What is the Thing?

By Scott Keith


I recently explained that Joy and I have been catechizing a new believer into the faith. Before she was officially a Christian, she had many impressions regarding different “things” she had to believe in order to actually be a Christian. These things she thought that she had to believe were many and varied. In fact, much of what we have done with her, in her education sessions, has been to disabuse her of these things and clue her into the thing that is Christianity.

This week too I have read several online articles regarding ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber and Dr. Steven D. Paulson of Luther Seminary. Both of these articles have claimed that neither Nadia, nor Steve, get the thing. Now, as I have met both of these people, and as I have heard both of them preach, and as I thought I heard the thing when they were preaching, I began to wonder: do I know the thing? I’m sure that some out there in reader land would claim that I, in fact, do not.


So what is the thing? C. S. Lewis grapples with this ominous question in Book II of Mere Christianity under the heading of “The Perfect Penitent.” It is there that he says:

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel. But Christ volunteered to be punished instead and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But, the modern theory of nourishment–all about the vitamins and proteins–is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are. My own church–The Church of England–does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than an explanation that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 42-43)

So here is the thing… Theories are not the thing. Opinions are not the thing. Interpretations are not the thing. Theologians are not the thing; neither are their musings. Christ is the thing! Rather, Christ is He on whom all of our hope rests. Somehow through His death we are made whole. His death has “somehow put us right with God.” Somehow in His resurrection we have life. Somehow on His promise we have freedom from sin, death, and the Devil.


He came to give His life for you. He came to give you life and to give it more completely. He came to die for you, and the mystery of His death is that it was needed for you. The mystery of His resurrection is that He promises you will share in it.

How does it work? How does God take care of the cosmic mechanics of it all? The truth is, we don’t know all the details; or at least we aren’t absolutely sure. That is why, as Lewis says, there have been so many theories. But that it works is the one thing in which we can truly be sure.

The Lutheran theologian, J. W. Montgomery in his appraisal of the various atonement theories at the back of his work Chytreaus on Sacrifice, claims that all of the theories have some merit, though he tends to rely on penal substitution, as do most “Confessional Lutherans.” Yet even if all of the theories have merit, or none of them have merit, they are not the thing. They are theories, and the thing is so much more than a theory; it is reality for all who are in Christ.

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So if you are in Christ, here is the thing, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10)

If you are not in Christ, please know that this thing IS for you too. The freedom of Christ is yours. His death and resurrection is yours and for you to share. His love is yours; a love won for you by the greatest mystery of all. That is the mystery of why God loves us so much that He sent His Son to die that we might have life. The life is open to all who cling to Christ through faith, which He also gives to you.  It is time to throw down your chains, deny your bondage, and embrace the life and freedom won for you on account of Christ. That, as far as I can tell, is the thing.

– Written whilst drinking tap water and listening to the sounds of my wife typing the Lewis quote. Thanks babe!