Lewis begins by telling readers to “drop” this chapter if they can’t relate to it. There are certain aspects of Christianity that can only be understood “from the inside,” once one is already a Christian.
Lewis knows that many different kinds of people will be reading his book—some of whom are already Christians, and some of whom aren’t. This chapter is intended for the former, not the latter group.
Lewis will now talk about faith in a second, higher sense of the word: the kind of faith that emerges when a person realizes that they are “bankrupt,” can never obey God’s laws perfectly, and have nothing to offer God that is not his already. In such a moment of crisis, a Christian can exemplify the second kind of faith, in which they will “despair of doing anything for [herself] and leave it to God.”
In Book One of Mere Christianity, Lewis said that Christianity must begin with “despair.” Here, he returns to the same theme; paradoxically, good Christians must come to accept the fact that they really aren’t good people at all. In such a moment of crisis, they must surrender their agency and accept that God will take care of them.
The idea of “leaving it to God” is complicated and easily misunderstood. It might sound lazy to leave everything to God, but in fact, one must keep trying to be a good Christian, even as one surrenders to God. Put another way, good Christians will try their hardest to be moral, while also placing their trust in God’s salvation. The only true way to leave things to God is to feel “a first faint gleam of Heaven” inside oneself; henceforth, a good Christian will continue to behave morally, but a little less urgently and nervously, cautiously optimistic about going to Heaven.
Lewis arrives at a nuanced point: he suggests that good Christians eventually reach a point where they’re no longer consciously trying to be good (because they trust that God will see them through), and yet the only way for them to reach such a point is by trying to be good. Faith, as Lewis defines it, is a lifelong struggle—first a struggle to be good, then, a struggle to accept one’s own inner flaws and offer them up to God.
There has long been a debate among Christian thinkers about whether faith or good works are more important for salvation. Lewis’s answer is that they’re equally important and indispensible. In the past, people have argued that the idea that good works alone can lead to salvation is absurd—by such logic, a wicked man who donates a million dollars to the church could go to Heaven. Similarly, people have criticized the “by faith alone” interpretation, pointing out that, if such an interpretation were true, a wicked man could go to Heaven provided that he believed in Christ. The truth is that we need to believe in God and work hard in order to go to Heaven—hence the famously ambiguous Bible verse, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who worketh in you.” Lewis interprets the verse to mean that Christians must work hard, always unsure if they’re going to Heaven, while also trusting that God will help them stay on the right path.
In this important passage, Lewis addresses one of the quintessential arguments within Christianity: the debate over whether “works” or “faith alone” can redeem the soul. There are certain sects of Christianity (often Catholic) that emphasize the importance of “works”—i.e., good deeds, performed in the concrete, real world. There are other Christian sects (often Protestant) that emphasize faith—understood in the sense of a personal, private relationship with God. As Lewis explains here, it’s impossible to have faith without good works, or good works without faith; they are two sides of the same coin. It’s characteristic of Lewis’s inclusive, balanced approach to defining Christianity that he gives both Catholicism and Protestantism partial credit for outlining the path to salvation.
At some point, Lewis guesses, truly good Christians will reach a point where they no longer think in terms of duties or rules, but where they are simply filled with goodness, like a mirror that is “filled with light.” But, Lewis admits, it is difficult for us to talk about salvation, since “no one’s eyes can see very far.”
Lewis admits that his knowledge of salvation is necessarily limited (as he hasn’t gone to the afterlife yet), but he speculates that good Christians reach a point where good works become second nature; where they stop concentrating on obeying God and start just naturally living as he would want them to.