Authentic discipleship transforms all aspects of life, every day, at work, at home, in all relationships. My discipleship to Jesus is, within clearly definable limits, not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Barbara Elliott as she invites us to consider the legacy of philosopher Dallas Willard. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
One of the great oaks among us is fallen. Dallas Willard, who died May 8 (2013), was a professor of philosophy, a teacher par excellence, and a great soul, capable of inspiring deep faith. As a young Southern Baptist pastor in the 1960s, he left the ministry to study philosophy because he was convinced he was “abysmally ignorant” of God and the soul, and had concluded that Jesus and the philosophers were addressing the same questions. Willard pushed deep into the intellectual roots of philosophy and Christian theology, while nourishing the spiritual disciplines of silence and prayer. The result was a quietly luminous relationship with Christ himself, which shone forth through Willard’s books on discipleship. The Divine Conspiracy won awards when it was published in 1998, setting off a series of explosions in the church world by causing people who called themselves Christians to evaluate their actual relationship with Christ, if they had one at all.
Christ’s Great Commission was to “go and make disciples” and the church is failing to do that, says Willard, and failing rather miserably. A disciple of Jesus is one who is with Jesus, learning to be like him, but as Willard points out, “one can be a professing Christian and a church member in good standing without being a disciple. There is, apparently, no real connection between being a Christian and being a disciple of Jesus.”
If we are not truly disciples, we are missing the opportunity to step into “the divine conspiracy,” the collaboration with God here and now, where he is at work renewing his creation. He invites us into partnership with him. As Willard explains in The Divine Conspiracy, “God’s own ‘kingdom,’ or ‘rule,’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done. The person of God himself and the action of his will are the organizing principles of his kingdom, but everything that obeys those principles, whether by nature or by choice, is within his kingdom.” This kingdom is among us, and is accessible now.
“Think of visiting in a home where you have not been before,” said Willard in his mellifluous baritone voice. “It is a fairly large house, and you sit for a while with your host in a living room or on the veranda. Dinner is announced, and he ushers you down a hall, saying at a certain point, ‘Turn, for the dining room is at hand,’ or more likely, ‘Here’s the dining room.’” Jesus invites us to step into his kingdom with the same clear directions. There is no suggestion in scripture that the kingdom hasn’t happened yet or is about to happen or about to be here. “Where God’s will is being accomplished, the kingdom of God is right beside us. It is indeed The Kingdom Among Us.” Christ invites us to take part in it now, as partners with God in the “divine conspiracy.”
Co-Conspirators with God
This exhilarating role as co-conspirators with God, agents mixed into the ordinary workings of the world, is the task for which we were born, asserted Willard. But simply showing up to do church-related things is not discipleship, he warned, not by a long shot. We were created to participate in the “kingdom among us” as well as the kingdom of heaven after we die, and that participation should be evidence of God’s life within us.
“The human job description…found in chapter 1 of Genesis indicates that God assigned to us collectively the rule over all living things on earth, animal and plant. We are responsible before God for life on the earth. However unlikely it may seem from our current viewpoint, God equipped us for this task by framing our nature to function in a conscious, personal relationship of interactive responsibility with him. We are meant to exercise our ‘rule’ only in union with God, as he acts with us. He intended to be our constant companion or co-worker in the creative enterprise of life on earth. That is what his love for us means in practical terms.”
“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends among us the Way to himself. That shows what, in his heart of hearts, God is really like – indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”
Dallas Willard devoured books as a child during the Great Depression, while he was schooled in a one-room Missouri schoolhouse. “Plato was his companion when he worked as an agricultural laborer after high school.
Willard recalls giving his Baptist Sunday school teachers a ‘very bad time’ as a young teenager. He didn’t think it made sense that you ‘got saved’ and were ‘stuck with it.’” His questions led him to some conclusions that pushed the boundaries of his Southern Baptist upbringing.
After Willard left pastoring to study philosophy, he encountered Richard Foster, a Quaker pastor, forging a friendship and collaboration that would extend across the coming decades into the ecumenical work of Renovarè, a ministry that transcends denominational lines to foster discipleship in Christ. In addition to teaching philosophy to university students and speaking in conferences across the country, Dallas Willard was the author of The Spirit of the Disciplines; Hearing God; Renovation of the Heart; The Great Omission; as well as The Divine Conspiracy; and a book on German philosopher Edmund Husserl, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge.
Willard’s philosophical study of reality in phenomenology led him to probe the results of people’s beliefs. He was troubled by the gap between people professing faith and living it. As he explained in The Divine Conspiracy, “According to Gallup surveys, 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent confess to a ‘new birth’ experience. These figures are shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same groups for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings, and the like.”
Where is the Transformation of Character?
“The understanding of a commitment to Jesus Christ has not penetrated our character deeply enough to influence our behavior,” laments Willard, “transformation of life and character are not a part of the redemptive message offered by the church today.” My experience in working with both protestant and Catholic congregations across the country leads me to conclude that he is correct in his assessment. Far too few people who say they believe in Christ show evidence of becoming more like him.
“The current gospels, left and right, exhibit the very same type of conceptual disconnection from, and practical irrelevance to, the personal integrity of believers – and certainly so, if we put that integrity in terms of biblically specific ‘Christlikeness,’” observes Willard. “And both lack any essential bearing upon the individual’s life as a whole, especially upon the occupations or work time and upon the fine texture or our personal relationships in the home and neighborhood.” The fruits of faith that should be transforming the world and the relationships of Christ’s followers are lacking. “So as things now stand we have, on the one hand, some kind of ‘faith in Christ’ and, on the other, the life of abundance and obedience he is and offers. But we have no effective bridge from the faith to the life. Some do work it out. But when that happens it is looked upon as a fluke or an accident, not a normal and natural part of the regular good news itself.”
The result is that “the resources of God’s kingdom remain detached from human life. There is no gospel for human life and Christian discipleship, just one for death or one for social action. The souls of human beings are left to shrivel and die on the plains of life because they are not introduced into the environment for which they were made, the living kingdom of eternal life,” Willard concludes. “To counteract this we must develop a straightforward presentation, in word and life, of the reality of life now under God’s rule, through reliance upon the word and person of Jesus. In this way we can learn from him how to live our lives as he would live them if he were we. We can enter his eternal kind of life now.”
But we have to cooperate with God’s purposes in our life. We enter into an apprenticeship, a partnership with Christ, learning to listen and walk with him, collaborating with him as he shows us what he is doing in a given situation. “Within his overarching dominion God has created us and has given each of us, like him, a range of will – beginning from our minds and bodies and extending outward, ultimately to a point not wholly predetermined but open to the measure of our faith. His intent is for us to learn to mesh our kingdom with the kingdoms of others. Love of neighbor, rightly understood, will make this happen. But we can only love adequately by taking as our primary aim the integration of our rule with God’s. That is why love of neighbor is the second, not the first, commandment and why we are told to seek first the kingdom, or rule, of God.”
The Cosmic Conspiracy to Overcome Evil with Good
If we align our heart and will with God through prayer and honestly seek to cooperate with what he is doing among us now, “as God’s flash point in reigniting eternal life among us, he inducts us into the eternal kind of life that flows through himself. He does this first by bringing that life to bear upon our needs, and then by diffusing it throughout our deeds—deeds done with expectation that he and his Father will act with and in our actions.” The life of Christ, his love, his wisdom, and his power, flow through us into the lives we touch. “Then we heartily join his cosmic conspiracy to overcome evil with good.”
A “major element in this training is experience in waiting for God to move, not leaping ahead and taking things into our own hands. Out of this waiting experience there comes a form of character that is priceless before God, a character that can be empowered to do as one chooses. This explains why James says that patience in trials will make us ‘fully functional’ (teleion), ‘perfect’ (James 1:4).” Doing things with God’s timing is essential. “Sometimes we must wait for God to do as we ask because the answer involves changes in other people, or even ourselves, and that kind of change always takes time. Sometimes, apparently, the changes in question involve conflicts going on in a spiritual realm lying entirely outside human affairs (Dan. 10:13). We always live in a larger context of activities we do not see.”
Becoming a disciple does not mean doing a few religious things once a week and leaving the rest of our life the same. Authentic discipleship transforms all aspects of life, every day, at work, at home, in all relationships. “So as his disciple I am not necessarily learning how to do special religious things, either as a part of ‘full-time service’ or as a part of ‘part-time service.’ My discipleship to Jesus is, within clearly definable limits, not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it. And it covers everything, ‘religious’ or not. Brother Lawrence, who was a kitchen worker and cook, remarks, “Our sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.”
It’s About the Kind of Person We Become
What God gets out of our lives—and, indeed, what we get out of our lives–is simply the person we become. .” Living as a disciple means emulating Jesus. “We do not just hear what Jesus said to do and try to do that. Rather, we also notice what he did, and we do that too. We notice, for example, that he spent extended times in solitude and silence, and we enter solitude and silence with him. We note what a thorough student of the scriptures he was,
and we follow him, the Living Word, into the depths of the written word. We notice how he used worship and prayer, how he served those around him. We have Bibles with red letters to indicate what he said. Might we not make good use of a Bible that has green letters for what he did? Green for ‘go,’ or ‘do it’?” I sometimes wonder if our churches need to measure not how many people they seat, but how many they send.
This is not a call for activism. Instead it is a call for deep inner alignment with God’s purposes. The means by which we align our heart with that of God is prayer, which is the primary means of forming character. It combines our freedom with God’s power, resulting in service through love. Transformed hearts produce transformed persons, through and through, and deeds arise from the heart quickened by faith. “The deeds of the kingdom arise naturally out of a certain quality of life. We cultivate that life in its wholeness by directing our bodies into activities that empower the inner and outer person for God and through God. In this second part of the curriculum for Christlikeness, then the main task is, by engaging in ways of using the body differently, to disrupt and conquer habits of thought, feeling, and action that govern our lives as if we or someone other than God were God and as if his kingdom were irrelevant or inaccessible to us.” Spiritual disciplines forge the unity of mind, body, and soul.
Willard reminds us that this has been true for all souls throughout all ages of Christendom. The great souls “who have made great spiritual progress all seriously engaged with a fairly standard list of disciplines for the spiritual life. There has been abuse and misunderstanding, no doubt, but the power of solitude, silence, meditative study, prayer, sacrificial giving, service, and so forth as disciplines are simply beyond question.” These spiritual disciplines “aim at the heart and its transformation. We want to ‘make the tree good.’ We do not aim just to control behavior, but to change the inner castle of the soul, that God may be worshiped ‘in spirit and in truth’ and right behavior cease to be a performance.” Our inner substance is actually transformed.
Christ makes disciples and when they become genuinely Christlike, he allows us to take responsibility in his kingdom work. “When we submit what and where we are to God, our rule or dominion then increases. In Jesus’ words from the parable of the talents (Mt. 25) our Master says, ‘Well done! You were faithful with a few things, and I will put you in charge of many things.’…For God is unlimited creative will and constantly invites us, even now, into an ever larger share in what he is doing.” Some of those things are quite surprising.
God’s Grubby People
Dallas Willard gives a reading of the Beatitudes that stretched my understanding of who the “blessed” truly are. He claims that the Beatitudes are addressed to the “hopeless blessables” and to the seriously crushed. “The flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned-outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorces. The HIV-positive and the herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurably ill. The barren and the pregnant too-many- times or at the wrong time. The overemployed, the underemployed, the unemployed. The unemployable. The swindled, the shoved aside, the replaced. The parents with children living on the side of the street, the children with parents not dying in the ‘rest’ home. The lonely, the incompetent, the stupid. The emotionally starved or emotionally dead.” “Even the moral disasters will be received by God as they come to rely on Jesus, count on him, and make him their companion in his kingdom. Murderers and child-molesters. The brutal and the bigoted. Drug lords and pornographers. War criminals and sadists. Terrorists. The perverted and the filthy and the filthy rich.” That understanding removes the “them and the “us” from any people we may encounter. “If I, as a recovering sinner myself, accept Jesus’ good news, I can go to the mass murderer and say, ‘You can be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens. There is forgiveness that knows no limits.’ To the pederast and the perpetrator of incest. To the worshiper of Satan. To those who rob the aged and weak. To the cheat and the liar, the bloodsucker and the vengeful: Blessed! Blessed! Blessed! As they flee into the arms of The Kingdom Among Us. These are God’s grubby people.” Jesus sought them out, and we are called to do the same.
“Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these ‘brands plucked from the burning.’ If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign something has gone wrong.
For here are the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised of the world, whom God has chosen to cancel out the humanly great (1 Cor. 1:26-31; 6).” We all meet at the foot of the cross. “Speaking to these common people, ‘the multitudes,’ who through him had found blessing in the kingdom, Jesus tells them it is they, not the ‘best and brightest’ on the human scale, who are to make life on earth manageable as they live from the kingdom (Mt. 5: 13-16). God gives them ‘light’- truth, love, and power – that they might be the light for their surroundings. He makes them ‘salt’ to cleanse, preserve, and flavor the times through which they live.”
A Curriculum for Christlikeness
Doctrine is not discipleship, says Willard. To form a “curriculum for Christlikeness,” we need to move away from two objectives “that are often taken as primary goals [and] must not be left in that position….These are external conformity to the wording of Jesus’ teachings about actions in specific context and profession of perfectly correct doctrine. Historically these are the very things that have obsessed the church visible….We need wait no longer. The results are in. They do not provide a course of personal growth and development that routinely produced people who ‘hear and do.’”
“Much the same can be said of the strategies – rarely taken as primary objectives, to be sure, but much used – of encouraging faithfulness to the activities of a church or other outwardly religious routines and various ‘spiritualities,’ or the seeking out of special states of mind or ecstatic experiences. These are good things. But let it be said once and for all that, like outward conformity and doctrinally perfect profession, they are not to be taken as major objectives in an adequate curriculum for Christlikeness.” These are all secondary. “Special experiences, faithfulness to the church, correct doctrine, and external conformity to the teachings of Jesus all come along as appropriate, more or less automatically, when the inner self is transformed. But they do not produce such a transformation. The human heart must be plowed much more deeply.”
The mind and heart must be filled up by the relationship and presence of God, nurtured in an ongoing conversation and partnership. “When the mind is filled with this great and beautiful God, the ‘natural’ response, once all ‘inward’ hindrances are removed, will be to do ‘everything I have told you to do.’”
How, then, do we teach others to become disciples? First of all, it comes through loving him completely, seeing the magnificence of his person, and allowing his love to fill our lives. Willard tells us, “The key, then, to loving God is to see Jesus, to hold him before the mind with as much fullness and clarity as possible. It is to adore him. For purposes of training disciples, we should divide this into four main aspects. First, we teach his beauty, truth, and power while he lived among us as one human being among others.
“Second, we teach the way he went to execution as a common criminal among other criminals on our behalf….The exclusiveness of the Christian revelation of God lies here. No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe who does not understand that he permitted his son to die on the cross to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is. But that is not just a ‘right answer’ to a theological question. It is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me, with never-failing readiness to take my hand to walk on through life from wherever I may find myself at the time.”
“Third, we teach the reality of Jesus risen, his actual existence now as a person who is present among his people. We present him in his ecclesia, his motley but glorious crew of called-out ones.…So the continuing incarnation of the divine Son in his gathered people must fill our minds if we are to love him and his Father adequately and thus live on the rock of hearing and doing.
“But fourth, we teach the Jesus who is the master of the created universe and of human history. He is the one in control of all the atoms, particles, quarks, ‘strings,’ and so forth upon which the physical cosmos depends.”
Anyone who truly comes to know Jesus in this way, loving him through and through, will want to obey and serve him, not as a duty but out of an abundance of love for him. “Jesus himself knew that this was the key. The keeping of his commandments was the true sign of love for him, because that love is what made it possible and actual. In this love of Jesus everything comes together: ‘If anyone loves me, my word he will keep, and my Father will love him, and we will move in with him and live there’ (John 14:23).”
“In his ‘commencement address’ (John 14-16) to his first apprentices, he once again gives them the all-inclusive commandment ‘that you love one another just as I have loved you’ (John 15:12) After clarifying that this includes ‘laying down our life for our friends,’ and not least for Jesus himself, he makes the following observation: ‘You are my friends if you keep this commandment.’”
Five Dimensions of The Kingdom Among Us
We enter into a changed relationship with Christ, a basis of “loving cooperation, of shared endeavor, in which his aims are our aims and our understanding and harmony with his kingdom are essential to what he does with and through us.” We step across the threshold into the life of The Kingdom Among Us.
Dallas Willard shows us five dimensions of the eternal kind of life in The Kingdom Among Us:
- Confidence in and reliance upon Jesus as the Son of man, the one appointed to save
- But this confidence in the person of Jesus naturally leads to a desire to be his apprentice in living in and from the kingdom of God….Our apprenticeship to him means that we live within his word, that is, put his teachings into practice (John 8:31). And this progressively integrates our entire existence into the glorious world of eternal
- The abundance of life realized through apprenticeship to Jesus, ‘continuing in his word,’ naturally leads to obedience. The teaching we have received and our experience of living with it brings us to love Jesus and the Father with our whole being: heart, soul, mind, and (bodily) strength. And so we love to obey him, even where we do not yet understand or really ‘like’ what that requires.
- Obedience, with the life of discipline it requires, both leads to and, then, issues from the pervasive inner transformation of the heart and soul. The abiding condition of the disciple becomes one of ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering [patience], kindness, goodness, faith to the brim, meekness and self-control.’ (Gal. 5:22)…These are called the ‘fruit of the spirit’ because they are not direct effects of our efforts but are brought about in us as we admire and emulate Jesus and do whatever is necessary to learn how to obey
- Finally, there is power to work the works of the kingdom…Great power requires great character if it is to be a blessing and not a curse, and that character is something we only grow 
What will the kingdom of heaven be like? Willard tells us “[O]ur experience will not be fundamentally different in character from what it is now, though it will change in significant details. The life we now have as the persons we now are will continue, and continue in the universe in which we now exist.
Our experience will be much clearer, richer, and deeper, of course, because it will be unrestrained by the limitations now imposed upon us by our dependence upon our body. It will, instead, be rooted in the broader and more fundamental reality of God’s kingdom and will accordingly have far greater scope and power.”
We are participating in the eternal life now, living in “now” and the “not yet” simultaneously. “The agape love of 1 Corinthians 13 will increasingly become simply a matter of who we are. But the effects of our prayers, words, and deeds – and sometimes of our mere presence – will also increasingly be of a nature and extent that cannot be explained in human terms. Increasingly what we do and say is ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and every part of our life becomes increasingly eternal….We are now co-laborers with God.”
Dallas Willard showed many souls the way to enter the “divine conspiracy” with Christ to overcome evil with good in this realm, while looking toward the next. His wise, warm voice will be missed here, but Heaven most certainly rejoices with his arrival. May he rest in peace.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2013.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Books by Dallas Willard
Translations of Works by Edmund Husserl:
• Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics (1993). Dordrecht/Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
• Philosophy of Arithmetic, (2003). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
• Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Philosophy (Series in Continental Thought, Vol 6) (1984). Ohio University Press.
• The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (1988). San Francisco: Harper and Row.
• The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998). San Francisco: Harper.
• Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God (1999). InterVarsity Press (USA). (formerly titled In Search of Guidance: Understanding How God Changes Lives)
• Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (2002). Colorado Springs: NavPress.
• The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (2006). San Francisco: Harper.
• Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009).San Francisco: Harper.
• Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ’s Pattern for Spiritual Transformation (2005). Colorado Springs: NavPress.
• A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions (2010). IVP Books.
2. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1998), page 291.
3. Ibid., page 25.
4. Ibid., page 31.
6. Ibid., page 22.
7. Ibid., page 11.
9. Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, page 38.
10. Ibid., page 41.
11. Ibid., page 54.
12. Ibid., page 55.
13. Ibid., page 58.
14. Ibid., page 26.
15. Ibid., page 27.
16. Ibid., page 90.
17. Ibid., page 250.
18. Ibid., page 251.
19. Ibid., pages 23-24. Cited from Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1974).
20. Ibid., page 250.
21. Ibid., page 352.
22. Ibid., page 354.
23. Ibid., page 355.
24. Ibid., page 364.
25. Ibid., page 24.
26. Ibid., page 122.
27. Ibid., pages 123-124.
32. Ibid., page 320.
34. Ibid., pages 320-321.
35. Ibid., page 321.
36. Ibid., page 334.
37. Ibid., pages 334-335.
38. Ibid., page 335.
39. Ibid., page 336.
40. Ibid. pages 334-336
41. Ibid., note 12.
42. Ibid., page 336.
43. Ibid., page 367.
46. Ibid., page 368.
47. Ibid., page 395.
48. Ibid., page 396.