Mere Christianity 7: The Perfect Penitent

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.  And I think it’s appropriate that this is coming out on Good Friday.

Last time we left off where Lewis had just introduced the idea which we all know and love as the Trilemma:  Jesus Christ was either Lord, a liar, or a lunatic.  He didn’t use those words exactly; others such as Josh McDowell have developed it into the form we all recognize nowadays.  The argument goes like this:  Anyone saying the things Jesus said about himself would have to be crazy–on the same level as the man who claims to be a poached egg–or else a deceiver from the pit of hell.  If we are unwilling to accept that Jesus is exactly who he said he was, then these are the only options left to us.

And I gave the caution that anyone using this argument nowadays must take into account an additional option:  legend.  The Discovery Channel, the Jesus Seminar, DVC, and other things have all given rise to the view–just within the last couple of decades–that Jesus never really claimed to be the Son of God, but instead had those words falsely attributed to him by church leaders who tampered with the original Gospels so that they would fit their own personal and political prejudices, and suppressed other gospels which were more truthful but which did not fit those prejudices.

So at any rate, we have Jesus who is God in the flesh, come down to earth.  But what did he come to do?  To teach?  Well, he certainly did a lot of that.  To work miracles?  He did a lot of that as well.  But if you look at any of the accounts written about Jesus, you will soon find that they speak of another purpose altogether–to die.

But why?  What was the point of Jesus coming to earth to die?  The various branches of Christianity all have different ways of expressing this, but none of these is the heart of Christianity.  Lewis puts it like this:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.  Theories as to how it did this are another matter.  A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.

Then Lewis goes on to offer his own explanation as to how the death of Christ works.  Man has gotten himself into trouble by attempting to strike out on his own without God.  This is the sort of mistake that can only be fixed by repenting and surrendering our own will to the will of God.  But this repentance is much harder than we make it out to be; it involves unlearning all of the self-will and self-conceit that we have learned over the years.  This takes a very good man to do, and only a perfect person can do it perfectly.

But therein lies the catch.  Only a bad person needs to repent, but only a good person can repent and only a perfect person can repent perfectly.  But a perfect person doesn’t need to repent.  And God has nothing whatsoever in His experience that corresponds to anything that would require repentance.

But what if God became one of us?  If He were to become a person, just like us, then he could surrender his will, just as we need to do in order to reconnect with God.  And he could do it perfectly, because he is God.

Lewis goes on from here to talk about how the new life which we acquire by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ is spread.  There are three ways:  baptism, belief, and the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper, or the Mass, or Holy Communion, or whatever you care to call it).  Different branches of Christianity disagree over the relative importance of each of these items, but all are agreed that each of the three is necessary in some form or fashion.

Now here is where Lewis may rankle those of you who believe in eternal security or “once-saved-always-saved”:

Do not think I am setting up baptism and belief and the Holy Communion as things that will do instead of your own attempts to copy Christ.  Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it.  You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide.  You have to feed it and look after it:  but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else.  In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it.  But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam–he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts.

The idea that we can lose our new life in Christ if we do not look after it properly may rankle those of you who believe in eternal security.  Nevertheless it makes sense that those who do not look after it properly will lose at least some portion of their new life, even if they don’t lose it all.  I don’t know how all this shakes out, and I have no desire to get into the business of speculating whether other people are going to heaven or not.

Lewis then goes on to address a common objection to the Christian faith voiced by those who are concerned about those who die without ever having had the opportunity to hear the Gospel.

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him?  But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are.  We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.  But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.  Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works.  Every addition to that body enables Him to do more.  If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them.  Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.

Basically, if you’re concerned about those who have not yet heard the Gospel, then all the more reason for you to become a Christian yourself, so that you can help in bringing the Gospel to them.

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2 thoughts on “Mere Christianity 7: The Perfect Penitent

  1. How about another possibility. The things that Jesus said were altered in transmission in the thirty to sixty years between the time he said them and the time they were recorded in the Gospels.

    If a friend told you about a sermon he heard six months ago, would you think that he remembered the exact words that the preacher used or would you think that he was communicating his own understanding of what the preacher meant? Why would you think that the author of John got Jesus’ exact words right sixty years later.

    It is not Jesus who compels us to choose between lord, lunatic, or liar. It is the authors of the gospels who seek to constrain our choices. Moreover, since the synoptics are much less explicit about Jesus’ divinity, it is really only the author of John who poses the trilemma.

  2. Remembering one sermon would be hard. But what if someone preached the same sermon for 3 years (often all day long) and just kept looking for new ways to illustrate it? It could be well argued that everything Jesus taught boiled down to “The Kingdom of God is like this…”

    The style of teaching, the singular topic, plus the proto-rabbinic methods of semi-rote teaching would lead to faithful transmission even if one were to ignore consistency of multiple witnesses and the fact that many scholars believe there was a collection of sayings that served as a common source for the Synoptics.

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