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Merely Christian

Thomas J Parlette

“Merely Christian”

1st Thessalonians 5: 16-24



Religious books are big business. In the United States, sales revenue has recently been around 500 million per year. About 50 million religious books are sold each year, both fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary. Maybe you’ll be getting one for Christmas in a couple of weeks.

But with so many books to choose from, how do you know which ones have value? Which ones are good and which ones are great? Aside from the Bible, what would you say is the best Christian book of all time?

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship tried to answer that question a few years ago. Their Emerging Scholars Network held a “Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament”, a single elimination tournament with brackets, sort of like the NCAA basketball tournament. The Final Four turned out to be:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien,

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis,

And Confessions by Saint Augustine.

After a heated, hypothetical battle, Confessions edged out Mere Christianity for the top spot, earning the title of “Best Christian Book of All Time.”(1) But with all due respect to Augustine – my vote would have been for Lewis.

Mere Christianity was published for the first time 65 years ago, 1952. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even conceived as a book. During the darkest days of World War II, Lewis prepared four sets of radio talks on basic Christianity, and those evolved, with some editing, into the book Mere Christianity. Since 1952, the book’s popularity has grown, and between 2001 and 2016, it sold 3.5 million copies in English alone. On top of that, it has been translated into at least 36 languages. For many Christians, Mere Christianity is their favorite religious book apart from the Bible.(2)

That is certainly true for Timothy Keller and his wife Kathy. Keller, the Founder and Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the best-selling author of The Reason For God, said recently, “my wife Kathy has always been a huge C.S. Lewis fan and would practically beat me over my head with his books.”

Kathy Keller’s interest in Lewis came at a young age, when at 12 she wrote to Lewis to tell him she was one of his few fans, and he responded – four times. The last letter from him arrived 11 days before he died. “I wrote thinking I would console the man and tell him he had at least a few admirers, not knowing that he was hugely popular,” she said. He was formative because my whole intellectual life as a Christian was shaped of nothing but Lewis, not even the Bible.”(3) Indeed, Timothy Keller’s book The Reason For God owes a huge debt to Lewis – Keller quotes him 21 times – second only to Jesus himself with 29 citations.

So why has C.S. Lewis been so important? Why is Mere Christianity one of the best Christian books of all time? According to church historian George Marsden, Lewis “was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity rather than the latest theological or cultural fashions.” The book is his attempt to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. That is Mere Christianity.

I admit that when I was first introduced to C.S. Lewis in high school – I didn’t like that title Mere Christianity. It made Christianity sound unimportant – like it was no big deal. I thought it was vaguely demeaning. That’s how I understood the word “mere.”

But I’ve come to understand that Lewis was using it in a different way. “Mere” is an adjective meaning “solely” – with synonymns such as “only” or “just.” It comes from a Latin root meaning “undiluted”, which in Late Middle English – which was one of Lewis fields of expertise – came to mean “pure” or “sheer.”

So an alternative title for C.S. Lewis’ work could have been Undiluted Christianity or Just Christianity or even Pure Christianity. That comes closer to the meaning I believe Lewis intended for Mere Christianity.

And I think that’s what Paul is trying to do here in his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica. He is giving these new Christians the basics, the timeless truths. Paul wants them to become undiluted, pure Christians – merely Christian, as C.S. Lewis might put it.

This letter, First Thessalonians is arguably one of the earliest pieces of scripture we have, while last week we looked at one the latest in 2nd Peter. This letter was written about 15 years or so after Jesus ascended into heaven. After Paul’s years of persecuting the early Christians, he came to faith on the road to Damascus and began travelling to preach and start worshipping communities. The group he started in Thessalonica was clearly one of his favorites. He refers to them as “beloved” and “brothers and sisters” multiple times, he talks about them as being like his children and writes about his eagerness to see them again. Paul has a special place in heart for these followers of the way in Thessalonica.

Paul understood that worshipping Jesus as the son of one true God in Thessalonica was a challenge. Thessalonica was a diverse and thriving city. The worship of multiple gods was popular and even expected. This was going to put the Christian community there in a potentially bad spot – open to persecution and ridicule that could lead some members astray.

Paul was well aware of the difficulty of living in this between time of waiting for Jesus’ return. He was facing the same problem that the writer of 2nd Peter addressed last week, the question, “How should we live as we wait for the advent of Jesus?”

To answer that question, Paul fires off eight imperatives – eight things, eight ways of living that Paul sees as the key to being merely Christian.

Rejoice always… Pray without ceasing…Give thanks in all circumstances… Follow the Holy Spirit…. Listen to the prophets… Test everything… Hold fast to what is good… Abstain from all evil.

I also like how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message…

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens; Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what is good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.

This is the approach to life that is Merely Christian.

Years ago, Frederick Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, another book that would make my short list of Christian Classics that:

“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the Son of God. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

And some think of a Christian as just a nice guy, a good person,

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine or religion was the way, the truth and the life. He said that He was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.”(4)

This is the way of life that Paul writes about to the Thessalonians.

This is the way of life that Paul calls us all to live.

Many of you receive email version of the Good News in Brief from the church office each week. At the very end of each newsletter there is a quote or two. I thought the one included for this week’s edition fit especially well with Paul’s thoughts. It was a quote from William Makepeace Thackery…

“The world is like a looking glass, and gives back to every person the reflection of their own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sour upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind of companion.”

What Paul talks about here – living with joy and gratitude and love – are just the kinds of things we would all want reflected back in our lives.

And so my friends, in this season of Advent, practice being merely Christian…

Live with joy… Pray constantly… Give thanks, no matter what… Be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit… And walk in the ways of love.

Do that, and you will be Merely Christian.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 6, p52.

2.    Ibid…p52.

3.    Ibid…p55.

4.    Ibid…p57.