It’s been a great privilege to be involved in giving a new lease of life to John Stott’s great book, The Contemporary Christian, which is being reissued as a series of five short books on 20 June 2019. I was asked to provide a light edit of Stott’s work (removing dated references and discussions) and to add reflection questions to help readers think through the application today. The five books are:
(Also look out for my volume on John Stott in Crossway’s Theologians of the Christian Lifeseries which is coming out in June 2020.)
Introducing The Gospel: A Life-Changing Message
Stott begins The Gospel which a description of the problem for which the gospel is the solution. Under the title ‘The Human Paradox’ he provides a masterful explanation of both the glory of our humanity as those made in God’s image and our depravity as those ruined by sin. Then Stott turns to the promise of the gospel. He argues that the gospel theme that most readily connects with the aspiration of our culture is that of freedom. This means both freedom from guilt, self-centeredness and fear, but also more positively freedom ‘to be our true selves, as God made us and meant us to be’. Stott then shows how this freedom is secured for is by Christ in chapters on the significance of his cross and resurrection.
Stott ends with a magnificent exposition of the lordship of Christ. The statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ might sound pretty harmless at first, he says, but it expresses our conviction that Jesus is God and Saviour, and this involves a radical commitment which shapes every area of our lives:
- intellectual (bringing our minds under Christ’s yoke);
- moral (accepting his standards and obeying his commands);
- vocational (spending our lives in his liberating service);
- social (seeking to penetrate society with his values);
- political (refusing to idolize any human institution);
- global (being jealous for the honour and glory of his name).
Here’s an extract from the book. In fact, this is one of my personal favourite passages from all of Stott’s writing. In it he writes beautifully of the nature of true freedom. (Footnotes and citations have been removed).
It is this question of what we are set free for by Christ that we need to pursue. The principle is this: true freedom is freedom to be our true selves, as God made us and meant us to be. How can this principle be applied?
We must begin with God himself. Have you ever considered that God is the only being who enjoys perfect freedom? You could argue that he is not free. For his freedom is certainly not absolute in the sense that he can do absolutely anything. Scripture itself tells us that he cannot lie, tempt or be tempted, or tolerate evil.Nevertheless, God’s freedom is perfect in the sense that he is free to do absolutely anything that he wills to do. God’s freedom is freedom to be always entirely himself. There is nothing arbitrary, moody, capricious or unpredictable about him. He is constant, steadfast, unchanging. In fact, the main thing Scripture says he ‘cannot’ do (cannot because he will not) is contradict himself. ‘He cannot deny himself.’To do this would not be freedom, but self-destruction. God finds his freedom in being himself, his true self.
What is true of God the Creator is also true of all created things and beings. Absolute freedom, freedom unlimited, is an illusion. If it is impossible for God (which it is), it is most certainly impossible for God’s creation. God’s freedom is freedom to be himself; our freedom is freedom to be ourselves. The freedom of every creature is limited by the nature which God has given it.
Take fish. God created fish to live and thrive in water. Their gills are adapted to absorb oxygen from water. Water is the only element in which a fish can find its ‘fishiness’, its identity as a fish, its fulfilment, its freedom. True, it is limited to water, but in that limitation is liberty. Supposing you keep a tropical fish at home. It lives not in a modern, rectangular, aerated tank, but in one of those old-fashioned, Victorian, spherical goldfish bowls. And supposing your fish swims round and round its bowl until it finds its frustration unbearable. So it decides to make a bid for freedom and leaps out of its confinement. If somehow it manages to leap into a pond in your garden, it will increase its freedom. It is still in water, but there is more water to swim in. If instead it lands on the carpet, then its attempt to escape spells not freedom, but death.
What, then, about human beings? If fish were made for water, what are human beings made for? I think we have to answer that if water is the element in which fish find their fishiness, then the element in which humans find their humanness is love, the relationships of love …
True love, however, places constraints on the lover, for love is essentially self-giving. And this brings us to a startling Christian paradox. True freedom is freedom to be my true self, as God made me and meant me to be. And God made me for loving. But loving is giving, self-giving. Therefore, in order to be myself, I have to deny myself and give myself. In order to be free, I have to serve. In order to live, I have to die to my own self-centredness. In order to find myself, I have to lose myself in loving.
True freedom is, then, the exact opposite of what many people think. It is not being free from responsibility to God and others so I can live for myself. That is bondage to my own self-centredness. Instead, true freedom is freedom from my silly little self so I can live responsibly in love for God and others …
Jesus … said, ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’I used to imagine that Jesus was referring to martyrs who lay down their life for him. And the principle he is enunciating certainly includes them. But the ‘life’ he is talking about, which can be either saved or lost, is not our physical existence (zōē), but our soul or self (psychē). It is a word that is often used instead of the reflexive ‘himself’ or ‘herself’. One could, then, perhaps paraphrase Jesus’ words like this: ‘If you insist on holding on to yourself, and on living for yourself, and refuse to let yourself go, you will lose yourself. But if you are willing to give yourself away in love, then, at the moment of complete abandonment, when you imagine that everything is lost, the miracle takes place and you find yourself and your freedom.’ It is only sacrificial service, the giving of the self in love to God and others, which is perfect freedom.