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C.S. Lewis’s short essay, “Three Kinds of Men,” from his collection of essays, Present Concerns (pp. 9-10):

There are three kinds of people in the world.

The first class is of those who live simply for their own sake and pleasure, regarding Man and Nature as so much raw material to be cut up into whatever shape may serve them.

In the second class are those who acknowledge some other claim upon them--the will of God, the categorical imperative, or the good of society--and honestly try to pursue their own interests no further than this claim will allow. They try to surrender to the higher claim as much as it demands, like men paying a tax, but hope, like other taxpayers, that what is left over will be enough for them to live on. Their life is divided, like a soldier’s or a schoolboy's life, into time "on parade" and "off parade," "in school" and "out of school."

But the third class is of those who can say like St Paul that for them "to live is Christ." These people have got rid of the tiresome business of adjusting the rival claims of Self and God by the simple expedient of rejecting the claims of Self altogether. The old egoistic will has been turned round, reconditioned, and made into a new thing. The will of Christ no longer limits theirs; it is theirs. All their time, in belonging to Him, belongs also to them, for they are His.

And because there are three classes, any merely twofold division of the world into good and bad is disastrous. It overlooks the fact that the members of the second class (to which most of us belong) are always and necessarily unhappy. The tax which moral conscience levies on our desires does not in fact leave us enough to live on. As long as we are in this class we must either feel guilt because we have not paid the tax or penury because we have. The Christian doctrine that there is no "salvation" by works done to the moral law is a fact of daily experience. Back or on we must go. But there is no going on simply by our own efforts. If the new Self, the new Will, does not come at His own good pleasure to be born in us, we cannot produce Him synthetically.

The price of Christ is something, in a way, much easier than moral effort--it is to want Him. It is true that the wanting itself would be beyond our power but for one fact. The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural Self hoped for at its setting out. Begging is our only wisdom, and want in the end makes it easier for us to be beggars. Even on those terms the Mercy will receive us.

[HT: Tim Keller; Dane Ortlund]

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13 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis: “Three Kinds of Men””

  1. Jeff says:

    I was having coffee with a brother that has fallen for this rhetoric that Keller and Lewis have espoused, namely that there are “three kinds of men.” It seems like a good idea; it appeals to our sense of fair play; it makes us appear as better than we really are. Isn’t this the heart of our depravity? Making attempts through our own efforts and relativistic evaluations to increase our status before men and the throne of God?

    Lewis is absolutely correct in saying, “any merely twofold division of the world into good and bad is disastrous.” It is disastrous to the egos of men; to their idols; to their evaluation of their goodness; to their very effort to find some redeeming quality in their lives apart from the work of Christ.

    To say that there are three kinds of men is to disagree with the Word of God and Christ. Christ makes it clear in many places, but especially at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: there are two paths; two gates; the many and the few; two trees; two fruits; two men; two houses; two foundations; and two outcomes. Christ tells the parable of two brothers, and note that neither was righteous-one was worldly and the older brother was just as lost because he trusted in his work. Finally, Christ goes on to tell the tale of the Publican and the Pharisee.

    The problem is the so called “second kind of man” is just like the first “kind of man”, he just can’t see it because his eyes have been blinded by the ruler of this world. The call for us as we proclaim the Gospel is to challenge these strongholds with the truth of God’s Word and by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, until men see their utter depravity and helplessness and cast themselves on Christ.

    1. Dane says:

      Jeff, I wonder if Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in essence if not in language, is contrasting Lewis’ 2nd and 3rd kind of person? I.e. he contrasts not right vs wrong but 2 ways to do the right thing: not praying vs. not praying, but praying ostentatiously vs praying in the closet; not generosity vs. greed but generosity for show vs secret/real generosity; etc. It seems that even Jesus implicitly has 3 moral gears in mind (if we add the outright rebellion that Jesus leaves out).

      Thanks for your comment brother.

    2. Chris Haines says:


      I believe Lewis & Kaller agree with your sentiments. They are not trying to make “moral” people better than they are. Indeed, quite the opposite. They are saying there are two ways to be lost. This is helpful because it exposes the self-righteousness and moral bankruptcy of the “elder brother”. Which is exactly your point.

      So the point Lewis is making is not that the second kind of man is “half-good”; but that the only true way to salvation (and indeed happiness) is not morality after all, but a whole new way altogether… the gospel way.

      Dane is right in saying that Jesus doesn’t even address the first group of people (the “younger brothers”). The whole point of his sermon is to undermine the Pharisees moralism.

      I hope you can see that both Keller & Lewis are not disagreeing with the Word of God and Christ in these insights.

    3. Justin Taylor says:


      I think it’s a helpful point that Keller and Lewis can be misunderstood in this way—but to be sure, it’s definitely a misunderstanding.

      Perhaps it’s helpful to think of it this way: there are two ways to live: for God and against God, the narrow gate and the wide gate. But on the anti-God path there are two lanes: rebellion by rule-keeping and rebellion by rule-breaking.

      My experience is that framing it this way is actually more convicting, not less, for the moralistic “older brother” types. I know that I struggle along these lines.


    4. J.Clark says:

      I was just about to say what a genius Lewis was. And so I will, “Lewis is a genius.” He always makes me “get it.” And that is his genius. He is telling us a parable not contradicting Jesus.

  2. David Dorr says:

    “The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us.”

    Man that’s a beautiful sentence…very helpful on a Monday morning :)

  3. pduggie says:

    a bit of a tangent, but why is the older brother in the parable “lost”. Doesn’t he have a loving father in the parable? Doesn’t his father actually give him everything? Doesn’t he still have his inheritance?

    Will the father of the parable actually throw out the older brother over a bit of stingyness?

    1. Christian Rendel says:

      Actually, the older brother isn’t thrown out. At the end of the parable, we see the father pleading with him to come in. Jesus, I believe, very deliberatly leaves open how the older brother will finally respond to the invitation to get over his stingyness and join the feast.

  4. Aaron says:

    I think that what’s being missed in some of the comments above is the idea of process or progress. Many of us are the “2nd type ” of man who are hopefully being changed and moving towards the “3rd type”. Let’s give people the opportunity to grow and search. The sermon on the mount is calling people to walk in a new way with and towards Jesus. I”m not speaking of justification here, but sanctification.

    Same thing with the older brother, was he condemned?. . .Well, if he wasn’t repentant for his attitudes, than perhaps he was. That would perhaps have shown that he wasn’t ever justified. (not trying to read too much into a parable)

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    Something seems wrong about this post.

    Perhaps the way the Old Testament imagery is abstracted away and replaced with concepts like “Moral Effort.”

    Note in Ephesians believers live between Promise and Inheritance. In between those great events salvation consists in the Holy Spirit enabling us to walk in the way of life that is consistent with both.

    Because they have removed the Old Covenant narrative and replaced it with abstract concepts of merit and grace, they really miss the true meaning of the Law Court.

    I also think that Pastors who preach like this must refer a lot of people professional counseling services.

  6. pduggie, Aaron,

    One of the points MacArthur makes in his excellent treatment of the parable (see A Tale of Two Sons, or MacArthur’s 2006 Shepherds’ Conference message) is that the literary structure of this type of Jewish story unbalanced. Structurally, it would seem that Jesus left off the ending to the story. He then posits that the ending is supplied to the story by the actual events of history: the older brother (Pharisees, rulers, chief priests) beats the father to death (the crucifixion).

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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