Dallas Willard

In the early 1980s, Richard J. Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline had a huge impact on the evangelical world.

I think it would be fair to describe Foster as an evangelical Quaker, and he wrote for a North American audience that had not paid much attention to classical Christian disciplines such as simplicity, silence, fasting, meditation etc. Indeed, many American evangelicals were suspicious of such an emphasis, because it sounded ‘catholic’ and also smacked of ‘works righteousness’ to them. Nonetheless, ‘Celebration of Discipline’ became a best-seller, and Foster went on to write several other excellent books such as Freedom of Simplicity, Money, Sex, and Power, and Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.

In his writings, Foster made a number of references to Dallas Willard. In the foreword to Celebration of Discipline he writes,

It was through the friendship and teaching of Dallas Willard that I first saw the meaning and necessity of the Spiritual Disciplines. For many years he has been my mentor in the Disciplines. His life is the embodiment of the principles in this book.

This was the first I had heard of Dallas Willard, a former Baptist pastor who made anDallas-Willard early move into academia and taught philosophy for nearly fifty years at the University of Southern California.

When Celebration of Discipline first appeared, I don’t think Willard had published anything on the spiritual disciplines or the life of discipleship. However, he has since made up for it. In 1988 he laid the theological and philosophical groundwork for the disciplines in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines. He has since published a number of books, including The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, and The Great Omission. They have all focussed on the theme of transformation: how God transforms us into the likeness of Christ.

As John Ortberg says in this article,

Many of us in the church have been impacted by Dallas through his teachings and writings that are often categorized as being about ‘spiritual formation,’ although his real preoccupation and concern was focused on the ‘kingdom of God’, or what he would often speak about as the ‘with-God life.’ He said the four great questions humans must answer are: What is reality? What is the good life? Who is a good person? And How do you became a good person? His concern was to answer those questions, and live the answers, and he was simply convinced that no one has ever answered them as well as Jesus.

Dallas Willard died on Wednesday at the age of 77, and over the past couple of days I’ve found myself reflecting on his influence on me. I was particularly impacted by The Spirit of the Disciplines and The Divine Conspiracy, especially the latter, which includes one of the most brilliant expositions of the Sermon on the Mount I’ve ever read.

Dallas was steering his ship between the two equal and opposing errors of antinomianism and legalism: in other words, between an overemphasis on grace that discounted works altogether on the one hand, and such an overemphasis on works that the result was guilt and a sense of failure on the other. How did he avoid these two obvious pitfalls? By his conviction that if we want to teach people to live like Jesus, we do so not just by focussing on specific actions that Jesus did, but by his overall way of life, which was characterized by what would, in those days, have been common spiritual disciplines such as fasting, solitude, silence, meditation etc. It was Dallas’ contention that Jesus’ communion with the Father through the use of spiritual disciplines enabled him to live as he did. Here are a couple of  quotes from the introduction to The Spirit of the Disciplines:

Christianity can only succeed as a guide for current humanity if it does two things…First, it must take the need for human transformation as seriously as do modern revolutionary movements…Second, it needs to clarify and exemplify realistic methods of human transformation. It must show how the ordinary individuals who make up the human race today can become, through the grace of God, a love-filled, effective, and powerful community…

My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing – by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.

What activities did Jesus practice? Such things as solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, intense study and meditation upon God’s Word and God’s ways, and service to others…

Dallas believed that this teaching of the way in which humans could actually be transformed – what he called ‘the renovation of the heart’ – was the ‘great omission’ in our presentation of the Gospel today – the ‘teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ of Matthew 28:20. He lamented the fact that while many churches have outreach plans and plans for construction of new buildings, few have a plan for this vital area of teaching true discipleship.

Ask your church, ‘What is our group’s plan for teaching our people to do everything Christ commanded?’ The fact is that our existing churches and denominations do not have active, well-designed, intently pursued plans to accomplish this in their members. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, ch.2).

His later books, especially The Divine Conspiracy and The Renovation of the Heart, went a long way toward addressing this deficiency.

So today, I’m thanking God for the life and teaching of Dallas Willard, a wise guide in the art of human transformation. I expect I’ll spend a lot of time this summer re-reading his books and pondering the question of whether I’ve been as careful as I should be about putting into practice the truths I’ve learned in them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t run across his writings yet, why not dip into them for yourself and see what they have to offer?


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