C. S. Lewis, Apostle to the Skeptics

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 22, 1998

Apart from maybe my dad (Leland Ryken) and my senior pastor (James Boice), C. S. Lewis is my favorite writer. If you are a Christian, he's probably your favorite writer, too. Mere Christianity. The Screwtape Letters. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—C. S. Lewis still sells two million books a year. In fact, outside of the Bible, he is the best-selling Christian author of all time.

This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of C. S. Lewis. It is always useful to reflect on the lives of great Christians of the past, not to worship them, but to learn to follow Christ as they did. Learning from church history is part of what it means to believe in the communion of the saints.

As a young man, C. S. Lewis was an atheist, but he gradually became convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Through his career as an Oxford professor and a popular writer, he became one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century.

There are a number of weaknesses in Lewis's theology, including his failure to embrace the inerrancy of Scripture and a certain ambiguity in his understanding of the atonement. Yet C. S. Lewis was and continues to be an extraordinarily successful evangelist, especially among skeptics. Countless individuals have been brought to faith in Jesus Christ through his books and lectures.

It is surprising to learn, therefore, that Lewis himself thought that his gifts for evangelism were rather limited. During World War II, he was asked to speak to pilots from the Royal Air Force. His early talks were such a complete failure that he began to ask RAF chaplains for help. Lewis would present intellectual arguments for the truth of Christianity, and then the chaplain would invite the men to put their faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the chaplains remembers Lewis saying to him: "Haddon, I wish I could do the heart stuff. I can't. I wish I could. I wish I could press home to these boys just how much they need Christ… . Haddon, you do the heart stuff and I'll do the head stuff" (Bishop A. W. Goodwin-Hudson, Audio Interview, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, IL).

That is a sensible approach to evangelism. Lewis recognized that evangelism is a team sport. He knew that he couldn't do it all, but he was willing to do as much as he could, and then let others do the rest. Afterwards, he liked to quote Paul's words to the Corinthians: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

Lewis also understood the crucial role of prayer in evangelism. One of his converts was a sharp young literature student from Virginia named Sheldon Vanauken. Although Vanauken was an agonistic, he became fascinated by Oxford's Christian tradition. He was not sure how to become a Christian, however, so he wrote to Lewis asking for "a hint of how it's to be done."

The two men exchanged a series of letters, and eventually became friends. Lewis sensed that God was at work in Vanauken's life. He wrote, "I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you'll get away!"

This alarmed Vanauken, but Lewis was right. The young American had reached a point of no return. Not long afterwards, he wrote to Lewis with this news: "I choose to believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost—in Christ, my Lord and my God… . I confess my doubts and ask my Lord Christ to enter my life."

Lewis, of course, was elated. He wrote back immediately: "My prayers are answered… . Blessings on you and a hundred thousand welcomes. Make use of me in any way you please: and let us pray for each other always" (these letters come from Sheldon Vanauken, Encounter with Light, Wheaton, IL; Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, pp. 12, 19, 23-5).

"My prayers are answered." Those pious words are not always sincere, but Lewis meant what he said. Praying for conversions was a regular part of his spiritual life.

When I was doing research on C. S. Lewis a few years ago, I was delighted to read a letter he wrote to a former pupil who needed encouragement:

I think a glance at my correspondence would cheer you up; letter after letter from recent converts, by ones and by twos, often (which is most hopeful) married couples with children… it amounts to nothing by the standards of world statistics. But are they the right standards? I sometimes have a feeling that the big mass conversions… were all a false dawn, and that the whole work has to be done over again… . Oh, by the way, Barfield was baptised last Saturday: have him in your prayers. I have two lists of names in my prayers, those for whose conversion I pray and those for whose conversion I give thanks. The little trickle of transferences from List A to List B is a great comfort (Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, June 27, 1949, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL).

C. S. Lewis knew that ultimately faith in Jesus Christ does not come from a book, an evangelistic talk, or even a friend. It comes from the secret work of God's Spirit in the soul (John 3:8). That does not mean that is unnecessary for us to tell people about Jesus. But it does mean that the most important thing we can do is ask God to change their hearts.

None of us has the evangelistic gifts of C. S. Lewis. But we can still give people copies of his books. And we can still follow his example. Use whatever gifts you do have to tell people about Jesus, and then pray that God will "make things grow."

[For more information on C. S. Lewis the evangelist, consult C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, edited by Angus J. L. Menuge, and published by Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL]

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