On April 25, 1951, the gospel came home to C. S. Lewis. This fascinating event does not seem to be well known, even among admirers. Yet Lewis refers to it no less than five times in volume three of the Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, which covers the final years of his life, 1950 to 1963.
The crucial letter comes in December 1951, written to priest and friend St. Giovanni Calabria:
[D]uring the past year a great joy has befallen me. Difficult though it is, I shall try to explain this in words. It is astonishing that sometimes we believe that we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe.
For a long time I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins. But suddenly (on St. Mark’s Day [April 25]) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.
So great is the difference between mere affirmation by the intellect and that faith, fixed in the very marrow and as it were palpable, which the Apostle wrote was substance. . . .
It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice’. Jesus has cancelled the handwriting that was against us. Lift up our hearts! (p. 151–52)
What is remarkable is that this was not a passing surge of affections that evaporated as quickly as it had come. Several times throughout his correspondence for the rest of his life, Lewis referred to this 1951 experience as a renewal of lasting, life-altering significance.
In 1954, writing to “Mrs. Jessup,” Lewis spoke of his 1951 transformation as one
from mere intellectual acceptance of, to realisation of, the doctrine that our sins are forgiven. That is perhaps the most blessed thing that has ever happened to me. How little they know of Christianity who think that the story ends with conversion. (p. 425)
In 1956, Lewis remarked to Mary Van Deusen, concerning the gospel:
I had assented to the doctrine years earlier and would have said I believed it. Then, one blessed day, it suddenly became real to me and made what I had previously called “belief” look absolutely unreal. (p. 751)
In 1958 he wrote to Mary Shelburne,
I had been a Christian for many years before I really believed in the forgiveness of sins, or more strictly, before my theoretical belief became a reality to me. (p. 935)
It appears, then, that in April 1951, C. S. Lewis experienced something of a gospel awakening.
One, we are never too old to experience a new work of grace. Lewis was 53 in 1951. He had 12 years left to live. He had been a Christian for many years—a fruitful Christian for many years. And grace came home to Lewis one day in 1951 in such freshness and power that his previous grasp of grace seemed “absolutely unreal.”
Two, we are never too mature to experience a new work of grace. By 1951 Lewis had written The Pilgrim’s Regress, the Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and much more. Seasoned Christian leaders never outgrow the need for a fresh outpouring of visceral awareness—a renewed “sense of the heart,” as Jonathan Edwards called it—of gospel grace.
Three, Lewis’s personal renaissance in grace prompts grateful acknowledgment of signs of encouragement in our own day. Something of a gospel resurgence is taking place today across various swaths of evangelicalism. All this we happily receive from the hand of the Lord. The need of the hour, however, is neither self-congratulation nor smug diagnosis of who “gets” the gospel of grace. The need of the hour is deeper reverence, new levels of wonder at the grace shown oneself, and a whispered prayer that the good news of God’s free grace in Christ would spread with a continued contagion the effects of which will be felt for generations to come.