As I turn from Stott’s analysis of how man and God handle sin and forgiveness in The Cross of Christ [Chapter Four] I refocus our attention on Stott’s book Basic Christianity [Chapter Three]. I don’t want to spend much time comparing the two books, but The Cross [published in 1986] is considered by many as Stott’s magnum opus, “a work of a lifetime” and Basic Christianity is a “classic” first published in 1959 that introduces people seeking a Christian faith to the introductory ideas of Christianity. I believe that there is great value looking at both books at the same time for John Stott helped me greatly when I pulled his book off my shelf when I was a seeking, young believer. Now as I have believed for many years, his words still inspire me even though they are more complex [he admits to “torturous theologizing” in The Cross].
Let’s return to the simpler ideas of Basic as Stott tries to introduce us to Jesus Christ, the person. He has discussed the claims of Christ [Chapter Two] and now we are introduced to the character of Christ [Chapter Three].
I had several outstanding Christian mentors when I came to believe in Jesus many years ago. One man inspired me with his words but also with his deeds. He felt that it was important to not only witness with words but also to “walk out” those words by acting on faith. Do the work of the Christian. I remember one day when he loaned me some of his writings about his faith. I remember seeing one page of handwritten advice in particular. Keep in mind that at this time in my life, I was looking for answers and I had gone through forty some-odd years of floundering in life, deciding what to do by calculating how my choices would benefit me. In other words, I was an extremely selfish individual. The world revolved around me and I did not spend much time considering the needs of others.
That one page offered simple statements but they spoke to me, they nudged me, they guided me. “Life is about choices.” My mentor went on to explain. We are all faced with choices and when we decide what to do in life, do we do what Jesus would want us to do or do we do what we want to do? Some choices are big and some are small, but they all count in life.
I know that I am entering the world of “platitudes” but here we go. Many are concerned with reputation and that is important but what is reputation? It is what other people think about you. Reputation is earned by the acts that you do where other people “see” those acts and they come to some conclusion about you as a person based on what they see. Character is what you do when no one is watching, those acts that truly reveal who you are because no one is judging your behavior. Character is the core of who you are, your moral fiber. When under pressure, a person makes serious choices and those types of choices reveal character; the greater the pressure, the more character is revealed.
Stott is trying to introduce the seeker to the person of Jesus Christ in Basic Christianity and he spends a chapter looking at the character of Christ.
He uses the Pharisee who gives an arrogant thanksgiving prayer in the midst of the Temple. He stands in the most public place and declares “God I thank Thee that I am not like the rest of men.” He was really saying that he was better than the ordinary folk who were present. He lived a better life, he prayed better prayers, he knows the Tanach [Old Testament] better than everyone else. His prayer was a public display designed to enhance his reputation.
Jesus knew his prayers were just words, the Pharisee was not actually “walking out” his faith.
So we are faced with the basic question: what clues do we have about the character of Jesus Christ? He claims to be the Son of God but does He do anything to bolster that claim? How did Jesus confirm His character without falling into the same trap as the boastful Pharisee?
Stott points to two things that Jesus does that reveal character. One instance was with the woman who had committed adultery. She was dragged before a mob that was ready to stone her to death and Jesus met the crowd with a challenge: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” They considered His words and gradually the crowd dispersed for no man could cast a stone. Jesus stayed with the woman because He did His Father’s will. He was not there to kill the woman; He was there to forgive her.
Jesus did not attempt to place Himself in a “moral category” above everyone else. He did not draw attention to His sinlessness. He did not have to, because it was so obvious to those around Him. It could be summed up in these words from Stott: “He lived a life of perfect obedience to His Father’s will. ‘I always do’ He said, ‘what is pleasing to Him.’” He did not need to draw attention to Himself and He did not need to draw attention to the sinful nature of man. He came as the Shepherd, to seek and save man. We are sick with sin and He is the Doctor who has come to heal us. As we live in the darkness of our shortcomings, He is the light of the world. He knows His mission, that He will end up shedding His blood that we can be forgiven. Stott writes that Jesus knows He is unique but He does not have to shout it out to the world. It will be revealed by how He “walks out” His faith.
He is a man and He is tempted, but He does not sin. He never confesses His sins and never asks for forgiveness. He tells His disciples to confess but He does not need to do that. He does not exhibit signs of moral failure. He never feels guilt or “estrangement” from God. When He is baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus does this to fulfill His righteous obligation, not because He needs to be cleansed from His sins.
Stott writes of a young pioneer missionary named David Brainerd who served among the Indians of Delaware at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He died at the young age of twenty-nine, but he left many diary writings where he poured out his heart about his love for Jesus. He loved his work and it was difficult. Stott describes his life: “He gave himself without reserve to his work. He travelled on horseback through thick forests, preached and taught without rest, slept in the open, and was content with no settled home or family life. His diary is full of expressions of love to ‘my dear Indians’ and of prayers and praises to his Savior.” But his diary also had passages where he confessed his moral corruption, his lack of prayer and love for Christ. He called himself a “poor worm” a “dead dog” and an “unspeakably worthless wretch.” Why was he so hard on himself? Why did he have moments of spiritual weakness?
Stott says it best: “He simply lived near Christ and was painfully aware of his sinfulness.”
Jesus lived near God and showed no sign of moral discontent.
Was Jesus perceptive? Stott writes “He knew what was in man. Often it is recorded of Him in the Gospel narratives that He read the inner questionings and perplexities of the crowd… Ostentation and pretense were an abomination to Him.” That’s why He could not bear the public display of religiosity that came from the Pharisee in the temple. How could Jesus be so perceptive about others and yet not be self-aware. The short answer: He was self-aware and He saw no sin in Himself.
Why do we have such a sense of “falling short” when we try to make the best choices in life, not only those public choices where we may enhance our reputation but also those private choices that reveal character. Stott likens this to the sense of awe that a scientist must feel when she appreciates the mysteries that await her discovery. They more she learns, the more she realizes what she does not know. The more the Christian grows in Christlikeness, the more he knows there is still a “vastness of distance” which still separates him from Christ.
This may sound discouraging, for many of us have this inborn need for perfection but we must let that go, for we don’t have the power to reach the level of perfect living that Christ revealed. All we can do is try to do the best we can, follow the example of Jesus, listen to the Holy Spirit and try to “walk out” our faith, remembering that the most revealing test of our faith is when no one is watching us and we still do what is right.
Stott closes his comments on what Jesus thought about His own character with the words “Jesus Christ, who lived more closely to God than anybody else has done, was free from all sense of sin” . As we compare ourselves to Christ, we need to constantly remember that He was living life on a completely different plane than we are. To put it plainly, (using a sports metaphor) “He was on a different playing field.”
Truthfully as we live more closely to God and His Son Jesus Christ, we know we are not free from sin, but we should not despair. We should also not fake perfection and we should also not make arrogant public pronouncements of how proud we are of our growth toward sainthood.
“Life is about choices.”
Some choices are bigger and some are small, but they all count in life.