The Radical Disciple
Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 2010, 144pp.
At age 88, and after authoring more than 50 books, John Stott has written his final book: The Radical Disciple. He is a man who has made an incredible contribution to evangelical Christianity through his preaching, teaching, leadership and writing. In some ways it is sad to hear that it is his final book, but I suppose that he has earned a break after so many faithful years.
The Radical Disciple is an examination of the nature of Christian discipleship. Stott has chosen what he considers to be eight characteristics of a disciple of Jesus. He admits that the list is ‘selective’ and “somewhat arbitrary” (p. 137). He is not suggesting they are the only characteristics disciples should possess, but he does consider that they should be seen in every genuine disciple. The eight characteristics are: non-conformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation-care, simplicity, balance, dependence and death.
As I looked at those eight chapter headings, there were some I thought were obvious in a book of this nature (Maturity, Christlikeness, Dependence and even Balance). Stott handles each of those subjects with clarity and faithfulness to the Bible, and still manages to help you look at those topics with fresh eyes. But there were also chapter headings that came as a bit of a surprise: Non-conformity, Creation-care, Simplicity and Death.
Stott’s opening chapter shows that non-conformity is a recurring theme in both the Old and New Testament. Israel was not to conform to the Egyptian or Canaanite lifestyle. They were to be distinctively God’s people and live in obedience to him. As Paul says to the Romans, we are not to confirm to this world. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and live according to God’s will. Christian discipleship involves a balancing act. As Stott says:
We are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. (p. 19)
Stott identifies some ‘isms’ where we need to ensure we are non-conformists: pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism. Even in his late eighties, Stott has a clear understanding of our day and age. He knows the areas we will be most tempted to ‘conform’.
This was the chapter that offered the biggest surprise for me. As I read it, I realized that this is an area that I have not given the thought I should have.
Care of our environment is probably the most widely discussed topic in our society today. It is the concern of governments, big business and the whole community. So Christians need to be part of the debate, and part of the solution to the problems we face in our world. Stott argues that Christians have three important reasons to be involved in ‘creation-care’ and respect the environment:
- because God made it.
- because God has entrusted mankind with its care
- because it is part of our duty in loving our neighbour.
We need to maintain a balance on this issue. As Stott points out, we must:
…avoid the deification of nature … [and the] opposite extreme, which is the exploitation of nature. This is not to treat nature obsequiously as if it were God, nor to behave towards it arrogantly as if we were God. (p. 58)
Stott is remarkably measured and balanced in what he says. He wants to take what the Bible says seriously and presents a compelling argument for Christians to demonstrate care for the environment, both as an individual responsibility and also through support for larger organizations (Stott suggests TEAR Fund and A Rocha).
This is the chapter that I personally found the most challenging. As Christians living in one of the richest countries in the world, this is a subject we need to take seriously.
Stott’s involvement with the church in the ‘majority world’ through the Langham Partnership has clearly given him great insight into the poverty, suffering and injustice that exists in our world.
It is impossible with integrity to proclaim Christ’s salvation if he has evidently not saved us from greed, or his lordship if we are not good stewards of our possessions, or his love if we close our hearts against the needy. (p. 83)
The theme of death, and life through death, comes up more times in the New Testament than you may have thought. We find it in the obvious areas of persecution, martyrdom and mortality, of course. But the theme of life through death also comes up in the way the Bible talks about salvation (“we died with Christ”, Rom 6:1-15), discipleship (taking up our cross in Mark 8:34-35), and mission (“death is at work in us”, 2 Cor 4:12).
Life through death is one of the profoundest paradoxes in both the Christian faith and the Christian life … The radical biblical perspective is to see death not as the termination of life but as the gateway to life. (pp. 115, 117)
You can’t read this book without sensing Stott’s Christian maturity, and you can’t read this book without being challenged by what he says. This is not a ‘rant’ from John Stott on what he sees as the failings of Christians in the West. This is not a book that leaves you feeling guilty that you don’t measure up as a Christian. It is a book that motivates you to seek to be more Christ-like and serious, as you endeavour to be a radical disciple.