Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

Stott_review_20200427John Stott.  2008.  Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958).  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Apostle Peter reminds us:  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).

Our ability to respond to Peter’s admonishment is clearly challenged today.  Outside of the criticism of our faith arising from the advocates for modern science, we are confronted in our shrinking postmodern world with a host of alternatives to Christianity from other religions and from complex and confusing voices in secular society.  In the midst of this whirlwind of controversy, John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, offers us a plainspoken starting point.


Stott outlines the Gospel in eleven chapters.  After a brief introduction, he presents has four parts:  1. Who Christ Is, 2. What We Need, 3. What Christ Has Done, and 4. How To Respond.  The first part focuses on the claims, character, and resurrection of Christ.  The second part focuses on sin.  The third part focuses on Christ’s death and salvation.  The fourth part brings us to count the cost, make a decision, and live the Christian life.


John Stott (1921-2011) was rector (pastor) emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London and founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He was one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant which started as a 1974 Christian religious manifesto promoting active world-wide Christian evangelism and continues to influence missions work today.  My first acquaintance with Stott came in 1983 when I visited Bonn in Germany as an economics student and a friend gifted me with Stott’s book—Gesandt Wie Christus (1976).  At the time, I assumed Stott was German.  Needless to say, Stott is still one of the world’s best known evangelical writers.


Stott acknowledges the enormity of the task of defending the faith–apologetics.  For example, he recounts a conversation with a young man having trouble reciting one of his church’s creeds because he could no longer believe it.  Stott asked him:  If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live?  The answer was clearly no.  His real problem was not intellectual but moral (25).  This conversation is not an isolated event–advocating a disciplined life-style today is a tough sell. Why give up self-control to Christ and live a disciplined life when in Alice’s Wonderland every headache can be solved with a different colored pill?

Children Expected to Grow

Stott’s final chapter on being a Christian is most interesting.  He writes:  Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth.  Everyone loves children, but nobody…wants them to stay in the nursery (162).  We grow in two dimensions—understanding and holiness—which work out in our duties to God, to the church, and to society (163-166).  This growth includes growth in our prayer life.  Stott advises readers to respond to God in prayer in the same manner that he speaks to you—do not change the subject.  If he talks about his glory, worship him; if he talks about sin, confess it; if scripture blesses you, thank him for it (164).  Stott’s comments about the spiritual practice of daily examine flow right out of this discussion.  In the morning, commit the details of your day to God’s blessing and, in evening, review what happened during the day.


John Stott’s Basic Christianity provides a well-ordered accounting of the Gospel that is worthy of study and reflection.  His summary—God has created; God has spoken; God has acted—is brief but compelling (18).  The Apostle Peter’s admonition sounds initially like evangelism.  But, if the truth be known, the accounting of our hope in Christ benefits us at least as much as anyone we meet.

Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

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Impediments to Thinking, Learning, and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:15)

We are the best fed and most pampered generation of all time; yet, our young people and senior citizens are committing suicide at historically high rates and “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” (Lucado 2012, 5) Why?

Isolation and Loneliness

One answer is that we have become painfully isolated from ourselves: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds” (Nouwen 2010, 89). Our isolation has been magnified by a loss of faith and community, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Technology Facilitates Rumination

Isolated people often ruminate about the past. In ruminating, obsessing about a personal slight, real or imaged, amplifying small insults into big ones. For psychiatric patients who are not good at distinguishing reality and illusion, constant internal repetition of even small personal slights is not only amplified, it is also remembered as a separate event. Through this process of amplification and separation, a single spanking at age 8 could by age 20 grow into a memory of daily beatings.

Amplified in this way, rumination absorbs the time and energy normally focused on meeting daily challenges and planning for the future. By interfering with normal activities, reflection, and relationships, rumination slows normal emotional and relational development and the ruminator becomes increasingly isolated from themselves, from God, and from those around them.

Why do we care? We care because everyone ruminates and technology leads us to ruminate more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the video game played every waking hour, and the work that we never set aside all function like rumination to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads.[1] Much like addicts, we are distracted every waking hour from processing normal emotions and we become anxious and annoyed[2] when we are forced to tune into our own lives. Rumination, stress addiction,[3] and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful when alone and in today’s society we are frequently alone even in the company of others.[4]

Rumination is Not New

Jesus sees our anxiety and offers to relieve it, saying:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

Self-centered rumination is a heavy burden, not a light one, and Jesus models the Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness that break rumination by encouraging us to look outside ourselves. In Sabbath rest we look outside ourselves to share in God’s peace, to reflect on Christ’s forgiveness, and to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer. In prayer we commune with God where our wounds can be healed, our strength restored, and our eyes opened to our sin, brokenness, and need for forgiveness. When we sense our need for forgiveness, we also see our need to forgive. In forgiveness, we value relationships above our own personal needs which break the cycle of sin and retaliation in our relationships with others and, by emulating Jesus Christ, we draw closer to God in our faith.

Obsessions Interfere with Reflection

Faith, discipleship, and personal reflection require that we give up obsessing with ourselves. On our own, our obsessions are too strong and we cannot come to faith, grow in our faith, or participate in ministry. For most people, faith comes through prayer, reading scripture, and involvement in the church, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. For the original apostles, the discipling was done by Jesus himself.

Jesus takes the world’s threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity and reframes them as promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth. But, Jesus ties these promises to discipleship and does not extended them to spectators.[5] These issues interfere with our spiritual development directly but they also interfere indirectly by impeding our normal thinking, learning and decision making. In many ways, psychiatric dysfunction has increasingly been mainstreamed.


Blackaby, Richard. 2012. The Seasons of God: How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.


[1] Technology connects us yes, but it more often isolates us from one another. A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend. Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations. For an exhaustive treatment, see: (Turkle 2011).
[2] This is a form of escalation in which psychiatric patients amplify rather than dissipate any tension in conversation. Even polite disagreement quickly evokes an increasingly hostile response.
[3] Stress addiction is a situation in which stress becomes the norm in our lives. Peace and quiet upset us because we are unaccustomed to it. Because we cannot relax, stress threatens not only our mental well-being, but also our physical health.
[4] Loneliness in the company others is the theme of a recent book by Sherry Turkle (2011). Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination. Blackaby (2012, 47) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.
[5] The yoke (Matt 11:28–30) Jesus uses to describe the work of a disciples was a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work without injury. Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not. This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples. This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (Jas 1:22)

Impediments to Thinking, Leaning, and Decision Making

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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Stone and Duke Encourage Theological Reflection

Stone and Duke, How to Think Theologically

Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke. 2006. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

Our anti-intellectual society has trouble seeing the God’s hand at work, in part, because such vision requires thinking about things outside ourselves. Since the romantic era of the nineteenth century, Americans have preferred to “experience” God emotionally rather than to “know” God intellectually.

This is truly disturbing outcome for anyone familiar with the Great Awakening experience of eighteenth century. Post-mortems by theologians, such as Jonathan Edwards (1746), clearly showed that religious experiences not followed by theological reflection are soon forgotten. Consider the increase in church attendance immediately after 9-11. Theology helps us reflect on our experiences of God in scripture and daily life.


Howard Stone and James Duke in their book, How to Think Theologically, respond to this question, writing:

“It is a simple fact of life for Christians; their faith makes them theologians.[1] Deliberately or not, think—and act—out of a theological understanding of existence, and their faith calls them to become the best theologians they can be.” (1)

This is not a throw away comment; when life loses its meaning, we die even if the body continues to process air and food. If we are to continue living we need to seek meaning in the many challenging experiences that life holds for us. The question is not whether we have a theological view of life—we all do—but rather whether the theology we live by is the one that we would chose if we took the time to think about it.

Faith Seeking Understanding

Like most good theologians, Stone and Duke cite the famous line from Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) who wrote: “I believe so that I may understand” (2008, 87) or as they cite it: “faith seeking understanding” (2). While this idea that faith precedes knowledge seems controversial until you realize that assumptions are faith statements and are required before any scientific inquiry can begin. Anselm’s apologetic laid the philosophical foundation for the modern era.

Theology Defined

Also like most good theologians, Stone and Duke define important terms. For example, they observe:

“Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition of the term theology. It comes to us as a compound word from ancient Greek: theo—logia are logia (sayings, accounts, teachings, theories) concerning theos (the divine, gods, and goddesses, God).” (7)

They also distinguish Christian orthodoxy “correct opinion or belief” from orthopraxy “correct practice” (7). It is often the case in some church circles that the accepted doctrine of the church is orthodox, but the church does not practice orthopraxy—a kind of hypocrisy that minimizes criticism and correction.

Embedded Theology

Stone and Duke make distinguish between embedded theology and deliberative theology. Embedded theology is defined as “Christians learn what is all about from countless daily encounters with their Christianity”. Deliberative theology is“the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions” (13-16). Notice that neither embedded nor deliberative theology requires scholarly intervention. We engage in both types of theology on our own every day as we deepen our understanding of our own faith journey. But, as Stone and Duke observe, “theological reflection cannot flourish unless it is valued and practices by the church itself” (23).


Stone and Duke write in 9 chapters proceeded by 2 prefaces and an introduction and followed by a glossary, notes, and index. The 9 chapters are:

  1. Faith, Understanding, and Reflection,
  2. Fashioning Theology,
  3. Resources for Theological Reflection,
  4. Theological Method,
  5. The Gospel,
  6. The Human Condition,
  7. Vocation,
  8. Theological Reflection in Christian Community,
  9. Forming Spirit.

At the time of publication, Howard W. Stone was a professor emeritus of Department of Psychology and Pastoral Counseling at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and the author of numerous books. James O Duke was also a professor of history of Christianity and historical theology at Brite.


Stone and Duke’s How to Think Theologically primes young seminarians for seminary. Assess to its wisdom goes much further and any dedicated reader will benefit from it.  If nothing else, consider the irony posed by the cover!


Anselm of Canterbury. 2008. The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press.

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (Orig pub. 1746). Vancouver: Eremitical Press.

[1] My best friend in high school, who is now a Lutheran pastor, used to moan that our faith forced us to become “little Kierkegaards” because our faith raises more questions than answers. Soren Kierkegard (1813-1855) was a well-known, nineteenth century theologian.

Stone and Duke Encourage Theological Reflection

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32. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webWonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
Oh Lord, to be like you—strong and wise and patience and peace loving.
Oh, to be a convenant keeper, dependable and steady, a pillar against the wind.
Oh, to offer mercy and grace and patience and love and truth to all that come near.
Hospitality in the desert; peace amidst confusion; security when uncertainty tears at the soul.
Oh Lord, to be like you; to be like you.
Remember us, Lord, but forget the sin that
Depletes our strenghth, leaves us foolish, makes us impatient, and creates dissention.
Remember us, Lord, but forgive our trangressions that
Breaks our promises, leaves us unreliable—like leave blown before the wind.
Remember us, Lord, but wipe away our iniquity that
Leaves us judgmental and arrogant and at odds with all things good and true.
Remember us, Lord, lest we forget ourselves.
In the power of your Holy Spirit grant us a new day
and the strength to live it in a new way
following the example of your Son and our Savior,
Jesus Christ, Amen.

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