John Stott and the Keswick movement
Photo © Keswick Ministries
For nearly 150 years, in a small town in the heart of the English Lake District, thousands of Christians have gathered every summer to listen to God’s word preached. After a life-time of preaching across the globe, the town of Keswick was where John Stott gave his final public address. But he had spoken there many times before.
On each occasion his preaching was with such clarity and precision that his ministry not only had a profound impact on churches across the country, but each series of talks soon found their way into print, often as part of the IVP flagship commentary series, The Bible Speaks Today. In 1965 it was Romans 5–8, first becoming a popular paperback called Men Made New and then forming part of The Bible Speaks Today Series as The Message of Romans.
In 1969 it was God’s Gospel in a Time of Crisis, with memorable expositions from 2 Timothy. In 1972 and 1975 Stott spoke on the Sermon on the Mount and then on Ephesians. Then came 1 Thessalonians in 1978, and 1 Corinthians in 2000, a series which led to the publication of Calling Christian Leaders (IVP).(1)
On each occasion Stott’s preaching was always characterised by three things: a faithfulness to the Bible as the word of God, a relevance to the contemporary world, and a remarkable clarity of expression.
This not only shaped the preaching of generations of teachers in British churches, but also rippled around the world. Since Keswick is a global movement, Stott spoke at many other Keswick events in different countries, modelling a commitment to scripture which would have a significant impact on evangelical communities large and small.
But two visits to Keswick, one in 1965 and then his final visit in 2007, probably had the most impact on the Keswick movement and on evangelicalism at large. In its early years, many people associated the Keswick Convention with the ‘holiness movement’, which in some manifestations implied that believers could overcome the power of sin through a specific act of surrender to God.
Certainly, the quest for holiness engaged the attention of many Christians in the period when Keswick began, and this has been the sustained heartbeat of the movement ever since. But there were various vigorous debates about holiness during its early days. Some Christians seemed to get worryingly close to the idea of sinless perfection, whilst others seemed to suggest that a crisis moment could secure a condition of Christlikeness that almost implied that no personal struggle or effort was needed.
Both of these ideas have long been rejected by the Keswick movement, of course, and it is unfortunate that people sometimes caricature the present Keswick movement as being locked into a particular view of holiness (sometimes called ‘the Keswick view’), when for the past 50 years the position taken on Keswick platforms has been entirely mainstream evangelical teaching with which few believers could disagree.
But one of the most significant turning points in this regard was Stott’s 1965 expositions of Romans 5- 8, which are now recognised as marking a decisive turning point that shaped not only the Keswick Convention but evangelicalism more broadly. His Keswick preaching from Romans was profoundly significant for generations of Christians. Writing about the longing for dynamic spiritual life which has characterised the Keswick movement, Tim Chester expresses it like this:
‘Stott combines this longing for spiritual reality with the Reformed emphasis on disciplined effort. In doing so, he takes the language of the Keswick movement and repurposes it to emphasize that our activity takes place in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. So he speaks of ‘unconditional surrender’ and ‘a counteracting force’. But these no longer imply a single act of consecration leading to a state in which the indwelling Christ constantly prevails against the flesh. Instead, they refer to a battle raging in our souls that can be won only by fighting the flesh and surrendering to the Spirit.’ (2)
Stott’s 1965 expositions have recently been re-published in a short devotional title of 30 daily readings:
‘I don’t believe that the Christian ever passes once and for all out of Romans 7 and into Romans 8, out of the cry of despair and into the cry of victory. We are always crying out for deliverance and we are always exulting in our deliverer.’ (3)
So it was significant that, at the end of his career, John Stott made a final visit to the English Lake District, and returned to the theme of holiness – or as he expressed it, Christlikeness. For some while, there had been discussion with friends as to when he ought to bring his public ministry to a close, and it was the invitation to speak at Keswick in the summer of 2007 which provided the opportunity for his final public message.
As he took slow steps to the platform, supported by his assistant and steadied by a walking stick, he was greeted with a standing ovation. A sufficiently bright light was placed on the lectern to help his deteriorating eyesight, and a chair was placed nearby should he need to sit in order to preach, but he delivered a highly significant message without faltering. He began:
‘I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth, and it is – God wants his people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.’ (4)
His simple message was shaped around God’s purposes for Christian believers, typically expressed by Stott within a three-fold structure. In the past God predestined us to be like his Son (Rom 8:29); in the present God has provided his Spirit to transform us into the image of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18); and in the future, we will be with Jesus and we will be like him (1 John 3:2).(4)
This was a moving address not only because of its biblical simplicity and directness of speech. It was also because of the character of the man who spoke those words. Countless people around the world can testify to the godly influence and deep encouragement brought to bear on their own lives through this man’s personal example. Here was a preacher who embodied the theme about which he spoke, a believer nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage who demonstrated integrity of life, character and word.
For the thousands who had gathered in the Keswick marquee, it was specially memorable to hear God’s word with such force and clarity, spoken by a man who had devoted his life to the joyful pursuit of Christlikeness.
His final exhortation in 2007 was one of the factors which led Keswick Ministries some years later to formulate its basic priorities in a strapline which would have been welcomed by Stott as a description of three core priorities for Christian living:
- Most of these expositions were subsequently published in John Stott at Keswick: a lifetime of preaching, John Stott(Authentic Media, 2008).
- Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds, chapter 5, Tim Chester (Crossway, 2020).
- Romans 5-8: 30-day Devotional, John Stott with Elizabeth McQuoid, Food for the Journey series (IVP, 2018).
- John Stott’s final public address
- See https://keswickministries.org/about-keswick-ministries/
Jonathan Lamb is an author and Bible teacher, and the minister-at-large for Keswick Ministries. For many years he served as Director of Langham Preaching and as a Vice President of IFES, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He frequently teaches and trains at events in different parts of the world, and is the author of several books, including a range of titles published by IVP and Langham Preaching Resources.