Note: This is the manuscript from the first talk presented at Narnia’s Lantern Way: A Worldview Conference for the Whole Family, hosted at Discovery Church. There was an error in the video recording process and so the manuscript is presented here for anyone interested.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus is clear in John 3. You must be born again. Transformed. Given a new heart. Made a new person. Mere religion can’t give us what Jesus says we need. Nicodemus had religion and yet, he had nothing. He needed and you need to be born again.
Lewis alludes to this in Mere Christianity saying, basically, that we shouldn’t assume Christianity has its sights set on making nice people. It’s new people that Jesus wants.
This isn’t what Nicodemus has in mind. In verses 2 and 3 we see Nicodemus really interested in Jesus’ signs. He is interested in Jesus as a teacher. I think we can also infer that Nicodemus is interested in a new kingdom because Jesus brings this up. “You can’t see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus.”
So, Nicodemus is interested in all these things but what Jesus says is that he needs to be made entirely new.
I wonder what are you tempted to substitute for new birth?
- Education maybe? Are you seeking change through higher education? Or seeking change through producing well-educated kids? Are you trying to feel good about yourself by trying to be the smartest person in the room? Do you always have to have the last word?
- Maybe you think the change you are seeking will come through ecstatic spiritual experiences or by gaining spiritual powers. Maybe you want Osteen’s best life now, or some “anointing” of spiritual power. Well…we all know the White Witch can give you that.
- Maybe, like Nicodemus, you think all you need is a new kingdom – a conservative paradise with no rainbow flags or CNN.
Now, all these may be good things. But, I think, based on John 3, Jesus might say they are no good without any transformed people involved. What we need most is to be born again.
Lewis returns to this idea several times in the Narnia stories and I want to show you three of them. I want to look at three characters that give us three images of what it’s like to be born again. We’re not saying everything that could be said about the new birth. The Christian doctrine of “new birth” is like a diamond and we’re only looking at a facet or three. Here they are.
Three Images of New Birth (Transformation) In Narnia
The first is Edmund from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe…
1. Edmund (New Birth as New Trust)
When we look at Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, we get a picture of new birth as finding new trust. New birth as a new trust. Or, you could say, a well-placed trust.
Edmund, in case you are not familiar, is pulled into the land of Narnia like his other siblings, by entering through a magic wardrobe. Unlike his other siblings he meets the so-called Queen of Narnia, a white witch that has cursed Narnia and made it always winter and never Christmas. He becomes enamored with her and ends up betraying his siblings, and all the good talking beasts of Narnia.
However, after having taken the witch’s side, Edmund very quickly realizes what a traitor he’s been and that he’s given himself to the villain of the story. And he feels miserable about it.
But here’s the problem: He’s still stuck with the witch. His misery and regret and feelings of guilt are not enough to get him out of trouble. It’s not enough to save him. It’s not even enough to change him.
B. Our feelings of guilt, regret, or shame are not enough to transform us
And so, there’s the first lesson: We, like Edmund, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – we are traitors but our feelings of guilt, regret or shame are not enough to transform and rescue us. Edmund’s realizations about his guilt really just increase his feelings of hopelessness. He is a traitor to Narnia, to his family, to the true King and the law of Narnia says, traitors die.
As first-time readers, we wonder how he will be saved. His siblings wonder how he will be saved. The King’s Law in Narnia (that all traitors must die lest the Emperor be found unjust and all reality collapse) is called “The Deep Magic.” And Edmund’s younger sister, Lucy, asks Aslan, “Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ “‘Work against the Emperor’s magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face.’” (LWW p. 129)
In other words, there’s no working against the Emperor’s magic. There’s no going against God’s law. The wages of sin is death. So, Edmund should feel guilty but that’s not going to save him. He can’t just say, “sorry” and fix it. All he can do about his guilt is die.
So, what does rescue him? What does transform him? Here it is:
C. Edmund’s transformation (his salvation) is only possible because Aslan is willing to take his guilt and punishment on himself.
There’s a point in the story when Aslan’s troops rescue Edmund from the witch – he’s not off the hook yet – he’s just been taken to Aslan’s camp. And Aslan has a private talk with Edmund. Lewis makes a point of saying that no one knows what they talked about. As far as I know Lewis never commented on the substance of that conversation but I suspect that conversation had something to do with how Aslan was planning to deliver Edmund once and for all.
I don’t think Edmund was told every aspect of the plan but I think he was told enough to create a new trust in Edmund: a new, well placed trust in Aslan.
Here’s why: After this conversation, the white witch shows up. And she accuses Aslan of forgetting the deep magic (the law that says Edmund must die) and she accuses Edmund of treachery. Incidentally, she is a Satanic figure in this instance. Satan means accuser and that’s what the White Witch is doing here. She’s not wrong. Edmund is a traitor. But just notice for now that her function is accusation. Now look at how Lewis describes Edmund’s reaction to the accusation.
Quote: “Edmund was on the other side of Aslan, looking all the time at Aslan’s face. He felt a choking feeling and wondered if he ought to say something but a moment later he felt that he was not expected to do anything except to wait, and do what he was told.”
In the face of his accuser, Edmund just goes on waiting, listening to the accusations, but all the time “looking at Aslan’s face”. In other words, Edmund knew he was guilty but rather than looking to himself, and rather than looking down in shame, he looks to the one person that is going to be able to do something with his guilt. “
This is the same point that Jesus is making in John 3 when he talks about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. It’s an old story from Numbers 21 and the point was that you can’t kill your own curse. You have to look to the curse killer. And Jesus says, I’m getting lifted up on a cross, I’m crucifying your curse and your only hope is not to look to yourself, not to look down in despair…look all the time at me, the curse killer.
Lewis is just trying to reflect that story when he writes about Aslan knowing about a deeper magic than the Emperor’s justice – that when a willing victim who has committed no treachery, is killed in a traitor’s stead, the stone table will crack and death itself will start to work backward. And it is, in the end, what rescues Edmund and all of Narnia from the Witch’s accusations.
As individual believers: convincing someone of their guilt is not enough to change people. We can’t deny our guilt. I’m not suggesting that. But convincing others of their guilt is not ultimately what changes them. I think we know this. I think we agree with this. It sounds like the traditional evangelical view of salvation by grace.
But, we deny this belief every time we try to guilt trip our kids or spouses into some kind of behavior change. We all do this.
Let me give you an example from my own life: As I boy I, somehow wound up in possession of the last gourmet cinnamon roll in the house. As I was poised to enjoy it, I noticed my brother looking at me with “hungry eyes.” I knew the question was coming. He was going to ask me to share. So, I did what any reasonable 10 year old would do. I licked the whole cinnamon roll right then and there. At this point, my Dad pointed out how selfish it was. Of course, he was right. But here’s the thing, I still go my cinnamon roll. I felt like a heel, but what good did that do? You see? Knowing we’re guilty, ultimately, isn’t what changes us. Meeting the one who takes it away is what changes us.
Parents, husbands and wives, don’t try to change your family by using their guilt against them. Instead, show them where to take it. Show them where Jesus took their guilt. When people see not only their guilt, but also a good God who takes it away through His own Son, then there can be a real change.
This is true in broader culture as well. Dear culture warriors, showing CRT socialists their guilt and folly doesn’t work. Guilt doesn’t work. No matter how solid your arguments, or how many Facebook posts – no one cares. No one cares because you’re not telling them anything about where to take their guilt.
This is why Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan or your favorite talk show host may be friends to conservatives right now but are ultimately enemies of the gospel of Jesus. I’m not saying you can’t listen to them. I’m not even saying you can’t enjoy them. But they stubbornly refuse to point their opponents, or anyone else, to the one person that can actually save us from our guilt. So, you win an argument with a liberal. So what? What’s he get now? Either he just gets stubbornly entrenched in his own world view or he gets to trade his self-righteous liberalism for self-righteous conservatism.
But what Aslan wants – what the Lord Jesus wants – is not better people. He wants new people – and he purchased them at the cross.
The next image we get is from the character Eustace and it’s the image of New Birth as a gift of sovereign grace
2. Eustace (New Birth As Gracious Gift)
Now, Eustace is introduced in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader and he has, possibly, the best introduction of any of the human characters in Narnia. It goes like this: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”
Eustace is the cousin of the original four children from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And of all the transformation stories in Narnia, Eustace’s is probably the most famous. If we had the time we’d talk about how Eustace’s transformation illustrates how what comes out of us is what is already in us. Eustace is only turned into a dragon because, quote, “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself” (VDT 73).
But, time fails us to get into that. Instead, I just want to point out how Eustace’s story illustrates how the new birth is something that happens to you. You don’t achieve it, control, or summon it up within yourself.
John 3:7-8, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So, you know that arcade machine that’s full of stuffed animals or some other prize? And you pay a dollar to control a grabbing arm and for 30 seconds you have a chance to grab one of those prizes. That machine is like your heart. You can use that arm to grab anything in the machine. You are free to grab anything in that machine. But that arm can’t grab what’s not in the machine. What’s in the machine is all it has to work with. All it can do is grab what’s in the machine. That’s the human heart. All it’s choices are limited to what’s in the machine – which is really bad news if you’ve got a dragonish heart – as every human sinner does.
So, Eustace is turned into a dragon, because he has a dragonish heart and so, he needs to be un-dragoned. If we’re true citizens of Narnia, we know that what Eustace really needs is to meet Aslan.
After a miserable season of being dragoned, Aslan shows up and leads Eustace to a pool of water for washing. But before he can wash, Aslan tells Eustace that he must undress. In other words, he needs to shed his dragon skin.
Eustace tries his best and he claws at his skin and it seems like he is succeeding. He sheds a layer and feels pretty good about it but as soon as he begins to get into the pool he realizes there’s another layer. He’s still a dragon. He does this three times. He says, after the third time “Oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?”
Maybe you’ve had the same realization about your own dragon-heart….how many times can this onion be peeled? How many layers of sin and selfishness are there? This is Eustace. He isn’t just “dragoned”. He is “helplessly dragoned.” After every layer he peels off himself, there’s just another one.
So, he does it three times and then Aslan finally says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Ultimately, Aslan must get his claws down into every layer, and go to work.
What is Lewis getting at? It’s not that he has a low view of man – Lewis didn’t think people were hopeless scummy dragons – we’ve already seen with Edmund that the point of seeing our sin is not so that we will just feel bad and hang our heads in self-pity. Rather, when Lewis points out our dragon layers it is so that we will lift our heads as we see that our salvation really and truly is all of grace.
Listen to Lewis’ own words about his own conversion in Surprised by Joy. He says, “All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free unbounded grace.”
Lewis would have his readers understand that new birth is truly an act of God’s intervening grace. Of course, this is why Jesus himself employs the image of birth in John 3. Conception and birth just happen to you. You don’t vote about being born. You are summoned into the world.
The Bible does this in other places as well to illustrate new birth and salvation. Think of Lazarus, as one author points out: the story of Lazarus and his resurrection is not a story of Lazarus pushing on his tombstone from one side, while Jesus pulls from the other. The Son of God simply speaks, and the dead man must obey.
Lewis is reported to have said that “Grace” is the most significant contribution of Christianity to the world. No other religion, philosophy, or movement has a message of true, saving grace.
That means, as you look at the ideas of the world around you – the world that your natural born heart is inclined to trust – that world is nothing but grace alternatives. True new birth is a gift of the sovereign, intervening grace of another but your heart is inclined to the alternative and the world offers nothing but alternatives.
Here it is: The main alternative to grace is anything you do to try and put God in your debt.
I feel like I can expect good treatment/acceptance from God because:
- I look good on the outside – I’m beautiful
- I’m Intelligent – I make good choices-God helps those who helps themselves after all
- I’m a hard worker – not like those slobs or millennials who never worked a hard day
- I’m nicer than others – not like those malcontents who always complain about younger generations
- I’m more honest than others – so I hurt some people’s feelings but that’s just because they’re overly sensitive – I think God likes my honesty
- I’m more successful than others – I must be doing something right.
- I’m more laid back – not like all those fussy people who freak out about everything…
I don’t know what it is for you, but usually if we want to feel like God is going to accept us and treat us well, what we do is, we basically compare ourselves to Hitler and think that we’re doing pretty good.
We’re like cats, dropping dead birds on our master’s porch as if we’ve brought something really nice to Him. This, by the way, is actually a biblical idea – only the Bible is way more offensive: Isaiah 64:6, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” They’re soiled rags.
So, grace is when God not only intervenes to take your sin like Aslan did with Edmund, it’s when he intervenes to also take away your own self-righteousness like he does with Eustace. No matter how righteous Eustace thought he could have been, he can’t get the dragon skin off him. He needs the claws of grace.
That’s why it hurts. That’s why Aslan uses his claws. Grace has claws. It sets it’s sharp edges against your dragon skin. It wrecks your pride because all you can do is receive it. It wrecks your pride because you know that you can’t be your own boss anymore. If your salvation and transformation is all of grace – there’s nothing God can’t ask of you. You are owned by the giver of sovereign grace and it’s all gift.
The way to test out whether or not you’ve received it is to consider how you feel when others receive it too. Remember Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard? The point of that story was that grace belongs to God. Don’t complain when He gives it to whom he will.
It’s no coincidence that the first person Eustace meets and talks with after he’s un-dragoned is Edmund. Eustace describes what it was like to be undragoned and Edmund says to him and one point, “I know exactly what you mean.” So, Lewis intentionally puts these two together to show how one person who is truly transformed by grace treats another horrible person who has also been transformed by grace. And what he shows is Edmund celebrating that with him.
The further away you are from celebrating God’s grace in other people’s lives is the further you are away from having that transforming grace in your own life. God’s grace is His – He gives it to whom he will and we ought to celebrate when we see it in others.
As a side-note, this is why the world right now is clamoring for equity. Rather than celebrate different outcomes as gracious gifts to others they want what others have.
And that can happen on a very small scale in your heart as well. Envy is possibly the chief sign that you have not been touched by the transforming grace of God. But, if Aslan really gets his claws into you, the envy skin is pulled away, your very high opinion of yourself is pulled away, and you’re left with the gratitude and gladness that comes from someone greater than yourself intervening in your life.
3. Jill (New Birth Being Cornered By Joy)
The last image of new birth comes from Jill in The Silver Chair. And Jill gives us an image of new birth as being cornered by joy. Being born again is like being cornered by joy. To say it another way, the call to be born again is irresistible.
So, for Jill’s story, I just want to have a little story time with you. I just want to read it right from The Silver Chair. One reason I want to go straight to it is that this might be my favorite passage in all the Narnian stories. Another reason is that if I try to summarize it, I won’t do it justice. Lewis does this perfectly.
To set it up: In the Silver Chair, Jill is drawn into Narnia with Eustace – this will be Eustace’s second time in Narnia but the first for Jill, Eustace’s classmate. They’re drawn first into Aslan’s country, on the highest mountain either of them could have ever imagined.
Jill begins to creep toward the edge of the cliff and show off. Because of her showing off Eustace winds up tripping and falling off the cliff. Aslan intervenes at this point and Eustace is carried off to safety in Narnia by being flown there on Aslan’s breath.
But, as this is Jill’s first time in Narnia, this whole event leaves her terrified. She’s terrified from her own near fall, from Eustace’s actual fall, and from the sudden appearance of a terrifying lion.
She cries for a good long time and in her fear, regret and guilt she suddenly realizes how terribly thirsty she is. The good news is that she can see a crystal clear stream that will quench her thirst. The bad news is that the lion that scared her so terribly is sitting right beside the stream.
Let me pick up right where Aslan begins to speak.
- “If you are thirsty, come and drink.”
- [When she won’t come Aslan says]… “Are you not thirsty?”
- “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
- “Then drink,” said the Lion.
- “May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” Said Jill.
- The Lion answered this only by a look and very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
- “Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” Said Jill.
- “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
- Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
- “Do you eat girls?” she said.”
- “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion.” It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
- “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
- “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
- “Oh dear! Said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go look for another stream then.”
- “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
- It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion – no one who had seen his stern face could do that – and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up the water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished. Now she realized that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all. She got up and stood there with her lips still wet from drinking.
- “Come here,” said the Lion. And she had to.
What are we being shown?
Lewis, I think, intends partly here to illustrate his own conversion. He is showing that the call to come and be changed (born again) is an irresistible call. The call to drink is irresistible. It frightens her, but on the others side of her fear is crystal clear water that quenches your thirst instantly. And there comes a point where she can’t resist anymore.
There is an irony here. Of course, in one sense, the call is entirely resistible. Lots of people spend years upon years resisting. Lewis’ own experience was one of years of resistance. He came slowly, over time, from atheism, to theism, to religion to Christianity.
To some degree this is everyone’s experience. We’re “dying of thirst” but are scared of what it may cost to drink from the Jesus stream.
We want the joy of his crystal clear water, life, refreshment, peace, and yet we’re scared of what changes he might insist on or what demands he may have.
Like Jill, we are called to drink but we want to bargain with the Lord.
Jill asks, can you go away while I drink. She wants the gift without the giver. We like the idea of how Jesus might benefit us but not necessarily Jesus.
Incidentally, this was actually the problem with Nicodemus. Immediately before the conversation with Nicodemus we read that Jesus would not entrust himself to the crowds because they he could see into their hearts and their hearts loved his miracles but they didn’t really love him. They loved what he might offer but not Jesus himself. And it’s after that comment that we meet the man Nicodemus who asks about Jesus’ signs and Jesus sees his heart and says, “You want the benefit of God’s Kingdom, Nicodemus, but if you’re ever going to see it, you need to accept it’s King. You need to be born again.”
Like Jill, we need to realize that we can bargain with Jesus and use him for his benefits as easily as we could ask a mountain to move for our convenience.
Another thing that we try to do – and that Jill does – is dictate terms. We try to set certain terms with Jesus. “Will you promise not to – do anything to me if I come?” Will you keep my kids alive if I come? Will you save my marriage if I come? Will you give me long life if I come? Promise not to do anything to me?”
“I make no promise.”
At this point we consider an alternative way of quenching our thirst to which Aslan replies, “there is no other stream.”
And so, we drink – we “taste and see that the Lord is good”. “Come here,” says the Lion. “And she had to.”
This is meant to be a reflection of Lewis’ own experience. He writes in his autobiography about his final step into Christian faith.
“I say I chose [to surrender my life to Christ] yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done.”
In other words, this call to come and be changed is part of the changing. You have to answer it because the call itself is working on you. The joy of the Lord is after you and the fact that you must answer it is not the opposite of freedom. It is freedom.
In Christ I finally see the one that can quench my thirst, the one who will take my guilt, the one who will answer my questions, tell me the truth, who can’t be manipulated by me or anyone else, will be strong when I’m weak, and faithful when I fail. It’s scary but that’s what’s on the other side of drinking from the stream.
Application: We live in a safety obsessed world. Especially in the last couple of years. Many were so obsessed with preserving life that they stopped living it. How should born again Christians live in this safety obsessed world?
Well, being the forgiven traitors we are, the new creatures born of grace that we are, we are uniquely positioned to live lives of unreserved joy, gratitude, and generosity in a scared, selfish, envious, world.
As the world fearfully moves more and more of it’s life and religion online it is Christians that will shine as lights as they gather with real flesh and blood people, breath the same air, break the same bread, and sing loudly with all their hearts that Jesus is King and he is on the move.
So, you should have your neighbors over for supper. You should make the best recipes. You should go to church every week even if it costs you that spot on the team. When you sing it should be with gladness and rejoicing – even if it’s not your favorite song – when the preacher opens the Bible you should expect God to speak.
You should overlook small offenses and laugh at the future. Because the king has called you to come and drink, to come and die to yourself, that you may live.