Editor’s Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of John Stott’s republished work Christ in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies (IVP Books, 2013).
Although Jesus is often portrayed today as someone who made peace at any cost, he was actually quite controversial during his time on Earth. Jesus didn’t hesitate to disagree with people on issues or engage in vigorous debate with them.
Evangelical Christians today sometimes shy away from Jesus’ call to follow his example of asserting the truth about faith – especially when talking about controversial issues. But if you boldly do so, you’ll inspire others to discover more about God and seek closer relationships with him.
Here’s how you can assert your faith in controversial conversations:
Understand the forces you need to overcome to inspire people to talk about spiritual truth. Certain cultural forces undermine the importance of discussing the nature of truth in faith: dislike of dogmatism, hatred of controversy, love of tolerance, anxiety about the church’s decreasing popularity, and the spirit of ecumenism. Pray for the ability to engage people in conversations successfully despite these forces.
Recognize what the call to express “evangelical” Christianity entails. Keep in mind that evangelical Christianity is: theological in its character, biblical in its substance, original in its history, and fundamental in its emphasis.
Discuss whether the Christian religion is natural or supernatural. Christianity is not natural, but supernatural, because it’s a life lived by the power of God. Yet in our culture today, people often get confused because religion is frequently presented stripped of its miracles, as if it was just a system of merely human effort. Talk with people about how God, the Creator, is always at work within the natural order he set up for the universe, but that He occasionally works in beyond it in supernatural ways to accomplish specific purposes related to salvation, revelation, and judgment. Discuss how Christianity is much more than just a natural list of religious rules and rituals; it’s actually a journey in which people rely on God’s supernatural power to gain new life that transforms who they are and how they live.
Discuss which has more authority: tradition or Scripture. Authority is found not in tradition but in Scripture, because tradition is human while the Bible is divinely inspired Scripture. People today often debate by what authority Christians believe what we believe and by what authority churches teach what they teach. They wonder whether there is a final, objective standard by which Christians’ beliefs and teaching may be assessed and judged. So we need to clearly submit church traditions (which differ between Christian denominations) to the higher authority of the Bible (which presents the core truths of the faith).
Discuss whether the Bible is an end in itself or a means to something else. Scripture is not an end in itself, but a means to an end (pointing us to Jesus Christ so that we may find eternal life in him). When discussing Scripture with religious leaders during his time on Earth, Jesus asserted that Scripture was designed by God to point people to him, so they could then believe in him and go to him for the eternal life they need. So think of the Bible as a love letter that testifies about Jesus, just as a husband or wife’s love letter speaks to a spouse who reads it about his or her beloved. The love letter itself isn’t the object of devotion; instead, it’s the person to whom it points. Discuss with people how there is a two-way testimony between Jesus (the living Word) and the Bible (the written Word), with each bearing witness to each other: Because Jesus bears witness to the Bible, we believe it. Because the Bible bears witness to Jesus, we go to him to find true life.
Discuss how people experience salvation: through merit or mercy. Salvation is possible for people due to God’s mercy, not human merit. People often mistakenly think that they can somehow earn salvation. All of the world’s religions other than Christianity teach merit systems that supposedly can make it possible for sinful human beings to earn salvation. But Christianity stands alone by announcing that God has freely given salvation to sinful people who don’t deserve his mercy, simply because of His great love for us. Talk with people about how God accepts us sinners when we place our trust in Jesus, not because of anything we do or any quality we possess, but because of his mercy.
Discuss whether morality comes from outward or inward changes. What makes us either clean or unclean from God’s perspective is what comes out of us, rather than what goes into us. Real moral change happens inside of us, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work inside our souls. Converse with people about how the evidence of our morality isn’t found in our external behavior (which is superficial and can be faked), but the growth that happens inside our minds and spirits, which motivates us to make the decisions we make about what to say and do.
Discuss how people can express true worship that pleases God: with their lips or with their hearts. God seeks people who will worship him with their hearts (devoting themselves entirely to worship), not just with their lips (speaking words of worship without really having their hearts in it). Discuss with people how true worship is rational (involving the mind), spiritual (involving both God’s spirit and ours), and moral (involving the conscience and decisions made in every part of life).
Discuss Christians’ responsibility to nonbelievers and whether they should withdraw from them or get involved with their lives. Christians should serve those who don’t currently have relationships with Jesus, because by doing so, God’s love working through us can inspire them to seek Jesus. Jesus calls us to follow the example he set during his earthly lifetime of being involved with sinful, faithless people without being contaminated by their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, but instead influencing them for the better. Converse with people about the importance of serving nonbelievers with compassion rather than despising, fearing, shunning, condemning, or tolerating them.
Discuss how people should direct their ambition: for their own glory, or for God’s glory. The driving force of Christians’ lives should be the ambition to bring glory to God through how we choose to live. When discussing your faith with people, talk about how selfish ambitions contaminate people’s motives and lead to unhealthy results, while sincere efforts to glorify God bring about good results in people’s lives while also honoring God.
Adapted from Christ in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies, copyright 2013 by John Stott’s literary executors. Published by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) has been known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist and communicator of Scripture. For many years he served as rector of All Souls Church in London, where he carried out an effective urban pastoral ministry. A leader among evangelicals in Britain, the United States and around the world, Stott was a principal framer of the landmark Lausanne Covenant (1974). His many books, including Why I Am a Christian and The Cross of Christ, have sold millions of copies around the world and in dozens of languages. Whether in the West or in the Two-Thirds World, a hallmark of Stott’s ministry has been expository preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood’s golden age. Visit her website at: whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.