“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?”
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.
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.