last point that is Christlikeness and the in dwelling of the Spirit. I've spoken much tonight about Christlikeness but you are asking me is it attainable? My answer is that in our own strength it is clearly not attainable. But God has given us His Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to change us from within. William Teple the Archbshop in the nineteen-forties used to illustrate this point from Shakespeare. You may know it. This is what he said. 't's no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it I can't. And it is no good giving showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it, I can't.' But, he went on, 'if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come into me then I could live a life like His.'
"So I conclude with a brief summary of what we've tried to say to one another to see whether you can remember it.
"Here is a simple summary. One: God's purpose is to make us like Christ. Two: God's way to make us like Christ is to fill us with His Spirit. In other words it's a Trinitarian conclusion concerning the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. "
You are able to listen to this memorable sermon on line by going to www.langhampartnership.org
/lpukior by ordering a copy from ICC direct, or by reading the full text in the Church Times 27/7/08 edition.
You can find out more about the Langham Partnership ministry at www.langhampartnership.org
** I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing Dr. Stott's final public sermon.
** Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.
** You may republish this story with proper attribution.
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