This was named a “book of the century” by Christianity Today and is frequently acknowledged as a “classic.” In his short foreword to a recent edition, Rick Warren writes: “There are a few landmark books that everyone in the world should read. This is one of the rare few.” And he concludes: “John Stott’s Basic Christianity is a classic introduction to the faith that has transformed billions of lives.”
The book is rather short (142 pages), has no index or bibliography, and is lightly footnoted. It was first published in 1958; Mere Christianity, another short book, was published in 1952 — though it was based on C.S. Lewis’s BBC broadcasts a decade earlier — so one wonders if the title of Stott’s book is supposed to echo Lewis’s (Lewis is positively cited on page 33-34 and 128). The book has been mentioned as a rival, at least at one time and at least in sales to Mere Christianity, but I see the books as more complementary than duplicative and, as noted, Stott’s rather more conventional book (in its focus and discussion of what Christians believe) cites Lewis. See, e.g., George Marsden’s C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography, at p. 107. Three examples given (128) of people making a decision to come to Christ are C.S. Lewis, a “titled lady respond[ing] to Billy Graham’s invitation,” and Stott himself.
Stott’s first chapter is titled, “The Right Approach,” and says that God is there to be found by the nonbeliever but He must be sought diligently, humbly, honestly, and obediently. He suggests reading the Gospel of Mark or John, praying this beforehand:
God, if you exist (and I don’t know if you do), and if you can hear this prayer (and I don’t know if you can), I want to tell you that I am a honest seeker after the truth. Show me if Jesus is your Son and the Savior of the world. And if you bring conviction to my mind, I will trust him as my Savior and follow him as my Lord.
The author states (22) at the outset of part one, “Christ’s Person”: “Our purpose is to marshal the evidence to prove that Jesus was the Son of God,” and that the “evidence is at least threefold. It concerns the claims that he made [chapter 2], the character he displayed [chapter 3] and his resurrection from the dead” [chapter 4]. In chapter 4, in turn, the author says that one may attempt to summarize the evidence of the resurrection “by four statements” (47), namely “The body had gone,” “The graveclothes were undisturbed,” “The Lord was seen,” and “The disciples were changed.”
The chapters in part two, “Man’s Need,” are: “The Fact and Nature of Sin” (chapter 5) and “The Consequences of Sin” (chapter 6).
The author provides a roadmap to part three, “Christ’s Work,” here (81):
More particularly, since sin has three principal consequences, as we have seen, ‘salvation’ includes man’s liberation from them all. Through Jesus Christ the Saviour we can be brought out of exile and reconciled to God; we can be born again, receive a new nature and be set free from our moral bondage; and we can have the old discords replaced by a fellowship of love. The first aspect of salvation Christ made possible by his suffering of death, the second by the gift of his Spirit and the third by the building of his church. The first will occupy our thought in this chapter [7, “The Death of Christ”]; the second and third in the next [8, “The Salvation of Christ”].
Finally, there is part four, “Man’s Response,” in which the chapters are “Counting the Cost” (chapter 9), “Reaching a Decision” (chapter 10), and “Being a Christian” (chapter 11).
- I liked this quote (47) from Sir Edward Clarke, especially the words “artless and disdains effect”:
As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.
- This passage is often quoted, especially first sentence (58, and it’s interesting that, following this, the author discusses Peter, James, and Paul, who are the three most consequential post-Christ church leaders):
Perhaps the transformation of the disciples of Jesus is the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection, because it is entirely uncontrived. They do not invite us to look at themselves, as they invite us to look at the empty tomb and the collapsed graveclothes and the Lord whom they had seen. We can see the change in them without being asked to look. The men who figure in the pages of the Gospels are new and different men in Acts. The death of their Master left them despondent, disillusioned and near to despair. But in Acts they emerge as those who hazard their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and who turn the world upside down.
- I liked this paragraph (68); I’m not sure what’s listed is necessarily within the letter of violations, but I think it’s fair to say that the Ten Commandments guide us, too, about God’s desires:
These negative commandments [from the Decalogue] also imply a positive counterpart. In order to truly abstain from killing, one must do all in one’s power to foster the health and preserve the life of others. To refrain from the act of adultery is insufficient. The commandment requires the right, healthy and honorable attitude of each sex towards the other. Similarly, to avoid stealing is no particular virtue if one is miserly or mean. Paul was not satisfied that a thief should stop stealing; he had to start working. Indeed, he had to continue in honest labor until he found himself in a position to give to those in need.
- In the discussion of “Christian responsibilities,” I liked the first paragraph under “Our duty to God” (137-38):
Our relationship to our heavenly Father, though secure, is not static. He wants his children to grow up to know him more and more intimately. Generations of Christians have discovered that the principal way to do so is to wait upon him every day in a time of Bible reading and prayer. This is an indispensable necessity for the Christian who wants to make progress. We are all busy nowadays, but we must somehow rearrange our priorities in order to make time for it. It will mean rigorous self-discipline, but granted this, together with a legible Bible and an alarm clock that works, we are well on the road to victory.
The rest of this section is useful, too; it begins, “It is important to preserve the balance between Bible reading and prayer, because through Scripture God speaks to us while through prayer we speak to him. It is also wise to be systematic in our reading of the Bible,” and continues with suggestions about applying what you read to your own life and keeping a notebook, and with tips on praying (138-39).
Two concluding notes:
- There are some spots in the closing pages of the book (138 n.10, 139, 141) that indicate a campus-orientation to the book, which was originally published by the Inter-Varsity Press in London.
- I liked the first three paragraphs on page 89, which you can read here [link: https://books.google.com/books?id=U4jTURh-NzUC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA89&dq=%22an+inspiring+example%22+%22was+he+burdened%22+%22remain+mysterious%22&source=bl&ots=PCMVeWoFdg&sig=ACfU3U3r9_0-ksQMGJkQqsN2F80r_Q6_Vg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwigj8zU2IToAhVzlXIEHZpJA8EQ6AEwAHoECAEQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22an%20inspiring%20example%22%20%22was%20he%20burdened%22%20%22remain%20mysterious%22&f=false ].