“I bought this book in 1976—in 1999 I read it and have found it a blessing. Stott answers so many questions.” [written by me on the back page of my 1971 paperback edition of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity].
Readers of my thoughts on St. John Studies may have seen several references to my “born again” faith in some of my posts over the years. I dedicated my life to Christ in 1998 and the reading of Basic Christianity was one of the books that I read very early on in my walk with God. During 1998, I fell in love with the New Testament because I had a hunger for the answers about life that I found there. I came to know God in the midst of personal trauma and I was going through a crisis of purpose in my life. I literally did not know how I was going to move forward. The habits that I had developed over forty-six years of life were just not working. I desperately needed a new direction. Along with the New Testament, John Stott’s writing explained the deeper level of meaning that could be found in the Christian life. Along with the Bible, his book clarified my purpose. His writing was sensible. It was very clear and easy for me to understand. His explanations were solid; I remember feeling that this man really knew his subject matter; there was no waffling. Here was someone who had a stalwart commitment to his faith. I have very fond memories of reading his little paperback. It costs one dollar and fifty cents at the retail bookstore, but I got my copy at a used bookstore for seventy-five cents.
I tell you all this to explain my admiration for this British Anglican priest and theologian. In his lifetime, he was one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the world. He wrote fifty books about Christianity. In 2005, Stott was named to Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World List.” His influence on the Christian faith in his lifetime was significant. His influence on me was significant. Now twenty one years after encountering Basic Christianity I get to study John Stott again.
Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University states that The Cross of Christ was written at the height of Stott’s career, when he was sixty-five years old.* Why would John Stott undertake a book dedicated to the cross? He explains in his Preface that the cross “lies at the center of the historic, biblical faith, and the fact that this is not always everywhere acknowledged is in itself a sufficient justification for preserving a distinctive evangelical testimony.” [Stott, 13]. Maybe we take it for granted that the cross is where God [through Christ] substituted Himself for all of us and bore our sins. This was how He restored man to His family. J.I. Packer says this idea is the “distinguishing mark” of the evangelical movement in the world.
Another reason is that in 1986 no book on the cross was written by an evangelical author for “thoughtful readers.” At that time, Stott felt like he was filling a void in Christian literature.
How does he try to construct his book? How does he approach a discussion of the cross? In parts one and two, he states that he tries to argue for what he calls the “heart of the cross.” He puts forth his explanation of satisfaction and substitution, two words Stott will use as his basis for an extensive definition for atonement. In part three, he discusses the “achievements of the cross,” what God did through having his Son on the cross. Part four addresses how Christians are to “live under the cross.” In this last part, Stott attempts to explain how the cross transforms everything about how we live as Christians.
Stott had anxieties about writing this book which he discusses in his preface. First of all, he wanted to be true to the word of God. He did not want anyone to accuse him of misinterpreting Scripture. Secondly, he wanted to acknowledge work by other theologians. To ignore excellent work by others is to be “disrespectful.” He realized that the Holy Spirit has enlightened scholars for many centuries as they penned their thoughts about God; he knew their work reflects God’s working through their study. Thirdly, he wrote that he tried to understand Scripture in relationship to the contemporary world. He wanted his book to reflect what the cross means to us today.
Finally, Stott states that writing a whole book just on the cross is “presumptuous.” While wanting to write The Cross of Christ, he admits that knowing the real reason that God wants to reconcile Himself to this world is a mystery. Man has his theories, but do any of us really know the mind of God? Stott puts it like this: “it would be unseemly to feign a cool detachment as we contemplate Christ’s cross. For whether we like it or not, we are involved. Our sins put Him there. So, far from offering us flattery, the cross undermines our self-righteousness” [Stott, 18]. We may not understand the cross, but we can stand before it as merciless sinners. We hope God speaks to our hearts the words of pardon and acceptance we long to hear. After hearing those words, we hope to pick ourselves up and go into the world to serve Him.
Stott is humbled to be able to share his thoughts on the cross. Maybe as readers we should be prepared to be humbled as we read his thoughts. I certainly need to be forgiven for the many sins that I commit on an everyday basis. In 1999 when I encountered Basic Christianity, I was in need of basic answers to basic questions about my life. Twenty years later, I still struggleas I do things I know I should not do. How can I sin like I do and call myself a Christian? How can I proclaim that I am “born again” yet I still do things that I know are very wrong?
In 1999 I needed Basic Christianity.
Maybe in 2020 I need The Cross of Christ.
*from the Foreword to the 2006 Edition of The Cross of Christ