Friday 5 February 2010

John Stott on the Radical Disciple

[This review has been written for eg 25 (March 2010), a publication of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham: IVP, 2010), 144pp., ISBN 9781844744213.

Following in the wake of the recent biography of John Stott (Roger Steer, Inside Story: The Life of John Stott, Nottingham: IVP, 2009) comes the final book – his 51st – from the man himself. That this is a ‘farewell’ to his readers should make us pause. What, we ought to wonder, is on his heart? In a word, discipleship – of the radical sort. In fact, Stott considers eight ‘often neglected’ characteristics of discipleship, the kind of discipleship which is – as the subtitle makes clear – wholehearted, the whole heart affecting the whole of life.

The first mark is non-conformity, with radical discipleship involving ‘a call to develop a Christian counterculture, a call to engagement without compromise’, rejecting the pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism, and narcissism so prevalent in contemporary culture. Such a path also involves a call to Christlikeness, being like Christ in his incarnation, service, love, patient endurance, and mission. Then there is maturity – of the kind described in Colossians 1:28-29, rooted in ‘a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ’ as Lord of creation and Lord of the church – so that we might grow to maturity ourselves and present others mature as well.

Not least since God’s plan for reconciliation embraces all things, creation-care will be a distinguishing mark of the radical disciple. Avoiding both the deification of nature as well as the exploitation of nature, our care for creation will reflect our love for the Creator. Alongside this is the characteristic of simplicity – rooted theologically in creation, stewardship, the new community and the Lord’s return, with implications for everything from personal lifestyle to international development, justice and politics, and evangelism, since ‘the call to a responsible lifestyle must not be divorced from the call to responsible witness’.

The characteristic of balance is shown in an engaging and illuminating treatment of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – the highlight of the book for me – showing how Peter unpacks a series of metaphors, each of which carries an obligation: as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones called to fellowship, as holy priests called to worship, as God’s own people called to witness, as aliens and strangers called to holiness, and as servants of God called to citizenship. Our ‘comprehensive identity’ as followers of Christ is found in the balance between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, being called to both worship and work, and to pilgrimage and citizenship.

A chapter on dependence offers some insight into the man himself, with a moving personal testimony of his own sense of weakness as well as dependence on the love and care of others, and an encouragement to carry one another’s burdens. All of which serves as a prelude to the final characteristic of death, recognising that the ‘paradoxical principle of life through death’ operates in relation to our salvation and discipleship, in mission, persecution and martyrdom, and as we face mortality and the death of our physical body with the promise of resurrection life.

Stott himself acknowledges that it is a selective portrait, but it is no less rich for that. Beyond the wisdom of the individual chapters are the threads that run through the whole book. What emerges is a portrayal of discipleship that is rooted in Scripture, focused on Jesus, and earthed in the desire to see Christ formed in the lives of fellow followers. Written with clarity, humility, and an obvious love for God and others, it seems fitting that this modest offering should be his last book. It is striking, but seems wholly appropriate, that the farewell highlights the needs of others – eloquent testimony not just to the integrity of the man himself, but to the Christ he serves. Those who would seek to live as whole-life disciples today will draw much encouragement and inspiration from these pages and from the example of a life lived well.

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