Review of ‘Basic Introduction to the New Testament’ by John Stott


John Stott, Basic Introduction to the New Testament, revised by Stephen Motyer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2017).

Reading the New Testament well requires seeing the forest and the trees. The trees are the analysis of individual paragraphs, sentences and words — an analysis best performed by commentaries on individual books. The forest is the synthesis of the meaning of entire books and authors — an undertaking best performed by introductions.

John Stott’s Basic Introduction to the New Testament is a forestry manual, a trustworthy synthesis of the message of Christianity’s foundational authors. First published in 1951 as Men with a Message, then revised by Stott personally in 1964 and again in 2001, this new edition was undertaken by Stephen Motyer at Stott’s invitation. The book’s nine chapters examine the “man” and the “message” of Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, John and the Johannine letters, Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter and Revelation, respectively. Stott originally wrote a non-technical introduction for a broad audience, and Motyer retains Stott’s concision, apt phrasing and overall perspective, even as he adds details here and there based on more recent study.

I foresee several uses for this book. Christian individuals might find it helpful as a complement to their devotional reading, which is tree-work. Stott will show them where a tree lies in the forest of a given author or of the New Testament as a whole. Christian groups — say, a Sunday school class, small group or book club — could use Stott as part of a class on how to read the New Testament. And preachers should find it helpful as they work their way through an expository sermon series on a specific book.

However used, this new edition of Basic Introduction to the New Testament was a delight to read, and I highly recommend it.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

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Review of ‘The Challenge of Preaching’ by John Stott


The-Challenge-of-PreachingJohn Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). Paperback

Preaching is not the only thing pastors do, but it is one of the most important things—if not the most important thing. Pastors thus need to work at perfecting their craft through constant attention to proper exegesis and hermeneutics, effective introductions and conclusions, and helpful outlines and illustrations. Because it is so useful in all these regards, John Stott’s The Challenge of Preaching should find a prominent place in every pastor’s library.

First published in 1982 as Between Two Worlds, The Challenge of Preaching now appears in a third edition, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf, and published by Eerdmans. In many ways, it is a primer on preaching, an introduction to the craft. But like the best primers, it is a touchstone that helps experienced preachers test the quality of their preaching.

Chapter 1 identifies three challenges to preaching: “Distrust of authority makes people unwilling to listen,” Stott writes. “Electronic advances have changed the expectations of both listeners and preachers. The atmosphere of doubt makes many preachers too tentative.” Despite these challenges, Stott believes preaching is a theologically necessary task, and in Chapter 2, he outlines its theological foundations focusing on God’s revelation, Scripture’s authority, the Church’s need of biblical renewal, the pastoral role of teaching and preaching, and preaching’s expository character.

Chapter 3 identifies the essential task of preaching as building a bridge between “the biblical world and the modern world.” Theological conservatives typically focus on the former, while theological liberals on the latter, but Stott insists we must keep eyes on both. “We must struggle to relate God’s unchanging word to our ever-changing world without sacrificing truth or despising relevance.”

Stott next turns to how preachers prepare themselves through personal study (Chapter 4) and their sermons through careful organization (Chapter 5). Chapter 4 struck me with particular force. It is easy for many activities to fill pastors’ calendars. Time for study becomes a luxury. If preaching is as important as Stott says it is, however—and I believe he’s on track biblically—failing to schedule regular time for reading and reflection is failing to do one’s job with adequate preparation. In the short term, this can be managed, but in the long term, one’s ministry becomes spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually weak.

Chapter 5 talks about writing one’s sermon. This is a nuts-and-bolts chapter that focuses on selecting the text, isolating the main thought, arranging your material, adding your conclusion, and then—when everything is in place—planning an introduction that draws the congregation in and prepares them to hear the Word of God.

Preaching cannot be reduced to the mechanics of sermon-writing, however. Who preaches is as important as what is preached. In short, the pastor’s life itself preaches the gospel and gives credibility to the sermon. Chapter 6 focuses on sincerity and earnestness. Stott writes: “To be sincere is to mean what we say and to do what we say; to be earnest is also to feel what we say.”

Chapter 7 focuses on courage and humility. “Preachers, like prophets, believe they bring a word from God, and are not free to change it,” Stott notes. “Therefore all preachers have at various times to choose between truth with unpopularity and falsehood with popularity.” This requires courage. But speaking unpopular truths can render us “stubborn or arrogant.” Like Elijah, we can complain, “I alone am left.” The antidote to this arrogance is “a humble mind, humble motives, and humble dependence.”

The Challenge of Preaching is a short book: 102 pages in the main body and another 23 pages in the appendices. It can be read in a single sitting. I highly recommend it to new pastors because it covers the whole range of preaching topics quickly and memorably. However, I also recommend it to veteran pastors. It has a diagnostic simplicity that will help them identify and correct bad habits they have developed.

I conclude with one final quote that warmed my Pentecostal heart: “At the same time [that we are studying] we should be praying, crying humbly to God for light from the Spirit of truth. Like Moses, we must beg him to show us his glory (Ex. 33:18). Study is no substitute for prayer; prayer is no substitute for study. We must do both. It may help to study on our knees, because this attitude reminds us that we worship the God who reveals himself in the Bible, and we are humble before him.”

Amen to that!

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Mission: The Sixth Mark of an Ideal Church (Revelation 3:7–13)


Mission is the sixth mark of the church (Rev. 3:7–13).

Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples what we now call the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). This commission consists of three elements: the fact of Christ’s authority, the command to make disciples, and the promise of Christ’s presence.

We see the same three elements at work in the letter to the church in Philadelphia.

Fact: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus Christ is God’s key master, who opens doors of opportunity for his mission-minded followers.

Command: “Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” Although Jesus Christ has the power to shut doors of opportunity in such a way that no one can open them, he does not use that power in his churches. Rather, he only opens doors so that we might “go” and “make disciples.”

The church in Philadelphia was providentially prepared to walk through such an open door. John Stott comments: “Philadelphia was situated in a broad and fertile valley which commanded the trade routes in all directions. Sir William Ramsay wrote that the intention of the city’s founder had been to make it a centre for the spread of Greek language and civilization. ‘It was a missionary city from the beginning.’ So it may be that Christ was intending that what Philadelphia had been for Greek culture, it was now to be for the spread of the gospel.”[1]

Promise: “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” A missionary church never seeks out conflict with others, but conflict comes to it nevertheless. Wherever the church shares the good news of God’s love, powerful interests oppose it. At the church in Pergamum, that powerful interest was the Roman imperial cult and the ius gladii (“power of the sword”) that enforced it. At the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, that powerful interest was the Jewish synagogue, which Jesus refers to as “the synagogue of Satan.”

I read those four words with trepidation. Looking backward from Auschwitz at the relationship of Jews and Christians, I see how Gentile Christians used such descriptions to hatefully, wrongfully, and unjustly persecute Jews down the centuries. Such persecution was, is, and always will be a sin. But to understand these words in their historical setting we must remember that Jesus Christ, the letter writer, is a Jew, as is John, his amanuensis. Also, in the first century when Revelation was written, Judaism was a large community of faith but Christianity a small one. Auschwitz is an awful reminder that for centuries Christians persecuted Jews. Philadelphia is a small reminder that for a brief time, persecution flowed in the opposite direction.

But if we understand the mission of the church rightly, we will see that persuasion, not persecution, is the way the church of Jesus Christ should accomplish its mission. Christ has set before us an open door to tell others of his love for them. Sometimes, such evangelism will result in conflict. Knowing that Jesus Christ is with us, let us go through the door anyway.

 

[1] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 180.

Letters from Jesus (Revelation 2-3)


In Revelation 1, Jesus Christ appears in glory, standing in the midst of his churches. In Revelation 2–3, he writes letters to those same churches, filled with words of affirmation, correction, and promise.[i] Although originally addressed to churches in first-century Roman Asia, Jesus’ letters speak to issues faced by twenty-first-century American churches as well. Indeed, as John Stott points out, they identify “seven marks of an ideal church,”[ii] which make them perpetually relevant to each church in every age.

Throughout Christian history, pastors have written letters of spiritual direction for entire congregations, as well as for individual seekers, converts, and emerging church leaders. Paul is a master of this form of pastoral guidance; thirteen New Testament books are letters bearing his name. In fact, the letter is the primary literary genre of the New Testament, encompassing all its books except the Gospels and Acts.

Letters fit hand-in-glove with spiritual direction for several reasons. First, they are personal. A writer pours out his soul to a similarly souled reader, inviting that reader into a partnership of spiritually formed thoughts, feelings, and actions. Just so, good spiritual direction requires a partnership between the mentor and the one being mentored.

Second, letters are deliberate. A writer carefully crafts sentences to communicate meaning through particular words and turns of phrases. The right words draw the reader closer, but the wrong ones needlessly push away. So also, the good spiritual director offers counsel circumspectly, for what he says will either help a younger Christian along or throw obstacles on the spiritual path.

And third, letters are occasional. A writer reacts to the circumstances of his reader. Many of Paul’s letters—the Corinthian correspondence, for example—are responses to the problems faced by his churches. So also, good spiritual direction utilizes both the successes and failures of the one being mentored as “teachable moments” where praise can be given and grace applied.

Although we usually envision Jesus Christ as a preacher, sitting upon a hillside teaching the masses, we must learn to think of him as a pastoral letter writer par excellence, for that is what Revelation 2–3 shows him to be. Each of his seven letters is personal: To all seven congregations he reveals something of his multifaceted personality (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). And each letter is occasional: The words “I know” appear throughout as a testament to Christ’s knowledge of his congregations’ triumphs and defeats (2:2, 3, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15).

And most importantly, each letter is a masterpiece of spiritual deliberation, of words particularly chosen to produce a desired effect. Eugene H. Peterson detects a pattern in the structure of each letter: “There is, first, a positive affirmation; second, a corrective discipline; and third, a motivating promise.”[iii] Affirmation: “I know….” Correction: “But…” (2:4, 14, 20; 3:1). Promise: “To the one who conquers…” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).

We ought to pay attention to this pattern of spiritual direction, for it teaches us about ourselves and about how we ought to treat one another. We learn that Jesus Christ loves us—sinners that we are, although he refuses to leave us in our sins. Instead, he affirms our little triumphs, corrects our big faults, and promises us his eternal kingdom, if we but “conquer” through his power. And we learn that we should treat one another as Christ does. What graces we have received—of affirmation, correction, and promise—we must pass along to all.

 

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 50.

[ii] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 177–181.

[iii] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 50.

Review of ‘The Radical Disciple’ by John Stott


The-Radical-Disciple John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). Hardcover / Kindle

John Stott died in 2011, but his legacy lives on through his writings. The Radical Disciple is his final book, which he self-consciously wrote as a “valedictory message.” In eight short chapters, simply written but spiritually deep, Stott addresses “some neglected aspects of our [Christian] calling.” They are nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death.

Stott’s concern throughout the book is the discrepancy between Christians’ stated beliefs and their actual behavior. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Stott quotes Jesus saying in Luke 6:46, “and not do what I say?” Radical discipleship, then, is “wholehearted discipleship,” a form of following Jesus that is not “selective” about “which commitment suits us” and avoids those areas which are “costly.”

The “neglected aspects of our calling” relate to Western Christians’ practice of the faith. Were Stott writing at a different time or for different readers, no doubt his list would’ve looked different. As it is, the eight aspects he identifies have a prophetic edge to them.

Two chapters in particular struck me with particular force. The first is chapter 5 on simplicity. This is the book’s longest chapter and includes excerpts from “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style,” published by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. Americans—Westerners more generally—are among the world’s wealthiest persons by any imaginable metric. We are used to high levels of consumption. Unfortunately, American Christian giving habits have been declining for decades. The solution is a simple lifestyle that minimizes consumption and maximizes generosity.

The second is chapter 7 on dependence. In this chapter, the book’s most personal and intimate, Stott shares the personal indignities he experienced when he fell and broke his hip. Using his personal experience as a window onto Scripture, Stott writes, “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else…’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others… ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This is an apt reminded that none of us can live in isolation from others. We need, and are needed by, family, friends, fellow citizens, and even strangers.

The Radical Disciple is a short book, simply written, and filled with the unique grace that is characteristic of a long-time disciple of Jesus Christ. It is worth reading and will repay re-reading, especially if its wisdom is taken to heart and put into practice.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Christ in Conflict’ by John Stott


Christ-in-Conflict John Stott, Christ in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013). Paperback / Kindle 

What is evangelical Christianity?

Ask the average American, and they will probably answer with some variation on politicized religion of the right-wing variety. There is an element of truth to this. White evangelical Christians in America tend to be politically conservative, after all, voting for Republicans in large majorities. Then again, African American and Hispanic evangelicals, by contrast, tend to be economically liberal but socially conservative, voting for Democrats to a similar or greater extent. Worldwide, the politics of evangelicals are even more diverse.

There is an element of tragedy to the average American’s answer, then, for it reduces evangelical Christianity to a political stance that does not accurately describe it or capture its real essence. To discover that essence, one must define evangelicalism theologically, recognizing that right-leaning evangelicals (such as the late Charles Colson) and left-leaning evangelicals (such as Ron Sider) are more united by their theology than they are divided by their politics.

Even when one factors in theological differences among evangelicals—such as the Arminian/Calvinist debate, the cessationist/continuationist debate, and the complementarian/egalitarian debate—the underlying theological foundations of evangelical Christianity are still held in common. That is why, in the 18th-century transatlantic revivals, John Wesley and George Whitefield could view one another as friends and colleagues, despite their strong theological disputes. That is why today, the National Association of Evangelicals can encompass a wide spectrum of opinion on those issues and more. There is something more basic to and common in evangelical Christianity than those disputes.

What that basic, common theology underlying evangelical Christianity is can be gleaned from the pages of Christ in Conflict by John Stott. Stott, who died in 2011, first published this book in 1970 under the title, Christ the Controversialist. Langham Literature, which was founded by Stott and holds copyright to his books, has reissued this little work with a new title and a few editorial changes, principally, Americanizing the spelling, changing the Bible version used, and deleting some illustrations that had become dated.

Stott himself stated the “aim” of his book very clearly at the outset: “to argued that ‘evangelical’ Christianity is real Christianity—authentic, true, original and pure—and to show this from the teaching of Jesus Christ himself” (p. 15). To accomplish that aim, Stott turns to eight conflicts recorded in the Gospels that Jesus had with either the Sadducees or the Pharisees. We might state those controversies in the form of a question:

  • Is religion natural or supernatural?
  • Is theological authority found in tradition or Scripture?
  • Is the Bible an end or a means to an end?
  • Is salvation based on merit or mercy?
  • Is morality outward or inward?
  • Is worship a matter of the lips or of the heart?
  • Is it the Church’s responsibility to withdraw from the world to become involved in it?
  • And should our highest ambition be our own glory or God’s?

In each case, Stott aligns evangelical Christianity with the second option. What, then, is evangelical Christianity? It is a supernatural, biblically grounded, Jesus-focused, merciful, heart-changing, authentic, socially engaged, and humble form of religion. Or rather, that’s what it should be. To the extent that it is not, it has departed from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

On the whole, I found Stott’s treatment of these controversies both enlightening and persuasive. Stott was a moderately Calvinistic Anglican priest. I am a thoroughly Arminian Pentecostal minister. And yet, I see how both his form of Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism agree wholeheartedly on these more basic matters. There are a number of theological nuances to these matters that I would have liked Stott to embrace, not to mention a few interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors that I think need to more carefully qualified. Regardless, his Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism are clearly siblings in the same religious family, a family into which all of us have been adopted by God.

Although 40+-years-old, Christ in Conflict can help American evangelicals today—besmirched and begrimed by politics as we are—uncover again our basic theological assumptions. Doing so will have several salutary effects: It can help us refocus us on the mission Christ gave us to make disciples of all nations. It can help unify us across denominational and even national boundaries. And it can remind us that we unites us in Christ as evangelicals is greater, more important, and more foundational than what divides us in Washington DC.

What unites us is nothing less than the gospel—in Greek, euangelion—that gives us evangelicals our name.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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