The Nature of Christian Surrender

Paul on the Road to Damascus by Rubens

Years ago, there was a lot of debate in evangelical circles about “easy grace” and “Lordship salvation.” The concern was over people who were being told that they could become a Christian without submitting to Jesus’s call to discipleship, as if discipleship was an optional add-on for people going to heaven. The answer was that “Jesus must be Lord of all or he is not Lord at all.” “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). In other words, a Christian is a disciple; discipleship is not an option.

We can understand that some evangelicals were so afraid of Pelagianism (salvation by works) that they could reduce the call to “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:21] to just “believe in Jesus,” and even minimize that belief to mere intellectual assent to the claims of Christ. But that is surely a classic example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; in fact, it’s throwing the whole house in the bin.

However, another error presented itself in the reaction to this “easy believism.” The error was a false idea of what “surrender” to Christ meant. I lived with this error for a long time, years ago. I’m sure there are people who still do. This false idea of surrender is that our discipleship is begun and maintained by a “total” or “absolute” surrender – the adjectives urged are key. A person is led to believe that they have not “really” surrendered to the Lord unless they have practically negated their own existence. After all, are they not to “die to themselves?” But this death-to-self is wrongly understood as such a renunciation of the self that the believer is not to have any will of their own at all. Thus, New Testament expressions as “Christ is my life” are taken to mean that Christ replaces my own personality. This results in such absurdities – and this is an actual case – as going through a cafeteria line and asking God whether or not he wants me to choose green beans or peas. Such a misunderstanding leads to spiritual and psychological damage.

There is a passage in The Problem of Pain where Lewis corrects this error. It is part of his first proposition made to round off his discussion of human pain, found in chapter 7. He mentions the Christian doctrine of “mortification,” and agrees that only God can kill or mortify sin in us. He does not provide any biblical references, but one could refer to Romans 8:13 or Colossians 2:23. He goes on to talk about “total renunciation.” He explains that submitting to God’s will is not renouncing our wills – given to us by our Creator – but submitting them to God in a readiness to do his will. In his lovely, common-sense fashion, Lewis argues that if our wills – indeed our whole personality – is not actually used in living out our lives, then we have no will or life to surrender! If we are trying to live by making no choices of our own, then what power or “material” of choice do we have to give to him, to render to his service, or to obey his law?

As Lewis explains, trouble interferes with our lives as we are naturally living them out as ordinary creatures, seeking our own and other’s good. Pain is an interruption that calls us to exercise a readiness – which is an attitude of submission – to alter our course and submit to God’s will for our lives, or the lives of those we seek to serve.

To die to one’s self is to turn from our rebellion against God to an attitude of readiness to do his will, whether it is something we like or not. The totality of this submission is our readiness to do his will in every area or sphere of our lives. The Holy Spirit living in us does not do the will of God instead of us. He enables us to do the will of God, not only as to whatever duty may be involved but in the right manner. This is not Pelagianism, but living out the new, regenerate life, exercising the grace given us by our Lord, as he works in us to desire and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

Lewis’s doctrine is so wholesome. The call of discipleship is not a call to cease to be God’s creatures – human beings. Indeed, it is a call to be free from our past slavery in Adam to begin to really live out our own lives, true to our new selves in Christ. Our troubles thus become opportunities to exercise our new, freed wills by doing the will of God (Hebrews 12:11).

NB: Acceptance of Lewis’s understanding of submission lays on us the responsibility of our choices. We cannot be like the person – so often encountered – who will make no decisions in life: “Whatever you want, dear, is fine with me.” Rather, Jesus, having renewed the image of God in us through regeneration, says, “OK, now what do you want me to do for you?” [cf. Luke 18:41].

Please note that the content and viewpoints of Rev. Beckmann are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.

The Rev. David Beckmann has for many years been involved in both the Church and education. He helped to start a Christian school in South Carolina, tutored homeschoolers, and has been adjunct faculty for both Covenant College and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.  He founded the C.S. Lewis Society of Chattanooga in 2005. He has spoken extensively on C.S Lewis, and was the Director of the C.S Lewis Study Centre at The Kilns from 2014-2015.  He is currently a Regional Representative for the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Chattanooga.