REVIEWED BY CLINT ARCHER
John Robert Walmsley Stott was born in London in 1921. He was converted at age 17, hearing a sermon by Eric Nash, who mentored him. Stott later wrote this of his own conversion:
Intellectually speaking, I had believed in Jesus all my life, on the other side of the door. I had regularly struggled to say my prayers through the key-hole. I had even pushed pennies under the door in a vain attempt to pacify him. I had been baptized, yes and confirmed as well. I went to church, read my Bible, had high ideals, and tried to be good and do good. But all the time, often without realising it, I was holding Christ at arm’s length, and keeping him outside. I knew that to open the door might have momentous consequences. I am profoundly grateful to him for enabling me to open the door. Looking back now over more than fifty years, I realise that that simple step has changed the entire direction, course and quality of my life.
He studied modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, and did his post graduate studies at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. He was ordained as an Anglican Curate in 1945, and posted at the church where he had been raised, All Souls, Langham Place. He eventually became the minister there.
Stott has remained unmarried his entire life (he is currently 89). He called says of his bachelorhood: “The gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those He calls.”
Stott’s influence grew, as his powerful Evangelical preaching and scholarship was recognized as a valuable resource within the Church of England, as well as wider contexts in the Evangelical world. The year 1966 saw his noteworthy influence being wielded during the National Assembly of Evangelicals. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, another influential Evangelical leader in the Anglican church, called for the separation of Evangelicals from the Anglican denomination. This motion was unexpected, and since Stott was chairing the meeting, he took it upon himself to refute the motion ex temporere. He accused Lloyd-Jones’ separationist view as being a break from the biblical pattern the historical dealings of the church. The National Evangelical Congress, under the leadership of Stott, strongly affirmed their commitment to participation in the Anglican Church denominational structure, in opposition to Lloyd-Jones’ movement. In a sense Stott became the figure head of that movement, vis-à-vis Lloyd Jones.
The other controversy surrounding his esteemed scholarly contribution, has been the vague pronouncements that he is open to the ideas of annihilationism. Though no scholarly defense of the topic has been published in his name, he has lent credence to the view by supporting it vocally, though not in writing or biblical study.
Time Magazine salted Stott as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, in 2005. In the article, Billy Graham says of Stott:
Despite numerous opportunities to be appointed bishop, archbishop or to head some of the world’s finest theological seminaries, John Stott, 84, has held true to what he sees as a wider calling—the equipping of leaders in countries where resources and experience are limited. His provision of theological books for these regions is financed in large measure with the royalties from his considerable—and popular—writings. The modesty of his lifestyle is evidenced in the simplicity of his living quarters, limited to a two-room flat in London’s West End, and a renovated farm on the Welsh coast, where he has written his books…I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view. He represents a touchstone of authentic biblical scholarship that, in my opinion, has scarcely been paralleled since the days of the 16th century European Reformers.”
Though less germane to this review at hand, but certainly worth the mention, Stott was awarded the honor of the appointment as Chaplain of Queen Elizabeth II in 1959, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2006. These honors merely testify to his remarkable influence, even recognized by secular systems as extraordinary.
It is, however, his writing ministry for which he is most widely known. Of the more than 50 books he has authored, arguably his magnum opus is The Cross of Christ.
SUMMARY OF CONTENTS
The subject matter of The Cross of Christ is the meat of the New Testament. It is the very heart of the gospel message. Each section and chapter contributes to the case Stott capably builds that the death of Christ on the cross, truly is the pivotal (or crucial, if you will) event in all of human history, and even cosmic history.
The opening section, “Approaching the Cross” introduces the historical centrality of the crucifixion in the understanding of Christians from the earliest church, throughout history, and is still the center of the issue in Modern debates. This section also deals with the factors and ultimate driving force behind Christ’s death, in chapter 2 “Why Did Christ Die?” The conclusion is summed up superbly with these words: “Our sin must be extremely horrible. …For ultimately what sent Christ [to the cross] was neither the greed of Judas, nor the envy of the priests, nor the vacillating cowardice of Pilate, but our own greed, envy, cowardice, and other sins… Apathy, selfishness, and complacency blossom everywhere in the world except at the cross. There these noxious weeds shrivel and die. They are seen for the tatty, poisonous things they are. For if there was no way by which the righteous God could righteously forgive our unrighteousness, except that he should bear it himself in Christ, it must be serious indeed,” (85).
The second section, “The Heart of the Cross,” deals with the problem of forgiveness. As stated in the quote by Carnegie Simpson, “Forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems,” (90). Stott explains how the conundrum of justice—the gravity of sin, the just desserts of it—and God’s perfect holiness, is solved in the self-bearing of God who incurs the debt of sin himself. In this treatment (chapter 5) Sott emphasizes that the debt is not paid to Satan, it is not merely satisfying the Law or God’s honor and justice (as apart from his person), but as satisfying God himself! This self-substitution concept masterfully pre-empts the historical debate about penal substitution. Before the Emergent attack on the doctrine was ever launched, Stott’s defense was already in place like a well-fortified battlement waiting the onslaught of Modern sensibilities. The finality of the argument, as shown from Scripture and reason, is articulated so thoroughly, that no need for more defense on the subject is required. In fact, it makes the Emergent pseudo intellegncia (who caricature penal substitution as “divine child abuse”) look like they simply haven’t read or perhaps understood what has been in print for over 20 years now.
Section 3, “The Achievement of the Cross” shows how the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God’s glory, and the Christus victor understandings are all achieved by the cross, and are not mutually exclusive. Salvation would be impossible without the penal substitute.
God’s glory would never be revealed as fully in a world where the cross was never needed because there was no sin, and the satanic hordes would not have been triumphed over.
One reviewer, I believer rightly praised this section as,
“Stott’s most brilliant section is his defense of the historical, evangelical Protestant view of the scriptural teaching of substitutionary atonement. This reviewer has not read a more understandable or more complete defense in contemporary theological literature.”
But it is the final section, “Living under the Cross” where Stott really drives home the application of the doctrine of atonement, to the community of faith. For example, the life of the believer, as evidenced in his public worship gathering is marked by boldness, love, and joy (250-51). He makes the pithy point that believers do not baptize themselves nor do they take communion for themselves, and this is an indication that the intent of the gospel was to create a community of believers acting for the good of one another (253). The chapter on “The Community of Celebration” deals in depth of with Catholic views and the historical views of Protestants in communion. This is a very helpful chapter for understanding the significance of the sacraments, as they relate to the cross. For example, we call it a supper, served by a minister, on a table. Not a sacrifice, served by a priest, on an altar. These types of insights abound in the section, and indeed the whole book.
J. I. Packer stated that “No other treatment of this supreme subject says so much so truly and so well.” Being a fellow Anglican, I allowed for overstatement. I was wrong. Having not previously read the book, I was skeptical of how significant it was because the endorsements on the cover of the 20th anniversary edition I purchased seemed “over the top.” Here are some titillating examples…
John Stott rises grandly to the challenge of the greatest of all themes. All the qualities that we expect of him–biblical precision, thoughtfulness and thoroughness, order and method, moral alertness and the measured tread, balanced judgment and practical passion–are here in fullest evidence. This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece.
—J. I. Packer, Regent College
Rarely does a volume of theology combine six cardinal virtues, but John Stott’s The Cross of Christ does so magnificently. It says what must be said about the cross; it gently but firmly warns against what must not be said; it grounds its judgments in biblical texts, again and again; it hierarchizes its arguments so that the main thing is always the main thing; it is written with admirable clarity; and it is so cast as to elicit genuine worship and thankfulness from any thoughtful reader. There are not many ‘must read’ books–books that belong on every minister’s shelf, and on the shelves of thoughtful laypersons who want a better grasp of what is central in Scripture–but this is one of them.”
—D. A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
As relevant today as when it first appeared, The Cross of Christ is more than a classic. It restates in our own time the heart of the Christian message. Like John the Baptist, John Stott points us away from the distractions that occupy so much of our energies in order, announcing, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
—Michael Horton, professor of theology and apologetics, Westminster Seminary California
In their defense, Packer, Carson, and Horton are not given to hyperbole. I soon discovered for myself the kindling of their effusive praise. I found that frequently I came across information or insights I had heard before in sermons and articles over the years. I eventually realized that in most cases the source of the information fro those preachers and writers must have been The Cross of Christ. In that sense it truly is a classic. It is a work that influences other works. It is a work that every other serious work on the topic must deal with, refute, or reference.
Strengths of the book are manifold. It is clearly structures, exceptionally well-written, poignant in its personal touches, and penetrating in its theological depth. Stott’s erudite references and knack for crafting an argument, make for a convincing read.
With the contemporary onslaught of Emergent church lightweights poking fun at the doctrine of penal substitution, it is hard to believe Stott wrote this 20 years ago! It reads like the latest defense of this great doctrine, and supplies ammunition plenty for future battles with the same quirky upstarts who dare challenge doctrines they know little about. The only reason I can surmise that the attack on penal substitution is surviving in pulpits and paperbacks, is that their purveyors have not read The Cross of Christ. This is no excuse, of course, since this volume is clearly recognized as the sine quo non of scholarly treatment on the issue; a well-earned moniker.
For the sake of the critique, I wish I had found something lacking in the book, but I shameless state that in my estimation it is flawless. A thorough, scholarly, articulate, treatment that does justice to its grandiose theme, and leaves the reader wanting to worship. And that is the crux of the matter anyway, isn’t it?
 Quoted in Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: The Making of a Leader (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 1999), 95.
 Albert Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 178.
 Billy Graham, “John Stott,” Time Magazine (Apr 18, 2005), 65.
 Thomas G. Lewellen, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Vol. 5, 1 (Irving, TX: The Grace Evangelical Society, 1992), 80.