Among the papers in the archive of John Stott is a single, rather scrappy sheet with these words written in pencil: “The church’s first priority . . . remains the millions and millions . . . who (as Christ and his apostles tell us again and again) without Christ are perishing” (Christian Mission in the Modern World, 19).
These were Stott’s handwritten notes for an impromptu contribution he gave at the 1968 Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Stott was present only as an advisor, but he felt compelled to speak at the plenary session on world mission. The assembly had been taken up almost entirely with matters of social justice. It was, after all, 1968 — the year of radical protests across the world. Stott himself felt the needs of the poor deeply. But there was a glaring omission in the proceedings — the needs of the unevangelized. And Stott could not allow them to be forgotten.
“True freedom is freedom to be our true selves, as God made us and meant us to be.”
On his return, he wrote, “I do not regret this emphasis [on social justice] at all, except that there appeared to be no comparable compassion for the spiritual hunger of the unevangelized millions, no comparable call to go to them with the Bread of Life. . . . How can we seriously maintain that political and economic liberation is just as important as eternal salvation?” (John Stott: The Making of a Leader, 2:125).
Throughout his ministry, Stott championed the importance of social involvement among evangelicals, but never as a replacement for evangelism.
Freedom from Wrath
In The Cross of Christ, the book many regard as his magnum opus, Stott explains the only way we will satisfy the hunger of the unevangelized millions — the only way we will be set free to serve them, and the only way they will be set free from sin. He provides a sustained defense of the doctrine of penal substitution, the belief that Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty of our sin, so that we can be free from the guilt of our sin. At the cross in holy love, God himself through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience. He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross, divine mercy and justice were together expressed and eternally reconciled (89).
This account of the cross only makes sense if we take seriously the wrath of God. Only when we see the propitiation of divine wrath at the heart of what was taking place at the cross does the glory of God’s love in Christ shine in its true colors. Only in this way does the cross bring the profound reassurance that God intends for those who entrust themselves to Christ. The cross is not simply a gesture or an example of love. It is an act of liberation, setting us free from the judgment we deserve. The gospel is the good news of freedom from wrath.
But the gospel is not simply the avoidance of the negative consequences of our sin; it is also an invitation to find joy and satisfaction in God. In Stott’s terms, we are not only set free from wrath, self, and fear; we are also set free for love. Christianity, says Stott in The Contemporary Christian, “is freedom from the dark prison of our own self-centeredness into a new life of self-fulfillment through self-forgetful service” (310). Elsewhere, Stott defines salvation as freedom from judgment for sonship, from self for service, and from decay for glory (Christian Mission in the Modern World, 100–107). The precise formula may change, but the common theme was freedom for God.
Freedom for God
“True freedom is freedom to be our true selves, as God made us and meant us to be,” says Stott (Contemporary Christian, 53). He starts with God. For God, freedom does not mean having many possible choices. God is not free to choose sin, yet God is the freest being. For God, freedom means the ability to be who he is. Nothing can prevent the great I AM from being the I AM.
“In order to be myself, I have to deny myself and give myself.”
In a similar way, true freedom for human beings is not being able to do whatever we want. This is how freedom has come to be defined in our culture. Freedom is seen as freedom from every restraint and constraint. Freedom is the ability to adopt any lifestyle, to choose any sexual partner, to escape any obligation. The more choices we have, the freer we are assumed to be.
But this is not how the Bible teaches freedom. This is not freedom in the image of God. True freedom is the ability to be who we are made to be — people made to love God and to love others. A fish is made for water and experiences its freedom in the context of water. So, freedom for a fish is not having the choice to leave the river. For a fish, that is death. Instead, freedom is water. What about human beings? What are we made for? What enables us to be truly free and flourishing? Stott answers: love. That is because we are made in the image of God, and God is love in his essential being (1 John 4:8, 16). So, for human beings, freedom is love.
The gospel frees us to be true to our true selves, and defines what our true self is, and that is defined by the life and achievements of Christ. Stott was profoundly christocentric, and his understanding of humanity is no exception. Christ is the true human being, human as we were meant to be before sin marred our humanity. The result is a view of freedom that is both countercultural and counterintuitive (at least to sinful people). We are free when we live under the lordship of Christ, and we are free when we see ourselves as servants of others. We find fulfilment through sacrifice; we receive when we give of ourselves.
Give Yourself to Be Yourself
“Whoever would save his life will lose it,” says Jesus in Mark 8:35, “but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Stott points out that the word translated life in this verse is not the word normally used in the New Testament to describe life in the sense of existence. Instead, it is a word that means soul or self (that’s how it is translated in the phrase “forfeit his soul” in the next verse). So, Stott paraphrases the verse, “If you insist on holding on to yourself, and on living for yourself, and refuse to let yourself go, you will lose yourself. But if you are willing to give yourself away in love, then, at the moment of complete abandonment, when you imagine that everything is lost, the miracle takes place, and you find yourself and your freedom.” Then he comments,
True love places constraints on the lover, for love is essentially self-giving. And this brings us to a startling Christian paradox. True freedom is freedom to be my true self, as God made me and meant me to be. And God made me for loving. But loving is giving, self-giving. Therefore, in order to be myself, I have to deny myself and give myself. In order to be free, I have to serve. In order to live, I have to die to my own self-centeredness. In order to find myself, I have to lose myself in loving. . . . It is only sacrificial service, the giving of the self in love to God and others, which is perfect freedom. (The Gospel: A Life-Changing Message, 32–33)
The gospel is the good news that, through faith in Christ, we can be set free from wrath. And it is the good news of freedom for God — for true satisfaction in knowing God and serving others. And because John Stott had received this gospel and tasted this freedom, he could not forget or neglect the unevangelized around the world.