Talk of ‘living in the kingdom’ and ‘following Christ’, is common but what does it actually mean? Andy Peck talked to author and Bible teacher, Dallas Willard about his radical insights into what it really means to be a follower of Christ today.
AP Your writings don’t make it easy for anyone to pigeon hole you.What do you say when people ask you where you stand?
DW I try to represent Christ and his teachings and his presence
in the contemporary world. I happen to be from an evangelical background,
which I am very thankful for and I happen to be a believer in the use of
spiritual gifts in their wider sense. My feeling is that Christ is
generally outside the boundaries that we would set for him. In fact much
of what I have to say is an attempt to overcome the boundaries that divide
people who have an allegiance to Christ.
If you were to get to the bottom of my theology you would find me
pretty Calvinistic, but my sense of ministry is to judge the lay of the land for your times and shoot where the enemy is. The enemy in our time is not human capacity, or over activism, but the enemy is passivity - the idea that God has done everything and you are essentially left to be a
consumer of the grace of God and that the only thing you have to do is
find out how to do that and do it regularly. I think this is a terrible
mistake and accounts for the withdrawal of active Christians from so many
areas of life where they should be present. It also accounts for the lack
of spiritual growth, for you can be sure that if you do not act in an
advised fashion consistently and resolutely you will not grow spiritually.
We all know that Jesus said, (in John 15) ‘without me you can do
nothing’. We need to add, ‘if you do nothing, it will be most
assuredly without him.’
Of course we must be concerned about works righteousness. I talk a lot
about the value of spiritual disciplines but also the danger of using them
as if they help us earn our salvation. But it is crucial to realise that
grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude,
effort is action. Without effort, we would be nowhere. When you read the
New Testament you see how astonishingly energetic it is. Paul says,
‘take off the old man, put on the new.’ There is no suggesting that
this will be done for you.
AP Who has influenced your thinking outside of the Bible?
DW The people who have influenced me most are long dead: people
such as in the catholic tradition, Thomas a Kempis, St Francis of Assisi,
St Augustine; in the Protestant tradition, George Fox, John Wesley,
Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter, Jeremy Taylor.
As far as the content of what I try to present is concerned it focuses
on the gospel of the kingdom of God and becoming a disciple of Jesus in
the kingdom of God. SO it doesn't merely have an emphasis on the
forgiveness of sins and assurance of heaven as you are apt to find in most
evangelical circles. I think that is vital but it is not the whole story.
The issue is whole life, other issues are subordinate to that. After all
Jesus said, "I came that you might have life to the full," which
is more than life beyond death.
I have drawn a great deal of encouragement from people like John Owen,
especially as my time is spent in scholarly and academic settings. It is
important for me to be able to picture Jesus within such settings and the
Puritans like Owen are very good at that. Today evangelicals have a real
problem with the intellect. They mistrust the intellect. In the US, many
Christians see the University as an area where human pride and Satan rule
supreme and beyond hope. It has been a major part of my own growth and
development that this is a terrible mistake. People like Owen and Edwards
saw it as a gift of God and an area of redemption.
AP In your first book, Spirit of the Disciplines, you pose
the question 'are we disciples of Jesus or merely Christians by modern
standards? Clearly you are concerned about the state of discipleship in
the American Church. What alarms you most?
DW That the issue of discipleship is thought of as totally
irrelevant to being a Christian which carries over to obedience to
Christ’s teaching. The basic question ‘will I obey Christ ’s
teaching?’ is rarely taken as a serious issue. For example, to take one
of Jesus’ commands, that is relevant to contemporary life, I don’t
know of any church that actually teaches a church how to bless people who
curse them, yet this is a clear command. And there is plenty of cursing
going on, especially on roads! We must remember that Jesus says ‘how can
you call me Lord, Lord, but not do the things that I say?’
AP You say in The Divine Conspiracy that there is a lack of
teaching in the church on the kingdom.
DW This is the reason why people, including pastors, don't see the need for discipleship. What you present as the gospel, will determine what you present as discipleship. If you present as the gospel what is essentially a theory of the atonement and you say if you accept this theory of the atonement, your sins are forgiven and when you die you will be received into heaven, there is no basis for discipleship.
I ask pastors, "does your gospel have a natural tendency to produce disciples?" By disciple I mean someone who is learning from Jesus how to
lead their life as he would lead their life if he were in their place. The
New Testament defines a disciple as someone who is with Jesus learning how
to be more like him.
But if your gospel focuses on the gospel of the kingdom, that we are
invited to live in the kingdom of God then the basis for discipleship
becomes clear. The new birth should be seen as an entrance into the
kingdom of God. John Chapter 3 is not a 'forgiveness of sins' passage but
a new life from above passage. Forgiveness from sins is essential - but it
is not the whole package. One of the main barriers is that people see the
teachings of Christ as laws that they have to obey. They are not. They are
expressions of the life that comes to you, through the new birth and is
naturally disposed to develop a new kind of person inside.
So when many look at the teachings of Christ, they are demoralised.
They say, "I have to do these as I now am?" Of course it's
impossible, but if you say instead that this is the sort of person I can
become, then they open up and appear as things that are good and not an
AP This links in what you say in the Divine Conspiracy about
ways in which Christians, including Bible scholars, have understood the
Sermon on the Mount.
DW I believe that the greatest gift of Jesus, outside the gift
of himself and 'regeneration' is the Sermon on the Mount. But the way most
interpret it actually makes it sound like bad news. This extends for
example to the Beatitudes. People read: 'Blessed are the Poor' and say,
'oh I've got to become poor in order to be blessed'. This is a total
misunderstanding of his teaching. All of his teaching is about the kingdom
of God, entering the kingdom of God through faith in him and the process
of being transformed so that the kinds of behaviour taught, and indeed the
old law, are a natural expression of who we have become.
AP In the UK talk of the Kingdom was associated with
Charismatic churches, with supernatural manifestations seen as the sign of
the kingdom. This was a theme of Vineyard Church leader; John Wimber for
example,when he first visited the UK in the 80s.Can you explain how you
understand the kingdom?
DW I would not want in any way to cast aspersions on the name of
John Wimber for whom I have enormous respect, but I think that both
charismatics and evangelicals have missed the point. The Vineyard had a
real problem with obedience, and John knew this very well. ‘Doing the
stuff’ as he put it, meant manifestations of the kingdom, but it did not
mean obeying Jesus. He personally understood that this was essential, but
it did not interfere with going on the street and casting out demons and
As regards the kingdom of God? Theologians such as Ladd say that the
kingdom is both present and absent, but this basically means we focus on
the absent! But I didn’t come to understand the kingdom through
theologians. I came to the understanding when I was a young Baptist
Minister. I noticed that I spent a lot of my time trying to get people to
come and hear me, and other ministers did the same. But when I looked at
Jesus his problem was getting away from people! So I said there has to be
something different here. So I found what every scholar will tell you,
that Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God. He proclaimed it, he
manifested it and he taught it. When he sent out his disciples, he
didn’t send them out to teach (that’s the hard part), but to proclaim
and manifest (the easy part!) It was very powerful.
When we look at contemporary expressions of this through for example
the Vineyard Movement, we find that the teaching part never came through.
The Sermon on the Mount was never taught and is generally as alien to
charismatics as it often is to non-charismatics. The proclaiming is weak
and the manifestation is thought to be the whole package.
When you look at the Bible you see that the kingdom of God is God
acting. It is the range of God ’s effective will. When I pray ‘thy
kingdom come, thy will be done’ I am praying first that God’s will may
be done in my own life and then around me. This is the open door for his
teachings, for it is his effective will that I bless and don’t curse,
that I let my yes be yes and my no be no, that I not be motivated by anger
and contempt etc … (as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount). So as
someone who is living in the kingdom, I am praying that this may become a
true expression of who I am by inner transformation. Discipleship is
learning how to do that.
AP Your teaching on the kingdom highlights some of the
differences between the charismatic and evangelicals. Charismatics
emphasise manifestation, evangelicals Bible teaching. Are you saying they
are both wrong?
DW Exactly. If you ask ‘how is it wrong?’ I would say that
neither manifestation, nor teaching transforms character. Charismatics
flail at the dead horse of experience, evangelicals at teaching, but
neither leads to transformation spiritually. The only thing that
transforms us spiritually is the action of following Christ. You seek to
follow, you fail and you learn. But in order to engage in following, you
have to have a clear understanding of life in the kingdom of God; that you
are accepted by the grace of God in Jesus and that lays the foundation for
as much true doctrine as you can manage and as much manifestation of the
Spirit as you can stand.
AP In your book, ‘In Searching for Guidance’, you write of
the danger of seeing Bible characters as super saints. Some books say that
God does not communicate directly to us outside of the Bible and others
that he is always speaking to us. You take a different line.
DW I have read those same books. What we should focus on here is
not guidance or hearing from God, but the kind of life within which
guidance makes sense. So many people would like to have guidance from God
because obviously if you have a word from God, it’s the best possible
thing. But they don’t relate that to life as a whole. Often they want
guidance as a way of opting out of the responsibility of making decisions.
In the book I point out that one of the main functions of the life in
which guidance makes sense is to develop us as people who are capable of
making decisions. God may not guide us in an obvious way because he wants
us to make decisions based on faith and character. The problem with the
What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) movement is that in most cases Jesus would not
have to ask the question. He would know. This is what we are expected to
But having said that God can and does give clear guidance and clear
words. We need this, in part because of the need to evaluate the sort of
guidance people may wish to impose on us. It is also invaluable especially
when there is a manifestation of kingdom gifts. I think the best single
contribution of John Wimber is that we should work with God as we
minister, and receive from him words, discernment in a communicating
process. He would pray, interview, listen and interview again as he helped
people. This is incredibly valuable and I believe is his greatest legacy.
AP As a philosopher what comments would you make on the
belief that postmodernism represents a great opportunity for the gospel?
DW You have to regard postmodernism as a mixed bag. It
represents the cultural withering in confidence in what was known as the
scientific world view. It represents an opening which refused to reduce
everything to science. The life of the spirit can be known without waving
your hand at maths and physics. The problem is that when postmodernism is
pushed in a certain way it is impossible to have any notion of objective
truth. This comes home with reference to Scripture. God himself can’t
even break through to your cultural forms. That’s pretty tough. This is
still a big problem.
Without any access to moral knowledge, you are just left with political
correctness. I understand you have institutions here better able to resist
political correctness than in America. But in America political
correctness is so big, just because there’s no other kind.