Screwtape Redux

Review of Operation Screwtape by Andrew Farley

By COYLE NEAL

This book probably needs no summarization. If you are any kind of literate Christian, you’ve probably been at least indirectly exposed to C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters. Andrew Farley has updated Lewis’ work to meet the needs of the 21st century by providing this “translation” of a demon’s how-to manual. Broken into three broad categories (“Steal,” “Kill,” “Destroy”), the instructions walk through the ways in which a tempter might lead a Christian astray.

Like the original, this was no doubt a very difficult book to write. After all, you have to first identify what doctrines you want to express, then express them only in the negative in such a way that it at the same time both appears to be a serious attempt at deception and is clearly something which the author himself does not actually believe at all. In this writing experiment Farley has done an excellent job of meeting these difficulties head on. (Not, of course, as well as C.S. Lewis, but then who could ever claim that?)

In a sense, this is also a difficult book to review. Given the style of narrative and characters involved, anything less than total and complete agreement would seem to be taking the side of the demons. Fortunately, I think most of this book is a pretty solid (theologically) approach to the Gospel. Farley has clearly presented the complete and utter forgiveness that comes through the cross and that is available to every believer. Moreover, he repeatedly reminds us that this forgiveness was accomplished and finished once and for all on the cross, and requires no extra effort on our part to make it work. The doctrine of Christ alone bleeds through the pages of this book.

My two minor hesitations are on his doctrine of sanctification and (related, but not exactly the same) his perspective on the Law.

At one point, he has the demon make the following comment:

We know children of the Enemy are as holy and set apart for him as they will ever be. While their attitudes and actions are being renewed, they cannot possibly set themselves apart any further. Through the Work, they were made perfectly holy, once and for all. They have already become people of his possession, reserved for him. No action of their own could ever make this more true, and any attempt to do so is a waste of time and effort. So what should our goal be other than to have them waste time and effort as they seek to make themselves more holy? (104-105)

Obviously, this is problematic. On the one hand, it is absolutely true if we’re speaking of justification and the certainty of God’s decreed righteousness in Christ for His people. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are holy. And yet, we are also still sinners. There will come a point when we are more holy than we are now, because as long as we live in this world we still live with the remnants of sin in our lives. (Romans 7:19) The Apostle talks about this dual truth in the life of a Christian in the book of Hebrews:

By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

We are both “made perfect forever” and “being made holy.” As Luther said, we are simul iustus et peccator: simultaneously justified and sinners. It is difficult to do, but we must remember both of these truths. If we forget either, at best we fail to give God the appropriate glory, and at worst we wander into either the heresy of perfectionism or the heresy of justification by works.

This relates to the other… hiccup, for lack of a better word. (Again, these are only hesitations. By and large the book is fine and worth reading.) This is basically the question of what relationship we as Christians should have to the Old Testament law. Many, many answers have been given by a whole spectrum of fantastic Christian pastors and theologians (I’ll include some suggestions for further reading on this topic at the end). Farley has his demon write:

Just as you first deceived them, so continue with them. Even if they have dismissed legalistic rules as the means to salvation, they can indeed be taught to retain a law-like system as a means to growth, a catalyst for self-improvement, or a method of pleasing the Enemy. They exchange a prison of steel for a prison of iron. (135)

In broad strokes, I agree with this point. In the same way that justification is by faith alone, so sanctification is by faith alone as well. We do not grow as believers by taking the law and trying really hard to obey it. We grow by increasingly being affected by our faith in the Gospel. (Check out John Owen’s Mortification of Sin for more on that.) And yet, that’s not quite the same thing as saying (as Farley goes on to do) that we completely and totally kick out the Old Testament Law once we become Christians.

And here I’ll make a confession: I’m not entirely sure what I think the relationship between the Old Testament law and the believing Christian should be. To be sure, the Law is a picture of God’s character, and it points us to Christ, and it reveals truths about the covenants God establishes with His people. But should it help shape and define our lives once we’ve come to Christ? Are there aspects of the Law that are useful for us as we grow in our relationship with Christians? Again, I’m not entirely sure what the best answer to these question are, other than I think we should be a bit hesitant to make sweeping categorizations, especially when so many good and faithful Christians continue to disagree on the issue. (See the suggestions for further reading below for a sampling.) Farley especially dances near the danger of dismissing the Law outright. Carried one small step farther one might be tempted (based on his claims) to completely dismiss the Old Testament outright. While he does not go this extra step, he comes closer to it than I’m really comfortable with.

With those two caveats, I still recommend this book. It’s a quick, enjoyable read that encourages us to remember the power and influence of the cross in God’s work of redemption.

Recommended for those who enjoyed The Screwtape Letters.

For Further Reading:

The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (extra short version here)

On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde

Five Views on Law and Gospel by Various

Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther (available free here and here)

Law and Gospel” by John Frame

40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law by Thomas Schreiner

 

Dr. Coyle Neal lives in Washington, DC, where he is undoubtedly far too much at peace with his own demons.

  • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle
  • Mae Tipper

    I appreciate your thoughtful review, however you seem to say that believers are sinners. I agree that Christians can and do still choose to sin but we are not what we do. We are who God says we are in Christ. We are saints. This is our true identity and the more we believe God on this, the more we will reflect who we are by the way we behave. So if we believe we are sinners that too will reflect in our behavior. “As a man thinks in his heart so is he”. I choose to believe God. I am who He says I am. A saint in Christ. Note the opening greeting of Paul to The saints who are at Colossae, to the saints who are in Philippe, to the saints who are at Ephesus, to the saints who are throughout Achaia, to all who are called saints at Rome. There are 50+references to believers called saints to 3 seemingly references calling them sinners. I choose the overwhelming majority. Blessings in Christ our Life.

  • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

    First off, thanks for reading and for the comment- both are greatly appreciated :)

    I think that in one sense you’re absolutely right- Christians are saints. But what is a saint if not a forgiven sinner? When Paul writes to the Corinthians that they are “saints” (I Cor. 1:2), we know for sure that he doesn’t mean that there is a group of sinless individuals living in Corinth. In fact, he rebukes then pretty strongly for failing the exercise church discipline (I Cor. 5:1-2). John goes even farther in I John 1:8, where he says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Note especially the first person plural there- John, an apostle claims to be a sinner!
    As Christians, we are in a sense divided- we are declared to be righteous by God and considered perfect in His sight because of the life and death of Jesus, yet this side of heaven we are still being made righteous in that our sin is still being killed and our holiness is still growing.
    Maybe it’s helpful to make this personal, what would your response be if I were to tell you that since I became a Christian I have not sinned? Granted, you don’t know me personally (unless you’re someone I know writing under a pseudonym), but I’m willing to bet that even just by reading my writing you could conceivably call me on at least my arrogance and my laziness. While I have been declared righteous in Christ, if I were to claim that I do not struggle with those sins, I would have to add lying to the list. (You can add it to the list anyway, I’ve certainly done my share of that.)
    The difference is, as a Christian God’s anger against my sins has been dealt with on the cross, and I have been given 1) the knowledge that they are sins, rather than just weaknesses; 2) a hatred of them and a desire not to sin (though these are not nearly strong enough- yet another couple of sins to add to the list); 3) power in the Spirit to continually resist my sin with more or less success (usually less) until Christ returns or I go to Him- then and only then will I be able to honestly say that I am done with sin forever. Hence the cry of John in Revelation- “come, Lord Jesus.”

  • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

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