Why We Still Need John Stott’s Classic Book on the Holy Spirit

Few conference talks have flowered so richly into an evangelical classic as John Stott’s Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today. Published in 1964, this book appeared just before the explosive growth of the charismatic movement in mainline churches. With the second edition in 1975, slightly revised yet unchanged in its basic orientation, the book found its way onto the essential reading lists for those on both sides of the debates concerning the work of the Spirit.

What accounts for its enduring popularity? After all, Baptism and Fullness is a rather small book. I would like to offer a few suggestions for why it has been such a profound resource, since a mere commendation for someone like Stott from someone like me seems a little pretentious.

Breathing Scripture

First, everything that John Stott writes exhales the Scriptures that one can easily discern have been deeply inhaled as the atmosphere of the author’s daily walk with Christ as well as academic study. While doing my doctoral studies at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, I came into daily contact with a new generation of Anglican evangelicals who were Stott’s spiritual children. And, as they say over there, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I found myself challenged by their zeal for personal Bible study and prayer, which yielded a passionate and informed evangelistic witness. Our conversations turned on passages of Scripture, not simply on “relevant” topics, and when the latter came up, appeals quickly went to the biblical text.

Everything that John Stott writes exhales the Scriptures.

Stott’s brand of exegesis (biblical interpretation) is not a wooden biblicism, where one simply inserts quotations for a party view. Rather, he explains the Scriptures, but what he explains are the Scriptures. All who love to breathe that atmosphere of genuine Bible study—the sort of thing that seems less pervasive in personal and corporate church life among us today than it was perhaps a generation ago—find a book like Baptism and Fullness a rewarding experience regardless of their position on the issues it addresses.

Christ at the Center

Second, Christ is the center of this, as all of Stott’s other writings and sermons. Since Christ is the center of Scripture itself, that is as it should be. This book reminds us that wherever we land on the issues related to charismatic gifts, the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to witness to Christ and to equip the church as the witness to Christ, “that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18).

There is therefore a clear test to discern where the Spirit is genuinely present in power: Christ is being proclaimed with clarity, truth, and conviction, and people are being conformed to Christ’s likeness. This is the work of the Spirit, the vital wellspring of Christ’s body. After all, the evidence of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost was, just as Jesus had promised before his ascension, the preaching of Peter and the other apostles that led to repentance and faith, with baptism and the Lord’s Supper uniting believers in a fellowship of worship and witness.

Confidence in the Spirit

Third, Stott is not wary of talking about the Holy Spirit. If Christ is the center, the Spirit is recognized in this book as the person of the Trinity who keeps our eyes on Christ while empowering us for personal and corporate life. Especially in the context of controversy, many writers have approached the gifts with a polemical attitude, eager to advance a particular side of the debate. There is no doubt a place for such writing, but this book, characteristic of Stott’s ministry, is the work of a missionary pastor who has always maintained a rather cheerful confidence that a careful consideration of the Scriptures will yield greater unity among God’s people.

Wherever we land on the issues related to spiritual gifts, the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to witness to Christ.

The first line in his introduction sets the tone: “Wherever one looks in the church today, there is an evident need for a deeper work of the Holy Spirit.” By this Stott does not mean that the church needs some new work that is distinct from Pentecost. At the same time, he does not regard Pentecost merely as a past event with little connection to us today. Rather, he argues, the church easily forgets the person and work of the Holy Spirit, or at least takes the Spirit for granted. In Stott’s view, the Word of God is not the counterweight to experience; rather, the former ensures that the latter will be properly Christian.

Tackling the Debates

After laying down the ground rules for interpreting the relevant biblical passages, Stott walks us through the dramatic events concerning the general outpouring of the Spirit that were prophesied and fulfilled in the history of redemption. From there he takes up the more controversial matters that are still very much alive in the questions and discussions of Christians today. On the one hand, Stott is concerned that some of the claims in the controversies over the Spirit’s work have divided Christ’s body into the “haves” and the “have nots.” The Spirit, he maintains, is given to every believer. On the other hand, the Scriptures call believers to a greater “fullness” of the Spirit as they grow up into the unity of Christ’s body. Hence the distinction evident in the title: baptism in the Spirit belongs to the whole body, while fullness ebbs and flows.

Stott did not eschew important labels, but, as I recall from a couple of conversations, he did not find “cessationist” and “continuationist” helpful ones. He agreed that there was a definitive and qualitative transition historically between the foundation-laying (extraordinary) ministry of the apostles and the building-erecting (ordinary) ministry of pastors. There is no continuing office of apostle with which a ministry of miraculous sign-gifts could be identified. Yet Stott had too much missionary experience in the First World to ignore the possibility of exceptions according to God’s sovereign freedom. Both of these emphases seem equally important in Stott’s ministry, focused as it was on the unity of the Word and the Spirit. I find myself very much indebted to his attitude of “Don’t expect it, but if God does it anyway, to him be the glory!”

Although Stott is irenic, fair, and balanced in his approach, this book does not evidence a forced attempt at a “middle way” between charismatics and noncharismatics. Like a good pastor, Stott’s conclusions are sometimes jarring and cautionary. Furthermore, regardless of where the reader stands in that debate, there is plenty of wise criticism to go around. There are points at which both parties may take exception to the arguments presented or wish that more had been said. Yet even at those moments, one cannot fail to be impressed with the constant attentiveness to God’s Word.

From this recommendation some may expect another log on the fire of controversies that seem to have died down in evangelical circles. That would be a mistaken impression. While readers will doubtless find rich wisdom for questions concerning the spiritual gifts (such as tongues and prophecy) that are just as fresh today as ever, I was especially impressed with the way in which my rereading of this brief exposition drove me to my knees with a renewed request for that fullness of the Spirit’s presence and power that our Father promises to all of his people and has secured through his incomparable Son.

So read on, and prepare to be changed.

Why We Still Need John Stott’s Classic Book on the Holy Spirit

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