Transformation: Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard. Pioneer for the renewal of spiritual formation in the contemporary church.

Dallas Willard. Pioneer for the renewal of spiritual formation in the contemporary church.

Can you tell the difference between someone who says that they are a Christian, and someone who is not?

The Apostle Paul challenges us:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV)

Whoa.  I am not sure I like this type of test. Do you meet the test? Or does it only apply to the really “spiritual” people out there?

The existence of many people who are Christian “in name only” is a serious problem in the contemporary church, even among so-called “Bible-believing” congregations. Dallas Willard, who died on May 8, 2013, believed that he had pinpointed the source of the problem.

Dallas Willard was “on a quiet quest to subvert nominal Christianity“, according to Christianity Today magazine. A professor of philosophy at USC, he had for years been concerned that popular evangelicalism was failing to instruct believers in the art of Christian discipleship. For Willard, the church has been preaching a gospel of forgiveness but not a gospel of disciplined life in Christ. As a result, the contemporary Christian has disconnected salvation from the experience of a life well lived, being more concerned about going to heaven when you die instead of experiencing heaven right here and now.

When someone says that they “got saved“, it typically means that they are talking about the moment they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But is this all there is to salvation? According to Willard’s argument, as developed in numerous works, including his magnum opus, The Divine Conspiracy, knowing that you have been forgiven of your sins made possible by Christ’s death on the cross is only the beginning. The Christian’s journey through life is also about developing the character of Christ, which is an essential part of salvation. Unfortunately, this type of “journey” as a Christian often becomes a matter of checking off a list of “do’s” and “don’t’s”. We are saved by God’s grace when we first become believers, only to find out later on that we have succumbed to a kind of moralism, what Willard calls “sin management”.

The day-to-day spiritual journey is sometimes described as following in obedience to the commands of God, or seeking to “do God’s will”. But Willard has said this really is not the point of living the Christian life. Instead of just wanting us to become obedient, God is more concerned about us becoming the type of persons who simply do what God wants us to do without having to think about it that much. The spiritual journey is less about behavior modification and more about the development of virtue and character. “Doing God’s will” then becomes simply a part of the natural rhythm of life.

The Goal is Transformation:  The Means is Spiritual Formation

Dallas Willard called the goal of the believer’s character development transformation:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…(Romans 12:2,ESV)

How does this renewal of the mind take place? For Willard, this process requires a renewed understanding of spiritual formation. All of us experience spiritual formation, but not everyone’s experience is a good one. Mother Teresa had spiritual formation, but so did Hitler. The question is how do we go about having good spiritual formation as opposed to a poisonous spiritual formation?

Willard argues that a proper spiritual formation requires us to have intentional spiritual practices integrated into our lives. Some are straight forward from the Scriptures, such as prayer, fasting, Scripture memorization, meditation, and study. But it also includes practices developed by Christians down through the ages who have learned the art of spirituality after years of reflecting on the message of the Bible. These would include extended periods of solitude, silence, journaling, letter writing, chastity, confession to another brother or sister in Christ, spiritual direction from someone experienced in the art of spirituality, service to others, and that evangelical classic:  the daily quiet time.

Willard warns that simply going to church, listening to a sermon, and prayer are good, but they are not enough to really develop Christian character. If it were enough, then you would not have the problem with “nominal Christianity” like you have today. Instead,  onlookers would be observing that our churches are filled with those who demonstrate a real, vital and attractive relationship with God.

Willard’s Impact: Transforming Message, or  Doctrinally Suspect Spiritual Narcissism?

Willard’s message has had a growing impact over the last thirty years or more, over a wide theological spectrum. He was a mentor to Christian leaders like Richard Foster, the author of The Celebration of Discipline, and John Ortberg.    Popular pastors such as Rick Warren and John Piper emphasize spiritual formation in their teaching.  Most major evangelical seminaries and Christian colleges now incorporate spiritual formation as part of the training curriculum for Christian leadership.   Willard regularly met with BIOLA evangelical scholars and philosophers like William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. He has also been a major influence on the progressive evangelical Emerging Church movement, including folks like Brian McLaren.

However, not everyone has been enamored with Willard’s message. Some Protestant Christians view Willard’s spiritual formation as being too inward looking and too ambiguous with respect to the doctrines found in Holy Scripture.  These critics dismiss “spiritual formation” as veering towards a type of religious narcissism.  We will examine some of these criticisms to Willard’s approach in future Veracity posts.

Nevertheless, the need for genuine transformation that Willard is calling for has struck a chord with many followers of Christ today. Like Brennan Manning who recently died before him, Willard thought “outside of the box”, challenging the church to rethink what it means to really be a disciple of Jesus. Do not despise the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s truth in unexpected ways, but make sure everything aligns with Holy Scripture. Do not throw out the baby with the bath water. In other words, do you meet the test that the Apostle Paul was talking about?

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 ESV)

Perhaps Dallas Willard, and others like him, will help to prod you to consider what a life well-lived with Christ Jesus in you is all about.

Additional Resources:

Dallas Willard was a very deep thinker.  If you were looking for one place that best summarizes what he was trying to get it, look here.   Near the top of the page is a link to Wheaton College where you will find an audio/visual link to the talk he gave there at a conference in 2009, or go directly to the video here.

A fair and even-handed review of Willard’s contribution to spirituality is found in the First Things magazine.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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