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How Dallas Willard Changed American Christianity

How Dallas Willard Changed American Christianity

[Editor’s note: In light of Dallas Willard’s passing yesterday, on May 8, 2013, we are remembering and celebrating today his incomparable contributions to modern Christianity.]

“Jesus offers Himself as God’s doorway into the life that is truly life.  Confidence in Him leads us today, as in other times, to become apprentices to eternal living.” —The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard

Confidence in Christ—it is the virtue that I knew my experience of Christianity lacked growing up, which is why I gravitated toward a generation of writers that I intuitively felt knew we had lost something. It was not until after I had spent years reading C.S. Lewis and Andrew Murray, giants of the intellectual and spiritual life, that I found Dallas Willard.  I immediately was drawn to his work, which was infused with the intellectual depth of Lewis and the spiritual sensitivity of the best devotional writers, but was also startlingly practical without being pragmatic.  I always turned the final page of his books knowing I could live differently, but never feeling burdened by lists or guilt.

Willard’s confidence in Christ was not won cheaply or easily, though.  He was a world-class intellectual operating in a world that can sometimes be skeptical—is a gentle way of putting it—of outspoken Christians.  It isn’t the musty confidence of someone who only buried themselves in books, though he clearly read plenty of them. I knew from my first reading that he was a man who himself spoke as an apprentice in eternal living, who had learned much from the Master and could help those new to the craft.  We have not many of his kind among us anymore and we are the worse off for it.

To speak of Christianity in terms of apprenticeship is itself one of the great contributions of Dallas Willard to Christianity today.  

My own experience, like many of those who grew up in evangelicalism, was marked by conversions and reconversions and re-reconversions, between which I wandered aimlessly until finding my way into sin and then out again through walking down for the altar call.  I rarely felt like there was something for me to do in between.  I had no concept of daily obedience. But as Willard often pointed out, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”  Or as he summarized in his early work, The Spirit of the Disciplines, “Salvation is a life.”

It’s this sort of careful thinking that prompted Willard to frustrate liberals  and conservatives alike—and call all of us to a wider scope of understanding the Gospel.

In The Divine Conspiracy he would offer this about the “Christian left”: “We have from the Christian left, after all, just another gospel … whose substance is provided by Western (American) social and political ideals of human existence in a secular world.” But Willard would critique “right wing theology,” too, and the reductionist focus on the individual forgiveness of sins.  Both ended up affirming the “gospel of sin management” that eliminated the need for the transformation of life and character of the Christian.

It was Willard who first introduced me to the “Gospel of the Kingdom,” by which he meant that through Christ the “rule of God from the heavens is available for all.”  It wasn’t an anti-personal conception of the Gospel’s effect; the Gospel might come to individual human hearts, but it does not stay there. Rather, we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask that the Kingdom would “take over at all points in the personal, social and political order where it is now excluded.”  Faith is too robust, too powerful, too expansive in Willard’s view to be confined to a single soul.

This idea, of course, has deep roots within the Christian tradition, yet it’s often forgotten in our at times impoverished world of American Christianity.  I remember excitedly repeating Willard’s understanding of the “Kingdom of the heavens” in a classroom discussion and suggesting offhand that it was revolutionary.  The professor gently corrected me, pointing out that it was neither revolutionary nor had Willard presented it that way.  It was simply Christianity—yet we often forget.

And perhaps the area where we most forget is the physical body. Willard may be best known for his teachings on the life of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, but his careful unpacking of the nature of the human body reveals an incredibly intricate philosophical truth. I still remember reading his treatment of St. Paul’s understanding of the physical body in The Spirit of the Disciplines, which is still (I think) the most accurate exposition of Paul’s views that we have today.  It is masterful biblical exegesis which knocks silly any idea that Paul had a “low” view of the human body—a misconception Christians today desperately need to let go of.

The Kingdom for all is not a revolutionary idea. Neither is the idea that the body and soul are both part of human faith and wholeness. But both are ideas American Christianity has strayed from—and Dallas Willard was there to remind us.

Dallas Willard’s legacy and influence will continue, despite his death.  His writings will endure and the many institutions that looked to him for guidance will continue to practice the life of the kingdom in the ways he commended.   But those of us whose lives he has shaped, both up close and from afar, will doubtlessly feel the lack.  His life was a gift to American Christianity, for it was the life of one who had found true life indeed.  Which is why, in feeling sorrow at his death I have found myself taking up the mantle of apprenticeship once again that Willard had commended, and finding myself in the prayer that Willard loved so well:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

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