Editor's note:

In this excerpt from Mere Chris­tian­i­ty, C.S. Lewis mas­ter­ful­ly nav­i­gates the mys­tery of the atone­ment. Not that he’s fig­ured it out. As he says, Any the­o­ries we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite sec­ondary.’ Sec­ondary, indeed. Sad­ly, entire forests have been chopped down to print books in defense of this or that the­o­ry, lead­ing to count­less schisms. Lewis rejects this way of think­ing and mod­els a gen­er­ous atti­tude in the midst of deliv­er­ing a pen­e­trat­ing insight into the atonement.

—Jonathan Bailey

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He dis­abled death itself. That is the for­mu­la. That is Chris­tian­i­ty. That is what has to be believed. Any the­o­ries we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite sec­ondary: mere plans or dia­grams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be con­fused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these the­o­ries are worth look­ing at.

The one most peo­ple have heard is the one about our being let off because Christ vol­un­teered to bear a pun­ish­ment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very sil­ly the­o­ry. If God was pre­pared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what pos­si­ble point could there be in pun­ish­ing an inno­cent per­son instead? None at all that I can see, if you are think­ing of pun­ish­ment in the police-court sense. On the oth­er hand, if you think of a debt, there is plen­ty of point in a per­son who has some assets pay­ing it on behalf of some­one who has not. Or if you take pay­ing the penal­ty,” not in the sense of being pun­ished, but in the more gen­er­al sense of foot­ing the bill,” then, of course, it is a mat­ter of com­mon expe­ri­ence that, when one per­son has got him­self into a hole, the trou­ble of get­ting him out usu­al­ly falls on a kind friend.

Now what was the sort of hole” man had got­ten him­self into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to him­self. In oth­er words, fall­en man is not sim­ply an imper­fect crea­ture who needs improve­ment: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Lay­ing down your arms, sur­ren­der­ing, say­ing you are sor­ry, real­is­ing that you have been on the wrong track and get­ting ready to start life over again from the ground floor — that is the only way out of a hole.” This process of sur­ren­der — this move­ment full speed astern — is what Chris­tians call repen­tance. Now repen­tance is no fun at all. It is some­thing much hard­er than mere­ly eat­ing hum­ble pie. It means unlearn­ing all the self-con­ceit and self-will that we have been train­ing our­selves into for thou­sands of years. It means under­go­ing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here’s the catch. Only a bad per­son needs to repent: only a good per­son can repent per­fect­ly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only per­son who could do it per­fect­ly would be a per­fect per­son — and he would not need it.

Remem­ber, this repen­tance, this will­ing sub­mis­sion to humil­i­a­tion and a kind of death, is not some­thing God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off of if He chose: it is sim­ply a descrip­tion of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back with­out it, you are real­ly ask­ing Him to let you go back with­out going back. It can­not hap­pen. Very well, then, we must go through with it. But the same bad­ness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God help­ing us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Him­self, so to speak. He lends us a lit­tle of His rea­son­ing pow­ers and that is how we think: He puts a lit­tle of His love into us and that is how we love one anoth­er. When you teach a child writ­ing, you hold its hand while it forms the let­ters: that is, it forms the let­ters because you are form­ing them. We love and rea­son because God loves and rea­sons and holds our hand while we do it. Now if we had not fall­en, that would all be plain sail­ing. But unfor­tu­nate­ly we now need God’s help in order to do some­thing which God, in His own nature, nev­er does at all — to sur­ren­der, to suf­fer, to sub­mit, to die. Noth­ing in God’s nature cor­re­sponds to this process at all. So that the one road for which we now need God’s lead­er­ship most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has nev­er walked. God can share only what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not.

But sup­pos­ing God became a man — sup­pose our human nature which can suf­fer and die was amal­ga­mat­ed with God’s nature in one per­son — then that per­son could help us. He could sur­ren­der His will, and suf­fer and die, because He was man; and He could do it per­fect­ly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will suc­ceed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our think­ing can suc­ceed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intel­li­gence: but we can­not share God’s dying unless God dies; and he can­not die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suf­fers for us what He Him­self need not suf­fer at all.

This is excerpt­ed from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Chris­tian­i­ty, Part II, Chap­ter 4, The Per­fect Penitent.”

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