As a new Christian, some twenty years old, I went to school on C. S. Lewis. From Lewis I learned a great deal about the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Christianity. Though today I find some – even much – of his theology lacking and lamentable, his writing still helps and challenges me, often bringing my mind and heart back to that which is most important when it comes to the why, what, and how of following Christ.
The following, from Mere Christianity, possibly Lewis’ most-famous nonfiction work, does just that. Please forgive the gender-exclusive language:
“Niceness” – wholesome, integrated personality – is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up “nice”; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.
For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game.
– C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 215-16
As the church, our aim is not to morally improve or spiritually rehabilitate people. Too often we get caught up trying to affect this kind (the wrong kind!) of change: we encourage and teach people to have better marriages, manage their finances more wisely, and sin less frequently or severely.
Instead, rather, we’re really after redemption: the free release of fallen people from sinful bondage into resurrection life as the new creation of Christ (2 Cor 5:17), born (John 3:1-8), confirmed (Eph 1:13-14), and transformed (2 Cor 3:18) by the Holy Spirit. We don’t want better people, we want new people; we don’t want people who more successfully obey the law, we want people who are freed from the law by gospel-grace (Gal 4:4-5); we don’t want well-behaved slaves, we want sons and daughters of God (Rom 8:14-17).
Let’s remember this, in parenting and in friendship, in discipleship and in evangelism, in all of life and ministry. Behavioral modification isn’t the goal. Moral improvement isn’t the goal. Niceness is nothing…gospel-wrought redemption is everything.