C. S. Lewis is the most effective and widely-read Christian apologist of this century and a wonderful writer of fantasies for children and adults. His books (both non-fiction and fiction) continue to remain in print and many are “best-sellers.” Some — like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia — have sold millions of copies world-wide and have been printed and reprinted in many languages. Lewis was also known as an outstanding and acclaimed literary historian and medieval critic — several of his works in these areas are studied today.
Thanks to the numerous biographies and other volumes devoted to his life and works, there is more interest than ever in Lewis as a writer and defender of orthodox or “mere” Christianity. The recent film Shadowlands has focused even more attention on him as a real human being who loved and grieved and triumphed after a great loss. His classic A Grief Observed, written after his wife’s death, is universally acknowledged as a moving and poignant account of spiritual struggle and recovery.
But it is not widely known today that C. S. Lewis was a highly effective and skillful preacher. Very little has been written about this aspect of his career in the literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and scholarly essays that have been penned since the 1940’s. Once he became a household name in the ’40’s — with the publication of Screwtape and his “broadcast talks” (later Mere Christianity) and other popular works such as Miracles and The Great Divorce — Lewis was often in demand as a “lay” preacher and speaker. His reputation in Oxford, and later Cambridge (in the 50’s) as a brilliant lecturer and teacher also enhanced the demand for him as preacher.
Lewis preached mainly in the university churches of Oxford and Cambridge, and occasionally in London and other cities. It has been written that Lewis, B. L. Manning, and William Temple were the only preachers who could consistently “fill the pews to overflowing” when they preached in Oxford in the middle of this century.
Lewis considered preaching a form of spiritual mentoring or counseling and a “spiritual duty.” He once said that if anyone had told him in his atheist days that he would someday step into a pulpit and preach, he would have considered that man raving mad. But he accepted invitations to preach and speak as often as his very busy schedule allowed, which was seldom. He did so both conscious of his duty to do whatever God asked, and with the knowledge that God often demands “about face” actions of his followers. As a former “cheeky” atheist he accepted gladly his duties as a preacher.
Lewis wrote little about preaching, but what he did write is noteworthy and reveals him as a preacher who cared deeply for truth and for those he spoke to. In writing about evangelism and preaching, he suggested that an ideal missionary team would consist of two people, one who “rationally” argues to break down intellectual defenses, and one who preaches and gives an emotional appeal for faith. He also suggested several times that preachers should have integrity and live the faith they preached. He strongly admonished preachers to not “accommodate to the world” and preach a watered-down Gospel of Jesus. He also said that too many preachers do this, and that many in the church are not authentic believers.
Many of those who heard Lewis preach have testified to his integrity and deep-seated love for those in the pews. His friend and fellow Inkling Father Gervase Mathew said that Lewis always “forged a personal link with those that heard him.” The great theologian and hymnologist Eric Routley praised not only Lewis’ superb delivery and wonderful command of language, but his ability to capture his hearers’ hearts by his love of Christ and his obvious enjoyment of preaching. For Routley, the key to Lewis’ effectiveness as a preacher lay in his integrity and his ability to “be personal” when he spoke.
Lewis’ friend Stuart Babbage echoed this when he said that Lewis always spoke on the same level as those who heard him. In the pulpit, Lewis was never sanctimonious, pompous or condescending. He often wore a suit rather than clerical garb to let his audiences know that “he was one of them” and just a “mere Christian.”
A revealing story about Lewis’ humility and integrity as a preacher was told by his friend and taxi-driver Clifford Morris. Morris had wondered why Lewis did not preach more often until an incident told him the reason. Lewis had just spoken somewhere in Oxford and had received the praise and adulation that always happened when he preached or delivered an address in public. Lewis related to Morris that he began to have problems with ego, and to think “what a jolly fine and clever fellow Jack Lewis was.” He then said that he immediately had to get down on his knees and pray, “to kill the deadly sin of pride.”
As mentioned, Lewis preached mostly in churches and chapels in Oxford and Cambridge. But during World War II (on weekends) he also served on the staff of the Chaplain’s department of the Royal Air Force as a lay lecturer, or preacher. Stuart Babbage recalls that Lewis used four “devices” to make his messages meaningful to the troops (these were also used in his Oxford sermons).
First, he consistently rooted his subject matter in the “everyday experiences” of the soldiers. Second, he used a conventional or vernacular style of speaking. He wanted his language to be simple, clear, direct and “ordinary conversation.” Third, he illustrated his sermons with easy-to-imagine images and fitting metaphors that helped his hearers interpret his message. And fourth, he would often disarm his listeners by placing himself on the same level as they were. He was never afraid to be personal in his sermons.
Sadly, none of the manuscripts of Lewis’ wartime sermons to the troops have survived, although there are remembered and newspaper accounts. He used no notes when he preached, although in more “formal” times he did read from a prepared manuscript. His sermons were usually about 45-minutes long, spoken without the aid of a microphone. It has been written by several witnesses that his reading style was so natural and his voice so powerful and resonant that he always “held the attention” of the troops under often very stressful conditions.
On one occasion he spoke at the Norfolk Aerodrome, northeast of Oxford. His audience consisted of members of the bomber squadrons which took off nightly to pound German fortifications on the continent. That Sunday night Lewis used as his sermon text Jesus’ words from Matthew 16:24, “If any man come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” This was a hard text for men who were facing death, and Lewis knew it. In the sermon, he told the men what Jesus had undergone on their behalf — “misunderstanding and loneliness and finally betrayal and death.” He dramatically evoked the scene in the judgment hall, where the soldiers and Herod mocked and ridiculed Jesus. And then he recalled with vivid force the obscenity of the crucifixion scene.
He encouraged the soldiers to think about what they could do for Jesus; whatever it would be, it would have to be costly. Lewis very emotionally told the men the costs he had to pay to become a Christian. Oxford had tolerated his intellectual interest in Christianity, but once he became a practicing Christian he lost friends and was in many ways ostracized.
At the end of the sermon, Lewis returned to “the indignities and calamities Christ had endured” and how the soldiers (at Golgotha) had shouted “hypocrite!” “Serves him right!” “That’s what he deserved!” “Dirty traitor!” As he spoke these words, Lewis vigorously gestured and raised and lowered his voice, giving full weight to the horrors and realities of the biblical story.
Stuart Babbage has commented that it is not surprising that Lewis “communicated,” for this sermon (like many others) was powerful preaching, “born of intense and passionately felt emotion.” When Lewis preached in wartime to soldiers, he was eager, passionate, and always demanded a verdict, a decision. He left it to God as to just what those decisions were.
Lewis’ sermons in university churches were different, at least in style, but his passion and care were always evident. They were not “popular” preaching, but were rather more intellectual in form and theological in content. The only volume currently in print that contains his Oxford (three) and Cambridge (one) sermons is The Weight of Glory (Macmillan, revised and expanded 1980). It was first published in England (1949) as Transposition and Other Addresses. The sermons in this book are “Learning in War-Time” (1939), “The Weight of Glory” (1941), “Transposition” (1944) and “A Slip of the Tongue” (1956).
Three of Lewis’ sermons were preached to churches in London and Northampton and published in Undeceptions (1971), later God in the Dock (1971). “Miracles” was delivered at St. Jude on the Hill Church, London, on November 26, 1942. “Miserable Offenders” was preached at St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, on April 7, 1945. “The Grand Miracle” was preached at St. Jude’s Church, London, on November 26, 1942. “Miracles” is the most famous of these sermons, and from it Lewis developed several of the ideas contained in his later book Miracles (1947).
C. S. Lewis’ sermons in The Weight of Glory are perhaps his best known and read today. These sermons (as do all of Lewis’) will repay the thoughtful preacher’s careful attention and study. Their theological insights, unparalleled brilliance of rhetoric, vivid imagery, and obvious pastoral concern make them models for preachers who want to go “farther up and farther in” with their sermons.
“Learning in War-Time” was preached on Sunday night, October 22, 1938, at the St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford. It was the first sermon Lewis preached, at age 41. The original title was “None Other Gods: Culture in War-Time,” and Lewis’ text and title was Deuteronomy 26:5 (“A Syrian Ready to Perish was my Father”). It was later published in pamphlet form by the Oxord Student Christian Movement under the title “The Christian in Danger.”
Lewis knew that many of the undergraduates might have to go to war, as he had, before they finished their studies at Oxford. In this sermon, he attempted to answer the question, “What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?” As was typical in his sermons, he went straight to the heart of the matter, which dealt with the “ordinary” life of the Christian. He stressed the point of doing everything to the glory of God. The Christian must serve and obey God despite world crises, problems and anxieties. For Lewis, the Christian always lived “on the edge,” since all were going to die sometime. He made clear the idea that God sees all service done in His name as spiritual, regardless of how humble or exalted the person is.
“The Weight of Glory” is considered by many as the greatest and most eloquent sermon Lewis ever preached, and one of the finest ever preached by anyone. Its beauty, “friendly scholarship,” and effortless delivery made it memorable for many who heard it, according to witnesses. It was delivered at St. Mary’s at Evensong on June 8, 1941, to one of the largest audiences ever assembled there in modern times. The great hall was so packed that some students could only find room by sitting in the windows. His textual basis for the sermon was 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “For we do not lose heart … For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure …”
Lewis’ focus for the sermon was Heaven, something he said he wrote about in nearly all his books. In a serious tone, but with a cheerful appearance, he warned his listeners not to heed “worldly philosophies” (like progressive evolution) that led people to believe that this world was their true destiny, their real home. He spoke of the spiritual longings of humankind, and paid special attention to “the desire which no natural happiness can satisfy,” which he called “joy.” This was the same desire for God that he had written about so movingly in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy.
Near the end of the sermon, Lewis reminded his hearers not to forget that Heaven starts on this earth, and it starts with Christian love and charity towards one’s immediate neighbors. These people are holy because they are God’s creations and because Christ died for them and was in them. He stated emphatically that God did not create ordinary people; that everyone, no matter how beautiful or horrible, is immortal in some way.
“Transposition” was preached in the chapel of Mansfield College, Oxford, on the Feast of Pentecost, May 28, 1944. The day after, a local newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, called Lewis “Modern Oxford’s Newman.” It was reported that Lewis was so overcome by emotion that he stopped in the middle of the sermon, said “I’m sorry,” and left the pulpit. After receiving assistance, and after a hymn was sung, Lewis returned and finished the sermon with his deeply personal feelings about his subject (and its setting) still evident.
Someone has suggested that “Transposition” represents some of C. S. Lewis’ best theological thinking. It was really a sermon about spirituality, and the objections that the materialistic thinking (Freudian and naturalistic) of Lewis’ day had against it. Many non-believers and “religious pessimists” had protested that the spiritual life of the Christian was a mirage, a psychological projection. To answer this objection Lewis developed a theory called transposition, which meant for him an “adaptation of a richer to a poorer medium.”
He explained this to his audience by suggesting that the Christian looks at so-called spiritual events “from above” — that is, with a godly and “heavenly” viewpoint. The non-believer sees events without God in mind. For Lewis, the Christian’s devotion to God, however it is expressed, is not merely a “desire for Heaven” or desire for immortality – it has been placed in us by God.
Since “Transposition” was preached on the day that many Christians celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, Lewis used the example of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, to make one of his major points. He admitted this event was difficult for him to understand, as it was (and still is) for a great percentage of Christians. But he defended this instance of glossolalia (in Acts) because — although it was for him “an extreme example” of spirituality – he believed it needed defending because of what was at stake. Lewis thought the existence of the spiritual life (as a whole) was under attack by the “mind of the age.” “Transposition” was his attempt to articulate his defense of the spiritual life, which he believed with all his heart and mind to be straight from the love of God.
“A Slip of the Tongue” was the last sermon Lewis preached. It was given at the invitation of the Chaplain of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the college chapel (at Evensong) on January 29, 1956. About a year earlier Lewis had accepted a position at the college as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The chapel register reported that the little chapel was so crowded with people (over 100) that extra seats had to be brought in. This sermon was first published in Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces (1965). He was helping his publisher plan this volume just before he died.
Lewis started this sermon like he did so many, by identifying with his listeners. When a layman like himself was asked to preach, he told them, the most likely way he could be entertaining and useful would be if he started where he was. Thus the sermon would be like comparing notes with the audience. “A Slip of the Tongue” is a very short and intimate sermon, especially when compared to his other university talks.
Lewis told of his recurring temptation to just “dabble and splash” with God (“that sea,” after the term by St. John of the Cross) and neither “dive nor swim nor float, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline of the temporal” (worldly as opposed to spiritual). Sometime before, he had made a slip of the tongue by exchanging the words “eternal” and “temporal” in a prayer. The whole sermon was Lewis’ way of explaining his almost constant battle to separate the spiritual from the worldly in his life, and to not let temporal desires weaken his spiritual life with God.
It is interesting to note that in the first Shadowlands — the video made in the 80’s starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom — there is a scene which illustrates the point Lewis was making in “A Slip of the Tongue.” Early in the video, Lewis and his future wife Joy Gresham were walking near Magdalene College. In trying to explain his faith to her, he asked Joy if she “knew how to dive.” He then explained that when he first became a Christian he was afraid to “let go”; he was always “holding on to something.” He told Joy that he learned what Christianity was really about by “letting go” of himself, and by ending his own desire for self-preservation. In learning “to dive,” the same principle held; a person must jump in and let go of his or her fears. So in this sermon, when Lewis told his hearers about his temptation just “to dabble” in God, instead of “taking a leap of faith,” he was telling them about something very near to the center of his faith.
C. S. Lewis was a powerful and effective preacher. Although primarily an apologist and “literary evangelist,” it is to his credit that he used his versatile gifts well and effectively in the pulpit. He was equally at ease preaching to sophisticated Oxford dons and students as well as to soldiers and laypeople. His creative imagination, wonderful use of language, and great empathy for his fellow human beings produced a Christian who was a powerful and effective communicator of the faith.
Lewis’ sermons were not “popular preaching,” as noted. But their theological insights and brilliant practical wisdom make their reading and study well worth the effort for the modern preacher.
Perry C. Bramlett is the founder of “C. S. Lewis for the Local Church,” a teaching ministry of seminars, retreats, and book studies on the life and works of C. S. Lewis. He can he contacted at 123 Bonner Ave., Louisville, KY 40207, (502) 897-7457.

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