During a difficult time of life, a young Welshman received an unexpected book in the mail. Within three days, he was converted to Christ. To begin season four of the Open Book podcast, today Stephen Nichols visits the library of Derek Thomas to hear his story.
Dr. Stephen Nichols: Well, here we are for another season of Open Book, and we’re opening this season with a good friend of mine—someone I’ve known for quite a while, and someone that many of you know very well through his books or his preaching. We’re here in the library with Dr. Derek Thomas.
Dr. Derek Thomas: Wonderful to be with you, Steve, again, and to be in what is a part of my library.
Nichols: We’ll explain that as we go. We’re in your new office. We’ll probably migrate to your old office here before this season of Open Book is over, because yes, this is very much a tiny sliver of your library, and we’ll get folks over into the big one here in a moment. But let’s just jump right in. You have a box of books here on the floor that you’ve picked for us to look at. And this one that we’re doing is John Stott—Basic Christianity. Why this book?
Thomas: Well, I have to take you back to the fall of 1971, and I’m eighteen years old. I’m a sophomore at university, studying mathematics and physics, and I’m not a Christian.
Nichols: Now you need to tell us where you are.
Thomas: In Wales, in Aberystwyth, on the Welsh coastline of the Irish Sea.
Nichols: Are you speaking Welsh at this point?
Thomas: Yes, I was. I actually never spoke English to my father, ever, but never spoke Welsh to my mother, which sounds very confusing, but it wasn’t at the time. And my best friend in high school, who’d gone to a different university, but also was studying physics and math, he sent me in the mail in a brown envelope, a copy of John Stott’s Basic Christianity.
I had no idea who John Stott was. I had no interest in reading books about Christianity. I believed that science had all the answers to everything.
Nichols: And here comes this book, Basic Christianity.
Thomas: Yes, and there was a little note inside. And this is not the original copy, which I couldn’t find today, but I have it somewhere in my library.
Nichols: This is a newer edition.
Thomas: This is an anniversary edition that was produced a few years ago—I think the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book.
So, I didn’t read it straight away. I left it until I went home for Christmas, which was about forty miles away.
And I’m at home—it was a difficult time. My parents were splitting up, and so there was a lot of unease in the home around Christmas. And I was feeling somewhat down and dejected and miserable, and I picked up this book.
And there was a note inside: “Dear Derek, I’ve become a Christian. I would love for you to read this book. Richard.” And I picked it up, and within three days, I’m on my knees at 11:30 at night, December the 28th, 1971, and I’m asking God, if He exists, to save me.
And I wasn’t even sure if God existed, but when I got up from my knees, I had this sense of overwhelming assurance that I had come to know someone, something—I could not articulate it. But it was this book, and it was a text in this book from Matthew 11: “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Nichols: That’s a beautiful story.
Thomas: A year or so later, maybe two years later, I met John Stott for the first time. He came to the university. I was, by that time, the president of the Christian Union at the university, and we had asked him to come and do a mission, like a week-long evangelistic mission outreach—lots of apologetic-style addresses. And he was extraordinary.
And I said to him, “I became a Christian through reading your book,” and was able to sort of thank him. And he was very meek and humble—very English.
Nichols: Very proper.
Thomas: “Let’s have some coff-ay,” he would say.
Nichols: Not tea.
Nichols: So you ought to have hit it off right then; you’re quite the coffee lover.
Thomas: Yes. And then later in life, his secretary—whose name appears in every book that he has ever published—would spend the summers, a month of every summer, in Belfast where I was then a pastor. And she would worship in our congregation for that month. And every summer, I would have dinner with her and the person that she stayed with, who was a member of our church. And so, I got to know little things about John Stott, little discreet things. She was very discreet.
Nichols: Very British.
Thomas: You know, his interest in birds—he was a well-known ornithologist. And he has a marvelous coffee table book.
Nichols: The coffee table book. Pictures that he took?
Thomas: Yes, on some of his trips to the Antarctic and elsewhere.
Nichols: So you know, we think about this—the power of books and the power of texts—and they really do change lives. I mean, I wouldn’t say this is heavy, heavy duty apologetics, Basic Christianity.
Thomas: No, and now, when I go back and reread it, it is the gospel, and it’s the gospel in very simple terms. There’s nothing much in there that’s going to stretch your intellect, but it is full of Jesus.
And I think that’s what John Stott was all about. I think he majored on especially who Jesus was, and why had He come, and why did He die, and what does His death signify?
And he has a wonderful book on the atonement. It doesn’t cover limited atonement, it doesn’t cover issues of Calvinism, and so on. It’s not a book like, say, Jim Packer would write on the atonement, but it is a very, very insightful book into categories like propitiation, redemption, sacrifice, the victory of Christ, and substitution.
Nichols: Just helping us think through what Christ did for us.
Nichols: And even just to draw your attention to Matthew 11—that’s exactly the text you needed at that time in your life.
Thomas: Yes, because even though I was eighteen and I had a very typical British education—seven years of Latin in school—it was that kind of school.
Nichols: Kids are cringing right now.
Thomas: I did not know anything about Scripture. I didn’t go to church. I didn’t possess a Bible. Our family never talked about religion. So, I did not know the Bible at all.
I was reading Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer. I was all into Einsteinian physics and reading books about that, but I did not know a thing about the Bible.
Nichols: And along comes Matthew 11.
Nichols: Well, thank you. Appreciated this first visit with you. We’re going to come back to your library in a little bit.
Thomas: Thank you.
Nichols: You’re welcome.
Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols, and that was another Open Book.
Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped.
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I’ll see you next week for another episode of Open Book.
Derek Thomas on Sproul’s Chosen by GodJune 29, 2023
Derek Thomas on Machen’s Christianity and LiberalismJune 22, 2023
Derek Thomas on Calvin’s Sermons on JobJune 15, 2023
Derek Thomas on Murray’s The Epistle to the Romans and Studies in TheologyJune 08, 2023
Derek Thomas on Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and PreachersJune 01, 2023