C.S. Lewis: Teachings about Salvation


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.”

Link to full article: http://faithalone.org/journal/2000i/townsend2000e.htm

My Open Letter to Peter Kreeft

Hi Dr. Kreeft,

I enjoyed reading your book, Heaven: the Heart’s Deepest Longing. It was gifted to me by my friend Philippe, who I met at Barnes and Noble bookstore about a year and a half ago.

I discovered C.S. Lewis’ non-fiction when I was 10 years old. (I am now 50.) I have not read his Narnia or other fiction–and also, I don’t at all understand why people love Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings so much.

Soon after, a long time ago, I read several of your books about Lewis and the afterlife.

I also became fairly convinced of inclusivity, at least as a possibility, through your Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which was also a generous gift from my friend Philippe. I had already formulated something very similar to inclusivity on my own, years ago, and I have never liked it when people tried to categorically exclude it (as if they could categorically exclude where the wind would blow).

I grew up Lutheran, but now, for many years, I have been searching for a church that does not have the false Gospel of Lordship Salvation, and is not focused on money, families, only worldly success, entertainment, etc..

I studied for the Lutheran ministry for three years, till age 20.

In watching your You Tube videos and reading your books and about you, I was under the impression that you had gradually come to Roman Catholicism recently, but in fact, I recently found out from a video of your speaking, that that happened well before I was born.

I am wondering if you have ever personally met C.S. Lewis?

It seems that many groups that disagree on basic beliefs, from Roman Catholics to Mormons to Jehovah’s Witnesses, claim Lewis as their own. Just last night, a different friend of mine told me that a co-worker was reading a book claiming that C.S. Lewis was primarily an environmentalist, and that this could be shown by referencing all the parts of his work that promote it.

I certainly understand their and your enthusiasm for C.S. Lewis, as I have read most of his major non-fiction more than once, and I am reading Mere Christianity now for the sixth time (even though I found his several serious flaws years ago: Purgatory, the hinted-at idea that salvation (eternal and irrevocable according to Holy Scripture) can be lost, an early belief in evolution and millions of years, an acceptance of baptismal regeneration, an acceptance of churches that formally teach salvation by human-only works, and his general lack of forthrightness about justification, among a few other things.

Still, C.S. Lewis is my favorite non-biblical author of all time, in terms of prose style, content, general knowledge, Christian insights, warmth and humanity and realism, and, of course, spirituality.

And, much as I admire your writing, speaking and thinking, as happens the more you read an author, I am starting to see flaws in your thinking and writing.

Today I read an article you wrote where you said that it does not require faith to know that God exists. But Hebrews 11:2 clearly says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” I’d say it is clear that even God tells us that we need faith to know that God exists, and that He created the world. Will you recant? 😉

Most significantly, the greatest error that I see in your faith and thinking is that you import works into saving faith in Christ, for salvation.

I am sure you must have heard this before, but my question is: why do you believe that (if you still do)?

It is my current understanding that good works of practical and progressive sanctification are the outgrowth of saving faith in Christ. (I am not here referring to the positional sanctification that Christ immediately gives as a gift to all who believe.) Christ did everything necessary for our salvation that we receive through simple God-enabled faith in Him.

Also, although I really like the argument in the Handbook that the entire Reformation was one great misunderstanding, that argument now seems to me to be more than a bit inaccurate.

I do not see how works of sanctification can be part of salvation without making mere humans co-Saviors with Christ. This “other Gospel” kind of thinking is clearly and doubly condemned in Galatians chapter one in the severest possible terms by Paul.

Your thoughts?

Thank you and God bless you in Jesus’ Grace (John 6:47),


Curtis Smale

P.S. I am sending a copy of this letter to my friend Philippe, and I will also post it, and your reply, with your permission, to my blog, http://www.graceinsightandart.wordpress.com, as I think many people would like to hear what you have to say on these subjects, even if it is true that you have answered them all before. Thank you.

Sent from my iPad