What Angels Wish They Knew: The Basics of True Christianity.By Alistair Begg. Chicago: Moody Press, 1998. 207 pp. Paper, $5.99.
The title of this book comes from 1 Peter 1:12, where the apostle states that the wonders of our salvation are things “which angels desire to look into” (NKJV). Begg has borrowed (and revised) this phrase to appeal to a modern audience which is, as he notes in the first chapter, obsessed with angels and angelic powers. For him it is little more than a springboard from which he launches into a discussion of basic Christian doctrine.
In a way, Begg seems to be writing his own version of Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In the first chapter he writes that his purpose is “largely descriptive rather than defensive” (p. 22). His goal is to introduce agnostics and cynics to—and remind believers of—the fundamentals of the faith in a contemporary, non-threatening way. As such, the book is an easy read, filled with appeals to the logic of Christian faith vis-à-vis various philosophies and world views popular today.
In successive chapters Begg describes (and defends) mankind created in the image of God as a basis for meaning in life, the existence of original sin as the reason for evil in the world, the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection, His deity, and His substitutionary atonement. From the seventh chapter on, Begg begins developing the practical aspects of the gospel. In “The Ultimate Scandal” and “Settling the Accounts,” he explains the finality of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, made available to all who receive it— not to those who earn it with good works. The ninth chapter, “Forgiveness—Friendship—Focus,” points to some of the wonderful results of salvation.
To this point, with a few exceptions where some would take issue with a specific interpretation or exegesis, Begg is right on target. But sadly, after scaling the heights, he stumbles badly at the summit. The tenth chapter, “Coming to Christ,” is as confused and self-contradictory an explanation of the way of salvation as this reviewer has ever seen. Begg begins, “The question before us in this chapter is this: How do the benefits we’ve been considering become ours? Or, how does this ‘true Christianity’ become ‘my’ Christianity?” He begins his answer to this question with two stories, both excellent examples of the simplicity of faith, both testimonies of the life-changing reality of simply believing in Jesus Christ. But no sooner are we welling up with joy at this evidence of God’s grace than Begg re-enters the discussion and writes, “Faith involves more than just an assent to certain facts. It means accepting that the facts I affirm can be trusted. But it also means that I am prepared to act upon what I believe to be true.”
Here, with the stroke of a pen, Begg re-injects works into the way of salvation. What he had affirmed in his discussion on the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, what his illustrations had evidenced so clearly, is suddenly reversed. What follows is an exegetical nightmare—equating Acts 2:38 and 16:31, and a few illustrations designed to show that believing isn’t really enough after all. His salvation formula becomes a tedious succession of steps: Something to Admit, Something to Believe, Something to Consider—which includes Saying No to Sin (having “A sense of shame,” a “humbling,” and a “sense of sorrow and regret”), Self, and Secrecy, and Something to Do (“forsake everything and trust Christ”). In the end, he invites the reader to pray this prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, I confess that I am a guilty, lost, and helpless sinner. I want you to save me, to take Your rightful place as Lord of my life. I want to turn from my sin and trust only in Your atoning sacrifice. I give my life to You. Take charge of it all and help me by the power of the Holy Spirit so to follow after You that I may one day hear You say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
What the New Testament is able to describe with a single word, “believe,” takes Begg 17 pages, and in the end becomes an insignificant part of a “prayer” which is more interested in what “I” will try to do than in what Jesus Christ has already done for me!
In the end, What Angels Wish They Knew is an example of the kind of amalgam of good and bad theology so prevalent today. There is much good in this book, especially concerning the condition of man and the solutions found in Christianity. But for the purpose for which it was written, to serve as a handy contemporary guide-book to lead people from the questions of life to the solutions of the Bible, it fails miserable in the end. My copy, in fact, was bought especially for this purpose, but has instead resulted in this review, which will, I trust, save others from giving it to those who need to know the unencumbered truly “good news” of eternal life by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!
Elgin Bible Church