John Stott, 1921-2011

Even the New York Times and the BBC noticed.  John R.W. Stott, the man once called the “Evangelical Pope” died in London Wednesday at the age of 90–just four years after his retirement.  Former pastor of London’s All Souls Church, in his spare time Stott wrote more than 50 books including Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ.  Of the latter, Stott’s friend J.I. Packer claimed, “This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece.” 

You may never have heard of the man but 6 years ago TIME magazine ranked Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world.  An Anglican, Stott turned down the chance to be a bishop in favor of influencing evangelicals across denominational lines.  He crafted the Lausanne Covenant which united evangelicals in the mission to reach the world for Christ.  In its obituary Christianity Today praised Stott as “An architect of 20th-century evangelicalism [who] shaped the faith of a generation”.  His imprint on the landscape was massive.  
Single and celibate all his years, he contended: “The gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those He calls.”  He left no heirs, except for the millions who received his teaching in conversations, preaching and books.  I think his greatest contribution was The Cross of Christ in which he claimed the cross was where, “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice.”   Brother, now enjoy what there Christ accomplished for you.  

Oslo killer crazy?

Crackpots and all varieties of religious or political zealots have made bloodying civilians the yellow brick road to notoriety.  Being their SOP, jihadis are instant suspects in any breaking news horror crawling across the 24-hour news channel.  (Of course, there was Tim McVeigh…)

When the first alerts on Olso popped up Friday, I figured Muslim rage had migrated from Europe to Scandinavia.  Instead, it turns out the suspect’s a blond-haired Norwegian with conservative and right-leaning politics who hates Muslims.  Oh yes, and he’s being described as a “Christian fundamentalist”.  Outstanding.

Bullets and bombs leave nearly a hundred dead.  Make that, a man leaves nearly a hundred dead.  The analysts should start unraveling him momentarily but let me see if I can predict the result: the man is insane, or “ill”.  

Yes, I’ve found them already.  Comment left on the Huffington Post: “This man is obviously mentally ill.”  In fact, I’ve found half a dozen statements insisting his mental illness is “obvious”, or that “only” someone mentally ill would do such a thing.  Really?  Obviously?  As of yet there’s been no psychiatric examination, no court trial, but this is all obvious?  Why?

Just for the record, I do believe some people are insane, and I do believe there are such things as mental illnesses.  However the belief is widespread that whenever an awful crime occurs, it proves the perpetrator is mentally unhinged.  It is the only explanation left since words and concepts like evil, wicked, sin are being purged from the language.  As one Canadian observer said about a child pornographer, “He is obviously sick and mentally ill.  No one who does that is not.” 

For those who inhabit a godless world, mental illness is the only explanation left to explain awful crimes.  It’s interesting to note several things about Norway that may be related: 

  • As a socially liberal nation, in addition to not having a death penalty no crime gets you more than 21 years in prison.
  • On any given Sunday, only 4 % of the people go to some sort of church.
  • More than half the people don’t believe in–or doubt the existence of God. 

Most who don’t believe in a God do believe that people are essentially good.  That leaves them nowhere to turn when someone truly horrible surfaces like a mass murderer who slaughters defenseless children with exploding bullets.  Having eliminated the possibility of real evil, they cannot even label as such someone who classically fits the bill.  Nor can they see the evil that is resident even in their own hearts–a problem that God longs to solve.

I cannot pass judgment on Mr. Breivik without passing judgment on myself.  God says that people are by nature bad, and not just a little bit; we are totally depraved.  That doesn’t mean we’re all as bad as we could be, but that every part of our being has been contaminated by sin: body, intellect, emotions, cravings, fears, and attitudes.  That’s true of a mass murderer, and true of me.  Indeed, I am the “chief of sinners”.  There is no hope for me, or for Oslo’s butcher…except in Jesus Christ.  He can and will rescue us from ourselves, our sin, the wrath of God, our lovelessness, and our fears (such as, of being overrun by Muslims). 

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.  (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

Friday books

The gospel I grew up with was polluted with works.  It’s not that anyone ever specifically claimed that a person’s works augment Christ’s work on the cross, but it was implied.  Never really trying to intellectually make these two incompatibles compatible, I simply drifted through life believing that Jesus died to save me yet somehow I had to help save myself by what I did.

Which turned me into a stubborn moralist.  Despite teaching orthodox theology I scrutinized myself and others by a measuring bar of behavior and attitude.  Even once I concluded that Jesus’ work and His alone saved people completely, my functional faith formula still demanded human works.  Which made me impatient with others who didn’t measure up, and drove me to the depths of despair when I didn’t.

Tim Keller talks about me and similar species in his must-read The Prodigal God in which he unpacks Jesus’ well-known parable we say is about the prodigal son (even though it’s really about 2 sons).  If you’re wondering why anyone would label God the prodigal, Keller explains: The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift”.  It means to spend until you have nothing left.

Keller sees not just one lost son, but two and takes aim at the moralists who think their goodness is just another way to get God to do their bidding.  These were not just the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, but the many elder brothers who dot our churches today.  Seriously, this is one “Friday book” no Christian or professing Christian should skip.  (Great for unbelievers too.)  It’s just 133 pages long, and the book’s small to begin with.  Keller has a brilliant mind but talks and writes in a way easy to understand.  

What is the problem [with the elder brother kind of person]?  Pride in his good deeds, rather than remorse over his bad deeds, was keeping the older son out of the feast of salvation.  The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants.  His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault.

a world of hurt

“Am I going to throw up?”  Forces of queasiness were launching probing actions in my stomach.  Within the hour I started to feel drained and exhausted.  A searing headache .  

My unease went beyond sickness.  I’d started with a sore throat 2 days before but these didn’t seem like cold symptoms.  What they mirrored were symptoms I’d had 3 weeks earlier when the doctor told me I had Lyme Disease–a  diagnosis the huge bullseye on my leg made easy.  5 more days of antibiotics attacking bacteria left courtesy of a tiny tick 4 weeks ago.

Colds.  Lyme.  Flat tires.  Falling out with your mother-in-law.  Your marriage ends.  Teenage son is put in jail for DUI.  You lose your job.  An investment goes south.  DISHNET goes out for the entire fourth quarter of the last game of the NBA finals.  Seriously!  OK, so it wasn’t lifethreatening but we all have our burdens to bear.

Whether just inconvenient and trivial, or terminal and lifechanging, things don’t always go right.  Maybe often don’t go right.  Does that surprise you?  In this world you will have trouble.  Maybe that’s one of Jesus’ promises you haven’t memorized.  He was trying to warn his followers: expect stuff to go wrong.  But immediately following the warning came this reassurance: But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Sitting upright on a recliner the last few nights, hoping to fall asleep, I ask God to heal me.  But if he doesn’t–or it takes longer than I think it should, Jesus has not failed me.  He’s never broken this promise in the midst of troubles: I will never leave you or forsake you.  Troubled…, but never alone or without heaven’s resources.

Friday books

Since I’m going to preach on the gospel the next few months, some Friday Books will be gospel reads.  Like Milton Vincent’s excellent The Gospel Primer.  Just 53 pages of “Learning to see the glories of God’s Love”.  Like Vincent, I was a Christian for many years before starting to figure out that the gospel which saved me was what I needed to live by–and rest in.  Its power courses through our veins because of our relationship to God through Christ but is too often the missing link that explains a lot of defeat, joylessness, self-effort, and despair in believers.

The gospel also reminds me that my righteous standing with God always holds firm regardless of my performance, because my standing is based solely on the work of Jesus and not mine.  On my worst days of sin and failure, the gospel encourages me with God’s unrelenting grace toward me.  On my best days of victory and usefulness, the gospel keeps me relating to God solely on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness and not mine.

So Geoff, thanks for picking this up for me at that worship conference.