Book Review: John Stott’s “Between Two Worlds”

Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century[1] by John Stott



Synopsis

John Stott’s Between Two Worlds has been a classic work in homiletics. Though it is somewhat dated and engages the British context more so than the American, it is nonetheless a classic for a reason. Stott centers on Scripture as the grounds for our preaching, God has spoken and therefore we must speak. It is a highly winsome text chalked full of timeless quotes on preaching spanning from the early church fathers to our 20th century contemporaries. It is a must read in my opinion for any preacher struggling with how to relate the message of the Gospel to our current contemporary context.

Bridge Building

Stott’s seminal work on preaching is aptly named Between Two Worlds. It is this theme that dominates throughout the text, from introduction to epilogue. So what are the “two worlds” to which Stott is referring? Put simply they are the world of the text and our contemporary world, contexts that span thousands of years. Stott’s key principle that he has contributed to the field of homiletics resides here in a term that will forever be attached to his name: bridge building. It is Stott’s conviction that in preaching we always begin with the text in Scripture, both the text as it comes to us currently and the context in which it was written. We must know something of its original context if we are to know any possible contemporary applications to our context. It is this process of moving from the text to our own context that requires bridge building. We as preachers must continually build bridges between the text thousands of years ago and our current contemporary context. This is the primary role of the preacher according to Stott. For

“It is across this broad and deep divide of two thousand years of changing culture (more still in the case of the Old Testament) that Christian communicators have to throw bridges. Our task is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women today” (138).

This is the key principle of Stott’s text. At the same time, Stott urges the reader to not reside too heavily on one side of the gulf or other, the text versus the modern world. There are preachers who are guilty of being too entrenched in the text that it never touches our modern context, and there are preachers who are so rooted in the modern world that they rarely touch the text. For “on the one hand conservatives are biblical but not contemporary, while on the other liberals and radicals are contemporary but not biblical” (144). These extremes are to be avoided. Perhaps Karl Barth’s method for sermon preparation is most applicable here in speaking of bridge building, in preparing a sermon “I take the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other” (149).

Theological Foundations for Preaching

Stott proposes five key theological foundations that every preacher must wrestle with and come to a conclusion regarding. We as preachers must have convictions about: God, Scripture, the Church, the Pastorate and Preaching. His framework moves always and at every point firstly from the convictions on such matters as revealed in the Scriptures before any contemporary understanding of the topic is considered.

  1. Conviction about God: “The kind of God we believe in determines the kind of sermons we preach” (93). It is here that Stott proposes an understanding biblically of a God who wants to be known, has made Himself known in action, and has spoken to name a few. Out of this understanding the inevitable conclusion is that the heralder, the preacher is to speak of such matters and not remain silent. For once “we are persuaded that God has spoken, however, then we too must speak” (96).

  2. Conviction about Scripture: Stott emphasizes our ability to handle Scripture properly in the pulpit by urging a doctrinally sound understanding of it. It is in Scripture that God has revealed Himself to all humanity. It is first and foremost the word of God in which God Himself speaks.

  3. Conviction about the Church: Here we must have a proper notion of the people of God and God’s desire for them as laid out in the Scriptures. Without a conviction that God has created every person with a heart to depend upon Him alone, our view of humanity will miss the mark. Here we must have a conviction about God’s creatures who were created to worship the creator alone. Out of this understanding bodes a deep need for preaching that calls every person to their God.

  4. Conviction about the Pastorate: What do we mean by pastor? We must have this understood if we are to faithfully fulfill the call to shepherd God’s people. God calls us each differently and distinctly, but without self-knowledge as to how He is calling us, and has called us, we seek to fulfill a type and not the pastor God has called us to be specifically.

  5. Conviction about Preaching: Stott waits until unpacking the other four theological foundations before really setting out on preaching in his text. He begins that “all true Christian preaching is expository preaching…[which] refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style ( a running commentary)” (125). Expository preaching is a philosophy not method for Stott. It is here that he directs every listener to heed the limits that the text sets for our preaching as we exposit it. He pleads with the reader that their confidence come not from eloquence and gifts of wisdom, but from the word of God alone, for if we stand anywhere else it is but sand.

Steps for Preparing Sermons In Brief

Stott gives six steps (211-259) to the preacher for how he prepares his own sermons and encourages others to take advantage of his method as well.

  1. Choose the text: This goes without saying, but he also encourages preaching series’.

  2. Meditate upon it: There is no substitute for spending time in and with the text.

  3. Find the dominant thought: State the theme of the text in one short clear sentence.

  4. Arrange material and notes to serve dominant thought: Each text brings its own structure for being preached, our call is to figure out what it is and arrange accordingly.

  5. Intro and Conclusion: Prepare these after having prepared the body of the sermon.

  6. Write and Pray: Write your message out and pray over it. It must be written to help us clarify our thought, but it should then be diluted into one page of notes for preaching.


[1] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).

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