What is discipleship? What should our posture be toward Catholics? Toward Muslims? What about our call to be peaceful in an age of nuclear warfare? What is the relationship between “good news” and “good works?” These and other questions are addressed in Christ the Cornerstone, a collection of essays by John Stott which were originally published in Christianity Today decades ago. Though these essays are not recent, they are surprisingly relevant for the issues currently plaguing the Church.
While not every Christian knows who John Stott is, every Christian in the West (and even beyond) seems to know of Stott’s lifelong friend, the evangelist Billy Graham. Though Graham and Stott enjoyed a deep friendship, they came to a particularly public standstill during the formation of the Lausanne Covenant, which was drafted in response to concerns over growing liberalism in American Christianity. Their point of contention? How a Christian talks about the call of the church to spread the gospel versus how a Christian talks about the call of the church to help the poor and underprivileged. While Graham is known more for stressing personal salvation and talking about personal sin, Stott passionately insisted that as important as stressing salvation is, we must equally stress the role of the church in addressing social issues such as helping the poor. To Stott, the church is called to “serve bread and save souls.”
(Click here to read about Stott and Graham’s sharp disagreement on this very issue in 1974.)
Stott through and through has a passion for Jesus and for Jesus to be glorified. This seems to be the lens through which he looks at all the hot topic issues compiled in Christ the Cornerstone, and the lens through which he writes. One example would be how he critiques Christians who read the Bible for the sake of reading the Bible, or who do so just to gain mountains of information. They are largely missing the point, which is Christ– not information about Christ, but a real relationship with him which in turn affects all of our life. The collection of essays is very much a ‘back to the basics’ collection. While debates are important and have their place, they should not be the reason we open our Bibles.
Other issues addressed include the question of just how involved Christians should be in social action/justice, questions of creation care, euthanasia, nuclear war, liberal seminaries and their potential disdain for doctrine, and fundamentalist seminaries where orthodoxy can be enforced and students may not be allowed to grow spiritually.
Stott does not pretend to have all the right answers. At the same time, it is clear that Stott has one foot heavily planted in the context of the world of the Bible and the other foot planted in our modern reality and world. It is paramount that Christians learn to know both contexts well.
Here are a few reasons why I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy.
John Stott has earned a reputation for himself to go where the text leads, regardless of how many enemies that may make him. That he does not care for the Left and Right divide (and fits neither category neatly) is abundantly clear in this collection. While diverse topics are addressed, Stott is not content with spewing opinions, but shows an honest wrestling with what Scripture says. Though much Scripture is cited here, Stott seems to avoid the terrible habit that many have taken up called “proof-texting” or cherry-picking Bible verses.
A Disdain for Dichotomies
Stott’s ability to avoid unhelpful and unhealthy dichotomies might just be a lost art.
Whether it be the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures or “good works” versus “good news,” Stott retains a rugged commitment to balance, offered first and foremost by the Bible. In this regard, Christ the Cornerstone is a plea for realism and a return to employing logic in our study of Scripture. Stott beckons the Church to be more (in)formed by Scripture than by unhelpful dichotomies and trends (including those within the church). Stott categorically rejects certain dichotomies which, though very much alive and well in evangelical discourse and imagination, are simply nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Speaking into missions and discipleship throughout, Stott insists that when it comes to the conversation about social action/justice as it pertains to preaching the gospel, these realities and calls are interchangeable. Christians need to resist the urge to sacrifice ‘social action’ on the altar of ‘preaching the gospel’ and vice versa. Christ was involved in both.
Looking at the Big Picture
In Stott’s later years the Church global was massively expanding–exploding even–and seemed to be doing well numerically. When asked for his response to this, Stott relayed that he feared this was “growth without depth.” In the same interview found in the Epilogue, he does not seem to be too fond of short-term mission trips, viewing them as a cheap shortcut to the real and hard work of missions. He insists that we cannot replace long-term mission trips with short ones, pointing to Christ’s Incarnation as the model for which we are to emulate on the mission field.
“True mission that is based on the example of Jesus involves entering another world, the world of another culture.” 311
A Commitment to Christ-centeredness
What is the centerpiece of Christianity? A philosophy? A specific doctrine? A book? An idea? Stott feels rather strongly that Christianity centers on a person, and that person is Christ. This exposes a potential blind-spot of focusing on the Bible and yet missing the point: Christ!
The most important aspect of this new release is Stott’s unabashed commitment to Christ, which is not just lip-service but lived out in how Stott remains gracious even when under attack.
Though Stott would often write off-the-cuff articles, he is not in the habit of wasting words. Stott was gifted in his ability to write casually and yet carefully, so as not to be misunderstood.
A challenge to safe and sanitized Christianity, Christ the Cornerstone is a plea for the Western church to return to her roots: Christ, as well as a call for believers to be shaped by God–as revealed in Christ–more than by culture or culture wars. This is a timely reminder that in our allegiance to Christ we must be willing to abandon the subtle idol of self-preservation and its twin evil of seeking a savior in politics. If your definition or version of following Jesus involves no risk or sacrifice, then you are not really following Jesus.
Stott deals with issues such as the Church’s call to be peaceful in a nuclear age, the question of Catholic/Protestant fellowship (are we brothers and sisters?), the relationship between Muslims and Christians, and the nature and mission of the church. Carefully written and refreshingly timely, this is a resource that I highly recommend. A challenge to status-quo Christianity, Stott insists that following Jesus has radical implications and is, above all things, never comfortable.
Wasting no words and desiring to move Christians away from a sanitized version of Christianity (which has little to do with the Christ of the Gospels), if ever there was a time for believers to read Stott, it would be now.
A plea for realism and a well-rounded and robust faith, Stott points believers back to the basics: a commitment to Christ and Christ-likeness in all we do and in how we respond to the questions plaguing our world. This is a great resource for any believer.
Here are some quotes from Christ the Cornerstone:
“Churches live, grow, and flourish by the Word of God. And they languish and even perish without it.” 313
“We cannot perfect society. But we can improve it.” 315
“…good news without good works lacks credibility.” 152
To me, Stott’s emphasis on salvation working hand in hand with social justice is robust, but more importantly honors the memory of Christ and the spirit in which Christ implemented his ministry/mission.
Christ the Cornerstone has rekindled my love for Christ as well as reinforced in me the vitality of going where the text goes, even if that means losing some friends or putting strain on relationships.
Stott’s voice is timeless in an age of polarization and alarmingly high rates of biblical illiteracy. Stott will be remembered most, I think, for his deep commitment to Christ and unwavering unwillingness to compromise in spite of pressure from those in power (inside and outside the church). We must be willing to make enemies from both the Left and Right divide in maintaining allegiance to Jesus as Lord and in staying true to God’s gospel.