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 World: A Mission to be Accomplished
In The World Stott first provides a clear defence of the uniqueness of Christ. There are two striking features of this. First, Stott starts with Christ and the centrality of Christ is a consistent feature of his thought. The second striking feature is his attempt to understand those who deny this truth. This is characteristic of his whole theology, a feature of what he called double listening (listening to the word and the world). The result is a stronger and more persuasive case for the truth presented in the Scriptures.
Then Stott shows how mission pervades the whole Bible, anticipating a theme that Chris Wright, Stott’s successor at the helm of Langham Partnership, develops in more detail in his book The Mission of God. In a chapter on holistic mission Stott summarises the integration of evangelism and social action that was a key theme in his ministry over many years. Finally he ends where he began: with Christ, as he develops a theology of mission around the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ.
Here’s an extract for this final chapter in which Stott looks at the implications of Christ’s ascension, or rather his exaltation, for mission (with footnotes and citations removed).
The exaltation of Christ: The incentive for mission
Motivation is an important aspect of every human enterprise. We need to know not only what we should be doing, but why we should be doing it. When our motives are sound and strong, we can persist in any task. But when our motivation is faulty, we begin to flag. This is undoubtedly true of Christian mission. To seek to win people for Christ is hard work, widely unappreciated and unpopular, and, as we have just seen, it often provokes opposition. The church will need powerful incentives, therefore, if it is to persevere. The exaltation of Jesus Christ to the Father’s right hand, that is, to the position of supreme honour, provides the strongest of all missionary incentives.
It is better in this context to refer to Christ’s ‘exaltation’ than to his ‘ascension’. For, although it is true that ‘he ascended into heaven’, yet to say that ‘he was exalted’ highlights the fact that God the Father vindicated, promoted, enthroned and invested his Son through the ascension. The apostolic statements about Jesus’ exaltation are at pains to emphasize that he was raised above all possible rivals, indeed ‘far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come’. This is ‘the highest place’ to which God has exalted Jesus and the ‘supremacy’ which God wants him to enjoy.
This throws light on the use of the word ‘superiority’, which is viewed with distaste by those who forsake the old exclusivism and inclusivism in favour of the new pluralism (see chapter 1). Certainly to adopt an ‘air of superiority’ towards the adherents of other faiths is a horrid form of discourtesy and arrogance. Certainly too, as Professor Hick points out, ‘in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the conviction of the decisive superiority of Christianity’ gave a powerful impetus to the imperial expansion of the West.But it is not ‘Christianity’ as an empirical institution or system for which Christians should claim superiority. It is Christ, and only Christ. We should affirm without any sense of embarrassment or shame that he is ‘superior’ to all other religious leaders, precisely because he alone humbled himself, in love, to the cross and therefore God has raised him ‘above’ every other person, rank or title.
In the light of Christ’s elevation or exaltation to the highest place, God desires ‘every knee’ to bow to him and ‘every tongue’ to confess his lordship.The repeated ‘every’ is absolute; it allows no exceptions. If God has given this supreme honour to Jesus, and desires everybody else to honour him, then the people of God should share his desire. This is sometimes spoken of in Scripture in terms of ‘zeal’ or even ‘jealousy’. The prophet Elijah, for example, deeply distressed by the apostasy of Israel, in particular their worship of the Canaanite Baals, said, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.’The apostle Paul spoke of himself as ‘jealous . . . with a godly jealousy’ for the Corinthians, because he had betrothed them to Christ as their one husband, but was afraid that they might now be led astray from their ‘sincere and pure devotion to Christ’.Similarly, Henry Martyn, that brilliant and faithful Christian missionary in Muslim Iran towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, once said, ‘I could not endure existence if Jesus were not glorified; it would be hell to me if he were to be always thus dishonoured.’
This same sense of pain whenever Jesus Christ is dishonoured, and this same sense of jealousy that he should be given the honour due to him, should stir within us, in whatever particular culture we live. The primary motive for mission is neither obedience to the Great Commission, nor even love for those who are oppressed, lonely, lost and perishing, important as both those incentives are. Our primary motive is zeal or ‘jealousy’ for the glory of Christ. It was ‘for his name’s sake’,in order that it might receive the honour which it deserved, that the first missionaries went out. The same passionate longing should motivate us.
This, surely, is our answer to those who tell us that we should no longer evangelize or seek conversions. Professor Gregory Baum, for example, has said that ‘after Auschwitz the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews’, for ‘the churches have come to recognize Judaism as an authentic religion before God, with independent value and meaning, not as a stage on the way to Christianity’.Similarly, a Greek bishop, on his resignation, wrote to his friends, ‘As a bishop, a preacher of the gospel, I never tried to convert a Jew or Arab Moslem to Christianity; rather to convert them to be a better Jew, a better Moslem.’Have these men, then, no jealousy for the honour of Jesus Christ? Do they not care when he is despised and rejected? Do they not long, as God does, that all human beings, whatever their culture or religion, will bow their knee to Jesus, and submit to him as their Lord?
It is this zeal for Christ which integrates the worship and witness of the church. How can we worship Christ and not mind that others do not? It is our worship of Christ that compels us to witness to Christ, in order that others may come and worship him too.