I discovered John Stott in the late 1960s via a book in the library of my father, who was a layman. I was a university student then. My father would get the compendia of the Urbana Student Missionary Conferences held every three years, at which Stott used to do the Bible readings. Reading those messages gave me a taste of verse-by-verse exposition, and this became my preferred style of preaching.
Around this time, I found Stott’s book, The Preacher’s Portrait. I read it slowly over a period of several months. It was one of the most influential books in my life as in it I was given a model from the Scriptures of what a servant of Christ should be like.
This book opened the door to another major contribution of John Stott to my life. He modelled the practice of looking at issues facing Christians from a biblical perspective. It was an aspect of his emphasis on the preacher as a “bridge builder”—in which we interact with culture from a biblical base and apply biblical truth to contemporary issues. Later from Stott’s pen (I should say “pencil”) came some classic treatments on contemporary issues from a biblical perspective, for example: Issues Facing Christians Today, I Believe in Preaching, and The Cross of Christ. I have tried to use this approach in books responding to some of the issues facing the church in Sri Lanka.
The Hard Work of Devotion to Truth
I still remember the impact that Stott’s exposition of 2 Timothy 2:7 at the 1967 Urbana conference had on me. Paul instructed Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” I remember reading that teaching and preaching involve the hard work of seeking to understand what the author meant. Paul said, “Think over what I say.…” Timothy was responsible for thinking, but there was also a need for dependence on God through prayer to help him understand. Paul went on to say, “The Lord will give you understanding….” While Stott may not have said it this way, the message I got was that both perspiration and inspiration are vital parts of study. I must work hard to understand what the Scripture says with an attitude of humble receptivity to God’s leading.
The perspiration and inspiration are, of course, interrelated. Study drives us to prayer. We want to know what the inspired writer meant. We feel inadequate and plead for God’s help. Study is ultimately an expression of the respect we give to the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures. We want to take what he said seriously and find out what he meant. But we acknowledge our weakness and inadequacy. That makes us work hard to find the truth, but it also makes us depend on God. Depending on God in turn opens the door to God’s grace impacting us. Second Corinthians 12 expounds this idea well, culminating with the statement, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Preachers, then, are weak people who work hard to study the truth while always depending on God’s guidance.
By then, I had become convinced that I was called to the ministry. So I resolved that my ministry would be characterised by careful study and earnest prayer. The more I read John Stott, the more I realised the implications of 2 Timothy 2:7. Christians are people who value truth and are careful about the way they handle it. As Paul put it a few verses later, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
I met John Stott at a conference two years after I had returned to Sri Lanka following my theological studies. The first question he asked me was, “Are you giving time to study?”
(To be continued…)