Dallas Willard has spent the best part of his life getting down to business. That has meant stepping down from a pastorate involved in trying to attract people to his church, and immersing himself into the culture around him armed only with a Bible and a desire to make his faith more real.
Having spent over 30 years as a professor of Philosophy at USC, Willard has become known as something of a controversial figure in Christian circles. Not for any overtly radical teachings or practices, but simply because of his call for the Church to return to more Christ-centered living and practice.
In short, Willard’s ideas confront the modern-day theological practice of atonement-centered Christianity rather than disciple-making Christianity. In this first installment of a three-part interview, RELEVANT’s Keith Giles speaks candidly with Willard about these two opposing theologies and the state of modern Christianity today.
[RELEVANT MAGAZINE]: “What are the most critical challenges facing the modern church?”
[DALLAS WILLARD]: “In a way it’s very simple. The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus. And by that I mean they’re learning from Him how to live their life, as He would live their life if He were they. So that means, whatever I am, whoever I am, I take Him into my whole life as my Lord. Lord means that He’s my teacher. Another way of putting this is to say that our greatest challenge is to recover Jesus the Teacher. You know, if you don’t have a teacher you can’t have a disciple. Disciples are just students. Unfortunately, it’s a long and convoluted story, but roughly over the last two hundred years, Jesus as Teacher has simply disappeared. Whether Liberal or Conservative, it doesn’t make any difference. This is the unfortunate fact, and it lies at the foundation of the efforts of many people today to find a different form for the Church.
“What has happened is Church ritual has replaced Discipleship. That’s the really big issue. How to recover Jesus the Teacher? That would mean, of course, that we’ve decided now that we’re actually going to do what He said. So then we would need to know how. The Church then would have, as their big project, to make this the center of what they do as churches. I’ve remarked on this in the last chapter of my book, The Renovation Of The Heart, about the local congregation and the spiritual formation of the Believer.”
[RM]: “So, are you saying we have a crisis of follower-ship rather than a crisis of leadership?”
[DW]: “Now you’re going to get me in trouble. (Laughs) The fact of the matter is this leadership thing has just gone crazy. It is actually not from the Church, it’s a carry-over from the Culture and it’s one of the many ways that the modern church has bit and swallowed the contemporary culture whole. It is just shameless the way we go on about leaders and various kinds of figures. You’re absolutely right, it’s a crisis of ‘follower-ship’ and of leaders themselves living as disciples and inducting others into discipleship, not to them, but to Christ. It’s just heartbreaking to see this thing on leadership and how this has progressed.
“You remember Jesus saying, ‘Call no man Master, you have one Master.’ Don’t call anyone Teacher, don’t call anyone Leader or Doctor or whatever. We’ve got a leader, let’s follow Him!”
[RM]: “The idea of Discipleship; acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Teacher of our lives; is daunting for most. Jesus seemed to suggest that one cannot be His disciple without laying it all down for Him and taking up one’s own cross. That’s not a very popular idea in today’s culture. Have we misunderstood what it means to follow Christ?”
[DW]: “Well, I don’t think we’ve misunderstood Him. The real problem is not misunderstanding Him, but it’s setting it aside as a requirement for salvation. Now, a few decades ago you had leading speakers for Christianity across the nation who would say things like, ‘We’re not supposed to follow Christ, we’re supposed to trust Him’, and that meant not to trust His leadership and teaching, but to trust His death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.
“What has basically happened is that the meaning of ‘Trust Christ’ has changed. It has come to no longer mean trusting Him; it meant trust something He did. In that way, one theory of the atonement was substituted for the Christian Gospel. The results of this are that (now) discipleship is not essential, and people are not invited to become disciples. So then now you have crazy hermeneutics like, ‘The Gospels are for the Millennium, but Paul’s gospel is for us today’. This is just taking possession of the whole country on the conservative side. On the liberal side something different is happening. It’s amazing to see how every system within Christianity took a route that said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do that. That is not for you to follow. You just have faith in the death of Christ on the cross or have faith in Jesus as a great social prophet or whatever.’ But it’s amazing to see how universal it was. You have to suspect that there was some spiritual force in back of this. The 1800’s and the 1900’s were devoted to putting Christ away and saying, ‘All those things He said that sound so tough isn’t for you. That looks like ‘Works Righteousness’, that’s not Grace.’”
[RM]: “Are we in a state of “Grace Overload” today? It seems it’s all about easy forgiveness and a mental agreement of the death of Christ on the cross for our sins is where it all stops.”
[DW]: “That’s it right there. I’ve heard leading speakers in the last few years say on their television broadcasts that ‘Grace is only for guilt’. Now, there’s nothing more clear in the New Testament than that this is not true. But, this whole picture was developing in a way so that Grace was firewalled off from ordinary life and couldn’t get through. This misunderstanding of Grace as a mere transfer of credit just totally destroys the teaching of Grace in the New Testament. Grace, as it’s taught in the New Testament, is God acting in your life and that’s why, for example the great passages like 2 Peter 3:18, ‘Grow in Grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ … you can’t do that if Grace is just for guilt. The only way you can do that is to get more guilty.’”
[RM]: “Let’s sin so that Grace may abound?”
[DW]: “If you just do inductive Bible study on Grace you’ll see that Grace is for life. We would’ve required Grace even if we had never sinned. So Grace is God acting in our lives.”
[RM]: “I’ve noticed that in Ephesians, the famous verse that says we’re ‘Saved by Grace, and not of yourself lest any man should boast’ is immediately followed by the statement that we’re saved by Grace in order “to do good works”. Most of us stop at the first part and never move on to the second part. We still have this idea that God doesn’t actually expect us to do any works.”
[DW]: “Actually He might get kind of worried if you did. That’s Ephesians chapter 2, verse 8 and what people don’t understand is that’s not even the end of the sentence. But, it’s the end of their doctrine. So now, this heavy hand of this misunderstanding of Grace simply shuts off God’s activity through His kingdom presence in the lives of individuals. That’s one reason why the statistics on Christians generally don’t differ from the statistics on non-Christians. We’re not living a different life.”
[RM]: “I had a conversation with Jim Wallis in a previous column and his point on this subject was that Christians in the early church were living lives counter to the culture of the day. This is why Peter exhorts the Christians of his day to “Be ready to give an answer, a reason for the hope that lies within”, because he was aware that the lives of those believers would prompt such a curiosity. The problem with modern church is that we’re busy throwing answers at people who have never thought to ask the question. Our lives look just like theirs so there’s never a reason for them to wonder about why we’re different.”
[DW]: “Jim is right on in that statement and I would just add that the context of this text is one where Christians were suffering joyfully. That’s the context where people will say, ‘Where do you get this joy? How do you do this?’ and then you can explain it to them. But now we have sort of the ‘Bully-Boy Apologists’ who use that verse and it might be paraphrased, ‘Be ready to give an answer to questions no one’s asking’.”