Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 2, Chapter 4 : What Christians Believe (The Perfect Penitent) | Summary



C.S. Lewis states that since he is sure Christ is not "a lunatic nor a fiend," he is forced to accept the literal truth of Christ's claims to be God. He now turns to the question of why God would come to "this enemy-occupied world in human form" as Jesus. While Jesus was certainly a great teacher, this is not what Christians are concerned with. Instead, "they think the main thing He came to this earth to do was to suffer and be killed." Because people constantly break the Moral Law, they have put themselves in the wrong with respect to God. Jesus came not to teach but to die a death that would affect a reconciliation between God and people. Although there are many theories about exactly how this works, Lewis says what is important is not the theory of how it works but the fact that it does.

Lewis presents the "formula" of Christianity: "Christ was killed for us ... His death has washed out our sins, and ... by dying He disabled death itself." Warning they are mere "pictures" to help us understand something ultimately beyond our comprehension, Lewis proceeds to examine a few of the theories behind this formula. Lewis dismisses the idea that Christ chose to take the punishment God intended for humanity to spare mankind. He argues that it makes no sense to involve an innocent person in a punishment for someone else. Christ's death is more like a concerned friend who pays off your debt because he can afford to and you cannot.

The reason for the debt is people's rejection of God. We have been persuaded by Satan to fight our Creator, and each of us has become "a rebel who must lay down his arms." Doing this is called repentance. It is painful and difficult and involves choosing "killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death." This pain is not a punishment, but it is inherent in the experience of returning to God after we have been fighting him.

Because we are imperfect creatures, people are unable to fully repent without help. But God can't help us, as his absolute goodness prevents him from doing the very human things repentance requires: "to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die." Christ, as the incarnation of God in human form, solves the paradox. He can repent because he is human; because he also divine, he can do it perfectly. Christ's perfect repentance on behalf of people erases the debt people owe to God. This Christ-mediated reconciliation between people and God is known as the Atonement.


In keeping with his idea that moral and religious truths are true in the same way as mathematics is true, Lewis presents the "formula" of Christianity. This formula is the solution to the problems of evil and the rift between people and God that arose when people turned their backs on their Creator to join Satan's rebellion of self-will and pride. The formula is a paradox; it seems to defy all common sense. Lewis understands this. His own conversion to Christianity was based on his acceptance of rational arguments. As long as reason told him Christianity was improbable, Lewis remained an atheist. If Christianity is unfathomable to those who look at it from the outside, there is no reason for them to accept it. This would be especially true when, like Lewis's audience, they are dealing with the daily visceral horror of war. Lewis is sensitive to this and so he takes pains to provide simple, relatable analogies to explain confusing Christian concepts that he has distilled down to their bare essence.

While the genius of Mere Christianity is in Lewis's ability to distill Christianity and convey its essence in a relatable, entertaining way, he is also careful to remind the reader that his analogies are not to be mistaken for the truth. The truth is beyond our comprehension. We can only try to point at it using our words and concepts. Many times, when such complex and incomprehensible truths are put into words, they assume the form of paradox. Christianity is riddled with these seemingly self-contradictory ideas, like this chapter's idea that humanity must do precisely what it cannot do: repent perfectly. The solution to humanity's dilemma is yet another paradox, the person of Jesus Christ, who is at the same time completely human and completely divine.
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