The Conversion Expectancy

 In letter #3 of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, we find our chief tempter Screwtape contrasting his view of what is expected of someone who has converted to Christianity with the patient assigned to his nephew Wormwood.

The patient is presented as someone who ‘thinks his conversion is something inside him’, resulting in a life of self-examination and a focus that is directed inward. Wormwood is told to encourage this.

Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious.

What are the ‘elementary duties’ that should be obvious to us? It is our living out the Christian faith. The demons have a view of Christianity that is the antithesis of the patient. They expect a conversion to result in external and outward changes. Their goal is to thwart ‘God’s inner working in us’ that is intended to bring ‘more and more of [our] conduct’ in alignment with His standards.


The goal of the demons then is to use whatever they can to distract us away from actually living out our faith. In letter #4 Screwtape advises Wormwood, again, to direct the attention of his patient inward and on himself.

turn their gaze away from [God] towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.

Screwtape, in letter #6, reiterates that their chief aim is to distract people so that they do not act. In this letter this is accomplished, not through inward reflection, but, by directing the patient toward worrying about the future.

[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.

In the 8th letter, Screwtape admits to Wormwood that they are at the greatest risk when a Christian is feeling defeated and still obeys.

mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people – C.S. Lewis

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

The demons are used to help us consider our own understanding of the Christian life. As is often the case in the letters, the demons also reflect Lewis’ views. In Mere Christianity, Lewis explores what is meant by faith.

To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him.

Later, Lewis will note that:

If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions – if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before – then I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary

This is the same view that Screwtape is trying to impress upon Wormwood.

There are always dangers in grappling with the conversion expectancy. One is that it will be misunderstood as teaching a works based salvation. That is why Lewis follows this understanding of faith by noting that this obedience is not ‘hoping to get to Heaven as a reward’ but a ‘wanting to act in a certain way’.

Another danger is to judge others without any grace or understanding of how far they have come. This is a theme of letters 2 and 3.

But, to avoid the conversion expectancy is also dangerous and avoids what Scripture plainly teaches.

Lewis rightly observes:

the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results. A tree is known by its fruit …

When Paul appeared before King Agrippa he summarized his mission following his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road as follows (Acts 26:20):

 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance.

And Jesus taught us (John 13:35):

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

and that we are to (Matt 5:16)

let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.


1 thought on “The Conversion Expectancy

  1. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | This Week in Arminianism

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