Is Christianity hard or easy? That was the question C. S. Lewis asked and helpfully answered almost 80 years ago.
Lewis believed that Christianity is hard – impossible even – if approached from one direction, and easy – or at least natural – if approached from another. Lewis made clear that there is no such thing as a convenient Christianity that presents no obstacle to our goals and requires no change in our person. “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing,” according to Lewis, “is to hand over your whole self … to Christ.”
I thought of Lewis’s 1944 radio address on this subject after becoming aware that people within evangelical Christianity are revisiting the debate about whether the Christian life is hard or easy. Some are saying it is easy, natural, like fruit-bearing is natural for a tree.
People on this side of the issue are concerned to save Christianity from “works.” We are saved by grace through faith, they say, citing St. Paul. They lay emphasis on the fact that this salvation is “not by works”; and they are right.
But were the “works” that St. Paul rejected the same kind as those from which contemporary teachers are trying to save Christianity? No. At least, not if the “works” these teachers have in mind are simply people’s efforts to do good deeds. It was not against good deeds that the apostle waged war so long ago.
When Paul said that we are not saved by works, he was not speaking against our efforts to do good deeds. He was not even saying that such efforts cannot save. Neither Paul nor his opponents thought that they could. The “works” that Paul had in mind were specifically religious ones: being circumcised, eating kosher, observing Sabbath, keeping feast days. Paul rejected the claim, espoused in his time, that these religious identity markers were the means of salvation.
If, in trying to rescue Christianity from “works,” teachers mislead Christians into believing there is nothing for them to do, they are setting their students up for failure and are seriously misrepresenting St. Paul. For Paul himself – and he was hardly alone – called for effort, even strenuous effort, on the part of Christians.
Like Jesus did before him, Paul encouraged believers to “make every effort” – to “strive,” as the King James version renders it – in their service to God. St. Peter and the author of Hebrews say similar things. Paul honors those who have “worked hard in the Lord.” He maintains that he has worked harder than any of the other apostles. On more than one occasion he claims that he has worked night and day.
Paul compares the Christian to the athlete who “makes every effort” in the games, and who goes into strict training to do so. He speaks of the “labor” involved in living the Christian life – his own labor, and that of others. More than once he uses the word “toil” to describe the extraordinary effort he exerted as Christ’s person.
When people hear it said – and it is often said – that the only work God requires of them is to believe in his Son, they may understand that this work is one of intellectual assent to a truth claim like (for example) “the earth is round.” But believing in God’s Son means believing a person and not just a claim. It is like believing the commanding officer who calls his soldiers to follow him. The believing and the following are indivisible—and the following requires effort.
I mentioned earlier that some teachers claim that living as a Christian is easy and natural, like fruit-bearing is natural for a tree. But if a tree could speak, would it agree that fruitbearing is easy? Natural? Yes. But easy? That’s another question.
The Christian life does require effort, but that effort is itself a result of God’s grace, which energizes it. This is why Paul, after writing that he worked harder than the other apostles, immediately corrected himself to say that it was not he who worked harder, but it was “the grace of God that was with me.”