Comments on C.S. Lewis’ Theology, by Jim Townsend (Excerpted)

F. Salvation

1. Substitutionary Atonement

Since JOTGES was conceived in response to a concern over soteriology, we will spend considerable space here. In commenting upon his friend Charles Williams’s poem, Lewis offered this commentary: “The Atonement was a Substitution, just as Anselm said: ‘All salvation, everywhere and at all time,…is vicarious.’” This, however, appears to be Williams’s view rather than Lewis’s.

In The Allegory of Love Lewis referred to a poem whose “theology turns on a crudely substitutional view of the Atonement.” In Mere Christianity Lewis indicated that he did not accept the substitutionary view of atonement.

Arthur Greeves’s cousin, Sir Lucius O’Brien, claimed that the atonement was not taught in the Gospels. Lewis countered that the atonement must have been an integral part of Christ’s teaching because “the Apostles…did teach this doctrine in His name immediately after His death.”

Unless Lewis altered his opinion in later years, it would appear that he saw some difference between vicarious and substitutionary atonement, for he wrote: “In the Incarnation we get…this idea of vicariousness of one person profiting by the earning of another person. In its highest form that is the very center of Christianity. “Lewis’s apparent devaluing of substitution led Edgar Boss to conclude that Lewis held “the Example Theory [of the Atonement] with a very important modification. Mr. Lewis is a supernaturalist, while the Example Theory is usually held by Naturalists.” However, I do not think Lewis would have wished to be so neatly pigeonholed into that single category. For him this was the bottom line: “Christ’s death redeemed man from sin, but I can make nothing of the theories as to how!”

2. Justification by Faith

Two analysts of very different stripes articulated one major weakness in the expression of Lewis’s soteriology. A. N. Wilson asserted: “If the mark of a reborn evangelical is a devotion to the Epistles of Paul and, in particular, to the doctrine of Justification by Faith, then there can have been few Christian converts less evangelical than Lewis.” In fact, the Methodist minister who reviewed Mere Christianity claimed that the book “does not really mention…the central Christian doctrine of Justification by Faith.” From the other end of the theological spectrum, J. I. Packer spoke of Lewis’s “failure ever to mention justification by faith when speaking of the forgiveness of sins, and his apparent hospitality to baptismal regeneration….”

3. Salvation by Grace

Readers of this journal will nonetheless rejoice in Lewis’s emphasis on the doctrine of grace. In Reflections on the Psalms he summarized: “We are all in the same boat. We must all pin our hopes on the mercy of God and the work of Christ, not on our own goodness.” In another context Lewis declared: “We are saved by grace…In our flesh dwells no good thing.” In his allegory The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a man who wants only his “rights,” and who has “done my best all my life” and now exclaims, “I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” A former earthling responds to him: “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.” In Studies in Words Lewis referred to “‘we humans in our natural condition,’ i.e., unless or until touched by [God’s] grace” or “untransformed…human nature.”

In his radio broadcasts Lewis remarked:

I think everyone who has some vague belief in God, until he becomes a Christian, has the idea of an exam or of a bargain in his mind. The first result of real Christianity is to blow that idea into bits…God has been waiting for the moment at which you discover that there is no question of earning a passing mark in this exam or putting Him in your debts.

Later Lewis said that such an awakened individual “discovers his bankruptcy” and so says to God: “You must do this. I can’t.” He elaborated: “Christ offers [us] something for nothing….” In connection with good works he stated: “[You are] not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already.”

Probably Lewis’s finest statement on salvation by grace was formulated in the longest book he ever wrote, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. He said:

“On the Protestant view one could not, and by God’s mercy, expiate one’s sins. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything to deserve such astonishing happiness. All the initiative has been on God’s side, all has been free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned, “Works” have no “merit,” though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love; he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him; faith bestowed by sheer gift.”

While the exegete might wish to finesse the preceding statement somewhat (for example, making it more objective and not so experiential, as in “happiness,” “joy,” “bliss”), certainly Lewis’s most lengthy explication of salvation by grace through faith falls clearly under the rubric of the orthodox Protestant understanding of salvation.

4. Conditions of Salvation

Another strategic question to ask is: What condition or conditions does Lewis prescribe for receiving the gift of salvation? In his radio broadcast he averred: A Christian “puts all his trust in Christ.” In the lengthy quotation above (footnote 117) Lewis stated: “It is faith alone that has saved him; faith bestowed by sheer gift.”

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