“If evangelicals elected popes,” Michael Cromartie (1950 – 2017) once famously said, “they would have chosen John R.W. Stott (1921 – 2011).” Critical of so much of the popular Christianity that he observed around him, describing it as “a thousand miles wide and half an inch deep,” John Stott spent his whole life cultivating a Christianity that was “deep, thick and different.”
A prolific author, some of John Stott’s books are the most important volumes in my library and have been the most defining for my thinking – “Basic Christianity” (1958, revised 1971), “The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit” (1964, revised 1976), “Balanced Christianity” (1975), “The Message of the Sermon on the Mount”(1978), “The Cross of Christ(1986), “Evangelical Essentials” (1989), “The Message of Acts”(1990), and “The Message of Romans”(1994).
John Stott retired from active ministry in April 2007 at the age of 86 and died in 2011. His Final Address at the annual Keswick Convention (a world-famous Spiritual Life lectureship) held in England’s Lake District took place in July of 2007. Walking slowly with a cane, Dr. Stott made his way to the podium in an auditorium where he had been the featured preacher and teacher many times before to bring his last public address. It’s not uncommon for preachers to wonder about what they would say if they were told that they could only preach one more sermon. For Dr. Stott the choice was clear. He preached his last message on Christian maturity, what he called – “The Model: Becoming More Like Christ.”
“What is God’s purpose for His people?” was the question that Dr. Stott wanted to answer in this message. His answer was “Christ-likeness.” “God wants His people to become like Christ” Dr. Stott proclaimed. He based this conclusion on three New Testament texts –
- Romans 8:29 –
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
- 2 Corinthians 3:18 –
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
- 1 John 3:2 –
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Dr. Stott said that these three texts provide us with three perspectives on the purpose of God. Romans 8:29 provides us with an eternal perspective on God’s purpose – “God has predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His Son: that is, to become like Jesus.” 2 Corinthians 3:18 provides us with the present historical perspective on God’s purpose – “It is by God’s indwelling Spirit that we are being changed from glory to glory – becoming like Christ – being transformed into the image of Jesus.” And 1 John 3:2 provides us with the final eschatological perspective on God’s purpose – “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.”
Summarizing, Dr. Stott explained –
“Here are three perspectives—past, present, and future. 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 eschatological – combine towards the same end of Christ-likeness. This is the purpose of God for the people of God.”
And to explain what this means, Dr. Stott quoted the Anglican Canon John Poulton, once the Chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Council on Evangelism, who wrote –
“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 are talking about. It is people who communicate primarily, not words or ideas. Authenticity gets across. Deep down inside people, what communicates now is basically personal authenticity.”
Christ-likeness – Is there a greater need for Christians and churches than this? And is there a greater scandal in Christianity than it’s absence in those who bear His name and claim His grace? Every sin of the Church can be laid at the feet of its failure to be Christlike. In his 2002 bestseller “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey told a story about a friend who worked in inner city ministry. A prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter with a sordid story about what she had been reduced to in order to survive. What she told him left him speechless.
“At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
And Philip wrote –
“What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”
And I think the answer is Christ-likeness. It’s that sanctification gap that I wrote about last week. We’ve made it easy for people to “get saved” by coming forward and giving their hearts to Jesus by simply repeating “the sinner’s prayer,” but in this transaction we’ve failed to make it clear to those who are praying that Jesus can’t be your Savior if you aren’t prepared to let Him be your Lord. Saving faith involves surrender. It’s easy to give Christ our sins as Savior. The pain and burden of them is intolerable, the release and relief of forgiveness, sweet. But this is not all Christ wants. This is not all Christ does. He wants our lives as Lord as well. The heart He purifies by grace, is the heart He intends to inhabit. He moves in and takes charge, and our lives change as the result, slowly at first, and at times even imperceptibly, but fundamentally, and invariably, and irrevocably.
I have come to an ecumenical appreciation for the different ways that different churches baptize. I recognize and can affirm the different theologies of baptism that drive the churches varied practices of the sacramental sign and seal. I’d be hard pressed to serve a closed membership church (a church that insists that a person must be immersed in order to be a member) with an open table for communion to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcome. But I only preach and practice believer’s baptism by immersion because I think it is the New Testament pattern, and because I think it rightly orders the way that Gospel salvation unfolds in our lives.
Baptism by immersion points to the saving work of Christ – to His own death, burial and resurrection. And then baptism by immersion points to the way that the saving work of Christ on the cross, in the grave, and out from the empty tomb gets personally applied to us – through our own death to self, the burial of our old nature, and our resurrection to walk in newness of life. I believe that something actually happens in the watery grave. Something in us, about us, changes. It’s what the Biblical language of “regeneration,” of being “born again,” of having the old, hard, dead heart of stone removed from us, and the new, warm, responsive heart of flesh (Ezekiel 32:26) is talking about.
I don’t think that baptism by immersion is what causes this to happen. It’s not the amount of water or the form of its application that is regenerative. It’s the saving acts of God’s grace in Christ, and our personal reception of their benefits as a gift received by faith that is regenerative. But baptism by immersion, by its very design, bears witness externally to this process that takes place internally as one crosses the threshold of saving faith. It serves as the sign and seal of God’s saving work in our hearts, and if we understood it more biblically ourselves, and explained it more thoroughly to those being baptized, I believe that we might be well on our way to closing the “sanctification gap.”
“When Jesus bids a man to come and follow Him,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “Christ bids that man to come and die.” This truth might get lost or obscured in churches that practice other modes of baptism. But for immersionists its inescapable. The physical act of plunging a person underwater and then pulling them back up again is a recital of death and resurrection, a sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection and a witness to our very own spiritual deaths and resurrections.
I know of some missionaries from my faith tradition who served in a foreign field in the days of a devastating drought. There wasn’t enough water for them to bathe and drink, let alone to fill a tank for baptisms. So, as an alternative they dug a grave right outside the front door of the church, and every time somebody became a Christian inside, they would all go outside to watch that person be lowered down into that hole in the ground and then be pulled back out! There was no confusion about the meaning of that act. Who they had been was dead and buried. Who they now were was new and different. And what was expected was that it would begin to show.
This is the theology of baptism by immersion, and, if you ask me, the key to our Christ-likeness –
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:1-14)
I’ve never forgotten how my college professor of missions told us that –
“When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands, the ship captain tried to turn him back, saying, ‘You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages.’ To that, Calvert replied, ‘We died before we came here.”
If we have died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, which is the only way to become a Christian, then our lives are under new management, and we will begin to move in a new direction. When we invite Christ in, the work of Christ-likeness begins. And while we can slow it, the Corinthian Christians are evidence of that (I Corinthians 3:1-4), we cannot stop it. If we are Christians, Christ likeness is “predestined.” If you are a Christian the work has begun, and will continue. Using the word in Greek (ἐνδύω) that refers to putting on your clothes when you get up in the morning, we are commanded as Christian to “put on” Christ (Romans 13:14), to “put on” our new self (Ephesians 4:24), and to put on love and all the other virtues that Christ cultivates in those who confess Him as Lord (Colossians 3:12-17).
If you are a Christian, you are a new creation. The old has passed away. The new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Get used to it. DBS+